Like last season’s episode “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motions of Things,” “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” is largely centered on the people—mostly men—in different kinds of relationships with our female protagonists. “We do terrible things for the people we love,” Beth says, in the vision/fever dream Sarah has on her sickbed, and that line provides a thin thematic connection between most of the various subplots this week. Paul, Donnie, Felix, and Delphine all take the focus at various times, with other norm-to-clone relationships (Rachel and Duncan, Mark and Gracie, Coady and her “boys,” etc.) getting some passing attention.
But here’s my problem: with the exception of Felix, I don’t really like most of these people. I absolutely loath(ed) Paul. I hated Delphine even before she became the Uber Bitch in Charge. I find Donnie—though he’s occasionally good for a laugh—to be both less endearing and more problematic than the show really wants him to be.
So this was a tough week for me. Viewed on its own, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” should be a great episode of television: a lot happens, and it’s all very nicely executed (by director Helen Shaver). But I’m just not feeling it: what I’m feeling is a disconnect between how powerful this episode should have been, and how flat most of it actually left me. And so, instead of standing alone as a great hour of Orphan Black, “Certain Agony” just succeeded, for me, in underlining a lot of the show’s persistent weaknesses.
That’s no fun to talk about, so I’m going to keep it relatively short this week. I’ll try briefly to articulate what I mean, discuss the few scenes that did completely work for me, and we’ll call it a day.
“Paul, you’re the worst of them, you know that? Because I don’t even know where you stand.” — Sarah
I’ve said all along that plotting is not necessarily Orphan Black‘s strong suit. The show is fairly transparently one of the we-make-it-up-as-we-go-along variety. (Co-creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have been very open about this: for example, Manson told Alan Sepinwall that it wasn’t until they sat down to block out the last three episodes of last season that they even decided who the male clone was going to be.)
And, for the most part, that’s okay: as I said in my review of last season’s finale, we’re not in it for the brilliance of the conspiracy-building; we’re in it for the exquisite character work, and the emotional beats, and the moments of drama and comedy that this runaway train of a story keeps managing to find. It almost feels churlish, in fact, to complain about the plotting on Orphan Black, since we all know the plotting is not the point.
But here’s the rub: it’s not always possible to separate the two sides of that equation. Here I’ll pull out one of my all-time favorite smart things said about writing: “What is character but the determination of incident?” Henry James asked. “What is incident but the illustration of character?” Orphan Black has done an excellent job—for the most part—at building strong, consistent, fully-developed main characters at its core, and building incidents around them that compliment who they are. We understand Sarah, and what she does in any given situation almost always seems consistent with who we understand her to be: she may surprise us, but when she does it is a progression of her character, not a contradiction of it. The same is true for all of the Leda clones, and other strong central characters like Felix, Art, and—less reliably—Siobhan.
Its other supporting characters who are forced to bear the burden of Orphan Black‘s recklessly haphazard plotting. These individuals have no real core of character: they are not people so much as protean plot devices who become whatever the story needs them to be. As a result, many of them make not one goddamned ounce of sense.
Paul is, indeed, the worst of them. Dylan Bruce has been a regular on this show since the beginning, and yet I have absolutely no idea who the hell Paul is supposed to be. This is not really Bruce’s fault—though I would be hard-pressed to find things to celebrate in his performance—for he has not been playing a character arc so much as a series of functions. Each time Fawcett and Manson have added another layer to the conspiracy, Paul has been asked to shoulder the additional weight. (In his own, less impressive way, Bruce has played as many roles as Tatiana Maslany on this show.)
The sorts of roles Paul has played in this story are necessary, in order to make the story work. But asking one actor to embody a character who serves all of these functions is a stretch, and then asking us to care about him is a bridge too far. My only feeling about Paul’s storyline in “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” is that I’m glad he is finally dead, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what was intended. It was supposed to be a heartbreaking; it was supposed to be noble; it was supposed to be a redemption arc stemming from his recognition of his sins and his love for Sarah. But it didn’t work for me because there was no real arc to follow: Paul turning out to be a good guy seemed as likely or unlikely to me as if he’d turned out to be evil incarnate. The show never really had a clear idea of what it was doing with him, and so I never had a clear idea about how I should feel about him; in the end, I just didn’t care.
“Who’s us, Delphine?” — Cosima
I wonder if a lot of the problems don’t stem from a fundamentally decent impulse on the part of Manson and Fawcett: the desire to keep actors on the show. With the labyrinthine turns of this plot, keeping characters involved often seems to mean finding new roles for them, often to the detriment of logic and character. Beth’s monitor boyfriend and the soldier in charge of Project Castor’s field operations should almost certainly have been different characters, but awkwardly transitioning Paul from one to the other—with about six different roles in between—was the only way the show could devise to keep Paul in the mix.
After Paul, Delphine suffers most from this syndrome. In that same interview with Manson I referenced above, Alan Sepinwall asked him about why Michelle Forbes—introduced as Marion Bowles, the new face of the conspiracy last season—wasn’t in Season Three’s episodes (so far). “Michelle is a very busy actor,” Manson said. “And with a cast our size, we can’t option everyone. In a pinch, our solution was to look internally and use Evelyne Brochu.”
So Delphine’s current arc didn’t come about organically through the evolution of the character: it came about through the necessities of plotting and casting. As a result, Delphine has gone from being Cosima’s monitor to Cosima’s lover to Cosima’s lab-partner to Cosima’s boss and puppet-master, which is just a bizarre career trajectory in addition to being an inconsistent and incomprehensible character arc. Both the writers and Brochu have done a slightly better job of making this all seem more natural than Paul’s similarly illogical path, but the character of Delphine has never made any sense to me. I wanted to love her because Cosima loved her (and I love Cosima), but Orphan Black has consistently required Delphine to be inconsistent: loyal and loving one moment, distant and duplicitous the next. It weakens Cosima’s character every time she gets angry and then forgives Delphine; it makes Delphine’s character impossible to read; and it makes my level of investment in their on-again, off-again relationship exactly zero. (I don’t have much of a read on Shay yet either, but, as far as I’m concerned, Cosima has traded up.)
“I don’t think you guys are ready for the next level.” — Jason, to Alison and Donnie
A couple of episodes ago I explained that I both understand and dislike the way Alison has been shunted off into her own dark comedy embedded within the rest of Orphan Black. My concerns haven’t gone away, though I’m trying to learn to appreciate it for what it is (frequently funny), and forgive what it is not (remotely related to anything else on the show).
So yes, the twerking scene was worth the price of admission in itself: it was an inspired bit of physical comedy that actually is located in character. Where the rest of the clones are relatively normal people who have become caught up in TV-level criminal drama, Alison and Donnie are manufacturing their own over-the-top adventures, and voluntarily assuming the roles of larger-than-life pop-culture figures. They’re actually the only characters that could live a normal life at the moment, but everything they’ve been through has clearly made them decide normal life is not for them: they crave the drama. There’s something sweetly pathetic—and very amusing—in their gangsta-wannabe delusions. It’s not Breaking Bad: it is—as Donnie’s frequent references underline—the misguided adventures of people who have watched too much Breaking Bad, completely misunderstood it, and cast themselves ridiculously in the leads. (Obviously, Alison is Heisenberg; Donnie is Jesse, at best, and more probably Badger.)
So I won’t hate on this storyline this week: the funnier it is, the more I’m willing to let it slide. And it is funny: I particularly liked Alison and Donnie’s sexy talk. (“Are your underpants tearaway, mister?” she asks. “No, but the elastic’s wearing out, so…”) And I liked Donnie’s argument when Alison objected to his indiscreet spending of their drug money. (“Cars aren’t conspicuous, Alison. They’re, like, everywhere.”)
But, since I’m in the neighborhood, I will say that Donnie is another preposterous and problematic character, if a slightly more intentionally created one. The show has settled on his general ineptness as a justification for his many different roles. (He didn’t know why he was monitoring Alison, for example.) But that explanation never really gelled with some of his early behavior, and some of his later behavior was just outright loathsome. (Threatening to take away Alison’s children, for example.) Nor do I think the show has done a satisfactory job of explaining why Alison has remained with him. (She seemed, for example, to have broken things off with him altogether in “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motions of Things,” only to be mysteriously reconciled with him in the following episode.) It feels like Manson and Fawcett probably planned to get rid of Donnie at some point, but changed their minds and decided to keep him around. I don’t necessarily object to this decision—Bruun, as I’ve said, is a gifted comedian—but again, it requires us to ignore a lot of Donnie’s inconsistent characterization, and it ultimately weakens Alison’s character and undermines the growth she went through in the previous two seasons. (This, ultimately, is my real objection: I’m seriously concerned Alison is in danger of becoming a cartoon the longer she stays away from her sisters.)
“Now nut up, and lead me to the cyclops.” — Felix
Lest you think I was entirely a grumpy killjoy this week, I should say that the scene between Felix and Rachel was excellent.
Felix hasn’t had a lot to do this season: fitting Orphan Black‘s gender-flipped construction, he’s largely been relegated to the support role that a woman would play on a more typical, male-dominated action-adventure show. (He’s an all-purpose caretaker, a runner of errands, a sympathetic ear for the main characters when they need one.) So it was a relief to see him attempting to take the bull by the horns this week, and actively try to locate his missing sister.
And Felix is also the voice of loyalty: hence, his continued anger at Delphine and Rachel. (You don’t mess with his sisters.) It was also telling to see how he attempted to get the information out of Rachel. He does not—as Delphine did—torture Rachel: that is not his style, and it is definitely not his nature. Instead, he mocks her, recognizing that there is nothing more important to Rachel than her dignity. It’s a nice summation of his own remarkable sensitivity—his understanding of others—and a fantastic illustration of Rachel’s character that it works as well as it does: she is humiliated, and a scene that in other circumstances might have played out as funny becomes dark and uncomfortable. (Both actors, typically, are excellent here: with the unfortunate exception of Brother Tony, there is no combination of Gavaris with one of Maslany’s characters that doesn’t generate magic.)
It also underlines something I’ve been saying for a while now: Rachel is the new Helena. Her plight has already made us feel more sympathetic towards her, and this scene goes far enough to make us positively heartbroken for her. She is the lost sister now, and when she pleads with Felix to get her out of there it’s a reminder of something Cosima said a long time ago: “you have to love all of us.” It may not happen this season, but Rachel will need to be rescued, and returned to the bosom of the Leda family.
“Come, sestra: people miss us.” — Helena
Because that’s what it’s all about: you never leave a sestra behind. Paul’s love for Sarah ultimately trumps his loyalty to his fellow soldiers; Mark’s love for Gracie does as well. Felix is willing to do terrible things for the people he loves. Sarah misses her sister Beth, even though she never knew her.
And Helena comes back: of course Helena comes back. That’s what sestras do: they may fight, they may argue, they may get angry, but they always come back. In this case, for Helena, it just involves coming to terms with Pupok, the symbol of her cold, practical side. For most of her life Helena’s survival instincts were all that she had, and if you stick her in a cage those instincts come out. But love, ultimately, trumps scorpions, too. (Last week I predicted that Helena would need to squash Pupok, but I was wrong: she needs to eat Pupok. Of course she does: she’s putting him back where he belongs, deep inside herself, to emerge again from her belly-button the next time she needs him. One suspects this is not the first time Helena has chowed down on her hallucinatory friend.)
Give me one moment like the final scene, in which Helena and Sarah are reunited, and I’m willing to forgive Orphan Black any number of sins. Ditto for Helena’s swallowing of Pupok, and Felix’s fierce determination to get his sister back, and Sarah’s expression of guilt at not being able to take care of her sisters, and Cosima’s awkward, unbearable cuteness. (“I was coming here to tell you that I thought maybe we should slow things down,” she tells Shay. “But now that I see you, I just kinda want to make out for, like, seven hours straight.”) When this show focuses on the people it has actually developed over two and a half years, it’s as good as anything on television. It’s when the show tries to make us care about plot devices posing as people that I get impatient.
“Stop asking why, and start asking who,” Beth tells Sarah. That’s good advice for Orphan Black as well, because this show works when it focuses on the who, and not so much on the why.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- This should go without saying, but the nature of Orphan Black makes it seem necessary: Paul better be goddamned dead. I know this is the sort of show where almost anything can happen, and I know I have celebrated the magical resurrection of other characters (like Helena) in the past, but seriously: he better be dead. I’m hoping the decision to cut away before we saw the explosion came from budgetary concerns, not from a desire to leave the window open for a miraculous return someday. I mean, apart from my feelings about the character, the guy was stabbed several times in the stomach, shot six or eight times in the chest, and blown the fuck up: the dude is toast, or else life and death have no real meaning on this show.
- In “Plot Stuff I Skipped” (which is pretty much everything): Cosima figures out (with Delphine’s suspiciously competent help) that the “Castor Pathogen” is sexually transmitted, and ultimately sterilizes women. Mother Coady already knew this, and has been using her randy boys to conduct widespread testing so she can weaponize the pathogen. (This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me: a biological weapon that takes a generation or two to really have any impact seems impractical. But someone is excited about it, because Paul’s shadowy contact in the American government knew all about it too.)
- Oh, and Sarah—not surprisingly—is immune to the Castor Pathogen. Presumably Helena is too, and for all we know all the Leda clones are as well.
- The presence of the young clone (Cynthia Galant) in Sarah’s dream could represent any of the clones—including Sarah herself—or this could be Charlotte, the little girl being raised by (the mysteriously absent) Marian Bowles. I’m inclined to think she’s supposed to be the latter, and I’m wondering if there’s more going on here than a simple hallucination. Remember how Cosima said—in “The Weight of This Combination”—that she was having a deathbed dream before Kira pulled her back from the brink of death? I’ve been kind of hoping Orphan Black would eschew mystical mumbo-jumbo, but we may be heading in that direction (or at least towards some psychic connection between the clones).
- Beth’s line in the dream, “Stop asking why, and start asking who,” was followed by one ominous word: “Sister.” Is this a warning? If it is, it suggests that one of the sisters is not what she appears to be, and may not have the best interest of the others in mind. If that’s true, then the only answer is that Cosima has some secrets. She was, after all, the one who got Clone Club together from the very beginning. Is there any chance she could be the great mastermind behind all of this? (Hopefully I’m being paranoid: I don’t want to think about it.)
- Sorry for the grump this week: I’m behind, a little tired, and just wasn’t feeling this one. I’ll try to be more upbeat and positive next week.