Despite its ominous title, “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” is a lighter episode of Orphan Black, a bit of palate cleansing relief after the sturm und drang of last week’s entry. I have slightly mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think Orphan Black is at its best when it is barreling recklessly forward, and the seventh episode of the season is an odd place to lose—or deliberately dissipate—the narrative momentum of the Castor plot. On the other hand, giving the characters (and audience) a breather to relocate the relationships and themes of this season is not a terrible idea. On the whole, I think it works.
I’ve been complaining all season about how Alison’s storyline has both segregated her physically from the other characters and disconnected her thematically from the rest of the show. Fortunately, “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” goes a long ways towards rectifying these problems. I mean, the wacky goings-on in Bailey Downs still don’t have jack shit to do with the actual plot unfolding elsewhere this season, but I guess that’s okay. (“The plot is not the point” has become my mantra for this show.) This Alison-centric episode isn’t my favorite of the season, but at least it feels like it has some of the same things on its mind—and at its heart—that power Orphan Black as a whole.
Most importantly, “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” finally reconnects Alison with the other characters. I adore Alison, but she does start to resemble a sit-com character when it’s just her and Donnie off on their own. None of the characters, in fact, are sustainably fascinating in isolation: the real magic of Orphan Black is to be found in relationship recombination. Crazy, crazy science happens when you put two or more of the major players together, and it’s a tribute to this cast—particularly, but not exclusively, Tatiana Maslany—that the magic happens with almost any collision of characters. “We’re stronger together,” Cosima once said, and she was absolutely right.
So the important word in the title of this week’s episode is “community,” and the throughline that ties it all together—sometimes with a disappointing lack of subtlety—is one of Orphan Black‘s most consistent themes: family. It’s all about the family we’re stuck with, and the family we choose.
“Alison is absolutely pro-family. She’s got a pro-family dynamic.” — Felix
So we finally meet Connie Hendrix, the woman responsible for Alison’s upbringing. (Haven’t we all wondered what sort of formative influences could possibly have produced the obsessive, pill-popping, pill-dealing soccer mom who makes decorative gun baskets and bedazzles her rape whistle?)
The answer, as it turns out, is unsurprisingly awful: Connie is a passive-aggressive control freak, an emotionally manipulative and judgmental perfectionist for whom no one and nothing is ever good enough. She disapproves of Alison’s husband; she disapproves of the choices Alison has made; she disapproves of Alison’s hair. “Nobody is good enough,” Alison tells her mother. “Not dad, and certainly not me.”
The subject of parenting has been largely unexplored on Orphan Black. Connie is the first of the clones’ birth parents whom we have met, with the exceptions of Sarah and Helena’s mother Amelia (who did not raise her children) and Rachel’s father Duncan (who had his daughter taken away). But, to the extent that Orphan Black is largely about the forces that seek to control women’s lives, parents are a deep and potentially rich vein for the show to explore. Governments and religions can try to set the rules that say who a woman is supposed to be, but it’s parents who have the most say, and do the most damage. (It’s interesting to note that even the ever-present theme of genetic engineering carries over here: Alison’s parents conceived through in vitro fertilization, but Connie secretly had no faith in her husband genetic worthiness. “I wanted better stock for my child,” she confesses to Alison. “So I engaged the clinic to provide an upgrade.” Little did she know what kind of upgrade she actually would get.)
What we learn from this episode is that Alison’s tight-assed perfectionism is largely compensation for the insecurity and obsessive desire to please that Connie’s awfulness has instilled in her. (Throughout the episode we get little hints of Alison’s battle with her mother’s pressure and her own Type-A personality. She once cried because she only got an 82 in her Home-Ec class; she was class valedictorian, but “choked” during the speech.)
But “Home-Ec”—as Alison informs her mother—is now “Family Sciences,” and this episode is about how the science of family has changed. When Cosima has to stand in for Alison during the candidate speeches, Felix gets her ready to physically pass for Alison. (“Now, you need bangs: bangs that say unhappy, sexless marriage.”) But the snippet of speech Cosima has to improvise demonstrates how very different the two women are. I think this is the first time Cosima has had to play one of the other clones, and she almost gives away the game with a funny slip of the tongue. (“As a lesbian…supporter,” she has to correct herself.) But her short speech is full of core Orphan Black beliefs about what family means. “I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk today about family values,” Cosima says. “And, in my opinion, the most important family value is accepting your family for who they are. But that doesn’t mean coloring inside the lines, because kids don’t do that: that’s their gift.”
I’ve said before that Orphan Black is largely about the family you make, not necessarily the family you’re born to. Alison—born to this controlling mother—probably always colored inside the lines, and was never accepted for who she is. But both of these things changed when she met her “sisters.” Looking at her mother in comparison to people like Felix and Cosima, Alison realizes she has found a family far stronger and more nurturing than the one she was born into, and that knowledge informs the new speech she improvises now:
“As school trustee, and a mother of two, I would not make boundaries my agenda. Instead I would…Family. That’s my agenda. Sometimes, family is more than just the people under your roof. They’re people who jump in head first, who aren’t afraid to make fools of themselves to help you, who don’t hide their faces in shame if you fall down. If your family is suddenly bigger than you expected, and your house gets too crowded, do you tell your family they need to find a different place to live? You make room, you adapt, you find creative solutions to keep people together […] I stand for inclusion, not exclusion. I will be your mother hen, and I will keep our chicks together.”
Honestly, this speech is a little too heavy-handed and on-the-nose, but I don’t mind so much. It’s a mission statement for Orphan Black—”You have to love all of us,” as Cosima once said—and it’s one I’m glad to hear Alison deliver in a season that’s seen her almost completely divided from her found family. Felix, and Cosima, and Sarah, and Donnie, and—if next week’s previews are to be believed—even Helena: these people are her family, the ones who accept her, the ones who don’t expect her to color inside the lines, the ones who will make fools of themselves to help her and pick her up proudly when she falls down. “You can’t choose your family, can you, mother?” Alison says to Connie at the end, but she means that you can’t force your family members to be who you want them to be. The truth is, you can choose your family, and Alison has chosen hers.
“Well, now you’re on Planet Alison.” — Felix, to Cosima
Alison isn’t the only member of Clone Club who benefits from being around her sisters, both in terms of how she works in the show and how she functions as a human being. Cosima has always tended towards isolationism herself, in both regards: the show has often relegated her to sidelined subplots and exposition dumps, and she herself has kept aspects of her life carefully screened off from her sisters. (Obviously, these two things are related: Cosima’s penchant for secrecy has often felt like more of a necessity of plotting than a believable character trait.)
But Cosima, to be fair, is dealing with a lot of shit, elevating her stress levels to the point where she’s even too tense to play Alison believably. (“I know Alison’s got a cactus up her ass,” Felix says. “But you’re over-clenching.”) Things do seem to be going swimmingly with new girlfriend Shay, so it’s understandable that all Cosima really wants to do is canoodle naked and forget the world. But is Shay trustworthy? Cosima doesn’t know yet—we saw her justifiable paranoia surface all too easily last week—and neither do we. (For my money, Shay & Cosima are already way cuter—and hotter—together than Cosima and the Dreaded Delphine ever were. But the show has not done much of a job yet of telling us who Shay is, so she doesn’t quite register well enough for us to even be invested in whether she’s good or evil.)
Slightly more worrisome is the fact that Cosima is sick again, and getting sicker. Even more worrisome is that Cosima is hiding this fact from everyone she knows, just like she did last time. Despite her persistent cough, Delphine is the only one who suspects the truth, and Cosima is determined not to let her confirm it: hence, the mad quest for Alison’s urine. (Only Orphan Black could make a MacGuffin out of clean pee.)
Even Cosima’s attitude in pursuing this quest is annoying: wandering into the chaos of Alison’s candidate fair, she doesn’t really care about anything but getting her pee, and she doesn’t even bother to explain to anyone why she needs it. (It’s an annoying trait, actually, that all the sisters share in common: the tendency to develop tunnel vision about their own issues, forgetting to worry about any one else’s problems and forgetting to ask for help with their own.)
But Cosima is on “Planet Alison” now—which inspires her observations about family in Alison’s speech—and Alison is taking her new “Mother Hen” role seriously: she pushes Cosima to talk, and calls her on her bullshit. “You’re going to tell me what’s wrong,” Alison presses. “Are you sick again?” Cosima tries to sell her a further line of crap, but Alison isn’t buying. “We need Dyad when it comes to our health,” she says, refusing to help Cosima and thus forcing her to deal with the reality of her situation. (Tough love: that’s one of the things sisters do for each other.)
And it seems to work—at least a little. Cosima makes the decision to trust Shay—at least a little. The entire clone business is a little much to hit her with at this stage of the relationship, but she finally admits out loud to someone that she has “a pretty serious health issue.” (Which turns out to be a timely admission, as she begins bleeding seriously a moment later.)
“You can’t have Sarah without the rest of her family, I’m afraid.” — Siobhan
Meanwhile, we have a little family reunion in Mexico, which echoes—effectively, if not very subtly—all the same themes going on elsewhere in the episode.
Like all of her sisters—and with even more reason—Helena has some pretty serious trust issues. Unlike her sisters, however, Helena has a pretty straight forward way of dealing with people she doesn’t trust. “I will kill S. for betraying me,” she promises Sarah. And when Siobhan herself shows up—a gutsy move, all things considered—Helena is more than willing to stay true to her word. “First I eat,” she tells Siobhan. “Then we fight.” (Helena always has her priorities straight.)
And to be fair, Helena is not wrong. Siobhan broke the first rule of Clone Club: “you have to love all of us.” Family accepts you for who you are, and when your family gets bigger you don’t throw them out of the nest: you adapt, you make room, you find creative solutions to keep people together. Siobhan didn’t do that, and I’ve been as angry about it as Helena is.
But here’s the rub: those rules cut both ways. Accepting your family for who they are means forgiving them when they make mistakes. (Let us not forget that Helena killed three or four of her sisters before she was forgiven and taken into the family.) Siobhan has learned from her mistake—I think her showing up here is proof of that—and she is committed to making room for Helena now. Now it’s on Helena to do the same for S. “You can’t choose your family,” Alison said, and in this regard, she’s right: accepting the family means accepting the whole family, of which S. is a part. “You can’t have Sarah without the rest of her family, I’m afraid,” S. rightly tells Helena. You have to love all of us, even when we fuck up.
They do fight—a little—but Siobhan is a mother, and she does what mothers do: she takes her angry child in her arms and holds her close. “I’ve got you,” she says. “Helena, it’s okay. You’re with family now.” Like a lot of what happens in “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate,” it’s all a little too easy and a little too on-point, but somehow it doesn’t bother me too much. We needed this scene to bring both these characters fully back into the fold. “Looks like I’m going to be a granny to her baby,” Siobhan tells Sarah at the end, and even I feel like S. has earned back her own role as Mother Hen to this family.
So does Sarah. Alison ends her reunion with her “real” mother by turning her back on her and walking away. But Sarah ends her scene with a reminder that a found family is a real family after all. “I’m so tired, Mum,” she says.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- To close out the “family” theme, I’ll repeat something that I’ve been saying since last year: Rachel is family too, and all the rules about forgiving and making room apply to her as well. Since she’s the only person who can decipher Duncan’s book, she has the power now to convince them to spring her from Dyad and admit her to the club: it’s manipulative, but I suspect it comes from a longing for acceptance that’s as genuine as anyone else’s. I think we need to consider the possibility that Rachel too has learned from her mistakes. (Her pain is certainly genuine enough when Scott points out that Duncan didn’t leave the book to her.) And it’s a nice touch that she will have to remember the secret language she shared with her father—the bond, the intimacy, the love—as her ticket back into a family.
- Last week I asked, in this space, if Beth’s cryptic clue in Sarah’s dream could possibly be referring to an evil secret agenda on Cosima’s part. We don’t get any support for that this week, but I confess I’m watching Cosima a little differently now, and I still think it’s possible. The disconnection from her sisters could be more than just stubborn self-reliance, and her fatal disease could give her all the motivation she would need to have been manipulating this entire operation from the beginning.
- Here’s an even more pessimistic prediction: basic storytelling rules suggest to me that, as the younger people learn to accept responsibility for the family—to become “mother hens”—the old mentors need to die. Which is to say, I suspect they’re reestablishing Siobhan as the matriarch of this family just in time to kill her off.
- I skipped over Donnie. I find my patience for Donnie—and that entire subplot—is growing thin. (Though I did laugh at Felix’s assurance to Alison that her new drug kingpin had to be the same guy who cut off Vic’s finger: “There are not two Pouchies, darling.”)
- “Alison, that girl was mulatto.” “No she wasn’t.” “She wasn’t? Well, I will never understand that hairstyle.” Heh.
- I have been longing for Helena and Alison to spend quality time together since Season One, and it looks like we’re finally going to see it happen next week, as she’s moving in with Team Hendrix. (Let’s see, with Gracie at Siobhan’s, and Cosima snuggling up with Shay, that leaves an empty bed at Felix’s for Rachel. Creative solutions, you see, to keep the family together.)