I fell sorely behind on my reviews this summer, but, before moving on to other things, I wanted to share a few disjointed thoughts on the end of Orphan Black’s second season.
Though it’s an accident of my scheduling problems, it’s fitting that I’m reviewing these final two episodes together, since even their titles are just pieces of one quote. They come, like the rest of the titles this season, from our old friend Francis Bacon: “It would be an unsound fancy and self-contradictory to expect that things which have never yet been done can be done except by means which have never yet been tried.”
That line resonates in many sinister ways throughout this entire season of Orphan Black, as the twin forces of science and religion have been willing to do whatever they had to do to control the future by controlling women. But it also speaks to the nature of the show in general, since nothing like Orphan Black has ever been attempted before. At this point, showrunners John Fawcett and Graeme Manson—and their star, the extraordinary Tatiana Maslany—have made it all look so easy that we are tempted to forget what a radical experiment this show really is.
Cosima speaks in the season finale about “pure science,” which in its simplest form could be described as the process of moving from the known to the unknown. Orphan Black, I believe, is pure television science: crazy, crazy TV science. Normally I take issue with shows that “make it up as they go along,” since the results are usually disastrously disconnected. But, as I’ve written before, Orphan Black has woven experimentation and improvisation throughout its genetic makeup, from the plotting to the technology to the nature of its characters and the themes it is exploring. The show began with a simple question—What if there were multiple clones of a single woman?—and from there Fawcett and Manson have played with this concept, combining different elements in different arrangements, and following the experiment wherever it took them—and us.
In some cases, admittedly, the experiment has yielded less than satisfying results. Brother Tony was probably a mistake. The storytelling has often been uneven, and, as a result, characterization has sometimes suffered to the demanding dictates of plot. It has been a very good season, but it hasn’t been a perfect one.
But what of it? Though I have the occasional grumble, I prefer to think of Orphan Black’s plot as a relentless engine for generating remarkable emotional moments, and the results are almost always worth it. When I think back on this season, I will remember the extraordinary highs more than the infrequent lows. I will remember the dark surreality of Cosima effectively performing her own autopsy in “Mingling Its Own Nature With It.” I will remember Sarah being embraced by the terrifying apparition of her dead sister in “Governed As It Were By Chance.” I will remember the heartbreaking reconciliation of Sarah and Helena at the end of “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est,” and the sight of Tatiana Maslany annoying the crap out of herself to the tune of “Sugar, Sugar” in “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings.” These—and many other scenes—are small miracles that could only result from the batshit experiment that is Orphan Black.
And—speaking of things that have never been tried before—if the entire season had been constructed for the sole purpose of giving us a joyous dance party with all the key members of Clone Club in one room, that would have been worth it. This scene is obviously a victory lap for Orphan Black in general, a showy triumph for the special effects crew, and yet another remarkable display of Tatiana Maslany’s ability to differentiate between these characters (even when it comes to their dance moves.)
But it is also more than that. “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” begins with Sarah in stark isolation, surrounded by darkness, answering coldly impersonal questions of an extremely personal nature. (“Are you ovulating? Do you use birth control? Have you ever had an abortion?”) Impersonal is the key word there: these women have all been fighting—and will continue to fight—to be seen as individual human beings, with rights and autonomy and agency, against forces that view them as objects, as commodities, as biology experiments and broodmares.
And so far they have largely been fighting alone: Allison has dealt with the fallout of killing Aynslie, Cosima has struggled against her sickness, Helena has escaped the clutches of the Proletheans, and Sarah has battled Dyad for her daughter’s safety. There has been crossover, and there has been support, but each woman has largely been fighting her own personal war.
In the process—caught up in their own pressing dramas—they have even been prone, on occasion, to overlooking each other, to treating each other somewhat impersonally. Sarah has used and abandoned Helena; all of the clones have tended to be dismissive of Allison; and it was only a couple of episodes ago that anyone even noticed that Cosima was sick. These are not perfect women, and they, too, are prone to the dangers of failing to recognize the inherent humanity of one another. That’s understandable: they’re only human.
But, as Cosima said in “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings,” they’re stronger together. For the issues these women have dealt with all season are not, in the end, individual battles: they are personal, but these fights—over identity, and freedom, and ownership of their own bodies—are common, universal, shared among all women. They are in it together, and this impromptu dance party becomes the heart of the season by serving as a glorious recognition and celebration of that truth.
“You have to love all of us,” Cosima said to Delphine in “Variable and Full of Perturbation,” and she’s right, of course. Corny though it may be to say—and Orphan Black deftly avoids maudlin expressions and mission statements—love is what it’s all about. It’s the missing element, the mean which has never been tried by the likes of Leekie and Henrik. “For the Doctor had never shown his creation any love,” Henrik says, in retelling the story of Frankenstein to his brood of engineered children, and the irony is palpable because—as Helena quickly sees—the Prolethean’s ranch is, for all its Christian trappings, a thoroughly loveless environment where women are objects, not people: they are to be used, controlled, silenced. (She calls Mark on this as well: “You love her like puppy,” she says to him, of Grace. “But you let [Henrik] make her broodmare.”) This is not love: this is a failure of love.
Love is the missing element in Rachel as well, the thing that—for now, at least—keeps her separated from her sisters. “None of this is personal,” she says to Delphine, because Rachel deliberately divorces herself from the personal, from sympathy, from the ability to recognize other human beings and genuine emotions. “Do you recall, Rachel,” Duncan asks her, “not the memory, but the feeling, of how much we loved you?” But no, she doesn’t remember: Leekie took away from her both the love and the capacity for love. She watches the tapes of her childhood, over and over again, because she doesn’t recall the feeling—but the fact that she tries means that there may be a sliver of hope for her.
(It is interesting, too, how we leave her. This season has been rife with imagery of perception—glass, mirrors, videos—reminding us that seeing is the key to much in Orphan Black: how we are seen vs. how we want to be seen, subjectivity vs. objectivity, appearance vs. identity, etc. Rachel’s failure here—her sympathetic and emotional blindness, if you will—costs her an eye.)
Love is impossible without the ability to see, to recognize the essential humanity in another person: the ability to acknowledge and accept individual differences while seeing the essential things that connect us all. And this is why I keep coming back to that scene of the clones together as the heart of the entire season, because it is such a breaking down of the walls between these people, simultaneously an acknowledgement of their individuality and a celebration of their commonality. “God, we’re so different, all of us,” Sarah says to Cosima. But Cosima shows her a new way of seeing, in the form of the Golden Ratio, the pattern that recurs throughout nature, from shells to stars to strands of DNA. Different, but the same: one miracle replicating itself in countless different ways, each with their own truth and beauty. That’s a pretty good way of seeing the world, of seeing other people, and it’s a pretty good metaphor for Orphan Black.
“You have to love us all.” That’s a universal truth, and probably the most important message of this show. That capacity for love is why these people are together in this room dancing, and others are not. It’s why Helena can dance with her sisters, and why Rachel cannot. (“Is she alright?” Felix asks Sarah, when Helena enters. “Yeah,” Sarah says simply: Helena may be a homicidal lunatic, but she has the capacity to love all her sisters, and so she’s alright.) Siobhan is not there, because Siobhan—for all of her qualities—does not have this ability: she sells Helena to the military to secure Sarah’s release, sacrificing one sister for another. “Sarah will never forgive me,” Siobhan says to Paul, and she’s probably right: we’re all in it together, and denying one sestra’s agency—even for the sake of another’s—is not acceptable.
(Again, this is something Helena knows instinctively, able to see the connections between herself and other women, and prioritize their freedom of choice along with her own. “You’re a good girl, Gracie,” she tells Henrik’s daughter. “But if you don’t want to have my babies, don’t have my babies.”)
The relentless plot machine of Orphan Black steams forward, of course, and the season ends with two surprises from Marion Bowles. The first is a little sister (Cynthia Galant) to Sarah and the others, an eight-year old clone being raised in the sort of environment that Rachel was taken away from: a loving home. (“You’re her monitor?” Sarah asks Marion. “I’m her mother,” Marion replies.) We don’t know much about Marion’s true nature yet, but, on the surface, this is a different model for clone-raising: a feminine counterpart to the cold, corporate approach of Dyad and the late Dr. Leekie.
The second surprise introduces a new paradigm and a new batch. To what has been a dichotomy of science and religion, we now have a third controlling force: the government. And we have a whole new masculine line of clones, bred for the military, under the name Project Castor.
I have to confess, I like this idea more than I thought I would. So far, Oprhan Black has been—as I’ve argued before—largely about misogyny and women’s rights, and this development may be not so much a moving away from that theme as an expansion of it: an acknowledgment that you can’t discuss the societal forces that subjugate women without also looking closely at the societal forces that shape and influence and educate men. (It remains to be seen whether Ari Millen is capable of anything close to what Tatiana Maslany can do with multiple roles, but I’m excited to see Fawcett and Manson explore this new direction.)
So yes, the complicated plot keeps getting more complicated, in ways that are often confusing and frustrating. (I confess, I’ve watched these episodes a couple of times, and I’m still not sure I understand how the whole Siobhan/Marion/Paul deal went down.) Throughout the season I was frequently annoyed by certain illogical contrivances, and how characters were moved around on the board based more on necessities of plot than expressions of character. (Felix leaving Sarah in “Mingling Its Own Nature With It,” Sarah leaving Helena in “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings,” etc. And for the love of God, just how many times is Helena going to get kidnapped, anyway?) I still don’t like Paul. I still don’t think Delphine is worthy of Cosima. I still often roll my eyes at the way Siobhan becomes a magical deus ex machina who knows everything, and can do anything, and yet somehow never reveals any of the useful information she has until the moment it becomes necessary to move the plot forward.
So Orphan Black has a few problems, and I hope to see the storytelling improve a little in Season Three—but they are minor problems, and they don’t make me any less excited for Season Three. Fawcett and Manson are doing something very special here, exploring important political and philosophical issues in the context of a serial thriller. That’s a very tricky high-wire act, and they succeed far more than they fail, and I don’t begrudge them the occasional slip.
More importantly, they do all this while achieving—with startling frequency—moments of powerful and unique emotional truth. For all its convoluted conspiracies, Orphan Black is about people, not plotlines. It occurs to me that there is a parallel to be drawn between the way the characters exist in the structure of the show and the way they exist in their fictional world, a tension between their position as characters in a story and their lives as people in the world. In both cases, they are fighting to preserve their humanity, and have their voices heard, despite the forces that sometimes threaten to subsume them within conspiracies and conventions.
And—so far, at least—in both cases, they’re succeeding. The day may come when one or more of the sisters fall to the forces around them, but for now they’re still alive, and still free, and still gloriously themselves. And the day may come when Orphan Black loses control of this runaway train of a plot, and starts compromising the authenticity of its characters to the phony demands of contrivance. But, for now, the characters continue to shine through all the mythology and machinations.
As long as that stays true, I’ll be along for the ride. I’m willing to forgive a lot of clunky plotting to get the kind of character moments this show is uniquely able to deliver. I’ll keep coming back for moments of surprising grace, like the conversation between Sarah and Cosima. I’ll keep coming back for the dark humor, like Allison and Donnie rekindling their passion over a newly dug grave. I’ll keep coming back for the scenes of terrifying over-the-topness, like Helena’s turning the gender tables on Henrik. I’ll keep coming back for scenes of heartbreaking sweetness, like Helena’s touching reunion with Kira. As long as Orphan Black remembers to prioritize the people above the the plot, I’ll keep coming back for the dancing.
See you next season.