This week, I'm beginning ongoing coverage of Orphan Black's second season. This first review is a bit longer than future reviews will be. (I haven't written about the show before, and—though I'm not going to attempt to summarize the first season here—I do have some preliminary thoughts to get out of the way.) As with all my TV reviews, I'm assuming that, if you're reading this, you're all caught up with the episodes aired to date, including this one. So, if you haven't watched the season premiere yet, do that first.
BBC America's Orphan Black is the little engine that could, but—like a lot of people—I got on board rather late. I watched the pilot episode live when it premiered back in March of last year, and…liked it. It was interesting, it was unique, and it's plotting had a truly staggering audacity. (Seriously, rewatching that pilot episode recently, I was amazed as just how much happened in it, and how many characters and concepts and twists creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson trusted their audience to process.) Most of all, of course—like everyone else who has watched any of Orphan Black—I was impressed with this unknown actress named Tatiana Maslany, who seemed to embody (in multiple bodies) the very definition of range.
But I was skeptical. Orphan Black seemed like a show that could disappear, at any moment, up the backside of its own conspiracy-stuffed, clone-crowded premise. I was hesitant to get too invested, and so I stuck a mental pin in the show and decided to catch up with it after the entire first season had aired.
Which is what I did, and for most of that season I was still on the fence. To be sure, Orphan Black was addictively entertaining. (I knocked the entire 10 episode season out in about 24 hours, and was irked there wasn't more.) In the early episodes, it was sufficiently mesmerizing to watch Maslany create different characters who seemed fully realized and distinct enough that I genuinely forgot they were played by the same person. In the later episodes, however, I watched her actually develop these different characters along their own arcs, turning what might have been simply an impressive party trick into an opportunity to deliver a series of truly stunning individual performances.
But there were problems, too. The early episodes suffered some serious pacing issues. The show always seemed to be struggling—and not always successfully—to achieve a harmonious tonal balance between its dramatic, comedic, action, and sci-fi elements. Sub-plots seemed at time to spiral haphazardly outward, without providing any assurance they'd ever be satisfactorily resolved. Mostly, however, I just wasn't really sure what the show was about. Was it just an entertaining, fiendishly clever high-wire act, or did Orphan Black have more on its mind?
I'm still not sure about that last question—it's one of the things I'm hoping to grapple with this season—but it doesn't matter: I'm on board either way. I can pinpoint the moment I really fell in love with Orphan Black, and it came in Season One's seventh episode, "Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner." Taking its title from a section of Darwin's Origins of Species—one concerning extreme evolutionary variations within the same genus—the episode focused largely on Helena, the half-feral, homicidal, ritually-scarred Ukrainian religious freak. The other clones—street-wise Sarah, soccer-mom Allison, science-nerd Cosima—were all very different from each other, but they were all recognizably the same species: they shared a look, a common language, a basic decency, an ability to coexist and collaborate. In the "nature vs. nurture" question that is at the heart of Orphan Black, the three main clone-club members formed an argument for nature.
But Helena was something different: she was an outlier, an offshoot, nurtured by extreme forces and shaped into something almost unrecognizable. I adored Helena from the beginning—as Buffy's Faith and Firefly's River could tell you, I'm a sucker for any combination of crazy, vulnerable, and homicidal—and so it's no surprise that the moment that really made me fall in love with Orphan Black was a Helena moment.
It's the scene in Episode 7 when Helena breaks into the apartment that Sarah shares with Paul (Dylan Bruce). Intercut with a warm scene of Sarah with her family—her daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), her foster-brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), and her foster-mother Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy)—we see Helena utterly alone in Sarah's apartment. She wistfully touches objects and photographs; she eats a snack from the fridge; she lies on Sarah's bed and smell's Sarah's clothes. Finally, we see her sitting at the dining room table, having a pretend conversation with a photo of Paul she has propped up opposite her. "Yes, I also had a pleasant day," she says. "I went working and shopping."
It was a laugh-out loud moment—made funnier by Maslany's delightfully unhinged performance and Helena's awkward English—but it was also something more than that. It was a strangely heartbreaking scene of a lonely, isolated woman trying on another woman's life, wondering what it would feel like to be "normal," and having only the vaguest understanding of what normal should look and sound like. Raised by religious fanatics, Helena has been led to think she is the "real" person, while the others are simply copies: it is important to her to believe that she is unique. But she also wants connection, attachment, a community with other people. ("I dreamed that we were friends," she says to Sarah, earlier in that episode.) This tension—between the need for an independent identity and the longing for a sense of belonging—is one of the universal themes that Orphan Black gets to play with in new and interesting ways. Are we all unique and special snowflakes, or are we all, fundamentally, the same as everyone else?
This idea of these women trying on different lives is a recurring one in Orphan Black, of course, and one of the great pleasures of Maslany's performance is watching her portray one of the clones who is literally pretending to be another of the clones: Sarah pretending to be Beth, Sarah pretending to be Allison, Allison pretending to be Sarah, etc. (It must be a delightful exercise for the writer's room, and it's simply glorious to watch Maslany process and represent the various layers of characterization: How would Allison think Sarah would respond in this situation?) But this, too, is a very universal theme, one that Orphan Black plays with in direct and subtle ways: the notion of the road not taken, and the idea that the person we are is just one version of the many people we might have been. As the various characters get drawn into each other's very different worlds, they get glimpses of the people they themselves might have been if their lives had gone in different directions. Is Allison the person Sarah would be if she'd gone down a different path? Is Cosima? Is Helena? How much of our identity is determined by biology, how much is the result of circumstance, and where, in all of this, does free will factor in?
(Biology is the chief obsession of Orphan Black—the episode titles are all taken from scientific principles and theories—but the field of psychology provides plenty of food for thought as well for the viewer of this show. I'm reminded of Carl Jung's theory that one way to interpret a dream is to see all the various figures who appear as representing different aspects of the dreamer's personality. I think that's one way to interpret Orphan Black as well.)
At any rate, I haven't figured all of this out yet—obviously—and I'm not sure the show has, either, or feels the need to take definite positions one way or another. (Whether the show has an overall theme or mission statement is one of the things I think is still to be determined.) But the fact that Orphan Black provides such rich fodder for thought and speculation is part of what made me think I might want to write about the show this season: there are a lot of ideas being explored here, and they're being explored in ways that are usually smart, often thought-provoking, and always entertaining.
And, if I was still on the fence about whether I wanted to write about Orphan Black this season, the last few minutes of this week's episode more or less clinched it. So enough of my preliminary blathering: let's get to the episode.
"The plan is a bit of an issue."—Felix
It's probably a good idea to begin each week with a look at the episode's title. In this case, the phrase "nature under constraint and vexed" comes from Francis Bacon's "Plan of the Work," his outline for The Great Instauration (1620), a never-finished treatise describing a revolutionary new approach to the search for human and divine knowledge. (I'm not going to pretend for a moment I've read this, or would necessarily understand it if I did, but I can Google with the best of 'em.) The relevant passage is as follows:
"I mean it to be a history not only of nature free and at large (when she is left to her own course and does her work her own way)…but much more of nature under constraint and vexed; that is to say, when by art and the hand of man she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded…[T]he nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom."
Like I said, I haven't read Bacon: I suspect that, if I had, the reference would echo into the goals of the Neolutionists and the overall storyline of Orphan Black in important ways. However, just focusing on the immediate meaning of the quote, we find some lovely commentary on what's happening this episode, and perhaps what this season of the show will be about. In Season One we met all our characters, and—though the shadow-players behind the conspiracy were certainly active—we mostly encountered them in their own respective milieus, and we found them largely self-directed. Now, external forces are beginning to take more and more of a role, and each of our heroes is finding herself forced out of her natural state, squeezed and molded by the hand of others.
What I love about this passage—and the point, I suspect—is the last line quoted above: "The nature of things betrays itself more readily under the vexations of art than in its natural freedom." In this context, we can take that to mean that if you want to really find out who a person is, add pressure. Certainly that's been a theme already in Orphan Black—think of Allison's amazing, hilarious evolution—and it is only picking up steam now as the forces around the women truly begin to "vex" (read: fuck with) them.
The episode begins right where last season left off: with Sarah's discovery that her daughter and Mrs. S. are missing, kidnapped—she assumes—by the Neolutionists. From the moment Sarah takes off running through the rain, "Nature Under Constraint and Vexed" does one of the things Orphan Black does best: it spins a sustained narrative of improvisation that is inventive and thrilling. "We need a plan," people keep saying to Sarah. "I don't have a plan yet," she keeps responding. She has no plan: she is simply reacting, and reeling from one development to the next, and making it all up as she goes along.
Fortunately, both Sarah and the show are very good at improvising. We've known this about her all along, of course: the entire series stems from her split-second decision to steal the purse of a dead woman, after all, and her crowning moment in the pilot episode was chugging down some hand soap to fake an illness and escape an uncomfortable situation. (That latter scene gets called back here as Sarah finds herself once more trapped in a bathroom—this time cornered by some nefarious strangers in a diner—and once again proves herself the Master of Lavatory Survival by knocking an escape-hole in the wall.)
From there we're off to the races: Sarah is flailing wildly, but she always flails forward, and with a relentless determination that is fun is to watch. One of the things I like about Orphan Black is that the plot is often driven by small, practical concerns that another show might overlook: as Sarah jumps recklessly from one stone to the next in the raging river of the overall storyline, Fawcett and Manson are remarkably faithful about thinking through each step and not skipping over logistical hurdles and practical necessities. I like, for example, that when Sarah's in a crisis, Felix is not just conveniently waiting around to help her out: he's off living his own life, and is, in fact, high as a kite in a club wearing assless chaps. ("Well I didn't know there was going to be a huge emergency, did I?") And I like the fact that Sarah's needing a gun becomes a major plot point; other shows would just put one magically in her hand, but here acquiring one requires effort and guile and a large chunk of the episode. (It was refreshing to hear Allison say "Sarah just can't go around shooting people with my guns; they're registered to me." That's the kind of realistic consideration most shows of this kind would ignore.)
Sarah's desperate inventiveness eventually leads her all the way to the Neoloutionists, and the penthouse office of "Pro-Clone" Rachel. There is a lot to like about these scenes, but what really encouraged me for Orphan Black in general is the way Fawcett and Manson respect the intelligence of both their audience and their characters. It is painfully obvious, for example, that the "Cosima" who shows up at the Neolutionist party is going to turn out to be Sarah, but the show doesn't even try to fool us with this ploy. And, similarly, after one awkward kiss between Sarah and Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), Delphine twigs to the truth pretty quickly as well. It's really refreshing for the show to acknowledge that people who know there are multiple clones are going to be pretty hard to fool: it's realistic, but more importantly it raises the bar, and forces the show to grow more inventive and not simply fall back on the same tired tricks.
The confrontation between Sarah and Rachel is wonderfully played; I'm not enamored of the character of Rachel (or Maslany's performance as her, so far), but I love the parallels the scene constructs between Sarah and Helena: astride Rachel, holding a gun to the Pro-Clone's face in righteous fury, Sarah has never looked or acted so much like her Ukrainian "seestra." The Neolutionists are discovering that, when Sarah is constrained and vexed, the line separating her from Avenging Angel Helena may be very thin indeed. (This, of course, is totally appropriate: Rachel is Helena's polar opposite, as both were raised by extremists at far ends of the philosophical spectrum: one by corporate bio-engineers, and the other by low-tech religious purists. It makes sense that Rachel would bring out the Helena in Sarah.)
Of course, the confrontation turns out to be futile, since Rachel doesn't have Kira, and never did: it was apparently Helena's group, the Proletheans, who are making a move. (This should have been obvious from the conversation the men in the diner had about eggs: "Your chickens have been interfered with," one of the men says to the diner owner, indicating that these assassins are not in favor of genetic engineering.) "There are other forces vying for our fates," Rachel tells Sarah here, echoing the theme of the episode—and the "our" in that sentence reminds us that she, too, is one of the clones, a sister to the others, fundamentally identical but shaped by different forces.
"I'm not in control of the muse."—Allison
And how clear is the line separating Allison from her genetic sisters? "Rash seems to be a genetic trait," Cosima observes this episode, and certainly Allison—arguably the breakout character from Season One—supports that theory. On first appearance, Allison's suburban mom seemed to be the dull polar opposite of Sarah's street-smart hustler, but throughout the first season we discovered Allison was just as reckless as her compatriots. Whether torturing husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun) with a glue-gun, seducing a married man in a mini-van, or watching nosy neighbor Aynslie strangle to death in her own garbage disposal, Allison's life is every bit as colorful and chaotic as the others—it's all just translated into the language of the 'burbs.
And Allison herself is perhaps just as capable as her sisters—or even more so. (Early in the episode, Sarah—desperate—scrolls through her contacts to decide who to call for help. She tries Felix first, but I don't think it's an accident of alphabetization that her next call is to Allison. In a crisis, I'd definitely rely on Allison over book-smart-but-annoyingly clueless Cosima.) This week, as usual, Allison flourishes under pressure. She conveniently knows a suburban drug-and-gun dealer named Ramon (Alex Ozerov). ("How's your mother?" Allison sweetly inquires, when their transaction is complete.) Going to meet Sarah for the exchange, she spots Art (Kevin Hanchard) and Angela (Inga Cadranel) rousting her, and has the good sense to slip away unseen; later, she cleverly arranges for Ramon to deliver the gun to Sarah in a bouquet of flowers, along with a lovingly handmade card. ("We love you, Allison," Felix tells her—and I have to concur.)
Finally, Sarah rather thoughtlessly uses Allison as a decoy—without her knowledge—by siccing creepy Neolutionist lawyer Daniel (Matthew Bennett) on her. This might be an unforgivable act, if Allison wasn't so clearly able to take care of herself. The scene is hilarious—with Allison spraying pepper spray and determinedly blowing her rhinestone-encrusted rape whistle—but the way Maslany plays Allison's indomitable composure is also kind of fabulous: this is a woman it would be very dangerous to underestimate.
And of course I can't leave off without mentioning the most fabulous scene of the episode: Allison is "doing the musical." There are few things more ripe for comedic exploitation than a community theater musical—an original work, no less!—and it gets milked for all it's worth here. But it's also an opportunity to parallel (and parody) the show's main concerns: Allison is asked to step into another's role on a moment's notice—a common theme on Orphan Black, as I've said—and the musical itself sounds like it might as well be about Allison's life, and the place where murder and intrigue meets the 'burbs. "Let's pick it up from the point where everyone helps Sheila clean up after the unfortunate death," the director says. ("We will wipe, wipe, wipe away the plasma/Scrub up every stain/Since I can not control my asthma/I'll stand by to entertain!")
The spirit of improvisation in the face of adversity is alive and well in the 'burbs, and in Allison. ("We are not civilians," the pretentious director pontificates. "This is the theater, and we all know the show must go on.") "Shine!" Allison's castmate encourages her, and that—throughout—is just what she does.
"I'm not going to apologize for my heart."—Cosima
I'm not going to talk much about Cosima this week, in part because—I may as well confess now—she's by far my least favorite member of the clone club. What I find interesting in the context of this episode is, coincidentally, exactly what I find uninteresting about her in general: as opposed to the rest of her clone batch, Cosima has no common sense, or ability to respond creatively to adversity. If we view the clones as different aspects of a single soul, Cosima so far is all book-smarts, no street-smarts. Last season, she thought she was being clever by blundering into a dangerous relationship with Delphine—despite knowing Delphine probably worked for Leekie—and ended up compromising the identities of Sarah and her family. Now, having failed to learn from that lesson, she continues to play a dangerous game by thinking she can work to advance their agenda from inside the Dyad Institute.
I'm hoping Cosima gets a little more to do this season—she has not had the opportunity to prove herself the way the others have—and it will be interesting to see what hidden resources she discovers within herself. For now, I think what's worth noting—just in terms of appreciating the show as a whole—is that none of the three main women is limited by her label: when we first met them we might have been forgiven for thinking they were archetypes: the smart one, the tough one, the maternal/emotional one, etc. But Sarah, as Paul tells Daniel this episode, is "smarter than you think." Allison, as we've seen, is way tougher than anyone gives her credit for. And Cosima—who we'd presume was ruled by logic—is actually ruled by emotion, driven more by desire for Delphine than intellect or common sense. (And her reward is that Delphine apparently betrays her again.) "Look, I'm not going to apologize for my heart, okay?" Cosima tells Felix when he (rightfully) judges her for staying with Delphine. (It's an awful line of dialogue, but perhaps appropriately awful: it seems like the kind of thing Cosima would say.)
I suspect this will be a big season for Cosima: she is, after all, apparently dying, but she also has the most potential to have her nature changed by the constraints and vexations of the forces around them.
"My seestra shot me."—Helena
Finally, there is the scene that made me stand up and cheer: Helena is alive. Yes, it's a bit of a cheat to have left Helena for dead last season and have her wander into an emergency room this season, but every show needs a wild-card, and Helena is it for Orphan Black. (Earlier I compared Helena to Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but a better comparison might be to Spike, especially early, pre-soul Spike: a hysterically funny agent of chaos who is way too dangerous to keep around, but way too entertaining to let go.)
On the full spectrum of personality that all the various characters on Orphan Black assemble, Helena is the primal instinct, the unchecked aggression, the pure instinct-driven id. So when she appeared to die last season I worried, because the show simply wouldn't be complete without her.
But she's back, and so is Orphan Black, and so will I be next week. Hope to see you here.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- My plan is to review every episode, with new posts appearing sometime on the Sunday after the episode airs. My longtime readers will know that my plans often change—48 to 72 hours later is not unusual—but if I'm to keep my schedule at all under control I need to post these reviews before Game of Thrones airs Sunday night. For this reason—this first post excepted—I plan for my reviews of Orphan Black to be both shorter and more punctual than most of my write-ups.
- I gave Felix very little attention this episode, which is a crime, as Jordan Gavaris is an unfailing delight, and the chemistry he has with Maslany means that placing Felix in combination with any other clone results in magic. (Felix and Allison is one of my favorite combinations, of course, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Felix gets to bond with Helena, perhaps for "shopping and clubbing.")
- A quibble: there's a very odd moment this episode, which makes me think that either I missed something, or there was a mistake. Walking into the Neolutionist party, Sarah (as Cosima) says "Shine"—repeating the advice Allison's castmate gave her. But why would Sarah say this? For a moment I thought this reveal meant that the faux-Cosima was actually Allison—which, while it would have been a clever twist, would have made no sense at all. Did I somehow miss a piece of dialogue where Allison says this to Sarah? My theory is that there was an editing error: that Allison was meant to say this during the scene where she tells Sarah to "break a leg," or—more likely—that there was meant to be a shot of the card Allison sends her with the gun that said "Shine!" in Allison's (no-doubt loopy) handwriting. (I don't normally dwell on these nitpicky things, but—as that line was meant to be the dramatic reveal that "Cosima" was really Sarah—it was an extremely disorienting choice.)
- Just an observation: Sarah, like Sherlock Holmes, seems to have an army of homeless waifs to do her bidding. (Which is cool.)
- One of the reasons I call Orphan Black "the little engine that could" is that it manages to do a lot with what I assume is a fairly limited budget. This episode I noticed that there seems to be a standing limit of two clones in a room together at a time. (I think there was a scene with all three last season, but for the most part the rule is "two-in-person, one-on-Skype.")
- The show is obviously setting us up to think that Angela is a spy for one faction or another. ("You don't want to know everything, Art," Sarah tells her former partner. "And you don't want Angie to know anything.") The suspicious TV-viewer in me wonders if this is actually setting up a reveal that Art is somehow the nefarious one, but I hope not: I like Art.
- I may as well admit it now: I don't much like Paul, and I'm not invested in his relationship with Sarah at all, and I don't particularly care what happened to him in Afghanistan. On the other hand, I rather appreciate the fact that there isn't a strong male romantic lead on this show: for once, we have a show about women where their relationships with men are barely a factor.
- Next week's episode is entitled "Governed by Sound Reason and True Religion." Francis Bacon again, kids, so our homework this week is to read his Novum Organum: "Lastly, if the debasement of arts and sciences to purposes of wickedness, luxury, and the like, be made a ground of objection, let no one be moved thereby. For the same may be said of all earthly goods: of wit, courage, strength, beauty, wealth, light itself, and the rest. Only let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest, and let power be given it; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true religion." This will be on the quiz.