As my longtime readers know, my usual “thing” in my TV reviews is to approach each episode in light of a particular, overarching theme. Orphan Black makes that job even easier, as it usually (though not always) suggests a unifying idea in its episode titles. This week is no different: “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” roughly translates to “knowledge itself is power,” and power is the key word there.
Throughout this episode we see various power plays going on, which often cross the line into abuse and domination. Rachel (Tatiana Maslany) employs various methods to bring Sarah “to heel,” including denying Cosima a potentially life-saving treatment. Art (Kevin Hanchard) and Helena take turns tying each other up for kinky bondage fun. Paul (Dylan Bruce) interrupts Felix (Jordan Gavaris) mid-coitus to assault him, and then gets dominated in turn when Rachel wants to get her freak on. And, elsewhere, Henrik (Peter Outerbridge) and Bonnie (Kristin Booth) demonstrate some truly disturbing disciplinary practices on Gracie (Zoé de Grand Maison). The real theme of this episode is not so much that “knowledge is power,” but how power is used in the pursuit of knowledge: refuse to share what you know, and you may get your lips sewn shut.
All of which is well worth discussing, and we’ll get to a lot of it along the way. But one drawback of my thematic approach to reviews is that I rarely end up discussing the quality of the show itself: I spend so much time on the whys that I take the hows for granted. Every once in a while, I like to step back, give recapping and analysis a rest, and just appreciate the craft. We’re halfway through the season, and—apart from repeatedly saying Damn, she’s good!—I haven’t yet taken a serious look at what Tatiana Maslany is doing in her various roles. So—though it’s a crime to do it in an episode where Allison doesn’t appear once—I want to take the opportunity this week to do just that.
So let’s go clone-by clone, and take a close look at Maslany’s performances, and what they reveal about the characters. Because, damn she’s good.
Let’s start, appropriately enough, with Sarah Manning, since that’s where Orphan Black starts. Sarah is the first person we meet in the series, and—though we eventually realize she’s just another clone of someone we’ve not met—it’s hard not to think of her as the “original.” She’s the baseline from which all the other clones are differentiated, which is perhaps why Maslany’s other, more colorful creations—Allison and Helena, particularly—tend to get more attention.
But it would be a mistake to underestimate what Maslany does to build a character here. One of the best decisions I think John Fawcett and Graeme Manson made when creating Orphan Black was to anchor the show around someone who wasn’t “normal.” It’s easy to imagine a version of this show where the heroine is just an average, unassuming grad student or office worker who is suddenly plunged into mystery and intrigue. (That, in fact, would be a more archetypal construction: the ordinary person—an audience surrogate—who discovers she is extraordinary in some way.) But Sarah Manning is far from ordinary, and in many ways far from sympathetic: she’s a con-artist, a thief, an absent-mother, and—for all we know—perhaps even worse things. (I doubt the full range of Sarah’s past crimes has been explored.) The very first thing we ever see her do, after all, is steal from a dead woman: this is not a character who easily invites audience identification. That creative decision by Fawcett and Manson helped establish Orphan Black as a different kind of show right from the start, and I think to this day it helps bring an unsettled and uncertain energy to the proceedings: we don’t completely trust anyone on this show, including its protagonist. We don’t really know Sarah, after all this time, and we don’t entirely know what she’s capable of doing.
So Maslany has the challenge of channeling this uncertainty and edginess while still making Sarah a relatable, likable viewpoint character. “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” isn’t the best episode to examine how she does this—Sarah’s dramatic tour de force last week might have been a better choice—but it’s as good an episode as any to focus on the small things Maslany does to bring this character to life. Because the performance isn’t just in the big moments: it’s also in the minutiae.
Let’s talk body language first. Watch how Sarah stands, how she moves. Sarah is always at odds with the world—expecting disaster from every direction—so she stands and moves with a kind of surly defensiveness, a passive aggression that is constantly held in check but always ready to be released if necessary. She is usually slightly hunched, often hooded, like someone with her back always against the wall. It’s not an easy way to live, and Maslany channels that in her performance: Sarah is often a little breathless, like her adrenaline is always running high. Even when in defensive repose, there is a nervous fight-or-flight energy in her body. (The scene in Felix’s kitchen this week is a good, small example: Sarah is leaning on the counter, talking calmly with her brother, but her hands are clasped tensely on the counter, with her thumbs nervously worrying away at each other.)
I’d say the chief characteristic of Sarah is repression. I don’t mean this in the usual sense: Sarah is not afraid to feel or show emotions. But the frenzied, chaotic nature of her life means she rarely has the time to deal with emotions: she is always moving, always improvising, always reacting to one event and planning her reaction to the next one. This means things are constantly registering with her that she can’t spare the energy to deal with: she is always just barely contained. We see it a few times this week, as when Kira (Skyler Wexler) blows Sarah off and, in the same sentence, calls Cal “Daddy.” “Daddy,” Sarah whispers to herself: in a split second we see her both file the hurt away and decide not to deal with it. “It’s fine,” she says to Cal. “She can call you what she likes.” But prior to this moment Sarah had been leaning forward eagerly towards the computer monitor; now she squirms in her seat, and leans back slightly, and crosses her arms. It’s like she must adjust physically to this new truth, as if this new shift in her daughter’s perspective has made Sarah’s world that much smaller and more uncomfortable. There’s another, similar moment when she is talking to Paul on the phone, and realizes he is Rachel’s new boy-toy. “How many clone-notches in your belt now, Paul?” she asks him, but she spares only a moment for the barb. It’s not that she doesn’t care about Paul’s betrayal, but she can’t deal with it now; she can never deal with it now. She always has something more important that she needs to be thinking about.
That constant emotional safety mechanism means Sarah is almost never completely relaxed: one hesitates to wonder what her blood pressure is. (We’ve seen very few truly relaxed moments with Sarah in the entire series, and they stand out because of that. There’s a scene in Season One, Episode Eight, “Entangled Bank,” where she and Felix are just lounging around, and she’s playfully shoving her foot under his nose like the annoying big sister she is to him. We hardly ever see Sarah relaxed enough to be playful, and this scene only lasts a minute before new problems interrupt.) But it also makes the big emotional moments, when they do come, pay off fantastic dividends. Last week’s breakdown, when Daniel was torturing, her was one of the moments when she dropped her armor, and Maslany let all the horror and stress of Sarah’s life just explode out of her. She lives her life carefully contained, staying just one step ahead of the worst thing that could possibly happen, and the way her entire body wracked when she thought the worst thing had finally caught up with her was simply stunning to watch.
This week we get another of those rare instances, when she must confront Helena in the climax. Sarah is literally staring down the barrel of a gun—which is how she lives her whole life, of course—but this time it requires her to tap into her emotions, not repress them. We see her recognize that an emotional appeal has the best chance of success—it’s a strength of Maslany’s performance as Sarah that you can see her thinking, and making her improvisational decisions in the blink of an eye—but once she starts talking it comes rushing out of her as if what she says is a surprise even to her. “You’re my sister,” she says, beginning to cry. “Helena, when I thought I’d killed you, I couldn’t tell anybody what I’d lost.” She says it to stop Helena, but it’s not manipulation: it’s an honest emotion that Sarah probably didn’t even know she felt, one she hasn’t allowed herself to process until just this moment.
Now let’s switch to the other end of the clone spectrum, from protagonist to antagonist. I wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the character of Rachel during most of her previous appearances—she seemed a bit too one-note, just a lazy stereotype of a female corporate executive—but I should have known I was selling the show, and Maslany, short. (I didn’t like Allison at first either: mea culpa.) We’ve been getting hints of humanity in Rachel the last few episodes, and Maslany’s performance as the ProClone this week is what made me realize I needed to spend some time talking about her acting choices.
On the surface, Rachel and Sarah couldn’t be much more different, and Maslany differentiates between them as strongly as she does for any of the clones. Where Sarah’s physical presence is furtive defensiveness, Rachel is cool domination. Where Sarah always looks as if she wants to put her back to the wall, Rachel owns every room she’s in. Sarah skulks, while Rachel poses. There is an element of awareness—appropriate for this “self-aware” clone—in every moment of her performance as Rachel: even when alone, Rachel is projecting strength and composure as though someone might be watching her. Sarah is about reaction, while Rachel is about control.
And yet there are similarities, which come through more in the performance than in the writing. We know very little about Rachel so far, but Maslany is telling us a great deal about her. Rachel, we are learning, is not emotionless: we see her compose herself before viewing Daniel’s body—just a split second of centering herself—and then Maslany lets just the slightest quiver of strong feeling pass through her when she does. Nothing in Rachel’s face or voice or posture betrays any reaction to anyone else in the room—but we see it, somehow, behind the placid mask. (As with Sarah, this is an emotional repression born from necessity, just of a slightly different kind: Sarah’s seems to be for her own sake, so she can keep herself together long enough to do what she needs to do, while Rachel’s has a public element: she will not let anyone else see what’s behind her carefully composed persona. When she realizes Sarah has been watching her home videos, she reacts for a moment like someone has been rooting through her underwear drawer.)
We learn—or at least suspect—far more about her in the scene with Paul. On the page this, too, could read as a stereotypical domination scene staged by a cold, controlling woman—but Maslany turns it into a far more interesting scene than that. Rachel seems nervous, breathless, excited in a way that we suspect is not entirely sexual: kinky arousal alone does not account for what we’re seeing. This is not the sexual thrill of someone for whom such games are commonplace: maybe I’m wrong, but I read this as something new for her. (The scene is set up with Rachel repeatedly gazing at herself in mirrors, as though perfecting her character before going on stage. When she slaps Paul, and sends him across the room to grab a chair, she reels, for one private moment, as though almost overcome with the startling power she’s just discovered.) “Did Daniel like that?” Paul asks her, and Maslany’s performance makes me wonder if the answer to that question is no. From what we saw of Daniel, he was a sadist, and that moment of emotion that passed through Rachel when she looked at his body may not have been mourning. Other small moments too—like the weird way she grabs his tongue and drags him in for a kiss—have an element of experimentation to them, or discovering what she can get away with. The way Maslany plays Rachel here makes me wonder if she is taking the opportunity of a monitor-switch to establish a new dynamic, and perhaps trying out her power in this way for the very first time.
I don’t know if I’m right about this—and I don’t know if we’ll ever know, exactly—but what I love about Maslany’s performances across the board are that she’s never just playing one thing: whether at the height of their powers or at the depths of their weakness, her characters never become caricatures: there is always a real, complicated, conflicted person showing through the surface actions.
Which brings us to Helena. The character of Helena is a gift to any actor: she is such a colorful mess of quirks and craziness that she just screams out for awards. (On any other show but this one, in any other genre, on any other network, Maslany would already have a mantle groaning with statues.) It would be very easy to go overboard with Helena, or to allow her obvious idiosyncrasies and mannerisms to carry the performance.
The way Maslany embodies Helena’s spacey, feral weirdness is impressive. Watching this episode with things like body language in mind, I realized Helena is actually the most relaxed of all the clones: she it the most at home in her body, and—disassociated from societal rules—the least self-conscious. She eats with abandon; she moves with deliberate confidence; she lounges, like a cat, with ease. She has a completely different physical presence and energy than any of the other clones have: of all of them, Helena is the one where I’m most likely to catch myself forgetting it’s the same actress.
But in some ways that’s the easy stuff. What’s hard, and what impresses me most, is the way Maslany layers a person beneath the crazy. Maslany has built a character here, not a collection of twitches and catchphrases. People are constantly underestimating Helena, mistaking crazy for stupid, as Art does this episode. Even at her spaciest, you can always see a mind at work. (In Art’s apartment, you can see Helena’s eyes scan the situation and take it all in: she is thinking about escape routes from the moment she arrives.) She also has a quick, wicked sense of humor, and knows how to use people’s discomfort with her. (She deliberately fucks with Art when he tries to interrogate her: “I want to tell you something,” she says portentously—and then tells him how much she likes the donuts. And the moment where she hisses at Felix is one for the highlight reel.)
But the real accomplishment of this character is how emotionally complex she is: Helena is not just a colorful supporting character, she’s another main character with as important and complicated an arc as any of the others, but without the language to convey her inner life: we infer a lot of her character arc simply through her actions and Maslany’s performance. Even when she’s being funny, and even when she’s being dangerous, we are not allowed to forget that what she is really is a severely traumatized young woman with a seriously fucked-up backstory.
It goes without saying—I hope—that a lot of what I’m attributing to Maslany’s performances is also down to the writing and directing of Orphan Black, which almost always trusts its star to convey important information and trusts the audience to fill in gaps without a lot of handholding. In fact, if I have one small complaint about this episode, it’s the gratuitous flashbacks to what happened to Helena at the Prolethean compound: they’re simply not necessary. It’s a rare instance of the show not trusting Maslany’s performance to tell us what we need to know. Even if we didn’t already know what happened, we see the memory of that violation in how Helena moves, in her face through the fish tank as Art asks her about it, in how she flinches from being manhandled.
But, more often, the show trusts us to put together what we need to know. A good example of that is Helena’s escape, which is not just a matter of her seizing an available opportunity when it arises. It follows immediately after Sarah’s phone call to Art about how Paul and Rachel are setting Felix up. Watch that scene again and watch Helena’s face as Art—who is paying no attention to her—is talking to Sarah: Helena is taking in all the information, processing that Rachel is up to no good, and making the decision that she needs to do something. (“How does this help my seestra?” she said earlier, gesturing to her handcuffs.) She doesn’t escape because she can: she probably could have escaped at any time. She escapes—immediately after learning of the threat—to help her seestra and her brother-seestra.
This all may be very obvious, but my point is that it’s the kind of substantial character moment, conveyed without a lot of dialogue to mark it, at which Maslany and Orphan Black excel. And it makes the payoff of the climax with Sarah and Helena that much more powerful: the other characters don’t know yet how much they can trust Helena, but we know. Yes, she’s a little crazy, and a little unpredictable, but she has only their best interests at heart—even when she thinks, as she says to Sarah, “you only want to use me.” Helena has been used all her life, and she’s come to expect it, but she cares enough about her seestra to protect her anyway.
But Sarah’s emotional confession turns this into one of the sweetest moments yet on Orphan Black. Sarah has been prone to “use” Helena—even after this scene, she threatens Leekie by saying she’s going to “sick Helena on all of you”—but this is the moment where Helena is formally inducted into the Clone Club, the moment when Sarah officially adopts into the family. Helena’s entire face softens during Sarah’s speech, as we see her take in this new reality. It’s a beautifully acted scene, one that in any other show would make me want to talk about the palpable chemistry between the two actresses. But when you consider it’s Maslany playing both sides of this exchange, and forging such a powerful connection in spite of the special effects wizardry involved, it’s kind of breathtaking. “You make me cry, seestra,” Helena says—and I’m sure she’s not the only one.
What Sarah says to her next is unclear on my copy of the episode: she may simply say “Come on, meathead,” as they walk off together arm in arm like sisters. What I heard, however—and choose to hear—is “Come home, meathead.”
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Yes, I skipped over Cosima. (Somewhere out there, I’m sure, there are members of the Cosima Fan Club who are really tired of me relegating Cosima to the bullet points.) As far as today’s topic goes, I do think Cosima is an impressive creation: her hand-waving dorkiness and nervous speech patterns give her a completely different vibe from the other clones. (She’s probably the most emotionally open: she has a physical candor and an eager-to-please conversational style that is very distinct.) My problem with Cosima is that the show hasn’t figured out how to incorporate her into the world of the others, or given her the kind of material that really pushes her character to develop in new directions. Dying is not enough to build a character arc on: GET HER THE HELL OUT OF THE LAB.
- Obviously, I skipped over a lot of recapping this week, so let’s quickly mention some important plot developments. Leekie may have a cure for Cosima, and he gives it to her in violation of Rachel’s orders. Cal has a gun, and a fake ID: is that important? And Rachel’s dad, Dr. Ethan Duncan, may be alive, so Sarah and Helena are off to find him. (A road trip with Helena sounds like the best thing ever, except they appear to be headed somewhere she refers to as “The Place of Screams.” So…maybe not so fun.)
- Sarah talks to Kira from a bar where “The Shit Goblins” are scheduled to jam. This doesn’t appear to be a real band, but there is a band called “ShitGoblin,” who probably just got a lot of hits to their website.
- I love how when Sarah enters Maggie Chen’s storage space, she calls out in case Helena is there. “Don’t jump out and scare us with an axe or some shit.” It’s both something that seems plausible for Helena to do, and something you would say to an annoying sibling.
- Helena, imagining the pillow talk between Paul and Rachel: “”You like my hair, Paul?” “Very pretty, dirty, sexy, Rachel. Like my mother.” Huh?
- Poor Gracie may follow the indignity of having her lips sewn shut by having her legs pried open, in order to carry Helena’s embryo. Shit like this is why I don’t go to church.
- Next week’s title, “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” is from Francis Bacon again, of course, but a quick Google search reveals the relevant passage has often been cited by feminist critics as an example of misogynistic rape metaphors in Bacon’s scientific method and his desire for man to control nature. “For you have but to hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again…Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is his sole object.” Sounds like we’ll have a lot to talk about.