[Note: This is a long recommendation, but much of the last half if explaining each of the 8 main characters in case someone wants to just watch this episode and skip the previous portion of the season.]
Sense8 on Netflix is one of those series that does work as one long season-long story, but strikes a balance of also having each episode work with a full story arc(s) as well. All too often, some of these shows with a strong season-long story wind up with individual episodes just being a piece of a story and not a story on its own. Sense8 manages to avoid that to a large degree.
The series is about 8 people who are mentally linked – able to visit each other telepathically, use each other’s skills, and the like. One thing I love about the series is that it not only explores the ramifications of the sci-fi concept of the story, but also deals with themes building off of it. So it’s not just about 8 people whose minds are linked, but it is about relationships between people – the connections that bring us together and choices that drive us apart. It also has this meta-thing going on (mostly in earlier episodes, I believe) with references to Jean-Claude van Damme, Conan the Barbarian, and Lito’s telenovelas that shows how even ridiculous fun of these stories can have deep, inspiring impact for people (and that even a sci-fi show about 8 people telepathically linked can touch and inspire us as well).
I recommend watching the entire series, it is great – although it is certainly adult. There is recreational drug use, nudity and sex (including heterosexual, homosexual, and what is best described as a psychic orgy early in the series), and violence that is occasionally, but not always bloody. However, if you want to jump to the episode I’m recommending (“What is Human?”), you don’t need a lot of background to understand it (see below).
I have heard some people talking about recommending the season finale “I Can’t Leave Her.” That is another very strong episode, but more than any other episode of the series, it is really dealing with the overall season-long story and that, in my opinion, is what makes it strong. If you aren’t invested in the story of the entire season, then the finale is probably only okay. It does have some great teamwork of the entire cluster of 8, but as a stand-alone, I wasn’t as moved by it as “What is Human?”
With “What is Human?” – the 10th episode of the 12 episode season – it shows off everything I love about this series. In particular, the emotional structure they build into the stories really works for me. I tend to prefer uplifting stories far more than depressing ones, and in Sense8 they emotionally manipulate me perfectly. They have this way of sinking into tragedy right before leading into a moment of triumph. Don’t know about anyone else, but it works for me. It makes the triumphs so much stronger, and has an overall, more hopeful feel to it while definitely avoiding being sappy, feel-good. The lows are certainly low, but they persevere. They survive. Definitely reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption in that regard (at least the movie, haven’t read the original story). Characters bottoming out in miserable conditions, and then soaring to triumph.
This episode also has a beautiful moment near the end at an orchestra performance. Thinking about it, that scene is completely irrelevant to the plot. However, thematically, it is striking and really brings them in touch with their own humanity, and humanity in general, and is a moment of beauty we rarely think about. Like the karaoke scene earlier in the series (which is, in my opinion, one of the best karoke scenes ever), it brings a touch of humanity and connection to the characters, and (to get grandiose) the viewers as well.
I greatly recommend it for a Hugo nomination. Even if I could only nominate one thing this year, I would push aside all the stories I have read, and nominate this episode.
If you want to jump straight to this episode without watching the rest of the series before it, I think the quick summary below should have it make sense. Of course, a lot more happens in the first 9 episodes, but this is enough for “What is Human?” to make sense. If you want to watch the whole series without spoilers, then stop reading now.