Last season's fourth episode, "Governed As It Were By Chance," was a masterpiece of assorted horror tropes, ending with Sarah being tortured and the nightmarish vision of Helena returning from the dead to save her. Now, for Season Three's fourth episode, Orphan Black goes back to the horror theme, though this time writer Russ Cochrane—who wrote both episodes—is singing in a slightly different key. Where "Governed" was all Hitchcockian suspense and Carpenter-esque cat-and-mouse, "Newer Elements of Our Defense" has a B-movie, grindhouse sensibility. Rather than the cool modernity of Rachel's flat, we get the grittier, earthier tones of cornfields and farmhouses and dilapidated, torture-porn style basements. Everyone is dirty and desperate, everything is brutal and gory, and the terror is more physical than psychological.
Perhaps it's just my personal dislike of the kinds of movies it's aping, but "Elements" never quite rises to the level of Cochrane's earlier effort. But, then again, that's probably an unfair comparison. (Beat for beat, "Governed" is probably my favorite episode of Orphan Black.) "Elements" is an excellent hour of television, however, and that's because Cochrane understand what makes this show work. This episode is heavy on incident, but we don't watch Orphan Black for the extraordinary circumstances: we watch it to see how authentic characters whom we care about react in extraordinary circumstances. "Elements" remembers that these are actual people confronting dangerous situations and terrible choices, and that makes this the most emotionally engaging entry so far in Orphan Black's uneven third season.
I want to talk a little about what I mean. Towards the end of the episode, I found myself yelling at Sarah for making stupid choices, and specifically for making the exact kinds of stupid choices that women typically make in these sorts of horror movies. Whacking Rudy with a shovel, for example, she doesn't finish him off—or grab his gun, or even hold onto the shovel—before scrambling away to go hide in a barn. She acts like a B-movie slasher-film heroine, and Rudy—who inevitably follows immediately after her—begins talking like a B-movie slasher-film villain. ("Kira sure is going to miss her mommy," he taunts, and then begins speaking in a high-pitched imitation of a little girl. "Mommy, where are you? I can't find you…") Even recognizing the tropes Cochrane was playing with, it seemed formulaic to the detriment of Sarah's character. I expect more from her than that.
But, on second viewing, I realized that there is something very smart going on here, that actually deconstructs the horror tropes and my own genre expectations. (This is something Orphan Black frequently does very well, and you'd think I'd be used to it by now.) Because the truth is, this show doesn't have to prove its feminist credentials every episode by featuring smart, strong women: Orphan Black is nothing but smart, strong women, wall-to-wall. What the show does have to do, from time to time, is remind us that these are real women, not invincible, archetypal, action-figure superheroes.
My fear for Orphan Black from the beginning was that its labyrinthine plot would eventually overwhelm and subsume the genuine character work that makes the show so special—but so far the show has been careful not to let that happen, and it doesn't happen here. Yes, we are used to Sarah being very capable, to the extent that we expect her to deal, cleverly and successfully, with pretty much anything that comes her way. But Sarah's strength is more impressive, not less, for being located in a recognizable human being: she's not a secret-agent, she's not a trained soldier, she's not even a cop (though she sometimes pretends to be). She's a smart, resourceful, normal young woman, doing the best she can in situations that are anything but normal.
Which is to say, she makes mistakes; she gets scared; she overestimates her own abilities. That's what happened in "Governed": she played her cat-and-mouse game with Daniel brilliantly, right up until the moment when she ran out of ideas and ran out of luck. Then she ended up tied up in a shower, facing her own imminent, painful death, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was one of the best moments of last season when she realized this, and broke down, overwhelmed by the sudden realization that she was all out of moves. She assumed she'd get out of it somehow. We assumed she'd get out of it somehow. But she couldn't. "This is happening," Daniel said, as he approached her with a razor, and suddenly the fear and desperation that Sarah lives with all the time caught up with her. She wasn't an indomitable action hero anymore: she was just a scared young woman.
And "Elements" is full of those sorts of moments, in which we remember that Sarah is just a normal person after all. (What's smart about this is the way Cochrane uses the genre expectations to achieve this very important effect, because it's a reversal of the usual tropes. In most of those horror movies, the surprise is that the apparently normal, helpless heroine turns out to be stronger and more resourceful than we expected; here, because we're so accustomed to Sarah's victories, the surprise is in how she turns out to be less resourceful than we want her to be.)
So Sarah, for example, is squeamish when it comes time to deal with the bullet lodged in Mark's thigh muscle. "I am not sticking my finger in your leg," she protests. She's uncertain, she's grossed out, and she almost throws up—but she does it. It's more impressive, not less, because she's not some hardened battlefield medic.
More importantly, her reactions are more human, real and relatable, and that's what we need her to be. The day that Sarah becomes some distant, unflappable soldier is the day I lose interest in Orphan Black.
Because what this show is ultimately about is being allowed to be human, to be an individual, to be flawed and fickle and fabulous. That—we learn this episode—is one of the differences between the Leda and Castor clones. "No parents, no monitors, or whatever?" Sarah asks Mark. "People who raised you?" But no, the Castor clones were not given individual lives: they were all raised together, raised to be more or less the same. (This helps explain the sometimes frustrating similarity between Ari Millen's different characters.) What's more, they were not given people to care about: "We weren't allowed outside attachments," Mark explains.
So all the things that make a person a person—individuality, background, free choice, emotional attachments to other people—were denied to the Castors. The threat to the Ledas has always been that these real, autonomous, very different women would be treated like indistinguishable objects, but the Castors have never known any other life: they've always been objects. Their humanity has been all but programmed out of them.
And humanity is still what it's all about, as we see throughout this episode. Sarah isn't a hero because she has brilliant tactical skills and indomitable fighting moves: it's her humanity that makes her a hero. She has had failures of humanity, as when she shot her sister Helena in Season One. "You're trying awfully hard to save someone you tried to kill once," Mark says, but that's exactly the point. "All the more reason I'm doing this," Sarah says: she gave up on her sister once, but never again.
"You know it's not her fault, the way she is," Sarah says of Helena. "She's not a monster, she was just trained to be a killer. Does that sound familiar?" Her relationship to Mark—to all of the Castors—is basically the same relationship she had to Helena in Season One, but Sarah learned from that: she sees the similarities, and she's not going to give up on Mark either. "I don't need you dying on me, brother," she says. "You know I'm not really your brother," Mark replies, but Sarah isn't having that. "Well, you are," she says. "Biology says you are."
The nature vs. nurture question is a complicated one on Orphan Black, but one thing is certain: if you're blood, you're family.
And blood, after all, is what links all of the major storylines together this week, both visually and thematically. This is by far the goriest episode of Orphan Black so far, with Sarah's, Helena's, and Grace's storylines all featuring copious quantities of blood and/or impromptu surgical procedures.
But what blood means in each of these storylines is what's important. In Sarah's story—and in Helena's, which we'll get to—it's a connection: blood becomes a bonding moment between estranged siblings. But in Grace's story, blood comes to mean something else.
Horrified at the revelation about Mark last week, Grace has abandoned him and returned to the "loving" bosom of her family, but she quickly discovers what her worth is to these people. "I understand you're the one with the blessed child," a blind old man, Jonah Appleyard (David Fox) says to her, as the Proletheans welcome her back. But when Grace miscarries—and when the prayer circle the Proletheans convene instead of calling a fucking doctor fails to remedy the problem—everything changes. "The child is lost," Jonah says in disgust, and turns his back on her. Grace's mother, Bonnie, is no more compassionate. "What happened, Gracie, is that you betrayed your family," she says cruelly. "God wanted to punish you, so He cursed you, and He took the child. Our legacy, and you lost it…The only reason our door was open to you again was because of that child, and now it's gone…You will not be welcomed back here again."
Last week Sarah offered Grace membership in the family of Clone Club. "My kid and yours are going to be cousins," Sarah observed. "That does not make us family," Grace responded. Now, Grace learns that "family" means nothing to the people she thought of as her family: picking up on a recurring theme in Orphan Black, a woman's value is solely reproductive to the Proletheans. Blood is not a symbol of connection: rather, a woman's blood is a Biblical "curse," a symbol of failure and sin for which she must be cast out. Family encompasses care, concern, compassion, a valuing of individuality. This is something the heroes of Orphan Black all recognize, which is why Sarah can extend those qualities to the Castors; we can recognize the real monsters on this show by their inability to do the same, even for their own blood.
Because family is such an important theme on this show, bad families abound on Orphan Black. "You're a shit mother," Helena says to Dr. "Mother" Coady later in the episode, and we hear that accusation echo back to include Bonnie. Project Castor is another supposed "family" that values its members only for their function, not for their individual worth. Blood, here, is not a mark of connection so much as a shared commodity to be exploited for the greater good of the cause: in this sense, they are not so different from the Proletheans. (No wonder Mark fit in as well with one as the other.)
Helena, raised by Proletheans—like Grace—and trained to be a killer—like the Castor Clones—has some of those same dark, callous instincts. She began her story on Orphan Black as a villain, an assassin, seeing everyone else around her as an object or obstacle. (She thought, remember, that she was the only one of the Leda girls who was "real.") But Helena has changed, and grown: Helena's hilarious quirks sometimes make it easy to overlook what an extraordinary arc this character has had, and what incredibly nuanced work Maslany has done to embody real character development in a largely inarticulate character.
And can I just pause here to say how much I love it when people underestimate Helena? Because she's different—even, arguably, a little crazy—people are constantly mistaking her for stupid. But Helena may be the smartest and most resourceful of the Leda women, and she's even smart enough to understand exactly how people see her and use their preconceptions against them. I commented on this back in "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est" when she played Art like a fiddle, and she's even more impressive here: playing the feral wild child in her cell in order to start planning her escape. You think I'm an animal, I'll act like an animal, is her strategy, but beneath the ranting and raving is a cool, brilliantly strategic mind. "Don't blunder around like an idiot," her imaginary scorpion Pupok admonishes her, and she doesn't: she knows she needs to be more cautious and calculating than that. "To escape the first box, you must know what next box holds," she says.
Pupok is the voice of reason within Helena's oft-disturbed mind, but Pupok is also the voice of the cold, practical killer Helena was trained to be: the one that doesn't value other people. When Helena comes across a Castor clone, Parsons, being horribly experimented upon by Dr. Coady and the scientists, Pupok advises her to leave him be. "Stupid girl," the scorpion says. "Why would you waste your chance of escape on him? He's already dead. Get moving. Leave him."
But Helena can't do that: she knows the value of family, of blood, and—like Sarah—she instinctively extends her sphere of compassion to include these estranged brothers. "We've both been abandoned by our families," she says to Parsons. "Left to suffer. I will make it go away. No more pain, little one." She places a comforting hand on his chest to calm him, and, crying herself, puts him out of his misery. "Sleep now, lambchop, sleep," she says, in the soothing voice of a mother. It is then that she accuses Dr. Coady of being a shit mother—"You say you love boys, but you lie"—and she's absolutely right. (Connecting this back to the other bad family in this episode, the slow, haunting music that underlines this scene is "Nearer My God To Thee," the same hymn that the Proletheans were singing when Grace rejoined them.)
From a practical standpoint, Helena's humanity—like Sarah's—could be viewed as a weakness. (Could Helena have escaped the base if she'd let Parsons suffer? Very possibly.) However, in terms of everything that Orphan Black values, their humanity, their compassion, and their ability to forge and feel genuinely sympathetic connections to others are strengths, not weaknesses. They are, in fact, the only things that matter, the things they are fighting for, the very things that make them different from those they are fighting against.
Part of me, I confess, wanted to see Helena tear through the Project Castor base like an action hero, leaving a trail of easily disposed of bodies in her awesomely destructive wake. It was the same part of me that wanted to see Sarah become a kick-ass action-movie heroine, not do a scared horror-movie run-and-hide. But—though it plays with those genre tropes—they're not what this show is about, and they're not what this show values. Other sci-fi and adventure series can make entertainment out of dehumanizing violence and objectifying horror: on Orphan Black, it's all about the humanity.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Four episodes in, we may need to just accept that this season is all about Sarah and Helena, with Cosima and Alison regulated to minor sub-plots at best. As I said last week, this concerns me a little, as I feel we've stepped backwards from the "we're-all-in-this-together" vibe of the Season Two finale. (Alison's completely selfish disregard for her sisters is the most troubling to me.) On the other hand, though I adore Alison and Cosima, the Sarah/Helena relationship has become the heart of this show: I can't begrudge Fawcett and Manson too much for recognizing that.
- That being said, I really wish they'd come up with an Alison sub-plot that could still provide the necessary comic-relief (and self-contained storyline) while connecting somehow to the rest of the world. Here's an idea: Alison goes undercover with the Proletheans. (Wouldn't she weirdly fit right in there? And wouldn't the ways in which she didn't fit in be hysterical?)
- In actual Alison news, her self-contained, Weeds-inspired spin-off continues to proceed, unabated by my concerns. This week, it turns out that Ramon was only working on consignment, and so Alison must meet up with local drug kingpin Jason (Justin Chatwin, who did, in fact, play a local suburban drug dealer on Weeds.) Jason, however, turns out to be an old flame from high school with whom Alison apparently had—and still has—intense sexual chemistry. (There's little doubt they would have jumped each other in the car if Donnie hadn't been standing outside; they seemed to be about two seconds away from doing so even with Donnie standing outside.)
- Everything Donnie knows about drug dealing he learned from Breaking Bad. (Donnie, I hate to break it to you, but you, sir, are no Heisenberg.)
- "Do you remember what happened the last time you had a gun in a car?" Heh.
- Meanwhile, in Cosima news, Felix has convinced her she's ready to begin dating—or at least to find "a scratching post, something to rub yourself up against"—through a hook-up app called Sapphire. (From the previews, it looks like Cosima actually gets a non-science-related storyline next week, which will be very welcome.)
- Felix hasn't had much to do this year, but he does the hell out of it. "It's like you've been mounted by a llama," he says, of Cosima's awful sweater. "This jumper absolutely reeks of pining….Get out of that yeti-like sweater." True enough, but that was way harsh, Fe.
- "I'm not really the homemaker type," Sarah confesses, when doing a crappy job of sewing up Mark's leg. (Alison would not only sewed it up neatly, she'd have used festive, multi-colored stitches and put a glittery band-aid over it.)
- From the Department of Huh?: I confess, I've lost a plot thread somewhere. For the life of me, I don't understand the value of the baby bones Mark and Sarah dig up from behind Henrik's old house. I get that Henrik made a clone from the original Castor DNA, but all the boy clones are from the original Castor DNA. Why is this one different? Why would it not have the same defect the others have? Are the others copies of copies, whereas this one is an "original" clone? I'm sure there's a pseudo-logical explanation, but I missed it somehow. If anyone can chime in and 'splain, I'd be grateful.
- Memo to BBC America's Marketing department: if you folks would manufacture a Pupok pull-string talking plush toy—that said things like "Don't blunder around like an idiot" and "Now we'll never get any mangoes"—I would buy the shit out of that.
- Sarah's getting captured, and Helena's failed escape, were both worth it to achieve what appears to happen next week: a sestra-and-sestra reunion is only a motion away.