ORPHAN BLACK 2×04

"Governed As It Were By Chance"

Orphan Black is one of those shows—and they're my favorite kinds of shows—that can slip in and out of different genres with ease. Jumping back and forth between drama, action, mystery, comedy, and thriller as deftly as this show does is a rare thing; finding an actress like Tatiana Maslany, who is equally at home in all of those genres, is rarer still. 

"Governed As It Were By Chance" has dollops of several of these elements, but it definitely leans more heavily than Orphan Black usually does towards suspense and full-on horror. And suspense, of course, is all about knowledge: what the audience knows versus what the characters don't know. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, often explained this in terms of a bomb. If you have a five-minute scene in a movie with people sitting around a table, at the end of which a bomb suddenly goes off, the audience has five minutes of boredom followed by 10 seconds of shock. However, if you show the audience the bomb under the table at the beginning of the scene, and make it clear that the bomb is going to go off in five minutes' time, then the entire scene becomes charged. "The whole emotion of the audience is totally different," Hitch said, "because you've given them that information."

Conveniently, the Francis Bacon quote from which this week's title is drawn is all about knowledge as well:

"The Idols of the Cave are the idols of the individual man. 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."

—Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620)

All of which sounds complicated, but—for our purposes, at least—is actually fairly straightforward. I'm sure I'm oversimplifying here, but for the sake of convenient argument let's just say it's about individual people (as opposed to human nature in general) being wrong: having the wrong information, making the wrong assumptions, drawing the wrong conclusions about the world around them. That's obviously a theme that comes up a lot on Orphan Black—which has endless mysteries and confusions at its core—and it's a theme that writer Russ Cochrane and director David Frazee play with brilliantly in this harrowing episode. "Governed As It Were By Chance" generates a gleeful amount of tension through old-fashioned tropes of horror and suspense: it keeps its characters constantly in the dark, while letting us see the bomb beneath the table, the killer around the corner, the monster beneath the bed.

"Girl, you in the middle of your wake-up call."—Yvonne

Allison-Tatiana-Maslany1

"Governed As It Were By Chance" features several of our major characters waking up to find themselves in nightmarish situations. Let's begin with the lightest of these.

Allison, of course, has recently realized she's been wrong about just about everything in her life, and the discovery has sent her into a spiral of self-destruction. Now, she wakes up, sick and injured and alone, in an unfamiliar room. Where is she?  Who has her? What has been done to her? Immediately, she jumps to the conclusion that the massive clone conspiracy has ensnared her—as, elsewhere this season, it has snared Helena, and as it has tried to ensnare Sarah. "I demand to speak to Dr. Leekie right this second!" she protests to Yvonne (Raven Dauda), the young woman who appears to be her keeper. "This is totally unacceptable!"

It's an understandable mistake to make, considering the cloak-and-dagger nature of their lives, but of course we saw her collapse last week: we know how she was injured, and where she probably is. "Girl, you in the middle of your wake-up call," Yvonne tells her. "You're in rehab." Not everything is a big conspiracy: sometimes the nightmare is just life. The Dyad Institute is responsible for a lot that's gone wrong for Allison, but she's responsible for the drinking and drugs, and now it turns out she's responsible for the decision to get off them as well. She assumes Donnie (Kristian Bruun) has had her committed, but, as Felix (Jordan Gavaris) points out to her, "Rehab usually requires some form of consent."

Allison is usually used for comic relief on Orphan Black, and I can imagine the glee the writers had when they realized the possibilities of putting Allison in rehab. From her horror at seeing another addict shaving her armpits—
"That's…disturbing," Felix admits—to her indignity at having to have someone watch her "tinkle," to her defensive statement "I don't believe I've ever done the nasty," Allison ably delivers the lighter elements in this extremely dark episode. (Felix has his moments as well: just as he was previously the least comforting person to confess a murder to, he turns out to be a bit awkward at supporting a recovering addict. "We'll celebrate with brunch and mimosas," he says—then realizes his mistake. "Oh, god! Or just brunch.")

But the episode also does a nice switch back into darker, nightmarish territory: no sooner has Allison convinced herself that this is all her idea, she's proven wrong about that as well. "I can leave anytime I want to," she tells Donnie—but he quickly disillusions her and confirms that her initial fears were correct after all: she is trapped. If she doesn't complete her rehab, Donnie—and, presumably, his Dyad-financed lawyer—will take her children away from her. This is another recurring theme of the episode, a classic horror trope, and a recurring threat on Orphan Black in general: something or someone is going to take your children.

"He took something from inside of me."—Helena

Helena-Tatiana-Maslany

Allison's situation, of course, parallels the much darker nightmare into which Helena finds herself: she too wakes up in an unfamiliar place, disoriented and injured, and with the sense that someone has her and something has been done to her. In this case, however, she's completely right. Helena's scenes are all from a horror film this episode, but what I love is the way she is alternately (and sometimes even simultaneously) both the victim and the monster.

Helena wakes up with vague, nightmarish memories of something bad happening, which come back to her in a very Rosemary's Baby kind of way: she remembers a ritual, a kind of wedding, followed by an unspeakable violation. "There were people all around me," she says, but the Prolethians assure her that was just the family, coming by to say "hey." "Don't worry, your life is here now with us," Henrik (Paul Outerbridge) says—but Helena flinches from his touch.

Gracie (Zoé De Grand Maison) has never been comfortable with Helena—she keeps referring to Helena as "it"–and now takes matters into her own hands and tries to smother Helena with a pillow. She thinks she has succeeded, but we know better: as Gracie walks away, the supposedly-dead Helena—like a thousand slasher-film killers—rises in a jump scare and takes Gracie out. Not for the last time in this episode, she rises from the dead; not for the last time, she's the monster as hero.

Thinking about this episode in terms of horror movies, this whole storyline becomes a cornucopia of references. (I doubt it was all intentional, but it all works.) The isolated farmhouse location, the creepy religious vibe, the crazed, blood-stained bride: how could this setup not turn into a horror movie? And most frightening of all is the Cronenbergian body-horror as Helena wanders into the plastic-draped medical lab and the memories of her procedure flood back to her. (The image of Henrik slathering up a speculum with lube will haunt my nightmares, and I'm a guy.) Helena seizes a knife and literally slashes her way out; running frantically from the farmhouse (past a startled Art [Kevin Hanchard]) she's like both the killer and the lone survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 

Helena becomes an almost mythic presence in the rest of the episode: we feel her, and know she's coming, even when she's not there. (She is, for the purposes of this episode, the bomb under the table.) When Cal (Michiel Huisman) makes Kira (Sklyer Wexler) an origami butterfly, Kira sees it as an angel, and we know that's code for Helena. (Helena's scars give her wings, and way back in the fourth episode of Season One, a little boy described her as "an angry angel.") Kira gives the "angel" to Sarah to protect her. ("She has a guardian angel," the spooky little girl tells Cal.) When Sarah and Felix search Mrs. S's house for clues, we see the cellar door creak open, and we know it's Helena: she is the madwoman in the attic, or—more literally—the thing in the basement.

"This is happening."—Daniel

Mirror

Sarah gets to have two terrifying awakenings this episode. The first comes after the shock-jump of last week's ending, when a truck slammed into the car Daniel (Matthew Bennett) was driving. Now, Sarah wakes up in the aftermath, and finds her own eyes staring back at her in the shattered rearview mirror.

(A digression: I'm not going to pursue it here, but I suspect an entire essay could be written about mirrors in Orphan Black. It's a natural motif for a show about clones, obviously, but more specifically Bacon repeatedly uses metaphors of looking through glass, and of light refracted and distorted, to represent the limits of human understanding. This season is definitely working those images consciously: last week we saw Allison fractured in the mirror of her dressing room right before she lost her shit, and almost the first thing she does this episode is stare at her own reflection. Now Sarah, in the aftermath of the crash—and all the confusion back at Cal's place—struggles to piece together the fragmented pieces of herself in the mirror. The nightmarish climax of the episode, with Daniel and Sarah and Helena, is also shot through glass and mirrors.)

On a less vague, more purely appreciative note: how fucking good is Tatiana Maslany? I try not to let these posts be completely overcome by gushing praise for her performance, but on weeks like this it definitely becomes a challenge. We'll get to her stunning work in this episode's climax in due course, but even here—as she pulls herself from the wreckage—she's kind of amazing. Sarah is weak, and hurt, and in shock, and disoriented, and panicking, and still a goddamned force to be reckoned with: at the sound of approaching sirens she stands in the road like a Hollywood gunfighter, prepared to do whatever is necessary. What is remarkable about Maslany's performance is that she never lets Sarah become a larger-than-life action hero: she channels the weakness and confusion along with the strength and determination, and remains utterly believable and human throughout. "What were you going to do?" Cal asks her, flabbergasted. She doesn't answer him, because she doesn't know: she doesn't have a plan, because she can't see the whole picture. All she can do is try to see far enough around the next corner to stay alive.

As I implied above, Bacon's quote for this episode refers to these kinds of limits of knowledge: not the grand, cosmic kinds of universal knowledge, but immediate, necessary knowledge. We're constantly being reminded of things people don't know. "You gotta tell me what's going on," Cal keeps saying, but Sarah won't give him more than tiny fragments of information. His motives, in turn, become something of a mystery. "I don't know why you're doing any of this, Cal," Sarah says. When she asks him who the camper belongs to, he bristles: "You won't answer my questions, don't ask your own." Meanwhile, Sarah thinks Daniel is dead, and is texting Rachel from his phone, trying to keep the Pro Clone in the dark a few hours longer. But, of course, this is a horror movie, and we know Daniel is not dead, and has in fact crawled bloody from the car's wreckage to wreak his vengeance on Sarah. Everyone is operating on limited information, trying to piece together just enough information to plan their next move while keeping everyone one else in the dark as long as possible.

Sarah-Tatiana-Maslany

This constant uncertainty and feeling of improvisational survival lends the episode a fantastic tension, especially when it gets distilled into its purest form: the split-second, life-or-death decisions of horror movies. We get a taste of this horror movie trope when Sarah first sneaks into Rachel's apartment, and has to choreograph her movements precisely with those of Rachel's assistant to avoid detection. This later becomes a game with much higher stakes, when the resurrected Daniel shows up at the apartment. Frazee brilliantly works the slasher-film tropes: we, the audience, follow both their movements, but, as they move around the apartment just out of the other's reach, they each become the killer the other doesn't know is there.

All of which leads to Sarah's second awakening, chained up in the shower as Daniel sharpens a razor blade. As she has in other situations, Sarah thinks she can talk or bluff her way out of this one, but she doesn't know we've shifted genres. "This is happening," Daniel tells her: this nightmare is real. Maslany, to state the obvious, is fantastic here. We've seen Sarah get out of a lot of dire situations before, but now—twisting desperately against her constraints, fear trembling through her entire body—we believe this is different because Sarah believes it is different. It is hard to generate real fear on serialized television, but Maslany sells it here: we know Sarah will get out of this—and, because the episode has done such an excellent job of generating its suspense, we even think we know how—but we build to an almost unbearable crescendo first.

But then we hear music from the outer room, and these two—who have been playing cat and mouse with each other, alternating the roles of stalker and victim—realize that there is a third person in the apartment. Sarah, trapped, can only watch as Daniel goes to investigate, everything important happening out of her sight. From Sarah's perspective, we hear the struggle from the next room, and we see a lamp crash over, and we see Daniel, bloody, drop into frame. The suspense is unbearable because we know what's coming: we've been waiting for this bomb to go off for most of the episode.

Helena

And then Helena appears. I've said elsewhere in my reviews that one of the themes of Orphan Black is that no one is ever just one thing: people are complicated, and conflicted, and capable of playing roles both good and bad. Here, the show plays with this theme through these horror movie tropes. To the audience members—who have known all season she was alive, and who probably love her dearly—Helena is the Calvary, the deus ex machina, the hero who shows up at the last minute and saves the heroine. But Sarah, we remember, thinks Helena is dead, because Sarah killed her. To Sarah, Helena—lurching down the hallway towards her, her torn bridal dress covered in blood, wielding a stained knife—is a hundred horror movie monsters rolled into one: she's the slasher-film killer returned from the grave, the vengeful ghost, the avenging angel, the demon from Hell. Maslany, in both roles, is almost too good here: Sarah whimpers and writhes in absolute terror, and this blood-soaked creature embraces her, calling her seestra in gentle hushed tones.  I honestly don't know that I've watched a better, more disturbing, more satisfying scene of television this year.

Helena, as I've said, has played the role of the monster in this horror movie throughout the episode—and really throughout the series—but we know she's just another traumatized victim. "Please, seestra, I need your help," she begs Sarah. "He took something from inside me." We end on the true monster: Henrik, confirming the unspeakable violation he has committed on Helena. He and the Prolethians have stolen her egg, and fertilized it, and "a new life begins." The nightmare is the same for Allison, Sarah, and Helena, who are all just living slightly different versions of the same basic horror movie plot: they're coming to take the children.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Special kudos to the music this week, which took the always-excellent Orphan Black themes and translated them into the jagged, shrieking sounds of horror movie soundtracks. Composer Trevor Yuile is one of the unsung heroes of this show.
  • I skipped over quite a few scenes this week, most notably Siobhan (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and her reunion with Carlton (Roger R. Cross). I'm sure there will be plenty to discuss on this subject later, so for now I'll just say that I am increasingly convinced—as I see Mrs. S. in action—that her connection to Sarah and the other clones is more than situational. (Tell me she doesn't seem like an older version of Sarah herself.)
  • I also skipped over Cosima, and many of the revelations about Project LEDA. The scene that really struck me this week, however—particularly in light of the Bacon quote—is Cosima's completely mistaken assumptions (based, as Bacon says, on her own experiences?) about Rachel being raised in a completely loveless home. (That was another fantastic scene: Cosima's voice, describing a cold and heartless upbringing, juxtaposed with images of young Rachel playing with her adoring parents.) Cosima also hits on a theme of the entire show when she says, "Just think, Sarah: you could have been Rachel." Yes, and by the same math, Rachel could have been Sarah, or any of them. Rachel, like Helena, may not turn out to be such a monster after all.
  • On the other hand, Rachel's suite is decorated straight out of Cold Bitch Digest. 
  • Don't fuck with Felix: he is versed in Krav Maga.
  • Next week's episode is entitled "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est," and the meaning of this Bacon quote is short and sweet: "Knowledge is power."

 

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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