After last week’s very strong episode, this week’s “Scarred by Many Past Frustrations” continues to do what Orphan Black does best: deliver meaningful emotional content in an action-adventure context. When this show is at its best, the threats are physical and immediate, but the stakes are personal and resonant. “Scarred”—written by Alex Levine, and directed by my favorite Orphan Black director David Frazee—gets this delicate alchemy more or less exactly right.
Like the blood that linked last week’s various sub-plots together, this week—as the title suggests—scars are our throughline: physical scars (Helena’s, Mark’s, Parsons’) and emotional scars (Helena’s, Siobhan’s, Gracie’s, Cosima’s, and, hell, pretty much everybody’s.) Cosima’s date Shay (Ksenia Solo) quotes—slightly misquotes, actually—a line from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Tonight I can write the saddest lines”: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” It’s a beautiful poem, a poignant observation, and a lovely evocation of what makes Orphan Black so special: the plot races along at lightning speed, from one brief encounter to another, but everything these women have been through leaves lasting damage that is not so easily healed. Those are the emotional stakes I mentioned, and in this episode—the mid-point of the season—those stakes are being raised.
“You’re either in balance or you’re not.” — Shay
Since I have a bad habit of relegating Cosima to the end-of-post bullet points, let’s start with her this week.
Cosima’s story doesn’t have much to do with the plot of the rest of the episode, but that’s okay: the girl deserves some happiness. (And can I just mention here how much I appreciate the fact that, in a series that’s almost entirely female characters—a rare enough thing in itself—the only character for whom romance is an ongoing concern is the lesbian? Let’s hear it for the representation of different kinds of relationships on television, and the recognition that not every female character has to be obsessed with her love life.)
So Cosima is ready to begin dating—with a more than gentle push from Felix—and the prospect of her first internet date is making her nervous. “I don’t want to fart, or spill my tea on her, or something,” Cosima confesses to the bartender, as she waits for her date to arrive. The bartender cautions her that the bigger mistake she could make would be to talk about her ex. “Do I, like, reek of it, or something?” Cosima asks—and yes, she does.
Cosima is still damaged, still healing from her breakup with the Dreaded Delphine, and she can’t hide it. “I just got out of a relationship,” she says to Shay, almost immediately. “So I’m…not supposed to say that.” More than any of other the clones, Cosima wears her heart on her sleeve: she is utterly guileless, and her emotions are a raw and open wound. (Even Helena—at her craziest—has a better poker face than Cosima.) That’s Cosima’s unique strength, in a show where most everybody is guarded and secretive and duplicitous. (“Look, I’m not going to apologize for my heart, okay?” she once said.) It also means she is destined to get hurt: easily, deeply, and probably frequently.
So it’s good—hopefully—that she’s met a “holistic healer.” “You’re either in balance or you’re not, and if you’re not, I help you get there,” Shay explains. “Plus, I can see inside your soul.” The bartender’s advice, it turns out, was wrong: hiding her scars is not Cosima’s style, and she’s not going to apologize for her heart. “Her name is Delphine,” she finally confesses to Shay, and—in a marvelously specific post-breakup detail—she explains how she still finds Delphine’s hair on all her clothes and in all of her shit. It’s exposing herself—not hiding her wounds—that brings her together with Shay. Considering all the secrecy and lies that doomed her relationship with Delphine right from the beginning, this is probably a much healthier beginning.
“It took me a long time to let go. I’m in no rush to relive that pain.” — Siobhan
All of these characters are scarred by past frustrations; all of them are, in one way or another, damaged, and the responsibility to help each other heal is a key belief of Orphan Black. “Sarah said to come here if I was ever in any trouble,” Gracie tells Art, when she shows up at his apartment. Art initially wants to pass her off to a shelter, but the fact that she’s even more wounded than he knew—she lost the baby—means that’s not an option. And so he takes her to the only people he knows who take in all wounded birds. “These are good people,” he says, when they pull up outside of Siobhan’s.
Siobhan has her flaws—I’ve been pretty angry with her since she traded Helena to the Castor Project last season—but this episode reminds us that Siobhan is at the center of a continuum of care and concern. I’ve said before that Orphan Black, for all its focus on genetics, is really about the family you make, and Siobhan is the mother in this steadily expanding found family. “She looks a good deal better than you did when I took you in,” she reminds Felix, when he objects to Grace’s presence. We learn Siobhan herself is damaged by the death of her husband, and that she in turn was taken in by a kindly aunt who stopped her from self-destructing. “We were going to have a family,” she says, of she and her husband, and of course Siobhan did end up with a family—just not the way she imagined it.
When I say that this episode is Orphan Black doing everything it does well, this storyline is an excellent example. I have objected to some of the disjointedness of this season so far, but this sub-plot, with Gracie, is not disconnected: it may be only tangentially related to the plot, but thematically it is right on point in ways that Alison’s—for example—does not seem to be. The ongoing theme about recognizing individuals as human beings is here. “Fertile, infertile, they’re all just people, love,” Siobhan tells Gracie. “Even your Mark.” (Later, during the dancing, she makes a similar observation about Gracie, to Felix: “She’s just a normal girl.”) The theme of the dehumanizing dangers of institutional doctrine—be it corporate, religious, or political—is here. (“All my life I’ve had doubts,” Gracie says. “But I just let my parents tell me what to think and what to do.”) And, as is often the case on Orphan Black, the solidifying of a family unit—and the healing of scars—needs to involve dancing.
But this season’s darker theme is present as well: the scarring nature of certain kinds of masculinity. The Castor clones, it turns out, are not simply defective: they are toxic. Their misogyny is not merely in their actions, but actually manifests itself as a sexually-transmitted disease they pass on to the women with whom they are intimate. Patty, the woman Rudy and Seth assaulted in “Transitory Sacrifices of Crises,” is sick with a mysterious disease. “For all I know, those assholes gave it to me,” she tells Art, and of course they did. They gave it to Gracie, too, who collapses in agony in Siobhan’s apartment. What men like that do is damage women, and they have presumably spread their damage to all of the women whose names and details they write in their log books—a dark parody of the traditional “little black books” men use to keep track of their hookups and record their conquests.
Elsewhere in the episode, Sarah challenges Paul about his claim that the military is just another family. “All I’m doing for these men is what you do for your sisters,” he says. “Protecting them.” But why is he protecting them? “So they can assault women and abduct people?” Sarah says. “That’s a hell of a cause.” Later, Paul flips through all the innocent women listed in Parsons’ little black book, and has to confront how deadly and damaging this institutionalized masculinity really is. It’s all almost too on the nose, but this, too, is Orphan Black doing one of the things it does best: dealing with real cultural and gender dynamics through the metaphoric language of science-fiction.
“Helena’s fine. She’s been confined and controlled much of her life.” — Dr. “Mother” Coady
Of all the characters in Orphan Black, no one is more damaged than Helena.
It’s actually easy to forget that. Helena is very funny, and Helena is very capable, and Helena is very awesome, and so it is sometimes hard to remember that Helena’s life has been hell, for as long as she can remember. She was warped and abused by the church, turned into a weapon by Tomas, shot by her own sister, kidnapped and medically raped by Henrik, captured and imprisoned by the Castor Project—and that’s just the shit we know about. “She’s been confined and controlled much of her life,” Dr. Coady says here, while positing the theory—for Coady is the feminine voice of the patriarchy—that Helena secretly likes it.
Physically and emotionally, Helena has been horribly used, horribly traumatized, horribly scarred. And she doesn’t like it, though she has gotten accustomed to surviving it. The season began with a beatific vision of how Helena would like life to be: a peaceful, utopian world in which she is happy and pregnant and surrounded by the love of her sestras. What Helena wants is a family, and for a heartbreakingly brief moment—in “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried“—she had one.
And so it is not entirely a surprise that having her brief vision of family ripped away from her has been the cruelest blow of all. Throughout her years of captivity and abuse, Helena was cutting herself: now, she returns to that habit. “Oh, Helena,” Pupok says. “Guilty pleasures won’t help you escape.” But it’s been the only way she had to claim ownership of her own body, and the only way she had to express her longing for agency and freedom: scarring has always been her attempt to give herself wings.
Pupok, too, is a survival mechanism: hard-shelled and deadly, he’s her most practical, defensive, emotionless side made manifest. He’s what has enabled her to survive: he’s both her armor and her sting. So it’s not a surprise either that he’s calling the shots now, and warning her against the emotional vulnerability that her love for her sister represents. “Give her nothing,” Pupok advises her, when Sarah tries to reach her through her bars. (It’s essentially the same advice the bartender gives Cosima—hide your wounds, hide your heart—but the stakes are much higher.)
For me, Orphan Black is primarily a love story between Helena and Sarah, and so I confess Helena’s inability to trust or forgive Sarah kind of broke my heart. But it also makes perfect sense. Love is short—and Helena’s moment of happiness with Sarah and the rest of the family was very short—but forgetting is so long. Sarah brings this all back to Siobhan’s example, confessing how her own anger and grudge and damage robbed her of time with her family, and Helena appears to hear this; the two sisters begin cooperating, and manage to get Helena out of her cell.
But Helena has been too hurt, and she’s not willing to open herself up to further hurt. Letting someone in—as Cosima knows all too well, and as the women the Castor clones have slept with are learning—is dangerous. “You leave me here, you got nobody!” Sarah shouts as Helena walks away from her cell. But nobody is who Helena is used to having: it’s making yourself vulnerable to other people that hurts. She’s in no hurry to relive the pain.
“My sestra, she tears my heart,” Helena says to Pupok, as she sits atop the wall of the compound, hesitating. (My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her, Neruda writes. Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer, and these the last verses that I write for her.) But then the alarms go off, taking the decision out of her hands, as decisions have always been taken out of Helena’s hands. She drops over the wall and off into the night—damaged, and scarred, and alone.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- “Oh shit,” Sarah says. “Yes, much shit,” Helena confirms.
- Sarah, too, is damaged, and not entirely blameless here. She has been guilty of using, and abandoning, and giving up on her sister before, and she is surly and defensive here. In “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” she managed to reach Helena with a genuine expression of love, and one can’t help but wonder if that might have worked here a little better than Sarah’s “go ahead and be pissed off, see if I care” approach.
- Gracie is kind of endearingly adorable, like one of those sheltered college freshman who go wild with their first taste of freedom. I hope she makes it—but I’m not holding my breath: though Mark genuinely loved her, she’s probably going to be another collateral victim of the Castor clones’ toxic masculinity. (Mark, like Helena, scarred himself—burning off his tattoo—in an attempt to claim his independence and agency. But Dr. Coady bandages over that wound: “Just remember, it wasn’t real,” Coady says, denying Gracie’s humanity as she takes Mark’s wedding ring. “She wasn’t one of us.”)
- Am I the only one who wonders if Siobhan had to kill her husband herself? The passive voice in her story is interesting: “He was a beautiful rebel, also a fairly beautiful drunk…There was a drunken fight, and he ended up with a pair of garden shears stuck in his throat.”
- Speaking of mysteries, someone is taking surreptitious photos of Cosima and Shay’s first date. Obviously, any new character who appears on this show—especially one who seems as perfect as Shay—is automatically suspect, and probably an agent of one conspiracy or another. But I’m hoping, for Cosima’s sake—and also for the sake of variety—that this isn’t tied to Castor, or Topside, or the Proletheans. Maybe Shay is just married, and being followed by a private detective? (Probably not, but it would be nice if Cosima could catch a break from all the clone-drama.)
- Helena’s going to go back for Sarah, right? (And I predict that at some point in this season—probably towards the end, when she’s ready to reunite with her sestras—she is going to have to step on Pupok and squash that defensive part of herself once and for all.)