Contracts and the will to power in Brand New Cherry Flavor

Brand New Cherry Flavor (TV Mini Series 2021) - IMDb

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a Netflix limited series based on the first section of a 1996 novel by Todd Grimson adapted by Nick Antosca who is previously known for Channel Zero and Brand New Cherry Flavor is a mess.

I’ve often said that I’m much fonder of an ambitious project that swings for the fences and misses than for a project that plays it safe, strives for little and accomplishes less and so I do have a fair amount of fondness for this messy and confused attempt. It certainly succeeded at injecting a fair amount of edge into the often atmospheric and moody world of Netflix horror miniseries with its regular use of well-executed practical gore effects and disturbing body horror. A scene in which a character pulls a worm out of the eye socket of another is well done enough to make even horror fans cringe a bit and there is a moment of Cronenberg-inspired body horror fused with seedy sexual desire in episode four that was incredibly disturbing – but in the precise way that people fond of extreme horror are likely to gel with. Antosca owes a very deep stylistic debt to Cronenberg throughout the series and I would recommend that people who enjoyed eXistenZ or Vieodrome in particular will enjoy the seedy aesthetics of this show.

I would also like to mention that Rosa Salazar delivers an excellent performance as the show’s anti-hero, Lisa Nova. I think it’s funny that somebody who has been putting in the effort in genre film as long as Salazar is still getting “will this be her breakout performance?” notes on her performance here, particularly after she already starred in the sadly poorly received Alita: Battle Angel, but it is true that she brought precisely the correct blend of edge, cruelty and vulnerability to this difficult role to make the character’s journey something we care about. Shame that Eric Lange wasn’t really able to keep up with her. Happily, Lange’s Lou Burke is rapidly eclipsed by Catherine Keener‘s Boro – and Keener provides an understated performance that works quite well as she drifts through the madness her character authors with a faint smile a sense of detachment.

But for all that the show had slick visuals and some strong performances from the leads it ends up being a little bit muddled. It is, at its core, a show about contracts. The inciting action drives this home as Lou offers Lisa a contract to direct a feature length adaptation of her short film and tells her to get a lawyer to read it. She does not, instead trusting a music video director friend-of-a-friend to ensure it’s all good. This leads to her missing a loophole that allows Lou to steal her movie in an act of petty spite for her rejecting his sexual advances.

In the second episode, Lou reinforces that there’s a dichotomy between a promise and a contract – and he suggests that the contract, the agreement on paper, is ultimately far more important than the promises made. This ends up being something the show reinforces in the final episode. But throughout it we see the various victims of either Lisa and Boro’s shared quest for revenge on Lou or the war-of-the-witches that builds between the two once Lisa discovers how Boro has manipulated her suffering and dying despite never having entered into a contract at all. But then perhaps this is the point.

When we think of contracts we often think of them as a device to enable something. We enter a contract to secure work or to agree to the performance of a service. A person who signs a contract agrees to do a thing and in exchange the other party also agrees to do a thing: A does a job, B pays for it. But when we look at the world of Brand New Cherry Flavor we see, more than anything else, a world where people with power, when unconstrained, do whatever they want to whoever they want.

Lisa emotionally manipulates Mary to get the performance she wants out of her for Lucy’s Eye. She’s so successful that, while the two of them are both high on Peyote, Mary rips out her own eye and eats it. Lisa films it and adds it into her short – grist for the creative mill. Lou exploits his power to make or break would be stars. Alvin Sender, despite his obsequious demeanor makes it just as clear that he wields power and expects obedience. And, of course, Boro does what they want to whoever they want whenever they want. They drug people, murder people, enslave them as undead zombies. They ensorcell people and they steal the bodies of people, forcibly overriding their victims’ minds so that they can continue their eternal life. These people don’t need contracts to enable them. Boro has eyes on Lisa the second she sets foot in Los Angeles and long before Lisa comes to them for help with her revenge on Lou. Boro, in fact, manipulates Lisa to the position where she expects Lou to betray her and while Lou’s ultimate motive for his treason is personal, common and pathetic there may, in fact, be a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in how things work out for Lisa in that Boro primes her to believe she has the power to hurt Lou and the will to use it.

No. Contracts constrain the powerful. In Brand New Cherry flavour it isn’t that a contract enables you to do anything. Instead the contract sets the limits of what the powerful can do to you. Boro makes a contract with Lisa to help her take her revenge on Lou in exchange for the kittens she begins vomiting up. Lisa makes a contract with Lou which she believes will constrain him in his choice of director but she’s deceived.

Contracts are protective in Brand New Cherry Flavor. This is a show with a remarkable body count. Almost every named character is either killed or maimed. But it’s notable that the people who survive: Lisa, Boro, Lou and Jules are all people who have entered into contracts with each other. Lisa adheres to the precise limit of her contract with Boro and, as such, is unconstrained in the use of her own, not inconsiderable, power to repel Boro’s attempt to take more than they were owed. Lou enters a contract with Lisa and, despite losing everything of value to him, he lives. We can safely assume that Jules has signed a contract with Lou and Jules was also intimately involved in the deception of Lisa regarding the terms of her contract and he, too, survives, if barely. In the end his girlfriend happily announces that his restorative surgeries are going apace. Meanwhile Roy and Code, Jonathan and Christine and even Mary never engage in contracts. They enter the arena of the powerful without any such protection and they are consumed.

There’s a scene early in the first episode where Lisa moves into her apartment and discovers a coyote being eaten by a pack of stray cats. Cats turn up a lot. Boro compels Lisa to vomit white kittens and Boro leaves Lisa with a cat of her own as a token of their contract. Lisa’s mother may, in fact, be a spirit of a white jaguar. The spirit is an ancient enemy of Boro’s but in particular she is a spirit being who Boro broke a contract with. The Jaguar left Boro for dead but they managed to escape and the two of them have been playing something of a game of cat-and-mouse ever since. Boro wants to steal the jaguar’s magic to reinforce their own and Lisa is a conduit to that magic. But Boro is playing with fire since Lisa, as such a conduit, is a being with power of her own to wield, and Boro has, by necessity, to educate Lisa in the use of that power in order to advance her revenge and position her to become Boro’s new vessel. As the show goes by the dead coyote slowly decays and nobody really does anything about it. Lisa, becoming increasingly a witch rather than an artist, seems somewhat at home with it and her visitors all react with revulsion but think it should be someone else’s job to clean up. Instead it’s just… consumed.

Hollywood, in Brand New Cherry Flavour, is the domain of predators who eat anything smaller than them and who have implemented the contract to impose the minimal limits upon their consumption necessary to allow any collaboration at all. But this goes beyond people being inhumane – this presents a cosmology where altruism is punished. It’s a universe where powers contend and overthrow each other: a universe of struggle. This then allows us to unify the dialectic we’ve established surrounding a contract. Because, in its character of a restraint upon the powerful and a shield for the less powerful against predation it allows a savvy negotiator the opportunity to secure more power to herself. In their pentultimate confrontation, Lou castigates Lisa, accusing her of being no better than him. In a sense he’s not entirely off the mark. Lisa did exploit Mary. “She’s an actor; she means whatever I allow her to,” she says at one point. Mary believed there was something far more mutual between her and Lisa to the point where, when Code tells Mary how little Lisa really cares about her, she murders him on the spot in a particularly brutal fashion. Except Lou has missed something important. Lisa, burned by her inattention to her contract with Lou, has used her contract with Boro to grow both the power available to her and her will to use it. The first time Lou sends an assassin to kill Lisa he almost succeeds. The second time, Lisa eats the assassin. This is, in part, because Lisa has secured power from Boro but that’s not the full story. We know, by this point, that Boro is a parasite. They need Lisa’s power to execute their magic. That is what the kitten blood is all about. It’s fuel. So when Boro heals Lisa and grants her increased strength with which to confront the assassin, who Boro intentionally puts in Lisa’s path knowing full well the outcome, they’re only returning to Lisa a fraction of the power they took along with the knowledge and the will to use it. Lisa isn’t like him. By the time they have their second-last encounter she is far more powerful and far more willing to use that power. This is demonstrative in how she approaches her revenge – as a restorative vengeance which Nietzsche describes as being built around a need to assert a lack of fear: “The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act.” Lou fidgets and hesitates when he decides to kill Lisa and ultimately goes through an intermediary. He’s unable to summon the will to do the deed himself. By this time Lisa has already infected Lou with a parasite, been a conduit through which Jules spontaneously combusts inadvertently led to the death and zombification of Lou’s son at the hands of Boro and eaten the assassin Lou sent to kill her. Lou’s money is power just as Lisa’s magic is. But he doesn’t have the will to wield it. He’s small and pathetic. Lisa, ultimately, has so little concern for him that she gives him the final insult of letting him live. Blind. Ruined. When they meet for the last time, he asks her not to turn on the TV – he doesn’t want to hear it if he can’t see it.

She leaves it running.

Marx described revenge as being, “one of the highest incentives to energetic and passionate action,” in revolutionary times. And as such we can also see how Lisa, in her contracts and her proletarianism, is embodying a revolutionary drive contrasted to Lou’s bourgeois moralizing. “Law, morality, religion, are to {the proletarian} so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests,” and so it doesn’t matter if Lisa is better than Lou. It doesn’t even matter if she has committed some of the same sins of exploitation that he did before. She has contended with him and brought his so very bourgeois world crashing down with the power of her will.

When we first meet Lisa and Lou there is a vast gulf of class and status at play. She’s living out of a car. He’s living in a mansion where he keeps falcons and he is able to throw around cash to do whatever he wants. He sees the world as his oyster. But this class antagonism proves insufficient to forestall Lisa’s revenge once Lisa uses the system of contracts in place to marshal her strength and pit herself fiercely, completely, against him. Lisa isn’t just like Lou, she’s far far more terrifying because while Lou might be guided by appetites, while he might be a predator, he’s divided against himself while Lisa has an intensity and singularity of focus that allows her to use any power she can seize far more effectively. And, of course, Lisa is not alone. Things don’t go well for her allies but she has them nonetheless. She even tries to protect them. But more than that, she marshals their strength and guides it into the spear-thrust of her attack on Lou and later into her escape from Boro.

Lisa’s proletarian stature remains throughout the series. She never gets much money and what she does she spends to rent a room in a derelict hotel. She’s the only tenant in the cavernous building and so she ends up with a demesne much like Boro’s a home for a witch – a run-down and forgotten place possessed not by the bonds of capital but by the will of the holder to take it. When we learn the backstory to Lisa’s movie we discover that it was financed by the star and shot in her house. Lisa hadn’t any money before shooting and she didn’t after. She didn’t even pay for the peyote they took.

When Boro tries to jump into Lisa they’re unable to explicitly because her will is too strong to dominate. They try to compel her to despair by killing the last of Lisa’s allies and by pushing her to renounce life. But she refuses. Lisa would rather live with all the death and terror and monstrosity that suffuses her life than give in. Mary chooses otherwise and is consumed in her stead.

Ultimately it’s fundamentally important to understand how Brand New Cherry Flavour decouples class position from power. At the end Lisa is confronted with a Hollywood executive more powerful and insidious than Lou ever was and she laughs in his face. She’s done what she set out to do with Lou and set his world on fire. All his bourgeois posturing, his anxiety, concern for lineage, his pride in family and his last-minute defensive moralizing are ash. And she did it without needing to engage bourgeois power. Boro is never seen spending a penny on anything. They take the scraps and refuse a butcher doesn’t need to feed their zombies. They take what they want directly and what they don’t take they make themselves – they’re a gardener and a doctor one and the same with being a witch. Boro is not bourgeois; they’re something far older, something best approached via Nietzsche’s ideas of master morality. But Lisa is not an embodiment of slave morality so much as an exemplar of proletarian will thrusting against the power of her enemies.

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a clumsy, messy work full of internal contradictions. There isn’t an easy or neat through line and this interrogation of Lisa’s revenge and its ties to power dynamics and class is, itself, something which suffers from muddled and unclear readings. But the one thing that shoots straight and sharp as an arrow through this tangled mess of a horror story is the will of the protagonist. It gleams out of Rosa Salazar’s expressive eyes and radiates from her stance. It is something the rich predators of Hollywood lack. There is a certainty to the poor, to the forgotten, to the underbelly, here. Even the cheap assassins Lou hires have more certainty, more will, than their employer. This doesn’t become a valorization of the proletariat. Lisa isn’t a good person and many of the other proletarian characters we encounter are far worse. But it is an evident divide from the contempt this show demonstrates for Bourgeois comfort and platitude. Brand New Cherry Flavor is a difficult show to recommend. The chances are if you’ve read this far and still want to watch this show you’ll appreciate the experience. But it’s a tough pill to swallow with an expression of theme that is, at times, as messy and haphazard as the gore that gloriously spatters every frame. But it is compelling. This season has me curious to read the book it’s adapted from in part to see if certain structural elements of mirroring between Boro and Lisa that don’t pay off in the show are present, and resolved, in the book and in part because I suspect that as somebody with an appreciation for Barker, Bataille and Burgess I might also enjoy the work of Grimson. At the very least, this eight-episode war-of-the-witches is far better paced than the average Netflix fare and is served well by being only eight episodes long. If you’re a fan of horror it might be one to consider this Halloween season.

Nostalgia and the metastasis of regret in Masters of the Universe: Revelation

Masters of the Universe: Revelation Debuts Killer New Poster
(Ok you had to know there was a non-zero chance I’d do this.)

Here be spoilers if you care about that sort of thing.

I was honestly and pleasantly surprised by Masters of the Universe: Revelation. I didn’t have high expectations for a He-Man cartoon run by Kevin Smith. In general I’m not a huge fan of Smith. I quite liked Dogma but haven’t had anything positive to say about his work in the 22 years (oh god it’s been 22 years since Dogma) since. I suppose his autobiographical stand-up routine was alright.

And the truth is that this cartoon series contains some of the hallmarks of Smith’s worse tendencies. The script is prurient. It assaults viewers with atrocious accumulations of arbitrary alliteration. What isn’t composed in this strangely (and unpleasantly) poetic recall of 1980s cartoon writing is either straight up call-backs to the cartoon (protective bubble) or just clangs.

The voice actors do their best. Mark Hamill is, as always, an absolute delight and casting him as Skeletor was the right call. Sarah Michelle Gellar also accomplishes the astounding feat of elevating Teela above the clunky script and injecting actual pathos into her portrayal. Her pairing with Leena Headley as the principals in the show was another strong choice, as Headley has been on a roll of moving from strength to strength for years, and Evil-Lyn conjures so many of the morally dubious schemers that have become her bread and butter. However good voice acting alone is not enough to elevate a script as truly and fundamentally atrocious as those in the five episodes Netflix released. But, despite the acutely painful dialog and over-abundant call-backs to a 40 year-old toy commerial, Smith’s Masters of the Universe series actually accomplishes quite a lot, and manages to utilize its own weaknesses to create something actually worth watching.

Now I should note that I am not talking exclusively about the way this series sidelines He-Man in favour of concentrating on Teela and Evil-Lyn. Of course this, alone, is what has led to the coordinated campaign of typical online CHUDS to review-bomb the show. As fun as it is to point and laugh at people like Jeremy Hambly exclaiming that the show is, “a WORSE betrayal than The Last Jedi,” the attempt by the show to admit that Teela was poorly treated as a character in the original cartoon wouldn’t, in and of itself, be particularly remarkable. After all, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power already dug into what would happen if one were to invert many of the gendered assumptions of these stories. It would hardly be new ground. But instead, remarkably by keeping the story within the continuity (such as it is) of the original Masters of the Universe cartoon, Smith has managed to dig into a heartfelt and remarkable dissection of nostalgia and how it connects to regret.

Magic and childhood

The first episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation opens the series as Skeletor takes advantage of a court ceremony to commemorate Teela’s promotion to the to the position of Man-at-Arms to raid Castle Grayskull. Using disguise and decoy he is able to slip through the outer defenses and then uses superior numbers to overwhelm the sorceress and achieve access to a hidden inner sanctum.

However an alarm is raised and the forces of the Eternian monarchy rally to the castle. Once inside things proceed largely like a particularly well-animated episode of the older show right until the moment that, during the fight with Skeletor in the inner sanctum, Sleketor brutally murders He-Man’s ally Moss Man. This understandably upsets He-Man, who until then seems to live in the sort of magical child’s world where the people always jump off the floating tank before it explodes and nobody ever dies.

So he runs Skeletor through with his sword, pinning him to the obelisk in the center of the sanctum. Skeletor’s last words are to congratulate him on finally using his sword as it was intended – as a key to said obelisk – and it opens revealing an orb containing all the magic in the universe. However the orb explodes and the only thing that prevents the immediate destruction of the universe is He-Man channeling the power through his sword. This act splits the sword into two constituent blades and kills He-Man. The swords vanish, returning to Subternia and Preternia – which the show reveals are afterlives analogous to heaven and hell, and are the wellsprings of magic.

Randor is so distraught over the death of his son that he banishes Man-At-Arms from court and orders him executed if he ever does man-at-arms type things again. This show is generally not kind to monarchy, which is refreshing in a fantasy landscape that so often wants to treat royals as somehow redeemable. Teela, grieving the death of her friend and ally and suddenly discovering that said friend deceived her for their whole lives together, resigns from the Eternian court and takes up work as a mercenary.

There is a time-jump and after that we discover that magic is dying in Eternia. Without the orb and the sword all the magic is returning to its sources in the afterlives. And this is killing Eternia. What’s more, should Eternia die, it will herald the extinction of every world in the universe. Eternia, the oldest planet, is critical to universal wellbeing and Eternia cannot survive without magic.

Now it’s important to note how magic is mapped onto childhood by the series. The sorceress ages dramatically when the magic fades and aside from her the most magical creatures, notably Orko, Cringer / Battle Cat and Adam / He-Man are all the most childish (or at least child-like) characters in the show. When Adam is encountered in Preternia he remains in his “young prince” form – something which is quite textually a choice he made and one that amuses the small cadre of heroes who also occupy this Elysium. And the Smith rendering of Adam vs He-Man makes Adam look all the more like a child with the over-sized stature that He-Man has even compared to the other hulks in this muscle-bound show. Orko and Cringer are the most unchanged characters in this new version. And, while we see little of the cat, it becomes readily clear that the loss of magic from the world is killing Orko far quicker than anyone else. He cannot live without magic. The moment that magic is banished from the world is also one that is inaugurated by the introduction of death with the killing of Moss Man, of Skeletor and the heroic sacrifice of He-Man. This awareness of mortality entering into Eternia, the effective end of eternity, also indicates a crossing of a threshold from childhood into maturity. This show is not the first one to forge these bonds between death, magic and the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Famously Hogfather by Terry Pratchett was built entirely on the premise of a child-place being one where death could not go, and of the belief of children being a particularly potent magic.

Perhaps this is where the sense of betrayal from childish Jeremys arises more than even their unexamined misogyny. Smith’s He-Man understands that you have to grow up. Staying a child forever is stunting. We see this in a coarse fashion through Orko’s arc in which he comes to terms with his sense that he’s failed to fulfil the expectations his parents put on him. We see it with more nuance in Teela’s arc, in which she discovers that living in the shadow of He-Man has limited her from achieving all that she otherwise could. Teela starts the show being given the mantle of adulthood but she never really assumes it. A monarch asks her to, as her first act, remove her own father. (How very Oedipal.) And she refuses this call and instead goes galavanting off to make her own way in the world. But this isn’t maturity; rather maturity arises when she’s forced to confront that people who she loved dearly and who loved her hid parts of themselves from her. It comes from her recognition of her own capacity for growth and her ability to forge an identity not built around following in her father’s footsteps or running after He-Man but rather of doing her own things in her own way.

Modernity and techno-cults

One of the odder insertions into this show is Triklops and his technocult. In Skeletor’s absence Triclops has taken control of Snake Mountain and staffed it with only the most cybernetic members of the former cadre (such as Lockjaw). He’s established a cult devoted to the Motherboard and is feeding dronification potions to apparently willing supplicants who are thus transformed into technological monstrosities. Triklops is trying to destroy any remnants of magic that remain. He hates magic because he believes Skeletor’s reliance on magic is the reason for their repeated failures in the past. This is largely to serve as a foil to Teela who also detests magic at this point in the story for what it did to her and the people she cares about. So we get this sense that if magic is tied to childhood then technology, cold and practical but unable to nourish, is bonded to adulthood and the putting away of childish things.

Of course this loss of magic is also killing the world. And so we see this delicate balance that Smith attempts to pull off between knowing the magical world of kings and heroes is a childish fantasy to grow beyond but also recognizing that the alienated modern sense of adulthood is sterile and ultimately deadening. Triklops can’t be allowed to win because his focus on technology is literally toxic; he is hastening the end of the world with his acts. And this is before the show gets all cosmological.

Subternia and Preternia

The afterlife depicted in this show is wild. This is, in part, because of how sparsely populated it is. Subternia is really just where Scare Glow hangs out alone despite characters repeatedly calling it “hell” and while Preternia gets called “heaven” on multiple occasions it is, as I alluded above, far much more akin to Elysium: a reward where select heroes, blessed with immortality, engage in athletic feats that would have been remarkably legible to Pindar. Rather than punishment and reward, Subternia and Preternia represent fear and happiness respectively. The grinning and contesting heroes of Preternia want for nothing while Scare Glow feeds on the fear of the unlucky who stumble into his chthonic domain.

But there’s a third emotion that lurks in both of these afterlives and it’s the thing that ultimately binds all this strangeness together: regret.

Regret is, in fact, the thread that ties everyone together in this show. Teela regrets so much. She regrets the secrets kept from her and she regrets the fight she had with her father. She regrets ever getting mixed up with He-Man in the first place and she regrets that he’s gone. Man-At-Arms is regretful too, regretting his failure to protect Adam and his banishment. Orko regrets failing his parents. Evil-Lyn regrets living in Skeletor’s shadow and Triklops regrets this too, though his regret manifests differently. After Adam is encountered in Preternia he regrets his enjoyment of his elysian reward and chooses to follow Teela back to Eternia even with the repeated warning that he will not be granted entry to the garden a second time. And this is where we finally find the meat of the theme here: Smith takes all the trappings of nostalgia – a deliberately anachronistic script, a childish view of life and death, and a yearning for an inaccessible past – and he demonstrates how it is all rooted in regret.

Nostalgia as a Haunting

Regret is one of the most hauntological emotions. It conjures a state of searching for an absent agent in that you are looking back at the choices you made and considering what you might have done differently. Of course the past is inaccessible to us. There is no returning to childhood. We can allow the strata of our childhood development to rupture to the surface but this is no more the childhood we had than Mount Everest is the floor of the ocean.

Nostalgia is what happens when we allow regret to boil over into a sickness. The nostalgic is like Orko wasting away in his bed for lack of magic to sustain him. This nostalgia drives Triklops to his world-destroying actions. After all, “A Nihilist is the man who says of the world as it is, that it ought not to exist, and of the world as it ought to be, that it does not exist.”1 Triklops’s technocultic nihilism is thus rendered intelligible by the desire to reconcile the world as it is with the world he believes ought to be. And bringing about this world fundamentally requires the destruction of the world that is. These characters regret that they made this choice or that in the past. They regret that they served Skeletor or that they allowed Adam to deceive them. They yearn to return to the simple world of magic but they know they can’t. A nostalgic cannot possibly recover what is lost. There are only two courses out of the sickness of nostalgia: to lean into their nihilism and obliterate themselves or their world or to let go of their regret and move forward into the future.

Honestly it should come as no surprise that the most nostalgic of fans felt betrayed in a fundamental way by Smith’s interpretation of this material. They were promised a return to childhood and the fulfillment of their nostalgic urge. But as nostalgia is rooted in regret for the irretrievable this would never be possible. As much as the toxic fans of the world would like to return to a kind of palingenetic childhood they never will. Even if their childhood passions rupture forth into the present in their spasmodic reactions to a cartoon, they are still unable to retrieve their childhood. This is why they so often believe that reimaginings of childhood media are destroying their childhood – these reiterations put the fan into direct contact with the irretrievable nature of his own past. He reaches for his childhood but it slips through his fingers like the Power Sword falling from Adam’s grasp in the fifth episode.

Smith leaves off the five-episode run with a warning. The Eternal Return lurks over the proceedings and raises the risk that, even in attempts to move to the future, we might find ourselves falling into atavistic patterns. Evil-Lyn serves an excellent foil for Teela in this. Teela still hasn’t fully moved into her future at the end of episode five. The sorceress has already told her that she is the one who has to wield the Power Sword but instead she gives it back to Adam. And by opening the door to the return of old patterns, Skeletor is able to re-emerge too, and drag Evil-Lyn away from her own confrontation with the limiting impact of her nostalgic affect. The victory of nostalgia is the victory of Skeletor. He can only be vanquished by moving forward into an uncertain future. We are, of course, not at the end of the first season. We have seen only the first act of this story. However in establishing both that these characters all feel nostalgia and that nostalgia is harmful to their development and growth, Smith has established a clear and explicit thematic message that belies the childishness of the premise. In 2019, Smith said, “Used to be happy, now I’m vegan.” But, of course, he is also still alive and able to grow because of his lifestyle changes – changes necessitated by a heart attack that could have killed him.

It seems as if this brush with death has provided Smith with the impetus not just to change his diet but to re-examine his life-long connection to childhood media. It’s not enough to be Silent Bob larping Batman in a mall anymore. The past may come around again in some form or another but when it does, it is something that must be resisted. Preternia is an empty heaven. Growth occurs in Subternia, where we confront fear and the specter of death. Death always lurks in the future but clinging to the past just draws it closer via sickness. We must imagine a Prince Adam who must not be He-Man any longer. We must imagine a Teela who has grown beyond the soft sisterly figure of the 80s cartoon or the sassy girlfriend of the 2002 revival, a Teela who has a life and regrets of her own but the will to rise above those regrets. We have to consider the idea that the past is gone and we must grow and change into the future.


1: Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 585

Sense8: An escape plan from capitalism

And with one image I ensure that any homophobes who missed my relentlessly bisexual bent rage-quit my blog.

Sense8 is perhaps the most Wachowski thing ever created.

I suppose after putting this forward I should present my bonafides. There are only two Wachowski feature films or TV shows I haven’t watched: Speed Racer and Work in Progress. The latter I found out about while researching this article. I would even be willing to defend Jupiter Ascending as a work of art. Unironically.

So when I say that this strange television show represents the clearest iteration of the concerns that have haunted the Wachowski’s work since at least when they started work on Bound, I’m not entirely talking bullshit.

Sense8 deals with the themes of self-doubt and identity that fueled Jupiter Ascending and the Matrix movies. It addresses the concerns about the corrosive impact of capitalism that cast a shadow over every Wachowski project arguably as far back as Assassins. It addresses ideas regarding found family and particularly found family in queer contexts such as what we see in The Matrix and in Bound. And it’s a crime story. And a Science Fiction story. And it’s a story about a small group of people trying to fight against a vast and oppressive system they have to dismantle. This is all well trodden ground for the Wachowskis. And while all of these thematic concerns appear in greater or lesser extents within other Wachowski films, it is in Sense8 that they find their fullest and most complete realization. And in the process what the Wachowskis give us is nothing short of a proposal – a plan – a line of flight out of capitalism.

The modular self

Modularity of knowledge in the Matrix

The idea that people are modular, or dividual, arises in the Matrix quite a lot. Neo sits in a chair and he knows Kung Fu. Neo is not The One – until he is. Neo is Thomas Anderson – until he is not. Neo knows kung fu. The Matrix engaged freely with the idea that self could be disrupted; it suggested that self was plastic and could be shaped by external pressures.

I have talked before about how self can be seen as a product of external force and in the Matrix this is shown clearly as Morpheus and Smith each try to shape Neo into the form they desire. The Matrix also hints at the requirement that this loosening of the Cogito, this rejection of individuality qua that which cannot be divided, depends on an idea of plasticity of the self that requires external forces acting upon the subject.

But where the Matrix saw this in a very cybernetic way, both in the sense of mechanical intervention and in the sense of Neo’s changing self-perception being the direct response of a close feedback loop mechanism, Sense8 takes a somewhat different approach. Neo is given the “kung fu” module, but its integration depends on him showing Morpheus. He becomes The One as a feedback response to getting shot by Smith, with his ability to come to this self-knowledge predicated on every event that happened to him before. Each step in the shaping of Neo’s self follows the other. The sense of self of the Sensate cluster is exploded when they have their second birth but the knowledge and skill they need, the change to how they see themselves, arrives at need. Leto has to protect Daniela and so Wolfgang is there. Both Neo and the Sensate cluster experience a plasticity of self. But Neo’s is one made of interlocking parts that must follow some logic. The sensates self-image is fluid. Furthermore Sense8 interrogates the idea of modularity-of-self as being affected by an aware external agency. Whispers attempts to force specific being upon other sensates (atomization, marginalization, otherness) but he is thoroughly repudiated. He cannot force these behaviours because the nature of the sensates, is fluid, it responds to his pressure not by being reformed into some new solid shape but by flowing around and away from the source of pressure.

Throughout the extended period where Will and Riley are hiding from Whispers, they fluctuate between a conspiratorial anti-ocularity and deliberate visibility in order to manipulate Whispers. Whispers expects them to run and hide, to use blockers and to remain conspiratorial. Instead they entrap him with the gap between what he sees and what he believes. Will assumes the identity of the junkie, of the broken man, and he and Riley sell this assumption to Whispers as if it was really what they were and not, instead, a shell hiding the true movement of their conspiracy into a different direction.

Morpheus hands Neo a red pill and he goes down the rabbit hole. Later Neo is implanted with skills and knowledge. The sensates are born together, twice, and grow into being together. They are plastic but they are plastic in the way of a vine always climbing toward the sun, not the way of a bonsai tree, carefully shaped by a commanding will. We see this fluidity arise too in the way that Sense8 treats sex and sexual desire. When we meet the sensates, we see each as having specific and delineated desires, sexualities, sexual identities. Leto is gay. Nomi is a lesbian. Kala is straight.

But there are cracks in these boxes. The first appears when Will and Riley look in the mirror and each sees themself as the other. Other cracks come from outside the sensate cluster. Daniela’s insertion into Leto and Hernando’s carefully private life is disruptive, but the entire thing is built upon a sincere and mutual desire. They enjoy her gaze as much as she enjoys gazing. The problems only appear when others look at the triad and become judgmental. Slowly, the desire of the cluster becomes more polymorphous. We get those psychic orgies that made Sense8 famous, and it’s worth noting that most of these orgiastic moments involve the participation of people from without the cluster, whether Hernando, Amanita or someone else.

Of course Sense8 was not the first time the Wachowskis played around with the power of the orgiastic – the orgy in the Matrix: Reloaded remains one of the most memorable scenes in the film but in Sense8 it wasn’t just, “look at this beautiful field of hot, wet bodies.” It was, instead, “look at how the boundaries of desire dissolve, look at how these people melt and flow into each other.” The orgies in Sense8 are these pressing and claustrophobic scenes of abstraction: hands and asses, breasts and necks all pressing inward, a writhing mass of desiring flesh that often obscures faciality. This deployment of sexuality demonstrates how, in their desire, the sensates transform and flow into and around each other.

When looking at Sense8 as an escape plan, it’s essential to understand that it asks us to be sensates. We must be able to flow freely between conspiratoriality and a deliberate sort of visibility. We must be plastic like the vine climbing to the sun. We should deny being bound within specific labels, sorted and essentialized to be sold to, but should instead be able to mingle freely, to flow and to transform ourselves such that we are able to be who we need to be in any given moment.

But it’s not enough to be like water or like a vine. It isn’t enough to recognize the plasticity of our condition and to lean into it, to gain power through amorphousness. Because, as we’ve already described at length, the other essential part of dividuality, of the idea that the self can be divided and added to, is that the boundaries of the self extend beyond the skin of a person and into the community. Returning to that Mbiti quote, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”

Community and conspiracy

Let’s turn our attention away from the sensates for a moment and instead look at the people around them. Because Sense8 does something over and over again with the people who aren’t living a life of total plasticity in each others heads that is very surprising. It shows them willingly becoming accomplices. Of course the easiest example of this is the role that Daniella plays in Lito’s life. Even though her presence, and her telephone, complicate his life, Daniella is always a willing conspirator, an accomplice to him. She gives of herself freely and he does so in return. There is nothing but will that binds Lito to Daniella. In fact, his willing of her into his life is a little surprising at times considering the risk of complication she constantly presents. And yet she stays and gives of her talent. When we see her taking over as his agent, making calls, using her connections to book Lito into events there’s no thought of renumeration. When he rescues her from her abusive ex-husband it is equally not a matter of transaction but of community. She does what she does for Lito because they are community. He does what he does for her because they are community. It isn’t debt and obligation; it is recognition that they are one and the same.

The show does this again with the gradual, fumbling and stuttering seduction of Rajan. There are moments where the poor dork is framed as if we expect a turn toward betrayal, or of failing to understand Kala’s increasingly complex life, or of some other sort of conflict that doesn’t arise. Instead, he gives everything to her. And when we think Rajan has no more to give, he gives more of himself still. And again Sense8 drives this idea home with Bug.

Bug: Where's Mike?
Nomi: It's me. I'm Mike.
Bug: Oh, shit. Fuck. Right, totally forgot. I'm a fucking idiot. Of course it's you, buddy! Course it's you. Not you like the old you. Like a new hot version of you. Shit, Mike. You're a total fox! I would do you! I would. I would totally - I mean, not like, not in a degrading way like that sounded, but total compliment.

Our introduction to Bug isn’t very hopeful. While he’s open to Nomi and her changing circumstances, he still manages to deadname her because Bug is a bit of a dumbass. But he’s a dumbass with a trunk full of very hard-to-get computer gear that he just straight-up gives away. When Nomi needs somewhere to hide she turns to Bug and he’s enthusiastic to help. And again and again when she needs somebody to help her with the tech end of the sensate conspiracy, Bug is right there, willing to help, willing to listen, and what we initially take as a kind of creepy horniness from him turns out to be simply the awkward way that Bug expresses his selfless love for Nomi. Bug is never the sort of sexual partner to Nomi and Amanita that Daniela is to Lito and Hernando and I think that’s important. The show subverts our expectation of that mirroring with Bug’s kind of off-putting initial reaction but then shows us a validation that community, while grounded in desire, is grounded in desire to be a community and not just in the desire to fuck. Note carefully that the desire is to be the community, not to be an individual within it because that distinction is, perhaps more than anything else, what Sense8 is trying to drive home. A community exists not when “men, originally separated, get together,” as De Beauvoir put it but rather when people recognize that they desire to be together. And it’s important first that this desire to be together is complimentary. Each person within the community brings their talent to the fold but it is not lacking in redundancy: Nomi and Bug are both hackers; Wolfgang and Sun both know how to fight; Capheus and Will are both diplomats. But each gives freely to the members of their community and each, in turn, is given to freely: willfully and without thought of remuneration.

On enemies

But you can’t win on love alone and that’s also something Sense8 understands. Being a community is necessary to escaping capitalism but likewise it is necessary to be a conspiracy. And one thing a conspiracy must understand, intimately, is the eye of the counter-insurgent who watches for them. Whispers is the panopticon manifest and is a far more chilling antagonist than Smith in the Matrix for the singularity of his gaze.

Smith hates the smell of humanity so much that he blinds himself. He takes out his earpiece so he can conspire with Morpheus. Whispers never looks away – he is ever-watchful.

And so the sensates conspire against him. They surveil him in turn; they discover who his masters are, they allow him to lead them to his masters and then they blow every one of the bastards up with a rocket launcher. This is somewhat of a Chekov’s rocket launcher, this tool of broad, cacophonous, destruction appears before when Wolfgang needs to dispose of his more personal enemies. Sense8 is a show built on bones of love and desire, and it isn’t a show that is happy about violence. Sun is haunted by her violence. Capheus is forced into situations of violence and pretty obviously hates it. Will rejects the mantle of state-sponsored violence. Nomi flees it. But for all that these people don’t want to be violent, for all they don’t want to have enemies, they are willing to be ruthless to remove them. Sun deploys ruthlessness like a sharp claw against her awful brother and in any other show Wolfgang would probably have ended up dying in order to achieve absolution of his sins.

Instead Sense8 is very comfortable saying that while we might not choose our enemies, we can choose to be done with them. And how does an insurgent group, just eight ring leaders each operating with the collaboration of a small cell of accomplices, overthrow a far bigger enemy? With conspiracy, cunning and a willingness to do literally anything to end the threat of the enemy. Sense8 reminds us of how important it is to recognize the possibility of a different world. The last scene of the series, after the delightfully self-indulgent wedding at the Eiffel tower which I may be the only extant fan of, tells us perfectly well where the sensates want to be and what they want to do with their time.

Bataille’s accursed share must be used for something and if it isn’t waging war, it’s going to be towering works of art and vast and indulgent exercises in debauch. Better the latter than the former, says the end of Sense8. But to get there, to get to the big party where everybody revels in their plasticity to become anything, to discover the sensual limits and to explore the possibilities of being, we have to fight. And we must remember that too. The Tiqqun collective reminds us that, “evasion is only a simple escape: it leaves the prison intact. We must have desertion, a flight that at the same time obliterates the whole prison.” And obliteration of the prison – be that the prison of Whispers’ panopticonic gaze or the imaginary bounds of the capitalist-realist condition, will require the sort of conceptual violence that obliterates our bonds as fully as Wolfgang obliterates that helicopter. If there were no enemies there’d be no need to talk of liberation. We could all go and have a party on the Eiffel tower.