“A look of pure horror erupts in her face. A low terrible groan begins to rise up out of her throat. A hand comes into the shot. The hand holds an enormous bread knife. The flint of the blade shatters the screen to an almost total, silver blankness.” - Joseph Stefano, Psycho
A curious thing happens to Orphan Black this week. It starts the same way many episodes have—right where we left it, off like a bullet. But after spending weeks ramping up its thriller elements with pulse-pounding chases, kidnappings, and tense standoffs straight out of The Bourne Identity, this episode turns the dial just slightly into a new genre. Slowly, and then all at once, “Governed As It Were By Chance” becomes pure horror. It uses a combination of the characters’ desperation and precise technical detail to create some of the most harrowing sequences the show’s ever done. It was only a matter of time, since creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson both have roots in horror, but this episode is a meticulous study in what makes that genre tick. There’s David Frazee’s patient direction, which uses the camera as a third observer that both follows and sneaks up on the characters. There’s the cinematography, which uses an eerie new color palette of steel grays cast under white fluorescent light. There’s the music, which alternates between heart-pounding bass and ear-piercing shrieks to underscore the tension. Every scene of Russ Cochrane’s script builds a creeping sense of unease, a dread of what’s coming, a stomach-dropping sensation that someone’s just around the corner—until everything comes crashing spectacularly down. Sarah, Helena, and Alison literally wake up in their own versions of hell this week, and there’s no telling when they’ll be able to get out.
First, Sarah blinks herself awake, bleary and confused after Cal stopped Daniel’s kidnap attempt with a car crash. One thing I’ve always appreciated about how the show and Tatiana Maslany treat Sarah is that while she’s quick on the draw, she’s always appropriately scared when the time calls for it. She gets to her feet, but she’s traumatized. She grabs Daniel’s gun almost as a reflex, and when a police car comes tearing down the dirt path, her hand twitches on the trigger. The music builds, the car gets closer, Cal stares at her in horror—and the car whips past. “What were you going to do?” our proxy Cal shouts. Sarah has no answer, because at this point, who knows?
Then, Helena shudders herself awake, bleary and confused after…well, something. She doesn’t know what happened quite yet, but it’s clear that whatever happened after the Prolethians’ ceremony was completely traumatic when she flinches at Hendrick’s touch. They smile at her, they feed her food, they insist that this is her home now, but as Helena stares up at them, we can feel her fear. She turns away to block out this waking nightmare even if just for a second, and the shot blurs away from Helena’s face and into focus on Alison’s.
And so Alison lurches herself awake, bleary and confused after her public and private lives crashed so suddenly and literally. As she runs to the bathroom to vomit, the camera tilts as it tracks her, setting everything off kilter so we know that something is wrong here. Alison doesn’t realize it, though, until she straightens up and gets herself to the sink. Her hand hesitates over the faucet, and it dawns on her. This isn’t her house. Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. The longer shot of Alison surveying this aggressively blank, sterile room is textbook horror, setting up the idea that someone’s going to walk through that door and turn our world upside down, and that’s exactly what happens. An unfamiliar woman walks through the door and informs Alison that she better sit her ass down, because she’s in rehab. Her walk down the hallway with its fluorescent lights and unstable strangers just reinforces the idea that Alison’s trapped in her worst nightmare. She’s isolated from her loved ones and her “little helpers,” at the mercy of God knows who, and it’s only going to get worse. Despite a gentle pep talk from Felix, rehab nonetheless becomes a prison for Alison when Donnie stops by and informs her that she’s in danger of losing her children. It’s a horrifying prospect no matter what, but the knowledge that she could lose her children to her monitor is yet another layer of violation.
As Alison realizes she’s caught in a trap, Helena fights her way tooth and nail out of hers. Helena’s prison break is a study in classic horror. She tricks her guard to slip away, and hides in a darkened corner with her heart in her mouth. She tears through plastic sheets in fits and starts, the soundtrack screeching in panic as traumatic memories come flashing back into focus. Most blatantly, she’s a terrified blonde running away from her captors in a white dress. But Helena’s story has never been that simple, and so there are still subversions at play here. Yes, she’s running for her life, but even while she’s the hunted, she leaves Gracie’s body behind as a reminder that she can still be a hunter. And later, in the series’ most viscerally horrifying and physically stunning scene to date, a blood-soaked Helena is predator and prey, victim and victor.
But Helena just showing up in Rachel’s pristine apartment wouldn’t be as gutwrenching without the preceding series of beautifully orchestrated events. Sarah’s break-in starts off fun enough, like she’s starring in her own spy movie. She follows one of the Dyad’s henchmen to the apartment, delivering orders over the phone in Rachel’s controlled, clipped tone. She throws a hand between the door right before it closes, snakes her way in, and waits behind the kitchen counter for the coast to be clear. She pokes around Rachel’s things in an effort to know her enemy, and conveniently finds a delightful childhood video of Rachel and her adoptive mother frolicking in autumn leaves (hopefully setting the stage for a future scene where Rachel tells Sarah, “we’re not so different, you and I”). Then, just as Sarah’s getting comfortable leafing through Rachel’s closet, Daniel enters. She’s stuck. In fact, we’ve never actually seen Sarah this stuck before. She’s always found her way out of it through some sleight of hand or force of will, but this time, her adversary knocks her down before she can get her footing.
And so Sarah blinks herself awake, terrified after finally getting caught. Daniel dangles Kira’s golden “guardian angel” in front of her face as a cruel, taunting reminder of what’s at stake, and who’s waiting for her miles and miles away. It’s no coincidence that Sarah’s trapped in a white bathroom. Yes, Rachel’s apartment is pristine because she’s a pristine kind of person, but like with Patrick Bateman’s living room or Marion Crane’s shower, the blinding whiteness of it all will be so much effective when it inevitably becomes a mess. The anticipation rises as Daniel sharpens his knife. He’s furious, but he takes it slow, secure in the knowledge that he’s in total control. With her ability to run compromised, Sarah goes through every move she knows—spitting on his face, feigning more knowledge than she has on Project Leda, and finally, desperately, reminding him as he steps forward with the knife that she looks like Rachel. Even as she croaks, “you wouldn’t,” they both know he would. And so he does, scraping along her ear in a terrifically awful close-up that makes it clear that Sarah is in way, way over her head.
At that moment, everything changes. A jarringly cheerful song strikes up in the other room, drawing Daniel away. The camera deliberately stays with Sarah, though, tracking her confusion as the racket in the other room betrays Daniel’s death. Then he stumbles into frame, gurgling over Rachel’s spotless carpet—and Helena, her white dress covered in blood, lurches over his body, and spits on his face. No one said Sarah’s guardian angel couldn’t be an angry one.
Tatiana Maslany plunges new depths as Sarah’s fear envelops her entire body. Sarah shakes uncontrollably, face contorting with disbelief and horror. After trying all throughout the episode to get ahead of her enemies, this is the moment where Sarah has to face up to her own demons, to the dark part she’s been hiding from herself all along. Helena creeping up to her in that white dress while Sarah stands as a column of black isn’t the most subtle symbolism the show’s done, but it’s hard to deny its power. Even aside from the astounding technical feat, the weight of this moment is almost crushing. Here are two women facing each other, the awful things they’ve done, and the horrific things that have happened to them—and finally letting themselves feel it all. Sarah looks into the face of a woman she killed; Helena looks into herself, and realizes something precious has been stolen from her. And so Helena folds herself onto her sobbing sister, and they stand there together as the hunter and hunted, victim and victor, predator and prey. They’re in hell—and there’s no telling when they’ll get out.
- I in no way want the Prolethians to keep looking for Helena, but them casting her aside the second she provided them with life feels especially cruel.
- Project Leda is slowly starting to come into focus. Not only are the scientists in the picture Rachel’s adoptive parents, but as some of you have already guessed, Leda is likely named for the Greek myth of Leda and Zeus, which ends with miraculous twins. The creators have hinted that Greek mythology contains some answers to Orphan Black’s own mythology, but I’ll leave the speculation up to you guys for now.
- It’s still unclear how much Mrs. S knows, though she did seem surprised when Carlton said he had no idea “what” Sarah was, and to keep him out of it, please. And on a sidenote, hot damn, Mrs. S!
- Don’t think I didn’t notice that “Hendrick” and “Hendrix” are incredibly similar names, because I did. I have no answer for it, but they’re too close to be coincidental. Or are they? (No really, I’m asking. I have no idea.)
- Cosima’s condition continues to get worse. But as far as Felix (and Sarah, and Alison) are concerned, “Cosima and Delphine are locked in some kind of transgressive lesbian geek spiral.”
- Sarah on Rachel’s apartment: “Straight out of Cold Bitch Digest.”
- “I don’t know if I’ve ever done ‘the nasty.’” Come on, Alison. We all know about Chad.