Hands in, everybody, and windows up. We’ve got soldier clones running around, lesbian drama going on, and a lot of super-secret shit to work on. There are boxes inside boxes inside boxes. Wartime decisions may be necessary, we can’t rely on anyone but ourselves, and oops, we may have forgotten the safe-word. But what the hell: no one said it was gonna be easy, kiddo.
Holy doodle, here we go: Orphan Black is back.
Let’s begin, as always, with the title. The episode titles in Season One—in which we were introduced to the clones and the Neolutionists—came from a man of science, Charles Darwin. In Season Two—in which we met the Proletheans—the titles all came from a man of science and religion, Francis Bacon. Now, the first of Season Three’s titles—”The Weight of This Combination”—comes from an unlikely source: President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In January 1961, near the height of the Cold War, Eisenhower—a five-star general, the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during the Second World War, and the current Commander-in-Chief—made the extraordinary decision to use his last speech as president to warn the nation about the rising dangers of what he called “the military-industrial complex”:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”
In the speech, Eisenhower discussed the intersection of government, technology, and the military, and expressed grave concerns about the unprecedented power and influence such an unholy trinity could possess. He also warned against the dangers of the government dominating scientific research—rendering free, independent scholarship a thing of the past—and about the opposite danger: that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Got all that? Because it’s looking like the intersection of government, technology, and military is where we’re going to be spending our energy this season, and the weight of that combination is what our favorite clones will have to struggle against.
It’s always something.
Like last season’s premiere, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed,” “The Weight of This Combination” spends more time resolving the previous season’s storylines than it does introducing new ones. We get a few introductory looks at the BoyClones of Project Castor—whom we can assume will be major players this season—but they are just teasing glimpses so far, and we can’t do more than guess at their agenda or the scope of the threat. I assume this slow roll-out strategy is intentional: Orphan Black will never be the easiest show for new viewers to jump aboard—good luck making sense of all of this to any novices—but “Weight” clearly wants to reintroduce its major characters and themes before spinning out too many new conspiratorial webs.
As introductory scenes go, the opening dream sequence is smart, efficient storytelling. We see our core Clone Club members the way Helena sees them, in their most archetypal, even idealized forms. Sarah is cool and tough, decked out in leather and sunglasses. Alison is domestic and a little distant, serving cupcakes and making baby booties. Cosima—hilariously dressed up in a Ukrainian folk costume—is the most gregarious and affectionate, as she is in real life. (We even get a summation—in Helena-conceived-shorthand—of both her illness and her scientific acumen: “Oh yeah, I’m like way better, thanks to science.“) Felix is a kind supporting male figure, working the barbecue at the edge of the group. Kira is a beautiful fairy princess. The new viewer would have little trouble grasping the essential character traits of any of these people, or their relationships to each other.
And for those of us who already know Helena and the rest of the group, of course, this sequence is an almost heartbreaking revelation of how Helena wants life to be, and what the stakes of the show really are. “Who am I meant to call family now?” Sarah asks, much later in the episode, but we’ve already been given the answer in this scene: these people are family, or they could be, if the rest of the world would just leave them the hell alone. (It is no coincidence that this is the same core group from the celebratory dance scene in “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried,” and that it does not include people like Paul and Delphine, Rachel and Siobhan. As I suggested in my review of that season finale, and as I’m sure we’ll discuss further, there are certain prerequisites for inclusion in this family that many other recurring characters lack.)
For now, however, this utopian vision of family is threatened and corrupted. In the dream, a scorpion crawls out of Helena’s belly, and it warns her that she is being tested again. There are a couple of different ways to read this, I think. For one thing, Helena herself is as dangerous as any scorpion: she has madness and violence within her, which the scorpion may represent. But Helena calls the scorpion “Pupok,” which means “belly-button” in Ukrainian: it ties this strange image to the whole concept of motherhood—Helena herself is pregnant—and to the overarching fight for control of women’s bodies at the center of Orphan Black. When Helena wakes, she is—for far from the first time in her life—the prisoner of men who want to control her. “They took me from my sestras,” she says.
On Orphan Black, there is sisterhood on one side, and the institutions that threaten it—science, religion, corporations, governments, military—on the other. Throughout this episode we are reminded of this repeatedly. Delphine has promised Cosima she will “love all your sisters equally,” and makes a deal with Sarah by claiming she is doing what she has to do “to keep your sisters safe, at any cost.” When the BoyClone locked in Marion’s basement tells Sarah that “it’s hard to tell who’s who these days,” Sarah knows how to answer that vague warning: “I only trust my sisters.” When Siobhan confesses she made a “wartime decision” to sell Helena to the military, Sarah says Siobhan didn’t have the right “to betray my sister.” Sarah tells Delphine: “My priority is my sister.” Delphine tells Cosima her role is “to cure yourself and all of your sisters.” Alison, Cosima, and Sarah all agree that “we can’t rely on anyone but ourselves.”
So the theme is not subtle, and it’s not meant to be: it’s a mission statement. This kind of sisterhood is what Orphan Black is all about, and it’s under threat from all directions.
“Don’t pretend this is over,” Felix warns Sarah, when he thinks she has let her guard down. “Nothing is benevolent with these people.” By these people he means Dyad, but he might as well mean everyone that isn’t them.
And Delphine—make no mistake—is a not them. I know there is a lot of fan love for the Cosima-Delphine relationship, but I have never liked Delphine—who has lied to and betrayed Cosima more times than I can count—and she is only getting worse. “So you’re the new Rachel: awesome,” Cosima says sarcastically, and she has no idea how bad this really is. (We get several indications of how horrible Delphine is becoming, most obviously in the scene in which she tortures Rachel.) Last season, Cosima told Delphine that she had to love all the clones, and that’s what Delphine claims she’s doing now. But she doesn’t really understand what that means. “But to do that, I can’t do this,” Delphine says, ending their relationship: for Delphine, taking care of the clones means seeing them not as individuals, but as a group, a cause, a collective object. “Can I count on you, Dr. Nealon?” Delphine asks her colleague (Tom McCamus). “To put Leda above its individuals?” This is institutional thinking—prioritizing the entity over the individual—and it’s a betrayal of everything Orphan Black values. It’s the exact opposite of what Cosima meant when she said “you have to love all of us.”
One. Of a kind. That’s both a tagline for the show and a recurring shibboleth for its characters, and it’s a very wise one. Both sides of that odd punctuation are necessary. Each of these women is one: they are individuals, with autonomy and agency that must not be denied. But they are also of a kind. They are part of a community, part of a family, part of a sisterhood, with common issues and shared struggles. No one can put the good of the group above any individual, and no one individual can selfishly pursue her own agenda and ignore the welfare of the group.
Delphine betrays this core belief, and so does Siobhan, and that’s why they don’t get to come to dance parties or hang out at fantasy cookouts. However good their intentions, they don’t get it: they’re not part of the family. “You’re not my people,” Sarah tells Mrs. S., and she’s right.
Institutional thinking will always deny individual human value, and we get a terrifying demonstration of an extreme example in Ferdinand (James Frein). Ferdinand is a cleaner from “Topside”—one of the institutional boxes that contains nested boxes within—and he is toxic to notions of individuality, family, and sisterhood. (“Fifty years from now, you think your kind will still be calling each other sister?” Ferdinand asks, as he gropes prisoner “Sarah”—actually Alison—like an object.) Ferdinand, it turns out, was in league with corporate clone and “Uber-Bitch” Rachel. We didn’t get to see what Rachel’s endgame was in the Season Two finale, but here we learn that it was the “Helsinki” scenario: once Rachel had Kira—and Sarah’s ovary—this entire clone batch was to have been wiped off the face of the earth, along with everyone they ever loved. “The Helsinki girls were eradicated in 24 hours,” Ferdinand boasts, gleefully. “Six clones dead, 32 collateral.” After all, it’s not like they were people, right?
“It’s nothing personal,” Rachel kept saying last season, and believing that is the cardinal sin of Orphan Black: it’s always personal, because these are people, and the institutional thinking that denies their personhood is always going to be the enemy.
Sarah—disguised as Rachel—shows Ferdinand just how personal it is. “You come near them, and I will kill you,” she has warned the scar-faced BoyClone earlier in the episode, and now—threatened with the deaths of her extended family—she is more than willing to kill this creepy fuck as well. It’s an empowering moment—turning the tables on Ferdinand’s kinky, objectifying, “who’s a dirty clone?” bullshit—and it’s also a mark of how far Sarah has come. This happens, remember, in the same bathroom where monitor Daniel once tied Sarah up and tried to kill her, back in “Governed As It Were By Chance.” Sarah was forced into a helpless and submissive position then—she needed Helena to come back from the grave to save her—but she’s not helpless now. She channels her own inner Helena, and claims the dominant position, and nearly strangles Ferdinand to death with his own belt. “You remember my safe-word?” he asks, as she begins to choke him. “No,” she says. Fuck with my sisters, asshole, and you don’t get a safe-word.
There is always a danger of repetition in a show like this: with boxes within boxes, and conspiracies piled on top of conspiracies, there’s a risk of that Orphan Black will just keep spinning its wheels through variations of the same scenarios. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, because there is an actual evolution happening. Season One saw the clones learning about (and even fighting against) against each other. (Helena was the “big bad” of that season, after all.) Season Two saw them working on the same side, but mostly fighting individual battles: Helena vs. the Proletheans, Sarah vs. Dyad, Cosima vs. her illness, etc. The dance party in “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” was the symbolic end of that phase: they’re a family now, and the fight is to protect that family unit and keep all its individual members safe and free.
The enemy remains largely the same—whether the dehumanizing institution out to get them is a corporation, a religion, or a government—but the heroes are changing, and growing stronger. They’re a family now, a sisterhood of individuals, and you fuck with them at your own risk.
It’s going to be a great season.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- A development that makes me extremely happy—and emphasizes the way these characters have come together literally and symbolically—is that Cosima has moved in with Felix. I love Cosima, but the show has struggled since the beginning to incorporate her into the lives of the other clones. Taking her out of the lab, getting her the hell away from Uber Bitch Delphine, and plopping her physically down in the middle of Clone Central, is a major step in the right direction.
- A prediction, and a hope: I see Rachel coming back into the arms of the family at some point. She, too, is a sister, manipulated and damaged and warped by institutional forces. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that brain-damaged Rachel seemed a little like Helena in this episode, with a similarly frantic, confused look in her eye. Despite being polar opposites on the personality spectrum, the two actually have a lot in common. (Helena, too, tried to kill all of her sisters, remember. If she can be brought back into the fold, there’s still hope for Rachel.)
- I haven’t said much about the BoyClones yet, because I’m waiting to see more before I comment too much on either their purpose or Ari Millen’s performance. Millen has been good on this series as Prolethean Mark, but neither ScarFace BoyClone nor DouchyMustache BoyClone gives us much sense of whether he really has a range to compete with Tatiana Maslany’s.
- When DouchyMustache attacked, I wondered for a moment if Siobhan might actually die this episode. I think the character has probably outlived her usefulness, and I think it would make sense thematically to remove this pseudo-mother figure and center the new family around Sarah. I suspect Mrs. S. is not long for this world.
- Cosima suggests that Kira may be even more magical than we already know: she basically accuses the child of having dragged her back from the brink of death. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this: Orphan Black, for all its sci-fi conspiracies, has managed to keep one foot firmly planted in reality, and I don’t think I’d be excited to see Kira become a magical messiah figure. I guess we’ll see.
- Donnie has quit his job, and—proving he’s still got a way to go—drops a little misogyny in the process. (“It was frickin’ glorious,” he says, of his boss. “I called her a bitch, to her face!”) And did anyone else pick up on the possibility that he’s in danger of becoming a homicidal maniac, after his successful disposal of Dr. Leekie? (“Marcy’s got to go,” he says to Alison, creepily, of her school-trustee rival. “For the kids.”)
- Alison’s mother owns a store called “Bubbles,” in which Alison will never work again. It sounds like we are going to meet the woman who created Alison: the mind reels.
- No Paul this week. I am so unbelievably okay with that.
- For the real Orphan Black completists, I should mention that Pupok the Scorpion makes his/her first appearance in the Orphan Black comic book from IDW, in a flashback to Helena’s teen-age years co-written by executive producers Graeme Manson and John Fawcett. Apparently, Pupok has been with Helena a long time.
- I will never, ever tire of seeing Tatiana Maslany play one clone playing another clone: it’s a challenging acting exercise at which she rarely fails to dazzle. Think how hard it must be to pretend you’re not very good at playing a role you actually play all the time, but she does it brilliantly: layering just a little of Sarah’s furtive defensiveness into Rachel’s cool, confident presence. (“Rachel’s a bit of a stretch for her,” Felix says of Sarah, which made me laugh.) And somehow we could see at a glance that it was Alison pretending to be Sarah, even before she said “Holy doodle, here we go.”
- “I just don’t believe Helena’s a priority for Delphine,” Sarah says, and I agree. “We have to make our own moves.” After all the times I’ve gotten furious at Sarah for leaving Helena behind, I am thrilled to see that getting her back is a top priority now. The first rule of Clone Club is that we never leave a sestra behind.
- Next week’s title is from the same Eisenhower speech: “We face a hostile ideology—global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle, with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.” Got all that?