“By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” is a sprint to the finish in all senses of the word. It moves at a lightning pace, zigzagging through complications and twists like it’s trying to beat its personal best time. It ends up breathless, thrilled with its daring but panting for air, dizzy and disoriented.
At the very least, this finale embodies both the best and most frustrating aspects of Orphan Black’s second season. There has been a constant push and pull between the show’s instinct to ground the story in realism and its palpable excitement at the prospect of deepening its mythology. Orphan Black started as a high-stakes procedural, a whodunit with a hefty dose of feminist stakes. In this second season, however, the complications gained layers and piled up onto each other, creating webs of conspiracy that were increasingly impossible to follow. As the clones came sharper into focus on a micro level, the controversy around them got louder, more disparate, and less focused.
To that point, we get one of the series’ biggest leaps to date with the reveal that the military has a line of male clones—including former Prolethan acolyte, Mark (the compelling Ari Millen). It’s a huge twist, but really, “Project Castor” is not all that surprising. The show’s made no secret of the fact that Project Leda is a direct reference to the Greek myth, which tells the story of human Leda bearing two sets of mixed-sex twins, one to Zeus and one to her mortal husband. The possibility that there might be a line of male clones, or at least an attempt at one, was never far from my mind. The reality, though, opens a whole new mess of questions. I wrote earlier this season that female clones make sense because we live in a world where women’s bodies are constantly scrutinized, commodified, and claimed. There’s no better example of how Orphan Black has embraced the challenge of exploring these issues than the horrifying scenes between Sarah and the Dyad scientists. The scientists poke and pull at her without any regard for her comfort, asking invasive question (“when did you become sexually active?”) after invasive question (“have you ever had an abortion?”). Sarah gives her answers in a determined monotone (“fourteen” and a choked “yeah,” respectively). They soon stop asking questions to start listing demands. Then they realize they don’t have to make demands; they can just take what’s theirs. This is the most explicit the show’s ever gotten about what’s at stake for these women’s bodies, not to mention how far people will go to control them. When Dr. Nealon asks Sarah to sign away her eggs, Sarah holds up her handcuffed wrists and says, “does it really matter?” Of course not. It never did. And so they strap her to a gurney and inform her that they will be taking one of her ovaries, and there’s not a thing she can do about it. It’s the natural progression of all the interest in Sarah’s reproductive value, and it’s exactly as horrifying as expected.
I won’t lie; my immediate reaction at learning that there are male clones was that it was a shame. Orphan Black is one of the few shows that puts female agency front and center, and introducing a male line will certainly complicate that. The more I thought about it, though, the more I warmed up to the idea that a male line of clones could lead somewhere just as fascinating as a female line. The fact that Castor went to the military, not to mention that all three iterations we’ve now seen have clear ties to the military, is a complicated choice in and of itself. Dyad took the female line to observe and experiment; the military took the male line and turned it into an asset. Just as much as Dyad and the Proletheans’ treatment of Sarah and her sisters shows how women’s bodies can be claimed and repurposed, Castor could explore how masculinity can be harnessed as a weapon.
As big as the Castor revelation is, it only takes up about five minutes in an otherwise stacked finale. We also meet Marion Bowles’ adopted daughter Charlotte—an eight-year old clone from Sarah’s line. Her timid limp up to a wide-eyed Sarah is an eerie echo to those photographs in the church cellar, twisted limbs and wasted life of projects past. Marion speaks of her investment in Charlotte with all the right words for a caring mother, but she betrays her commitment to the science and this shady “Top Side” organization when she so casually reveals that Charlotte is the sole survivor of Dyad’s four hundred attempts to replicate the original female line. Despite Marion’s new alliance with Sarah and Mrs. S, she’s still firmly in the “cannot be trusted until further notice” camp, but it’s at least comforting to know that the awesome Michelle Forbes will have a larger role in the grand scheme of things.
For my money, though, Orphan Black’s “grand scheme of things” has never been as compelling as its quieter, character-based drama. The series’ best moments have come from its astonishing attention to character work rather than its attempts to flesh out vague conspiracies. Sure, including clones automatically places Orphan Black within the sci-fi genre, and government secrecy and severed tails make for some sensational material, but its ability to keep its increasingly complex stories grounded in fleshed-out characters is what makes it singular. Take Alison’s spiral into self-doubt out in suburbia, or Sarah’s constant heartbreak that she can’t provide a stable life for her daughter, or the moment when a home video manages to crack Rachel’s veneer enough for a smile. Even Helena, who was such an exaggerated character in the first season, gained momentum this year as one of the show’s strongest aspects once it delved into what makes her tick beyond feral rage—snack food, golden oldies, and most of all, family. These are the moments that stand out amongst the clutter of conspiracy.
So while it introduces several game-changing elements, “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” is strongest when it goes smaller—and weakest when it doesn’t trust its characters to sell these poignant moments. The cold open, for example, intercuts between everyone panicking after Kira’s kidnapping and Sarah getting dressed down at Dyad for no good discernible reason. It messes with the timeline, spoiling Sarah’s dramatic decision to surrender to Dyad so that when she does grab her coat and make a break for it, we already know where she’s headed. It’s a pointless trick that cuts a potentially powerful sequence off at the knees for the sake of making everything seem more urgent. The same holds true for Rachel and Duncan’s final scene together. Co-creator John Fawcett gets a little too ambitious with the intercuts, diluting Andrew Gillies and Tatiana Maslany beautiful and desperate goodbyes with flashy cuts to the home video on the wall. There’s just no need to underline the fact that Duncan and Rachel lost a lifetime of love with each other when the actors are selling the hell out of that dynamic already. Maslany letting Rachel devolve into a childish tantrum, both when Duncan dies and when she smashes Kira’s bone marrow, is a particular stroke of genius for this woman who lost her childhood.
But this finale at least does right by a character the show has had incredible trouble integrating into the main story, even as her life wastes away with every tick of the clock. Cosima is a promising character that has too long been sidelined by a confusing romance. It was never quite clear where Delphine stood, or why Cosima was so quick to forgive her huge breaches of confidence in a world where the only valuable currency is trust. Even though Evelyne Brochu has developed into a far more confident part of the cast as the season has progressed, sending Delphine away forces the show to treat Cosima as a person rather than a half of a “Cophine” whole.
And so we get a standout scene with Cosima giving Kira a science lesson. They make for a a surprisingly rich combination in both this scene and the later one when Kira reveals Duncan’s cipher in The Island of Dr. Moreau, but the lesson enables Cosima to show off how warm and brilliant she is in a whole new context. The intercut is used to much better effect here as Cosima coaches Kira on physics at the same time that we see her and Scott furiously putting their incredible smarts to practical use. Cosima’s determination to help Sarah even as she struggles to stay standing is the most poignant moment she’s had on the show—at least until she gets to Felix’s loft.
It’s not a male clone cliffhanger, but the clone slumber party is far and away the best part of this finale. Having Sarah, Helena, Alison, Cosima (and Felix) in the same place at the same time could have read as strict fan service, but it instead becomes a truly terrific show of sisterhood in the eye of an overwhelming storm. They know the fight is far from over, but for this one night, they can take comfort in each other. Cosima can put on a record and lose herself in a dance. Sarah can watch over her daughter and marvel at her fierce love for her siblings. Helena can let go of her fear and feel like she’s part of a true family. Even Alison, who has nothing to do outside of this scene, can let loose. It’s such a silly, lovely scene, with no purpose other than to remind us how far these women have come to mean to each other, and to us. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a treat to finally see the dances Tatiana Maslany has longed credited for getting her into character for each clone, or that the editing and digital technique in this scene is just about flawless. Cosima and Sarah’s interlocked hands the next morning are an incredible achievement, and a stunning moment, besides. Orphan Black’s world may be complicating at a rapid pace, but it’s still no match for these brave, compassionate women.
- Before you say it—grading this episode was about as hard as writing the entire review. (I almost gave it a “!?!”, but figured that might be unprofessional.)
- I never had a choice – I had to write this review to the Clone Sleepover Jam.
- It’s hard to be attached to Marion at this point, but her responding to Sarah’s accusation that her organization goes after profit with an immediate “yes” like that should be obvious is perfect.
- Wishlist for Season Three: getting to know the three male clones beyond “hey there’s that military project!”; Tony returning with something resembling coherence; more Felix and Colin dance parties; Alison and Sarah storming a military base to free Helena with the cunning use of illegal firearms and switch-em-ups; weekly appearances of Cal’s sheepish shrugs.
- Anti-Wishlist for Season Three: seeing Helena get captured without anyone noticing again, or discovering that Kira has some sort of magical restorative fairy dust power.
- The only Maslany acting choice I love more than Rachel’s tantrum is when Felix asks Helena if she burned down the Prolethean farm and she positively beams as she says, “no…”
- Thanks for reading along with me this season! It’s been a true honor, and a total trip.