ORPHAN BLACK 2×03

"Mingling Its Own Nature With It"

"We see through a glass, darkly," Paul writes in 1 Corinthians. He meant—for those who are into that kind of thing—that our human understanding of God and the universe and the meaning of life is foggy, and incomplete. The picture is bigger than we can possibly conceive right now: we can make out parts of it, but only when we meet God face-to-face will we see it all. 

The title of this week's Orphan Black hits on a similar theme from our old friend Francis Bacon. "[H]uman understanding is like a false mirror," Bacon writes in Novum Organum, "which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it." We perceive the universe through our own lens, and we project our own nature onto our concept of God. ("The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself," Bacon says earlier in the passage.) So our knowledge is always incomplete, our vague understanding is imperfectly translated into terms we can comprehend, and there is always an element of anthropomorphism—even wishful thinking—in how we think everything works.

I'm dwelling on the episode titles a lot in my reviews of Orphan Black, both because I think they're important and because I'm just kind of loving how they work. This one, for example, obviously refers to certain specific events that happen this week, most importantly the Prolethian's horrifying certainty that they know exactly what Helena is and exactly what "God" wants them to do with her. (More on that below.) It also speaks more generally to some themes that are universal on the show: the way all the characters are struggling to understand their individual roles in a big picture they can never fully see; the way all of the various high-falutin' debates about the nature of these new life forms are defined and influenced by selfish human motives; the way every time a person looks at a clone—even if it's another clone doing the looking—they see only what they want to see, which is never the whole story.

Finally, I think the titles often work—as this one does this week—even if you don't know where they're from or what they mean. The episode is largely about the theme of "mingling" one's nature with others, mingling one's life with the lives of others—usually with unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.

"You are a bloody wrecking ball. You are an exploding cigar." — Felix, to Sarah

Felix-Jordan-Gavaris

Because Sarah (Tatiana Maslany)—let's face it—spreads danger and chaos wherever she goes: mingling your life with hers means opening yourself up to a world of shit. And lest we're tempted to think all of that is just a side effect of the Great Clone Conspiracy, this episode reminds us that Sarah was always like that. Take the case of Cal (Michiel Huisman), who appears to be a nice, decent guy who lives a peaceful existence in a cabin in the woods. Sarah, we now learn, seduced him and ripped him off years ago. "The last time I saw you, you took ten grand and my car," Cal says. ("A moralist with money: the perfect mark," Felix calls him.) Now, seeking a place to hide out for a few days, she brings chaos back into his life.

"You're a bloody wrecking ball," Felix (Jordan Gavaris) tells her. "You're an exploding cigar." Felix is right, of course, but Sarah's motives are not entirely selfish: the real reason she came here, we learn, is so that Kira (Sklyer Wexler) could meet her father. "I wanted you all to myself," Sarah tells her daughter, in an emotional scene that Maslany—surprise, surprise—absolutely nails. But Kira quickly calls Sarah on her bullshit: "But you always left." Even before Sarah was a Clone on the Run, she was still an unreliable and unpredictable presence in Kira's life, a grifter and absentee mother. Now, Sarah seems to be recognizing this. "I guess I brought you here because there's two parts of you," she explains to Kira, "One of them's me, and one is your dad." Mingling her own nature with Kira's has done the child no favors, and so now Sarah—having lost the reliable Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy) last week—is looking to provide a new stabilizing influence to balance out the inherent Sarahness in her daughter's life. "I think Kira deserves something nourishing for once," she tells Felix.

It is far from certain, to be sure, that Cal really is Kira's father: it's possible, but it's also possible that Sarah, in a pinch, just settled on Cal as the nicest and most stable of the plausible candidates. (He's certainly a better choice than Vic.)  It's also unclear whether Sarah's ultimate plan—to the extent that she has one—was to leave Kira with Cal. If that was the plan, she doesn't get the chance to act on it: her chaotic life catches up with her too quickly. Daniel (Matthew Bennett) arrives, and Cal's stable life is blown up. "He's got nothing to do with it," Sarah says of Cal to Daniel. "Yeah?" Daniel responds. "He does now." Like a virus, Sarah has contaminated Cal's life, even getting his friend—the kindly cop Tom (Zachary Bennett)—killed in the process.

Felix-Jordan-Gavaris-Sarah-Tatiana-Maslany-and-Kira-Skyler-Wexler

And in the process, Sarah alienates Felix as well. Just last week I said he and Sarah left together because they were the only people they could be sure they trusted, but now Felix discovers that's not necessarily true. It's bad enough that Sarah has been lying to him about Kira's father. (Felix thought it was either "Ziggy the Drummer" or some guy she met in a bar in Orange County.) But what really hurts is discovering that Sarah is ready to rely on someone else. As the title of the show indicates, these are orphans, and they've always relied on each other as the only family they had. Now, Sarah's willingness to extend their family to include this total stranger feels like a betrayal to Felix. "There's no place for me here," he says.

(To be honest—though Gavaris plays it with heartbreaking conviction—I find Felix's departure to be a little abrupt: it feels more like a necessity of plotting than an organically motivated decision. But it's nice that he recognizes that Allison does need him: Felix and Allison are two characters that all the other characters have trouble taking seriously, and I love the genuine affection and connection that they've developed.)

"…and there's no one you can call to help you through it." — from Blood Ties: The Musical

Allison-Tatiana-Maslany

And Allison does need Felix, as she's found herself hopelessly alone in the world. She discovered last week that Donnie (Kristian Bruun) is her monitor, and now she can barely stand to be around him. (Though one wonders how she ever tolerated him in the first place. "Morning's my best time," Donnie says, feeling randy. "I just showered," a disgusted Allison replies.)

She's also being stalked by Angie (Inga Cadranel), who—as everyone else does—makes the mistake of underestimating her: it takes Allison about 30 seconds to realize Angie isn't who she pretends to be. "I've just been approached by another monitor," Allison reports to Cosima, but Cosima blows her off. "Just go through the motions with Donnie," Cosima advises. "Break a leg, or whatever." Cosima dismisses her, as Felix did last week, as everyone always does. "Don't belittle me, Cosima," Allison says—but no one takes Allison seriously. Betrayed and abandoned by everyone—and still guilt-ridden over Aynslie's death—it's no wonder Allison has fallen back on old habits, binge drinking and popping pills.

This leads to a disastrous opening night for the musical Blood Ties. I love the way these scenes are shot and edited: Allison, standing in front of the dressing room mirrors—note the connection to the Bacon quote—is reflected into multiple copies of herself; it's an appropriate motif for Orphan Black, obviously, but in her drug-addled emotional state the images become vague, distorted, and nightmarish. Allison formerly perfect life has become a nightmare, and she has been all but abandoned by the Clone Club, the other members having left her behind and moved on to their own problems. (This is echoed in the lines quoted from the production: "You would never have helped me unless you were wrapped up in it too," Allison says, in character. She was part of a family when everyone else was wrapped up in the same issues, but now she's been left to deal with her problems alone.) Singing about asking for forgiveness—and wanting someone to make her "complete"—she collapses off the stage.

"I can handle it. Don't be a bitch." — Cosima, to Delphine

Jennifer-and-Cosima-Tatiana-Maslany

To be fair, the others do have serious problems of their own, and perhaps none more so than Cosima, who is dying. Now she learns about yet another clone, Jennifer, a teacher and swim coach who was the first to fall sick with the same symptoms that now plague Cosima. "She alright?" Cosima asks Delphine. "She died, three days ago," Delphine reports.

And so Cosima gets the opportunity to see exactly what's in store for her, and Orphan Black provides a fine example of the kinds of unique and poignant emotional situations that only good science fiction can provide. Cosima must watch Jennifer's steady deterioration on the tapes, and then she is put in the position of effectively performing an autopsy on herself. (On what other show could that happen?)

Coming back to the Bacon quote yet again, the body provides a terrifying mirror, one through which Cosima (mentally mingling her own nature with Jennifer's) can glimpse a distorted version of her own future and mortality. It's a clever scene, and all the better because the script wisely refrains from outwardly commenting on the obvious ramifications. The character of Cosima rarely provides Maslany the opportunities to show off her talents as dramatically as the other clones do, but here she conveys the devastating surrealism of Cosima's horrifying experience without needing cheesy dialogue like "It's as if I'm seeing my own death!"

(As for what she learns, it's no big surprise that the problem turns out to be in Jennifer's uterus: we've known all along that Sarah is unique because she alone, among the clones, had managed to give birth. As the Prolethians keep reminding us, what this all boils down to is a battle over the reproduction of life, "the war for creation.")

"I've already got a family." — Helena

Helena-Tatiana-Maslany-and-the-Prolethians

Which brings us, of course, to Helena. "Men schemed for years to build her, but only God can make her fertile," Prolethian Mark (Ari Millen) says to Gracie (Zoé de Grand Maison). Gracie has been skeptical of Helena from the start, seeing her as an unnatural thing, but her father Henrik (Peter Outerbridge) keeps assuring Gracie that Helena is part of God's plan. "Helena does have a soul, she does have a purpose," he tells Gracie this week.

It's a meaningful scene when Henrik asks Gracie to close her eyes and listen: she tells him she only hears the wind, and the men working, but Henrik tells her that what she hears is God. "Him. You hear Him, don't you?" Man, mingling his own nature with the Idols of the Tribe, hears the God he wants to hear. What Henrik is hearing is that he and Helena are "instruments in the war for creation," and so this scary bastard—who was first introduced inseminating a cow—now implements a new breeding plan with Helena. It's framed in religious terms—through a creepy ceremony much like a wedding, ending with Henrik carrying her over a threshold—but it amounts to the rape and forced impregnation of an innocent woman.

This may be stating the obvious—though it's seldom discussed directly in these terms—but this is one of those scenes that makes it clear that Orphan Black is largely about women's rights, and reproductive rights: it's about the rights of women to own their own bodies, versus efforts by patriarchal institutions to control them.The Prolethians represent the dark side of religion in this ongoing war, the attempt to enslave women and reduce them to their reproductive function in the name of faith. "Man's work is God's work, so long as you do it in His name," Henrik says, expressing the arrogant, self-righteous certainty about what God wants that makes men like Henrik so dangerous. Mingling their own natures with God's, they will always attempt to control women, and reduce them to objects, and tell them who they are.

Helena, however, knows who she is. Informed that she will become part of Henrik's family, Helena protests that she already has a family. "I have a twin, sestra, and a pleminnytsya, niece," she tells Gracie. Helena's whole life changed when she learned Sarah was her sister: that's the moment she stopped being the brainwashed instrument of these religious freaks and became a woman with independence and agency. "Good riddance," she says now, when learning of the death of the man, Tomas, who once controlled her. Drugged and weakened, she may be helpless to stop whatever Henrik does to her, but I think they underestimate her if they think she's going to allow herself to become someone's object once again.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Forgive the lateness—and slight disjointedness—of this post: I was traveling for work this week, and fell behind on my reviews, and am rushing to catch up. I'll try to be both more timely and more coherent next week.
  • It's just as well that Felix decided to leave Sarah. Being on the run requires stealth and discretion, and Felix doesn't exactly blend. 
  • I don't know if it will later become part of the larger conspiracy—I sort of hope not—but it's a nice touch that the flower-pollinating drone Cal invented was eventually commandeered for warfare. The pollination plan echoes the ongoing theme of insemination, and how attempts to control nature this way—even with the best of intentions—can become something sinister.
  • Two more notes on Cal: 1) Yes, that is Game of Thrones's Daario Naharis, though he seems disappointingly less lethal here; and 2) The sex scene between he and Sarah was more tender and romantic than any she's shared with Paul: is that a reflection of a more genuine connection between them, or is it another sign of how Sarah—a consummate con-artist—can become a completely different person depending on her audience?
  • A minor gripe: as opposed to Sarah's relationship with Kira, Allison's children seem to be a total non-factor in her life. I keep forgetting they exist—and so, apparently, does she.
  • Things to add to Tatiana Maslany's ever-expanding curriculum vitae: she proves (as Cosima) that she can do an uncannily accurate impression of Matt Frewer. "Great Scott, I've created life itself!"
  • Next week's title, "Governed As It Were By Chance," is from the same Bacon piece about human fallacy; where this week's quote refers to "Idols of the Tribe"—more universal, systemic mistakes of reasoning—next week's quote refers to "Idols of the Cave," which Bacon saw as more personal idiosyncrasies and prejudices: "For everyone (besides the errors common to human nature in general) has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolors the light of nature, owing either to his own proper and peculiar nature; or to his education and conversation with others; or to the reading of books, and the authority of those whom he esteems and admires; or to the differences of impressions, accordingly as they take place in a mind preoccupied and predisposed or in a mind indifferent and settled; or the like. So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance. Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world." All clear?

 

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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