Orphan Black: “Effects of External Conditions”
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Orphan Black: “Effects of External Conditions”

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Orphan Black

“Effects of External Conditions”

Season 1, Episode 4
A-

Orphan Black

“Effects of External Conditions”

Season 1, Episode 4

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The breakneck pace of last week's episode may have made my head spin, but it put the gears in motion for this week's tighter, gripping hour. The episode moves at no less hurtling a pace, but with last week's buildup, it has the groundwork and room to be a satisfying, mind-bending thriller. It's almost textbook - a reluctant heroine, the precocious kid she's fighting for, a past that's so mysterious it's a mystery even to her, and a psychotic villain who's her mirror-image.

But as I was watching "Effects of External Conditions," I realized that the reason why Orphan Black is so compelling is that it has so far managed to maintain tension without resorting to shock value, which less subtle shows like The Following use as a crutch. Instead, Orphan Black's shock value is in its twists, and in its absence. The most gore we get is Helena stitching herself up, and even that scene is played more for her anguish and searing curiosity than the actual hole in her stomach. From all appearances, this takes place in the bathroom of her lair; its stark whiteness would hardly be out of place in the apartment of a religious obsessive. Then, it cuts to a child descending the stairs. A little boy in pajamas seems too easy, like dangling a kitten above a ravine just to stress people out. But as he tiptoes through a blood trail only to meet Helena smiling down at him and putting a finger to her lips, the tone is set. If last week was a procedural, this week is a horror movie, and guys – it’s a good one.

Since Sarah lied to the police department (and most importantly, Art) about not seeing the killer, she spends this episode frantically trying to stay one step ahead of the investigation while also using the department's knowledge of serial killers to understand her homicidal counterpart. It would have been easy to keep Helena in the shadows as Sarah and the police pursued her, but spending some time with her independent of Sarah gives the story more weight. Helena is a twitchy and self-lacerating woman with religious fire, passion to burn, and nothing to lose; in other words, she's a textbook TV serial killer except for the fact that she's a "she." Identifying the killer so soon is a risky move, but it pays off with a series of beautifully tense cat-and-mouse scenes that rival anything Luther or Sherlock have had to offer.

Then there's the equivalent of even more acting acrobatics from Tatiana Maslany. Not only does she have to act as Sarah, Sarah playing Beth, Allison, Cosima, and Helena, but she tackles Allison playing Sarah and Helena playing Beth (...even just typing out that sentence was exhausting). Every character-playing-character moment is expertly handled, but none more so than Helena as Beth. While Sarah and Allison give it their all to slip into the other clones' skin, Helena doesn't have the presence of mind to try. She slips on a beanie, shoves her bleached hair underneath, and depends on her identical face to get her to Beth's desk. The kicker? That's all she needs. Maslany gets help with Helena's bloodshot eyes, but the sheer physicality of her shuffling into the department like a zombie with a short fuse is thrilling. On the other hand, there's no way Raj would be the only person to notice that "Beth" is back in the office after she just left for a prominent case, or that she looks like she just went out back and mainlined bath salts. If they were that hesitant to reinstate her because of mental instability, Helena as Beth is the living embodiment of all their fears.

Meanwhile, there's Alison. You guys, Alison is the best. I fully expected to like Cosima more, since she's a Quirky Computer Girl who's intellectually curious in a Topher Brink kind of way, but Allison's barely concealed fury at her circumstances has been far more interesting. I also don't hate that Felix has spent almost as much time around Allison as he has Sarah these days. As total opposites, they're predictably hilarious together. They both shudder at the very idea of each other's lives, but have no choice but to unite for Sarah's - and every clone's - sake. Felix has accepted Sarah's new chaos in stride, as he has all his life, but Alison's openly hostile towards their shared clone background. And if Alison's going to be hunted, she's going to be prepared her way: with a bottle of white and a side of gun.

But she was a goner the second Sarah mentioned her daughter. It's realistic but cruel that Sarah's duties as Beth are keeping her from Kira, the only reason she got involved in this mess in the first place. Plus, anyone who's ever seen a movie or TV show knows that "Yeah, I'll be there" means "Yeah, I'm going to fuck this up." It's a wonder Sarah manages to keep it together at all, let alone as a cop, which is why Felix reminding Allison as much is so effective. In a powerful piece of staging, Felix tells her Sarah is risking her life in a much more tangible way than the other clones as we watch Sarah tiptoe up the stairs to meet Helena, gun drawn, face white with terror. Alison bristles at the idea that she's not doing her part, but she gets the point, and gets to work. Her "reverse Pygmalion" amounts to playing Sarah as a ne'er do well street urchin, and while the irony of Felix coaching her on a legitimate Cockney accent will no doubt be the subject of much hilarity in the comments, Alison's transition into Sarah is a welcome bit of levity in an otherwise grim episode. It also allows us to see a crack in Alison's heavy armor. Her interactions with Kira are genuinely sweet, even after Kira knows something's up and Alison drops the act (which is a nice bit of symmetry to Sarah dropping her Beth act with the kid witness).

Kudos to those commenters who thought Alison's kids being a different race from her and her husband was significant, because they are indeed adopted, and it does indeed seem to be significant. It's a brief moment, but when Sarah shrugs that yeah, Kira is biologically hers, all it takes is a flicker of jealousy and curiosity in Alison's eyes to confirm that Kira is an anomaly. If living clones don't make biological sense, certainly being able to have children makes even less. Between singling Sarah out as "different than the others", the link between Helena and Beth's victim Maggie Chen, and the mysterious van that picked Helena up at the end of the episode, it's safe to say Orphan Black is diving headfirst into some serious mythology. To be frank, I don't love the idea of Sarah being special because she can reproduce. This kind of twist is rarely as interesting as the (mostly male) writers seem to think. Plus, making female characters singular because of miraculous motherhood tends to diminishes otherwise complex characters into metaphors (see: Amy Pond, Number Eight).

Even if we’re not in for the Virgin Mary situation, though, we're definitely in for a heavy dose of religion, which I guess was inevitable in a show about clones. I just hope they play that card as deftly as they’ve played every other.

Stray observations:

  • If I have a consistent complaint with the series so far, it's that I can't tell what they're trying to do with Paul, and I don't think it' because they're trying to keep him mysterious. Is he a love interest for Sarah? Does she actually give a shit? Why bother having Helena lure him to the office if she wasn't going to follow through? So far, Paul reads as an afterthought. Like they realized last minute that they didn't have a romance going and shoehorned him in.
  • So Beth had to be some sort of detective prodigy, right? Maslany's good, but not good enough to hide the fact that she looks fifteen years younger than everyone else in that department.
  • Don’t blame Sarah for bailing on playing a cop, especially since she was probably due for some seriously boring paperwork soon, anyway.
  • Cosima has a pretty plum gig, telecommuting from Minnesota with the internet and weed while everything in Toronto fall spectacularly into pieces.
  • "Why would one of us be killing one of us?! What’s wrong with her?” "Bad breath. Batshit crazy.”
  • “Monkey…bum…face?”

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