As much as I appreciate genre fiction, I have to confess a definite ebb and flow in my appreciation for Orphan Black. Buoyed by pre-broadcast praise (from Todd, among others), I was suitably impressed with the tantalizingly enigmatic setup: Street-smart British hustler steals the identity of a lookalike she witnesses committing suicide by train and inventively brazens out her scam even when she discovers that her doppelganger was a cop. Especially when said hustler was portrayed by the unknown (to me) Tatiana Maslany who, in the lead role of Sarah, possessed a startlingly alive presence, even before the plot’s machinations allowed her to reveal the versatility she brought along as well. As multiple lookalikes appeared, the wealth of Maslany’s gifts multiplied with them, the plot and her talent seeming to gain in loony, exciting momentum. As the mysteries of those first episodes increased, I marveled at the execution, and fairly tingled with anticipation of how it would all play out.
When the explanation came, I recall my excitement deflating with the sci fi simplicity of it all. Clones. Even the word sounded like the air escaping from my then full-to-bursting enthusiasm. Cloooonessssss... It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a clone story per se (unless Spider-Man or George Lucas are involved): but we’ve seen clones, done clones before, and the revelation that the mystery deep in the heart of this theretofore original show was something so well-trod couldn’t help but seem a little disappointing.
What redeemed the premise, of course, was Maslany, who kept unveiling new depths to her ability to imbue each successively introduced clone with such specific essences. As Sarah met the ill-fated clone at her own memorial service, then Alison, Helena, and Cosima, the novelty of the concept gave way to simple admiration at how splendidly Maslany could play off of, well, herself. Each interaction became less about the gimmick and more about the individual characters, a basic tenet of drama most high-concept storytelling botches to throughly deadening effect.
My enthusiasm thus rebuilt, however, I’m with Caroline’s assessment of last week’s episode. When the plot machine roared back to life and started explaining the whys and whos behind the cloning and those who oppose the cloning, and the clones themselves retreated into the mid-ground, my attention went with them: the overarching story had to reappear at some point, but this ongoing tug-of-war between character-driven drama and genre cliché remains problematic, especially with a second season looming. (The prospect of more characters for Maslany to play around in vs. the real danger, as Todd put it, of the show pulling an Alias or X-Files and disappearing up its own, um, mythology.)
Which is why tonight’s episode is so refreshing, centering as it does almost entirely on our clone-y trio of Sarah, Alison, and, most surprisingly, Helena. Sure there’s some of last week’s nefarious scheming in there, plus more of the cop plot which is no one’s favorite, but the former is brief and the latter actually has some bite to it for a change. If this episode is an indication of the balance that creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson will strike from here on out, then I’m more than satisfied.
Sarah and Paul wake up cuddling in Felix’s red-sheeted bed, which seems just all manner of dumb, as Caroline pointed out last week: If Paul is adamant that they can’t go back to the townhouse, then how much safer is it to snuggle down in an apartment with ties to supposedly-deceased Sarah waiting for Beth’s (cop) partner to make the connection? At least it gives Jordan Gavaris’ Felix an opportunity to make one of his signature entrances, “Sorry, I couldn’t afford lattes for Bonnie and Clyde,” before everyone’s off and tasking-Paul to go and threaten the maimed Olivier, and Sarah to attend to a new crisis at Alison’s house.
Alison, back early from the (much needed) marriage counseling weekend, announces that she’s returned “to set her house in order.” For Alison, that means divorcing Donnie, popping pills, and, in the inimitable Alison fashion demonstrated a few weeks ago with a golf club and a hot glue gun, locking her eyes on the one she suspects is behind this unforgivable disruption. When meddlesome neighbor Ainsley shows up and has the gall to leaf through Alison’s mail, Alison’s eyes turn black with the icy zeal of one bound and determined to regain the control she has always desperately needed. (Maslany’s skill in creating the very different, and very specific, characters the show requires hasn’t been overstated. She embodies the sort of versatility and specificity that Dollhouse’s Eliza Dushku sorely lacked. That crippled Dollhouse, while Maslany elevates every scene of Orphan Black.) In Alison’s case, that talent has gone towards gradually revealing the depths to which all of this disruption has driven Alison, all the more necessary as Alison’s sudden rudderlessness drives her to do some very un-Alison-like things (demanding her keys back from Ainsley, getting high with, and enthusiastically banging Ainsley’s put-upon husband in the back of his SUV), all of which only make sense because of the way Maslany has laid the groundwork.
Meanwhile, Sarah, upon finding out that the cops have (finally) started to put the pieces together and have visited Mrs. S, finds herself forced to don the Beth guise one more time and to stride into the belly of the beast in order to find out what Art and Angela really have on her. It’s a typically nervy Sarah move, especially since she can’t know going in what will happen but, as Mrs. S chillingly points out, they are all on the precipice of losing Kira and the life they built when they fled England. That love of Kira bridges every difference, every resentment, and Sarah readily agrees to Mrs. S’ assessment, “If it takes one step towards Kira you have to yell fire. The home we have built for ourselves in this country, we burn it all down.”
And so she’s Beth again, playing to a much more skeptical, and in Angela’s case, hostile audience, being shown pictures that clearly show she has at least one, and probably more, identical,and very dead lookalikes. It’s a good scene for Kevin Hanchard’s Art who, by design, has had to play the dupe too often to make much of an impression. The set to his jaw when, after dismissing Beth, he bags up the photo he’s just used to capture her fingerprints, speaks volumes more than anything he’s been given to do so far. (Dull Angela, too, gets her moment, prefacing one probing question to Beth with a purring, “Sorry to be a bitch, but...”)
These storylines all come together when Alison, fresh from a suburban streetfight with the righteously pissed Ainsley (who, it appears, is not her monitor-oops), comes drunkenly looking to cry on Felix’s shoulder only to be whisked off by Alison to Mrs. S’ when Felix realizes that Art and Angela have (shocker!) decided to come talk to the one person who identified Sarah’s body. The scene at Mrs. S’ house is another perfect encapsulation of the balance Orphan Black can strike between character and plot, with Mrs. S (who takes the whole cloning revelation in admirable stride) cooing over the fact that Alison has been to university (“Kinesiology? That’s just basically massage therapy,” Sarah responds in sibling rivalry), and Alison recounting her now-shattered perfect life in affectingly funny detail. (She has had a very long day.) After shuffling the exhausted Alison off to the guest room, we get some more, not especially elucidating detail from Mrs. S about where Sarah came from (there was scuttlebutt about unnamed medical experiments performed on some of the orphans who came to Mrs. S’ shelter “from the black”). Embroiled as they are in conversation, neither notices that Kira is creeping down the stairs.
Helena, with her preternaturally pale skin, myriad scars, feral, red-eyed mien, (and, it must be said, dodgy Russian-y accent), has always been the least interesting of the show’s clone characters. Functioning best as a quick-hit angel of death and mayhem, I don’t ever recall thinking, “Gee-I sure hope we get an extended Helena arc.”
In tonight’s episode, however, Helena’s essential otherness is used to its best effect yet, as she tracks Sarah to Mrs. S’ house in search of...well, that’s not entirely clear. First seen poring over Kira’s letter to Sarah (which she’d found in Sarah’s jacket!) and alternately rocking back and forth and going fetal while looking at Kira’s photos, Helena’s eventual mission to contact Sarah’s child remains as mysterious as it is haunting. Kira comes downstairs, unseen by Sarah and Mrs. S, and pulls aside the curtain over the door pane. (Presumably she’d been drawn downstairs after seeing Helena, who looks so much like her mother, from her bedroom window, but the framing of the sequence evokes a more enigmatic motive.) Seeing Helena’s face emerging blurrily from the darkness, Kira smiles and extends her fingers to the glass and, from outside, Helena mirrors her, pressing her fingers against the child’s and smiling a smile that comes from...somewhere else.
And then they’re gone.
Sarah, catching sight of the open door (and the return of her leather jacket in place of Helena’s parka), sprints into the night, screaming Kira’s name. She catches a glimpse of them rounding a corner, and her panic is palpable as she tries desperately to overtake them, only to lose any trace in the glare of the main street.
Cut to an icy alleyway, where Helena states ominously that she’s taking Kira “to meet someone,” only to be brought up short when the child asks, “What happened to you.” Helena sinks against the wall and, when Kira reaches out to hug her, Helena’s red-rimmed eyes fill with tears. She calls Kira “angel,” but when the child holds her, her arms stretch out and twist uncertainly behind Kira’s back, as if she doesn’t know how or why to hold her in return. It’s a stunning, moving scene in which my least favorite clone has a moment of transcendent, if ambiguous grace.
And then the unthinkable happens. Something so abrupt and shocking, and yet so mundanely horrible, that I gasped. (And again when I rewatched the episode, even though I knew it was coming.) For the whole of the series, Kira has remained the one, untouchable good thing that Sarah had to hold on to. For all her screw-ups (Vic) and bad choices (Vic), Sarah’s love for her daughter is what has kept her going. And now Mrs. S’ fears have come home in the most brutal way possible.
And now Sarah may have to burn it all down.
- Oh, and the Cosima plot proceeds, with Delphine, under deliberately ambiguous orders from the sinister Dr. Leekie (in the back of his limo, no less), seducing Cosima in order to ransack her apartment. As much as I like Cosima as a character, and as adorably sexy as she is in these scenes, her function in this episode is, well, functional compared to the others.
- Like the choice of hideout, the way in which Helena locates Kira smacks of lazy plotting. Doesn’t Sarah remember that she has a letter from Kira, complete with return address, in her coat pocket? You know, the leather jacket she knows an unstable killing machine clone is now wearing?
- So now we have no idea who Alison’s monitor is. Any ideas? Her kids? The family dog? I’m stumped.
- It’s nice when the show slows down to let us remember that Felix and Sarah are essentially siblings. Sarah, wiggling her toes under the napping Felix’s nose, “Does it smell?” Felix: “Yes! It smells like a foot-only worse, because it’s yours.” Yes, I have sisters...
- Facing Mrs. S’ wrath upon being visited by the cops about Sarah’s “death” (“I was tempted to claim the remains and feed them to you both on toast”), Felix’s abashed offer of mimosas was pretty much perfect.
- Paul, menacing the doomed Olivier, finally got to show a little menace. It suits him.
- Two hilariously revealing Alison lines this episode. After Ainsley’s husband asks why she kissed him: “I’m objectifying you. Sexually.” And her measured suburban rage at Mrs. S’: “I just wanted to say ‘f’ it. ‘F’ you. ‘F’ all of it. And I ‘f”-ed it all up!”
- Alison singing lustily along to “I’m A Bitch” and really believing in the lyrics? Perfect.
- Maslany has two different types of physical altercations with blondes a head taller than she in the episode.
- Orphan Black’s occasional employment of too on-the-nose music cues continues. This time it’s the abrupt spy music theme as Delphine searches Cosima’s place.
- Delphine leaves out the information about Kira.
- The opening wake up scene mirrors my exasperation with exposition precisely. As their pillow talk gives way to Paul launching into an abrupt recap of what happened last night with Olivier and what that means for etc., Sarah rolls her eyes, gets out of bed and sighs, “For a minute there I forgot I was a clone.”