Outside of Tatiana Maslany’s stunning performance(s), the most impressive thing about Orphan Black was its unwavering ambition. The freshman series layered complications on top of complications, barreled headlong into conflict, challenged characters to accept and question truths in equal measure, and gleefully twisted expectations to the point that there was just no predicting what might—or should— happen. As Sarah Manning and her fellow clones delved deeper into their shared origin story, we fell right down the rabbit hole with them. But there’s always a shadow of doubt lurking behind the bravado of a series realizing it has something special. What if it can’t maintain these narrative acrobatics? What if it throws so much stuff out there that it all just collapses in on itself, weighted down by high expectations and its own daring? By the end of its first season, Orphan Black had laid so much intricate groundwork for so many different kinds of characters that it was understandable when it showed signs of strain. But “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” proves that the show doesn’t want to settle for merely following up on the various threads from last season’s jam-packed finale. In fact, this thrilling hour is Orphan Black’s best episode to date, leaving you breathless with its daring.
We pick up almost immediately where we left off at the end of last season, as Sarah reels from the shock of shooting Helena point-blank and losing her daughter to God knows who after giving up everything to keep her safe. It’s startling how different this weathered Sarah Manning is from the rebel without a cause who swaggered into town back in the pilot. She stumbles into an empty diner, orders tea, and tries to calm herself down enough to make her next move. This cold open is the perfect primer for the whirlwind that is this episode, with co-creator John Fawcett’s direction expertly building and releasing the tension until the episode’s final heart-stopping twist (more on that later). The camera swipes along the outside window with the rain as Sarah settles into a booth, giving the spine-tingling impression that someone’s watching. Then we shift to the grainy texture and jarring cuts of a horror movie as Sarah whips out her pink phone, the only lifeline she has to the clone sisters she’s come to depend upon for better or for worse. She calls Alison—and the number’s disconnected. It’s strange, but not cause for panic quite yet, since she knows Alison’s signed her Dyad Institute contract. But then she tries Cosima—and the number’s disconnected. You can practically see Sarah’s stomach sink through the floor as she realizes once and for all that all bets are off. The entrance of someone’s blandly smiling henchmen only adds to the sense that everything is off-kilter. The bottle rocket of tension finally explodes with two slow-mo deaths and a suddenly sped-up, heart-pounding chase scene that reminds us why Sarah’s singular. Sure, she’s a clone, and a clone that can reproduce at that, but Sarah Manning’s ultimately special because she dares to go off-script. If she runs into trouble, she’ll chug a bottle of hand soap to buy some time. If she runs up against a wall, she’ll grab a fire extinguisher and bash her way the hell right out. In an instant of inspired thinking, Sarah constantly rejects what should be desperate, cornered moments with her sheer determination to survive.
I know I just devoted a whole lot of words to the cold open, but that’s because it sets the tone and pattern so spectacularly for the rest of the episode. Whether it’s in bursts or over several scenes, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” gets mileage out of building a sense of creeping dread that may or may not explode. The revelations of the finale forced everyone into corners and up against walls; this premiere shows what they’ll do now that they know there’s no turning back.
Sarah alternately bashes walls down and sneaks her way around them. Though we’ve saw glimpses of her “dirty little grifter” past, this is the first time we’ve really seen her in action. It only takes Kira’s name to get Felix out of his hedonistic club mindset (though not his assless chaps—missed you, Felix!) so they can get down to brass tacks. Felix points out that her phone is the only one that’s still connected; Sarah immediately dumps it in a passing drink and casually pickpockets a new one without skipping a beat. She knows the Dyads will use her meeting with Paul as a booby trap, so she pays people off to give Paul an untapped burner phone and act as a distracting body double so she can make a break for it. She crashes the Dyad Institute as Cosima(!), and turns a moment of panic into an opportunity to swipe Leekie’s all-access hall pass. But where the Sarah of years past used her arsenal of skills for petty crime, Sarah’s now using it to recover her family and retain the right to control her own life. The stakes are about as high as they can get.
Sarah also now has multiple allies who don’t just support her, but know and respect her. Sarah makes it clear that she’ll have no problem killing Rachel if she has to, and in turn, Felix, Cosima, Alison, and even Paul make it clear that they know well enough to stay out of her way. So when Sarah finally gets to Rachel, Cosima’s dramatic eyeliner suddenly transformed into war paint as she stands there steady with cold fury, there’s a beautiful payoff. All we know about Rachel up to this point is that she’s coolly calculating, and confident that she’s in total control. Rachel fancies that she’s always one step ahead of everyone, as evidenced by her informing Sarah that she knew dangling Kira and Mrs. S would get her there, even if it weren’t true. She then sees the gun in Sarah’s hand with something approaching pity, and says, “You’re not going to shoot me, Sarah.” In that moment, she proves that she doesn’t know everything—or at the very least, she doesn’t know Sarah like we do. Bang. Rachel panics at the fired shot not only because it’s an inch from her pristine head, but because she didn’t anticipate it like she’s anticipated everything else. Rachel can’t pin Sarah Manning down, because Sarah Manning goes off-script.
Meanwhile, Alison and Cosima spend this episode rapidly hurtling towards their own walls despite their best intentions. Alison finds that she can’t make a clean break with her clone heritage. It says a lot about how far Alison and Sarah’s friendship has come that Alison goes out of her way to help even while she insists that she wants to stay out of it. If we needed any more evidence that Alison’s in denial about how “normal” her life can ever be, she barely blinks when someone mentions Ainsley’s death. For Alison, getting her life back means leaving all the chaos and strife of the past few months behind. And so she’ll take over Ainsley’s lead role in the musical, force a smile, and will herself not to think about watching her best friend choke to death as she sings about—this is true—“cleaning up after an unfortunate death.” It’s a hilarious comedy of errors, and Maslany’s comic timing as Alison is as sharp as ever, but there’s an underlying promise throughout that Mrs. Hendrix won’t keep it together for much longer. After all, denying that she’s hit her wall won’t make it hurt any less.
Cosima gets less to do in this episode, but what she does get is heart-wrenching. Now, her discovery that the clones are patented didn’t hit me quite so hard when I first watched the finale; I had already assumed the Neolutionists laid claim to their creations the second they proved successful. But as Sarah storms through henchmen and Alison flutters between responsibilities, Cosima confronts the question of their autonomy with a quiet desperation that’s just devastating. Her mystery illness is a ticking clock counting down to who knows what, and so Cosima’s staring down a seemingly unsurpassable wall, hoping beyond all hope that her research could reveal a hidden doorway to get through it. Complicating matters is the fact that she’s fallen hard for Delphine, who delivers one of the episode’s most shattering moments when she not only gives Cosima’s blood sample to Leekie, but calls her “324B21.” At this point, it’s hard to say what side Delphine’s on. Her breach of Cosima’s trust and casual dismissal of her personhood, though, gives the clones’ fight for independence that much more of an emotional impact. While it’s clever to incorporate the Supreme Court’s recent decision that synthetic genetic material is eligible for patents, everyone’s refusal to acknowledge the clones as flesh and blood people is what will propel this storyline forward. Cosima knows even as she says the words that “my biology, my decision” (the clone version of “my body, my choice”) will be the hardest-won fight of her lifetime.
And then, just as we think we’re safe from further twists and panic attacks, there’s a sudden slash of familiar, screeching music. Fawcett drags out the moment and our confusion, letting the camera follow boots and blood stumbling across cold linoleum until it suddenly jerks up to that singular shock of peroxide blonde hair. When Sarah said Helena’s “just gone,” there was no reason not to believe it, and plenty else to focus on, besides. But there it is – Helena’s alive. It speaks to the caliber of the writing that this twist doesn’t come off as a cheat. When paired with Art’s discovery that Kira (and Mrs. S’s?) kidnappers are part of the fanatical religious faction, Helena being alive makes total sense for the story. The Prolethians have largely been a misstep in the show’s mythology, defined more by stereotypes of fanaticism than anything approaching human. The combination of Helena, a captive Kira, and these new blank-eyed disciples give the Prothelians much-needed purpose.
Orphan Black has always been a fun show, but “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” proves that it could be a great one. It’s the most cohesive episode the series has ever done, keeping the pace brisk enough so that everyone gets enough screen time without it feeling cluttered. And then, of course, there’s Tatiana Maslany. After months of telling people how good she is, I watched this premiere and realized that she’s easily ten times better. For evidence of her astonishing thoughtfulness, look no further than when Sarah’s pretending to be Cosima. Sarah’s a gifted chameleon, but she’s still nervous around Leekie, and so Maslany lets just a sliver of Sarah’s Cockney accent slip out before she’s back to Cosima’s Berkeley drawl in the blink of an eye. From Sarah careening around the city alternately lost and furious, to Rachel’s silken poise, to Alison’s determined tap dancing, Maslany makes every single performance shine. She’s truly living these characters from the inside out. Now that the show’s catching up to her, I’d say we’re in for a hell of a ride.
- Welcome back to weekly reviews of Orphan Black, Clone Club! I promise not every review will be quite this long (though I can’t promise they won’t be as involved if the show keeps this up).
- Bonus points to the entire cast and crew for keeping Helena’s survival a secret all this time. Talking about her like she was dead might seem like a mean trick, but I’m so grateful they kept us in Sarah’s head this entire time so we could be really, truly shocked.
- Alison’s “gun enthusiast” friend Ramon and his Mary Poppins contraband trunk is kind of the best. I wouldn’t be at all opposed if he became a more permanent fixture, especially now that he’s seen Sarah and Cosima, and most importantly, flirted with Felix.
- My favorite thing about Cosima and Delphine is that they’re always sitting with a thousand candles and red drapery like they’re in a 90’s lesbian movie.
- I want to love Big Dick Paul because that nickname, but his monotone delivery of “really, in the face?” killed the humor to the point that I didn’t realize he and Sarah had planned out that punch. Crack a smirk, BDP. Your lying ass has earned it.
- Loved that twisty yellow bridge Sarah told Paul to go to, if only because the long-shot of it looked so much like a strand of DNA.
- Felix and Alison are still so great (“Your thumbs are so bouncy!” “Are you high?”), but Felix and Cosima getting stoned together could give that pairing a run for its money.
- And now, some words to live by for the road: “Get your shit together, you silly tit.”