Well, that was…huh.
The most impressive thing about Orphan Black’s second season was that it managed to keep so many balls in the air while showing only the slightest signs that juggling them was at all strenuous. As the complications kept building up, the show demonstrated a remarkable knack for recognizing the danger that everything might collapse, and usually managed to steer it back towards the bigger picture. Still, stepping back from the show and trying to keep everything straight has become an increasingly difficult task. Even as I marveled at how tight this sophomore season has been, I had a growing shadow of doubt in the back of my mind that it could all come crashing down.
Enter “Variable And Full Of Perturbation.”
It’s not that every storyline on a show has to sync up or overlap with others to be successful, but the problem with this episode is that every subplot has a wildly different tone. Between the chaotic script and the aggressively flashy direction, “Variable And Full Of Perturbation” takes some fascinating concepts and makes them cheesy. Yes, there have been episodes this season where all the clones’ plots felt more disparate, but this is the first week they all feel like they’re taking place on different shows. There are vague attempts to thread the stories together, or explain away why they’re not intersecting, but they instead come off as means to a convenient end. The worst offender is when Sarah brushes off Helena’s continued absence with, “I just had to let her do her own thing.” If Art followed up on her request to get Helena out of prison, why aren’t they concerned about her not being there? Donut affection and slow dances aside, Helena is still an unstable serial killer, and Art at the very least wouldn’t accept her absence at face value. We don’t have to know what happened to Helena—there are plenty of other things to worry about in this episode—but having Art and Sarah shrug her off is a sloppy choice because it makes no sense based on what we know about them.
But let’s get back to the various shows that take place within this single episode. There’s the Alison Hendrix Show, a black comedy starring an accidentally homicidal couple that allegedly has children, though they pretty much live at her mother’s house at this point (seriously, why haven’t we met Alison’s mother yet?). Now, Alison and Donnie bonding over getting in way over their heads yields some good moments. We’ve only known Alison as a self-loathing clone, but as their few scenes this week remind us, she married Donnie because she loves him. The biggest problem with their emerging storyline, frankly, is that the show has painted Donnie into a corner where he’s an irreversible moron. Leekie’s reasoning for getting him to monitor Alison was paper-thin at best (“it’s for a collegiate sociology project, and it goes on forever!”), and even if Donnie thought it was merely a study, reporting on his wife’s every movement without her knowledge was just creepy. We’ll see how they work through keeping the world ignorant of the almost literal skeletons in their closets, but for now, Alison and Donnie are marooned on their own lifeboat, and it’s sinking fast.
The Cosima Show (a medical soap about super hot queer scientists making crazy science together) comes the closest to working this week. Cosima has suffered from remaining apart from the other clones, but her deteriorating health has at least raised the stakes for her. So I cheered when Cosima wouldn’t let Delphine into the lab for going behind her back, and when she broke down and told Scott that she is, in fact, 324B21. But then it all takes a turn for the melodrama when Delphine tells her there might be hope. Cosima immediately reverses course, and the two drop the l word (no lesbian reference intended). I believe that they love each other, but I just can’t buy this moment—and not just because their stoner session is shot like an acid trip to an actual reggae soundtrack. Cosima’s confrontation with Delphine last week was her strongest moment to date because it introduced long overdue conflict in a relationship that by all rights should be overflowing with it. Taking that moment back almost immediately undercuts any power it had.
Meanwhile, the Rachel Duncan Show is a corporate drama that follows a ruthless executive as she tries to figure out whom she can trust. Rachel has always been the least defined clone, which does makes sense; she would be horrified if anyone saw behind her carefully crafted mask of disdain long enough to be able to define her at all. We learn as much when she apologizes to her father for getting “overly emotional” when she met him for the first time in twenty years. But her veneer cracks a little when she can’t help but ask why Sarah can have biological children, and then shatters when she hears the answer: because Sarah was a mistake. The clones were designed to be barren. This is a huge revelation for the show, but it gets buried underneath this episode’s dozen layers of complications and strange directive choices. Splicing moments of Rachel trashing her office in between Duncan dropping this giant genetic bomb might have seemed like a cool trick at the time, but it ends up being more confusing than anything else. Is this what Rachel does later when she’s alone? Or is this what’s happening in her head while Ethan’s speaking? This is also the first moment I’ve ever been truly frustrated with Rachel’s characterization, because it would have been a thousand times more powerful if we knew why she was throwing something through a window. Did she want kids? Is she fed up with being the Dyad’s pawn? Is this a betrayal from the man she didn’t want to admit is important to her? Again, we don’t have to know the answer yet, but it’s hard to get invested in a moment the show is pushing as a Big Deal when the motivation is that vague.
And then there’s Tony.
Let me be clear: the fact that Orphan Black decided to introduce a trans clone is in no way the reason why this episode falls apart. You can count the scripted shows which feature trans-men without malice on one hand (The L Word, The Fosters, Degrassi, and now Orphan Black), and so shining a light on a population that’s often invisible in the media landscape is indeed significant. Even the small moment when Felix corrects Art’s pronoun use (“yes, he’s trans”) is revolutionary for television, just by virtue of existing at all. A trans clone is also an intriguing concept if only because it highlights the show’s continued dance around “nature vs. nurture.” If it decides that queer Cosima and Tony do have the exact same genes as the rest of the cisgender/heterosexual clones, it’s coming down on the side of “nurture.” I’m hesitant to judge the choice at this point because there’s still room to play with the idea of genetic differences, but it undeniably complicates the issue for the future. The show will have to deal with it—sooner rather than later.
Still, the problem with Tony isn’t that he complicates matters; it’s that Tony as a character is a total mess.
First, there’s the basic fact of presentation. Orphan Black’s hair and makeup team has been so on point that Tony’s messy Sarah hair and patchy, glued-on goatee were startling in how unconvincing they were; I half-expected him to rip his facial hair off halfway through the episode. Even Tony’s backstory feels rushed. Beth knew about him, but there was nothing on him in her briefcase, and the Dyad doesn’t know about him because “there was a mistake at the I.V.F. clinic.” Everything we know about Beth and the Dyad’s thoroughness conflicts with these scenarios. Just like Helena disappearing, Tony’s story takes way too many shortcuts to be believable.
More disturbing, though, is that everything about introducing Tony reads less like an opportunity for the show to explore an exciting new character than it does an opportunity to shock and/or give the fandom something they can freak out about. From the melodramatic cold open reveal to Felix’s flirtation with this new guy “wearing [his] sister’s skin,” Tony feels more like a prop than a character. He swaggers in as if to say, “you knew Tatiana Maslany is good, but what if she plays a man?” He then swaggers out of our lives almost as quickly (if Tony turns out to be a Very Special one-off character, my disappointment just might crush me). I haven’t been shy about singing Maslany’s praises, but even she can’t pull a character together from a series of moments that are actively trying to blow our minds. Tony’s maleness can’t be the most interesting thing about him, and yet here we are. Orphan Black has made a name for itself by discussing gender issues that most shows won’t dare touch, and deservedly so. We know it can—and must—do better than this.
- Just as a note: I will no longer be watching the previews for the next episode. Cosima’s seizure is one of the few powerful moments in this episode, and the promos spoiled it rotten.
- So is Kira a magical child or what? I could buy that she’s just a kid fascinated by Duncan’s drawings, because they are super cool, but it does feel like the show is pushing us to see that she’s unusually perceptive.
- Paul’s disappeared for the week again, this time as a plot point. People seem to care that he’s off “ghosting,” but I can’t say I do.
- All that said, I can’t completely hate an episode that includes Felix exclaiming, “holy Tilda Swinton!”