Sense8 S02E09: What Family Actually Means
Directors: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Writers: J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski
Starring: Doona Bae, Jamie Clayton, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Max Riemelt, Tina Desai, Toby Onwumere, Tuppence Middleton, Brian J. Smith
A review by Samantha Pearson
Sense8 S02E09, What Family Actually Means, is one of the most heartbreaking episodes of the entire series. It’s a significant tonal change from All I Want Right Now Is One More Bullet. This episode dives deep into the personal lives of the cluster, especially Nomi and Will.
What Family Actually Means spends a small amount of time checking in with Capheus, whose political race is getting increasingly dangerous, and Sun, whose brother’s gala is an opportunity for her to go undercover and take him out. The episode also checks in with Wolfgang, who after the events of last episode is hiding from the police. We also see Kala still struggling to come to grips with her husband’s secrecy.
However, the episode focuses mostly on three characters: Nomi, Lito, and Riley. Nomi’s younger sister has invited Nomi to her wedding despite the issues Nomi has with their parents; Lito has another shot at a big-time role thanks to Dani; and Riley spends the episode with Diego trying to track down the BPO mole who met with her two episodes ago.
The episode begins with Nomi giving a speech at her sister Teagan’s rehearsal dinner, wherein she goes into detail about growing up together. Though Teagan’s fiancé asks for “dirt”, the speech Nomi gives focuses mostly on the relationship between herself and her sister. Sense8 has explored Nomi’s relationship with her bigoted parents — who insist on deadnaming her and using the wrong pronouns — and demonstrated, repeatedly, that she is close with her sister.
In What Family Actually Means, Nomi reveals the episode title in her speech. She cracks that for a long time, she associated the idea of “family” with Nietzsche quote “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Then she reveals that Teagan has made it possible for Nomi to think of family as something good, because when it was possible for Teagan to stop Nomi from getting gender confirmation surgery, she didn’t. In fact, she came to the hospital, held Nomi’s hand, and sang “Happy Birthday”. She stood up against their parents to support Nomi and insisted that she be a part of her wedding. It’s a relationship Nomi obviously cherishes.
She gives a heartfelt speech, made even more emotional by the fact that just before Nomi has a confrontation with her mom about how she’s an “embarrassment” to the family. Jamie Clayton’s performance in this episode is stunning, but especially in this scene. The raw honesty in Nomi’s speech is underscored by the way Clayton holds herself, the way she speaks, and the way she moves through the emotional beats of each moment.
Meanwhile, Lito’s depression from S02E08 has pushed him into bed. He’s dedicated himself to watching sad movies on his laptop and refuses to leave the bedroom, something Hernando allows because he wants Lito to have the space to mourn. However, Dani has no such plans. She reveals that she’s stayed up all night reading every single script Lito’s agency presented him with before they fired him, and that she’s found the perfect role.
Lito’s focus in this episode is 100% on the different ways that Hernando and Dani support him. The former seeks to make Lito feel safe, loved, and comfortable in feeling whatever emotions are churning inside him. The latter is eager to make Lito believe in himself again and pursue new avenues in his career. Together, Hernando and Dani create a space in which Lito can experience the full range of his feelings but also look toward a more hopeful future.
Alfonso Herrera (Hernando) and Eréndira Ibarra (Dani) are delightful in every scene that features them, but especially in What Family Actually Means. Their scenes move incredibly fast and have a tone to them that is utterly at odds with the rest of what’s going on in the episode. There’s an unbridled joy in their plot arc that feels almost like an interlude amidst the problems plaguing the other sensates.
Oddly enough, we never see all of the sensates together in S02E09. We see Wolfgang and Sun briefly appear to help Nomi, but otherwise, the only sensates who visit in this episode are Riley and Will. The cluster doesn’t even show up to help Nomi when she faces possible arrest. It directly juxtaposes the first time Nomi was attacked by federal officers. And it’s bizarre.
The lack of cluster interaction in this episode is honestly jarring. Although What Family Actually Means focuses on blood family, found family is a massive and important theme on Sense8. Found family isn’t abandoned entirely here; Lito’s scenes are with Hernando and Dani, and Amanita and Bug rush in to save Nomi from the FBI. However, it feels bizarre to not see the cluster supporting each other at every turn, especially given how much emotional upheaval occurs in this episode. I kept waiting for them all to come together, even for a second, but it never happened.
There’s something decidedly strange about the series turning almost completely away from the very real danger the cluster faced in the previous episode to focus on interpersonal relationships. Sense8 has shown that it’s capable of doing both, and doing it well, which makes it even weirder.
Continuity does exist in Riley’s arc, though even that is pulled in a different direction by the end of the episode. She finds a secret lab and discovers even more horror surrounding Whispers, Angelica, and the types of brainwashing previous clusters have been forced to endure.
Riley also discovers, with Diego’s help, that the BPO mole — whose name is Carol — has taken her own life. The discovery is incredibly triggering, as her suicide is shown on screen, as well as her body. However, any discussion of her death, why she did it, and what it means is cut off when Diego gets a call that Will’s father is dying. The whole sequence is incredibly upsetting.
The final scene of the episode had me in tears. Brian J. Smith’s emotional portrayal of Will’s relationship with his dad has always been incredible, but he elevates his performance to a new level in What Family Actually Means. Will’s dad doesn’t actually get to see his son before he dies, because Will is still in hiding while Riley is in Chicago. But the series presents the idea that because Will and Riley are connected, his dad can see that it’s him even though he’s wearing Riley’s face. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, especially because Will and his dad were so close in season one. Will’s disappearance absolutely destroyed his dad; every time we’ve seen him since, it’s been harder and harder to watch.
This loss is devastating for Will. Not being able to see his dad has plagued him since he left, something Smith has displayed with incredible nuance in his performance. Seeing his father die without physically being there is horrible, and Sense8 doesn’t at all shy away from that.
Although death and grief have been motivating factors behind the story arcs of several characters (Sun, especially), this one hits particularly hard. The physicality, use of flashbacks, and suggestion that homo sapiens can connect with homo sensorium in moments where they are closer to death than life all have massive implications that hurt, especially at the end of an already-emotional episode.
When you watch this episode of Sense8, have tissues at the ready. If you are sensitive to depictions of suicide, proceed with caution. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of an episode and the performances are immaculate, but parts of it are really difficult to watch.