ORPHAN BLACK 2x08

"Variable and Full of Perturbation"

Last week I posted my longest review of an Orphan Black episode so far, and this week's will be my shortest. Some unavoidable travel forced me to more or less take the week off from my extracurricular blogging, and I don't want to fall another week behind trying to catch up. So this will really be just a placeholder where a proper review should be. Let us all enjoy the break from my long-winded over-analysis, shall we?

As it turns out, the timing is fortuitous: "Variable and Full of Perturbation" may be my least favorite episode of Orphan Black, and continues the slight mid-season stumble that began a couple of episodes ago with "To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings." (Stumbles aren't fatal, thankfully: this has otherwise been a very strong season, and I have very high hopes that the show will right its balance for the remaining two episodes.)

Most of "Variable" is dedicated to our new clone, whom Felix (Jordan Gavaris) dubs "Tony the Trans-Bandit" (Tatiana Maslany). Here, I think Orphan Black deserves a lot of credit for intent: there are far too few trans characters on television, and I applaud John Fawcett and Graeme Manson for not only introducing one but also for not particularly making a big deal out of it. (Small touches—like the way Felix gently corrects Art [Kevin Hanchard] about his use of gender pronouns—are handled with a nice degree of sensitivity and casualness.) I'm less excited that they felt the need to make Tony a criminal—with so few transgendered characters (particularly trans men) on television, it would be nice to see one living a relatively normal life—but we can put that down to the nature of the show.

Tony's introduction also makes complete sense for Orphan Black as a whole, organically and thematically; this is not a case of well-intentioned tokenism, but a logical expansion of the show's interests and agenda. This is a show that is, at its heart, about essential questions of identity, and biological determinism versus self-direction, and challenges to the patriarchal paradigm: Tony, in theory, could provide another fascinating mirror through which to explore these issues.

And he still may, but the problem with "Variable and Full of Perturbation" is that, while the idea gets an "A-plus," the execution here gets a "C-minus" at best. Tony should fit perfectly into the plot and themes of Orphan Black, but he doesn't. He is introduced as a separate, not-very-interesting storyline—interacting almost exclusively with Felix and Art—and he is shuffled unceremoniously off the stage the moment he delivers his ominous piece of plot-advancing information. It just feels like he's been shoehorned in as a one-off subplot to keep the supporting characters busy for an episode.

And, though I will never stop praising the talents of Ms. Maslany, we may have finally found their limit: Tony is just never quite convincing as a character. This is partially the fault of the writer, Karen Walton, who makes Tony considerably less nuanced and rounded than his cisgendered sisters. It is partially the fault of the make-up crew, whose solution to the gender-shifting conundrum was to cram Maslany's long hair into a bizarre mullet and paste on an unconvincing goatee. But it is also Maslany's fault, for—in trying so hard to embody male mannerisms—she never comes across as anything other than a woman in drag for the first time: we see the self-conscious effort of her performance here in a way we never usually do. (This would be an utter failure if she were playing someone who had been a biological male at birth, but even so: Tony supposedly transitioned years ago, yet Maslany never seems as comfortable in his body as Tony should be.)

I am honestly torn as to whether I want to see Tony return. On the one hand, I hope Fawcett and Manson didn't introduce him solely to do "A Very Special Episode of Orphan Black," and that they are planning to seriously explore both the character and the potentially fruitful themes he adds to the conversation. On the other hand, I feel like this was such a rare but serious misstep that I wouldn't completely mind—or be surprised—if Tony dies on the way back to his home planet, retires permanently to Mandyville, or goes off to live with Long-Lost Uncle Aesop.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • As I said, a quick and short review this week, so forgive me for tackling the rest of the episode in the bullets...
  • Cosima, after coughing blood for at least a full season, finally collapses at the end of "Variable," lending some much-needed focus and urgency to the Dyad/stem-cell/Duncan (Andrew Gillies) sub-plot as we enter the final act. Personally, I think her worsening is karmic retribution for being so stupid as to forgive Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) yet again. How I cheered when Cosima locked Delphine out of the lab—no more crazy science for you, lady—and then despaired when Cosima relented a few minutes later. Still, it was almost worth it for the moment when Cosima told her "You have to love all of us," which is a mission-statement for Orphan Black if ever I heard one.
  • Cosima—not surprisingly—also rules at Runewars.
  • Speaking of undeserved (and unremarked) forgiveness, did I miss a scene between last episode and this one where Allison decided everything was once again hunky-dory with Donnie (Kristian Bruun)? Although it was nice to see them bond over their respective cases of first-degree manslaughter, and wonderful to imagine Allison knitting a new trunk liner to replace the one ruined by blood and fecal matter. (Of no other show could I have possibly written that sentence.)
  • Rachel's explosion in her office—or in her mind?—at the news that the clones were designed to be barren was a nice scene, even though it was directed and edited in a manner that was unnecessarily arch and confusing. So cold, heartless, corporate Rachel really wants to be a mommy? Geez, she could always adopt. (Although, to note the way Allison's adopted children are total non-entities, we can assume this show puts a lot of stock in biological imperative.)
  • It was seriously anticlimactic, for me at least, to discover that Tony's big message for Beth was about Paul (Dylan Bruce). I'd kind of hoped Paul had already been quietly shipped off to Mandyville...
  • Sarah's continued lack of concern for Helena—"I sort of had to leave her to her own devices"—continues to infuriate me, not least of all because it feels like a clumsy way for the show to justify saving the resolution of Helena's storyline for the last two episodes. Our favorite Angry Angel is back next week, however, which is a good thing: three episodes without her have made me very grumpy with this show.
  • Call me close-minded if you must, but Felix making out with his sister's transgendered clone is a bridge too far, even for Orphan Black. "Holy Tilda Swinton!" indeed, Felix.

NEXT: Episode 2x09–2x01, "Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done" and "By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried"

PREVIOUS: Episode 2x07, "Knowledge of Causes and Secret Motions of Things"

Read all my Orphan Black reviews here.

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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