ORPHAN BLACK 3×08

"Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method"

"I need a way forward," Sarah says this week. "I feel like we've been on our back foot against everybody." It's one of those lines that sounds, to my ear, like Orphan Black's showrunners, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, speaking through their characters. Season Three has had a lot of good stuff going on, but as a whole the series feels like it has lost its footing a bit, and lost nearly all of its forward momentum.

The plot of this show has always been, by necessity, complicated: there are conspiracies within conspiracies, factions working for and against other factions, and at least half a dozen protagonists with their own storylines to track. That frenzied juggling act has always been Orphan Black's charm as well as its challenge, and so I am usually less inclined to criticize Fawcett and Manson than I am to admire their dexterity and sympathize with their almost certain headaches. Keeping all of Orphan Black's pieces in motion is hard enough; it seems almost unfair to expect them to all be moving in any particular direction.

And throughout this season we've seen Fawcett and Manson try to simplify the show's storytelling demands, which is a good instinct. Cal and Kira, for example, were shipped off to parts unknown. Art has been almost completely sidelined. Vic has disappeared. Paul has been killed. The Proletheans seem fairly dormant, and the Neolutionists—remember them?—have seemingly ceased to exist. As the show has introduced new elements—Coady and the Castor boys, Shay, Jason, etc.—it has been careful to remove other pieces from the board in an effort to keep the gameplay manageable.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that Season Three feels frustratingly directionless as we near its end. There are only two episodes left, and yet I don't feel like the season is building to any particular climax. It is hard to even articulate what any faction wants, or what the threat is, or what the plan is. Duncan's copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau has become a vague, catch-all Rosetta Stone that apparently contains all the answers, but I find I'm having a hard time remembering what the questions are. (Oh, we're off to London to look for the Castor original? Umm….okay. I didn't even know that was something we really needed to find.)

I've said before, and I'll say again: the plot is not the point. But the vagueness and disjointedness are beginning to take a toll on my investment in the story, because it is starting to feel sort of structurally spread out and thematically unfocused. Next week is the penultimate episode of the season, and yet there's a strange lack of suspense, an absence of narrative drive, and a disappointing fuzziness about what the real stakes of the season are.

Season Four is going to need a clear "Big Bad," among other things. The good news is, we might have glimpsed her in this episode. "It's not just two factions, is it?" Dr. Coady asks David, her shady government contact. "Who's in charge?" And, at the end of the episode, after Nealon has engineered Rachel's escape, we see him reporting to someone. "She's in your hands now, ma'am," he says, to a mysterious figure overseeing Rachel's surgery. I have hopes that—one way or another—a single mastermind is about to be revealed, providing what both Sarah and the plot desperately need: a clear way forward.

Until then, I find myself concentrating on the individual parts that are still greater than the sum of their whole. I've said that Orphan Black's unwieldy plot is predominantly an engine for generating character moments, and "Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method" proves that she show can still bring them. As the newest member of Clone Club says, "you can't crush the human spirit."

"I just feel like I'm missing something really big." — Krystal

Krystal (Tatiana Maslany)

Orphan Black is a lot of things, but one of the things it is—obviously—is a celebration of women. Completely reversing the genders from most action-adventure, sci-fi series, it's the women on this show who get to be fully-rounded, complicated, powerful characters, and the men who are relegated to simpler support roles with little in the way of arcs. (Even the strongest male characters—Felix and Donnie, for example—still exist entirely in service of the women's stories, and don't do much in the way of changing or developing themselves. "I may be a bitch, but I'm Alison's bitch," Donnie says this episode.) One of the delights of this show is the way it began by presenting the female protagonists in simple, archetypal molds they might play on male dominated shows—the uptight soccer mom, the nerdy, exposition-spouting science geek, et cetera—and then let them blossom into characters with agency and complexity. In too many shows and movies, the female roles are cardboard tropes —Madonna/Whore, Femme Fatale/Girl Friday—but Orphan Black refuses to reduce women to types, even as it uses some of those surface markers as a starting place for its characters.

Krystal is a fantastic, stunningly efficient example of this philosophy in action. When we glimpsed her briefly (on video) in "The Weight of This Combination," she had all the markings of an easily dismissible type: with her bleached-blonde hair, her tight red dress, and her drunken, gum-chewing manner, she just seemed like a dumb bimbo. What more could we possibly need to know about her? (I'm sure I'm not the only person who never expected to see her again.)

And when we first see her again this week—working in a nail salon, prattling on about "healing energy," and showing a lot of cleavage—it's hard to take her seriously. ("Not one to pierce the veil, is she?" Nealon comments, after Delphine has checked Krystal out.) But we should have known that Orphan Black does not dismiss women—and particularly any of the sestras—so lazily.

Felix (Jordan Gavaris)

One of the important roles Felix plays on this show—and, again, it's a function that would normally be provided by a woman on most shows—is to draw out the humanity of the main characters, and he does it here with Krystal in one of the best scenes of the season. (Maslany—as always—is brilliant, and the chemistry she and Jordan Gavaris share is one of the most powerful weapons in Orphan Black's arsenal.) Sarah is literally just using Krystal here—all she wants is to steal Krystal's ID and passwords for Rachel—and goes so far as to tell Felix that Krystal is not one of them. ("We don't need anyone else in Clone Club," she says.) The title of this episode could apply to a lot of people, but here it applies to Sarah and Felix.

But Felix is not as ruthless and insidious as his sister, in part because—even when he's never met one before—he can't help but see all the clones as versions of his sister. He can't see them as anything less than fully human, and so it takes about two minutes before his intrinsic decency and goodness kicks in.

And Maslany does not let Krystal become a joke: just because Krystal prattles on doesn't mean that her emotions aren't as real as anyone's, and there is a real sadness that comes through Krystal's perky, flirty exterior. (It seems like the deceptive shallowness in Maslany's performance here should remind us of her performance as Alison, but—somewhat miraculously—it doesn't.)

Krystal is also not as dumb—or naive—as she seems. "I'm not super smart, but I'm not super stupid, either," she says, and the fact that she probably always sells herself short like this just adds another layer of pathos to the character. (Nothing we have seen has suggested that any of the clones are below-average in any way.) Krystal is actually fairly smart: she has noticed the incongruities in what she's been through—the hotel guards with machine guns, the disinterest of the police, the rotation of monitors in her life—and she is even observant enough to deduce that Felix is a painter. In her locker, Felix finds a notebook of her investigation: despite what Sarah said, she is a member of Clone Club, and she has sensed the conspiracy circling around her: the only difference is, she's out there all on her own trying to make sense of it, with no one to watch her back. ("I'm sorry," she says to Felix. "I have, like, nobody left to talk to, so I just kind of talk to everybody.")

It's admirable, and impressive, and kind of tragic—especially when the conspiracy claims her. It is not entirely Sarah and Felix's fault—Rachel and Nealon could have just nabbed Krystal anyway—but they are complicit in committing one of the cardinal sins of Clone Club: selling out one of their sisters. (I figured out where this was going from the moment Rachel "collapsed," but I worried they would just kill Krystal off to fake Rachel's death. As it is, Fake Rachel is in a "coma," and the possibility exists that Sarah will get the chance to make things up to Krystal later.)

"I'm not on board with assassin boarders." — Donnie

Helena (Tatiana Maslany) in Orphan Black 3x08

When I say that Orphan Black's plot is primarily an engine to generate moments, part of what I mean is this: whatever convoluted machinations were necessary in order to get Helena living and working with Team Hendrix, they were all worth it.

Seriously, if comedy is the art of the unexpected, then the potential here is limitless: there could be nothing more incongruous than Helena wearing Alison's clothes, living in Alison's house, or working in the monstrously pink Victoria's Secret bag that is Alison's store. (I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Helena gets to take a turn at customer service in Bubbles.)

But what I love most about this scenario is that it's not purely comedic: Helena is not a joke or a cartoon either. We should never forget that the season began with her vision of happiness: living among her sisters, everybody getting along, enjoying a barbecue baby-shower. Helena wants a family, and—after the hell she's been through—what comes through here is how happy she is to be among one, and how determined she is to make this work. She is on good behavior—all please and thank you—and she can't suppress her joy at being in an actual home. She plays with Alison's daughter, she helps out in the store, and she flirts with and flatters Donnie. ("Sestra Alison has good taste in men," she tells him. "You have meat on your bones. You are strong like baby ox. This I like.") When Donnie jokes back with her—assuming a Russian accent—her mirth is absolutely uncontainable.

This is the softer side of Helena, and it's heartbreakingly sweet. Her reunion with Gracie just further illustrates the point. "Helena, I'm sorry I lost our baby," Gracie says, but Helena—whom Gracie once tried to kill—holds no grudges: she just wants everyone to be a family. "It's not your fault," she says. "You will be auntie to my baby, yes?" She hugs Gracie, and kisses her on the cheek, and we see her little smile of happiness.

I once would have said Cosima was the emotional heart of Clone Club, but Helena has usurped that role. Sarah may still be ruthless with her sisters, Cosima may still keep secrets, Alison may be distant and cold, but anyone unsure about how to be a family should be wearing a bracelet that says WWHD: What Would Helena Do?

"We've been holding back something really big." — Cosima

Cosima (Tatiana Maslany)

OK, kids, I've been dropping vague suspicions in my end-of-post bullet points for a couple of weeks now, but we can't put it off any longer: we have to talk about Cosima.

Cosima has a couple of nice scenes this episode. She and Shay continue to be very sweet (and very hot) together. ("It's what I need right now," Cosima says to Sarah, when her sister presses her for gossip.) But her conversation with Shay—about near-death experiences—seems to remind Cosima of what's really important to her. "I have a theory," Shay says. "Before we leave this place, we see what we loved. I mean like, pit-of-the-soul, cant-live-without-it love. And, if it's strong enough, sometimes we find our way back."

And, later in the episode, Cosima confesses to Delphine about her own near-death experience. "It was so easy, I could have just slipped away," Cosima says. "Then I had a vision of you. I came back for you." They kiss, but Delphine can't get past the betrayal. "You should have trusted me," she says.

Trust, of course, is one of the big themes this episode. Felix plays on, and betrays, Krystal's trust. ("I used to trust people, and now I feel like I have to be careful," she says, not knowing how ironic that statement is.) Donnie loves Alison, but doesn't trust her with Jason. (Even though, as it turns out, he can.) Cosima loves Delphine, but chooses to trust Rachel—whom no one should ever trust—instead.) Obviously, in a show about forging a family amidst so many secrets and conspiracies, the issue of trust is an ongoing one of paramount importance.

But here's my problem (and you can tell me if I'm crazy): I no longer trust Cosima.

Beth (Tatiana Maslany) in Orphan Black 3x06

I know that's blasphemy, but I'm sorry: I just don't. For a couple of weeks now I've had the uncomfortable feeling that Orphan Black was leading to a major reveal about Cosima's real motives and intentions. It began with the vision Sarah had of Beth in "Certain Agony of the Battlefield." "Stop asking why, and start asking who," Beth cautioned Sarah—and then she said one more word: sister.

Because I'm paranoid—and always looking for the twist on a show like Orphan Black—that suggested to me that one of the sisters was not what she appeared to be. And—if that's the case—Cosima is really the only person it could be. (I somehow doubt Helena is a criminal mastermind, and we've seen too much of Alison's real life to believe she's pulling any strings behind the scenes.)

And then I started thinking about how little we know about Cosima, and how one of the only things we do know is that her illness gives her a lot of motivation to do whatever she has to do to get some answers.

And then I started thinking about how Cosima was the one who brought them all together in the first place, the one who set everything in motion and had them all giving her blood samples and data.

And then I started wondering why Beth killed herself, which is something we've never really gotten a good answer about.

And then, in this episode, there is a moment when Cosima and Sarah are on the phone. "I keep thinking about Beth," Sarah says. "Finishing what she started." And Cosima hesitates. "Yeah, it's a lot," she says, unconvincingly. "I think about her, too."

Seriously, go watch that moment again: Cosima is hiding something.

I don't usually spend a lot of time predicting where the shows I cover are going to go. (What would be the point?) But I'm finding this suspicion is so overpowering everything else that it's actually throwing off my ability to discuss the episodes as a whole. I just keep thinking: What if Cosima is evil? What if Cosima is behind everything? What if Beth the Detective discovered that, and that's why she killed herself?

If I turn out to be right about this—and that's a big if—I'm not saying it was Fawcett and Manson's plan all along. (I haven't gone back and rewatched the first two seasons looking for support for my theory—I was tempted to, but didn't have the time—but I doubt I'd find a whole lot. On the other hand, the absence of evidence wouldn't prove anything either: other revelations—like the ones about Mark, and Paul—didn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense in retrospect either.)

What I am saying is that this development would both sadden and encourage me. It would sadden me, obviously, because I like the Cosima we've gotten to know: she is sweet, and she is guileless, and she is endearingly dorky. But it would encourage me because I think Cosima's storyline is rather played out, and they're going to have to do something with that character. (She can only nearly die—or, worse, nearly get back together with Delphine—so many times.) It would encourage me because it would suddenly open up a whole new world for that character, and for her relationship with the other sestras. It would encourage me because it would reinforce one of the themes of the show: that we all contain secrets and multitudes, and no one is just one thing.

Mostly, it would encourage me because it would instantly give Season Four something that Season Three has sorely lacked: personal stakes. I'm losing interest in the endless, faceless conspiracies on Orphan Black. But a personal war between Clone Club and the sister who betrayed them? That's a clear way forward.

Obviously, I'll have egg on my face if I turn out to be wrong. (I'll take my chances.) But, as I said above, Season Four is going to need a clear "Big Bad," and I can't stop wondering if she's been right in front of us the entire time.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • Dr. Coady is still alive, and so is Rudy. Hey Paul, I don't want to kick you when you're down—and blown up—but maybe if you hadn't felt the need to dramatically show them the hand grenade, they might not have had time to get away?
  • Has no one really noticed that Helena is carrying a cryogenic tank around with her everywhere she goes? Really?
  • As introductions go, ""He loves lesbians" is a little awkward. (As replies go, "Can I sequence your genome?" is even more so.)
  • I love when the show remembers Felix and Sarah are brother and sister, and like to give each other shit. "Just think, Sarah," Felix says, as they watch Krystal buff nails. "Had you finished high school, that could have been you."
  • It's not cool to threaten a man's cat, Rudy: especially if that cat has feline asthma.
  • I skipped over Rachel this week, which is a shame, because I love Rachel. ("You're looking good, Rachel," Sarah says. "New…accessory," she says of her eye-patch.) I don't pretend to have figured out how Rachel and Nealon's plan figures into the conspiracy even without my crazy Cosima idea: it's all very complicated at this point. (Have Rachel and Nealon gone rogue? Are they part of a faction working against Topside, or whoever is pulling Delphine's strings? And, if I'm right about Cosima, did she leak the information about the Dr. Moreau book? Or did Gracie leak it to save Mayfly Mark? This show gives me a headache…)

 NEXT: Episode 3×09 – "Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow"

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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