Orphan Black: “Variations Under Domestication”
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Orphan Black: “Variations Under Domestication”

B+

Orphan Black

“Variations Under Domestication”

Season 1, Episode 6

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Everyone does stupid things when they feel cornered. Some people may be better than others in desperate situations, but that moment where everything suddenly stops and all you can think is, “oh shit,” is about as universal as it gets. The question is, where do you go from there?

Sarah’s been fighting her way out of corners the entire time we've known her. Hell, fighting her way out of corners is all Sarah’s ever known.  She’s an improviser. She runs out of cash; she jumps into someone else’s richer skin. She gets in over her head; she downs a bottle of soap and vomits her way out. She discovers that she’s being monitored; she decides to shoot said monitor’s balls off (hey, not all improvs are created equal). But if Sarah’s learned one lesson over the course of Orphan Black, it’s that no matter how well you think you can roll with the punches, chances are one of those punches is going to come back and punch you in the face. And after “Variations Under Domestication,” Alison’s learned that lesson all too well.

Just the idea of improvising would probably give Alison hives. We don’t know much of anything about Alison’s background, but it’s safe to say she’s made a habit out of digging in her heels, ramming into walls, and forcing them to break by sheer, terrifying willpower. When Alison confronts a problem, she doubles down. So when she finally just snapped and sideswiped Donnie with a freaking golf club to the face, I was hardly surprised.

Okay, so I jumped about a foot, but it makes total sense given her character, not to mention the way we’ve been watching her devolve into a paranoid, twitchy mess.  While Sarah’s pursued serial killers and moles, Alison’s been chasing down the demons in her own head – the ones that can’t stop asking, “what if?” If Beth had a monitor, what if she does? What if it’s Donnie? What if her entire life has been an elaborate, Truman Show-esque lie? What if her kids are in danger? What if it’s Donnie?

Enter golf club.

Alison taking Donnie hostage in their own home is alternately hilarious and horrifying. At first, Alison’s determination to break her “monitor” is admirable; we can excuse the unsettling glint in her eye because after weeks of anxiously waiting for some unknown threat to materialize, she’s taken matters into her own hands, and good for her! But as the episode progresses, it becomes clear – to us and Alison – that Donnie has no idea why she’s taunting him with a hot glue gun in his laundry room. But Alison’s already dug her heels in, and so she doubles down.  After all, what if?

So when Sarah breaks it to her that Donnie was just sneaking out to watch cricket, Alison’s reaction is just heartbreaking. “So...he’s just Donnie?” she asks, voice breaking.  She’s not relieved; she’s almost disappointed. To top it all off, she goes into their bedroom at the end of the day, expecting to be called a monster, and instead Donnie tells her through sobs that he’s so sorry about having an affair with an ex. There was once a time when Alison might’ve flown into a rage at that admission, but at this point, it’s a problem so banal that she can barely muster the energy to pretend otherwise. There she was, ready to believe that no one without her face can be trusted, and it turns out that she just overthought herself into another corner. Shaking the guilt is going to take her a long, long time.

But for all the drama in this storyline, there are plenty of lighter moments to keep it afloat. Some might even call them hijinks! It turns out that Alison decided to hijack her husband on the same day that she’s hosting “the monthly potluck,” a phrase so gross to Sarah that she actually recoils.

The ensuing chaos of keeping up appearances upstairs while barely holding shit together downstairs feels like backstage versus the play on stage. We start off with Alison weaving through the side-eyeing moms with her glass of white upstairs while Sarah pulls yet another hat trick downstairs by convincing Donnie she’s Alison (though to be fair, he stays blindfolded for much of this). But her righteous rage against Donnie on behalf of Alison comes a little out of nowhere. At this point, all we’ve seen Donnie do is acquiesce to every one of Alison’s commands except for opening the box, and his snippiness in this episode seemed to be a precursor to a throwing the potluck Alison forgot about. So while Sarah demanding he respect Alison is touching, it’s a leap to assume Sarah knows enough about them to get to that place.

Then Sarah has to take over upstairs when Alison’s wine and “happy pills” cocktail lands her on the downstairs couch. The entire switch 'em up sequence is equal parts head-spinning, hilarious, and chaotic...and then Vic and Paul decide to crash. While Vic’s just trying to make some trouble for Sarah, Paul’s flipped the switch and gone into full-on soldier mode. He actually puts on black leather gloves, sneaks into Alison’s house, and shows Vic he is in way over his head with the cold, disconnected rage of a true mercenary. I almost feel like tonight’s kicking ass scenes must be the ones Dylan Bruce auditioned with, because he’s much better suited to this emotionless mercenary role than that of the caring boyfriend.

In a great, visceral twist, Sarah almost thinks she’s coaxed Paul away from Vic only to have Paul nail his hand to a board. This is the moment that convinces Sarah she now has to play an entirely different game. She has to be straight with Paul. Out with the fragile girlfriend routine, in with the Bonnie and Clyde. The prospect of Sarah and Paul working together to discover more about the clones is an exciting one, if only because their previous relationship was wearing out its welcome. Also, Paul may have the military moves, but Sarah’s consistently outsmarted him (let’s talk about her giving him the slip on her way to the shower, comment section!), so this is uneasy partnership could be a satisfying push-pull. That is, if Big Dick Paul can keep his big dickish homicidal tendencies under control. I'm sure everything will go smoothly.

So that’s it, right? I got everything? Cool, see you next we – ah, right. Another clone in Minnesota and her dalliances with an undercover "neolutionst" would beg to differ.

This week is the first time we’ve really gotten to know Cosima as a person outside of her expository role. If Sarah improvises and Alison doubles down, Cosima questions. “Sure, why not?” she says to Delphine, because in her mind, not knowing exactly what the answer to that is is way worse than getting into trouble. Also, she's bored. Being the know-it-all voice on the end of the line is only interesting for so long. So even as she recognizes that Delphine is too good and suspiciously timely to be true, Cosima decides to literally flirt with danger. I mean, wouldn't you want to get totally baked with Delphine?

But if she wasn’t sure before, walking into Dr. Aldous Leekie’s “neolution” lecture should have been a dead giveaway that Delphine is Up To No Good. It says a lot that in a show about clones, the good doctor’s holographic presentation and legion of silver-eyed “freaky Leekies” reads as the most traditionally “sci-fi” story we’ve gotten so far (an impression helped by casting Matt Frewer, who's no stranger to sci-fi). It's also the least subtle mystery on the show to date. It's not that Leekie doesn't belong in the mix; evolutionary fanatics fit in the race to find out more about the clones against Helena's religious brotherhood and Olivier's laboratory. It's just that he and his cause are drawn with such broad, cartoonish strokes. Leekie might as well be John Malkovich stroking a white Persian cat as he eyes Cosima and smirks, "Ahh, a skeptic."

Still, the introduction of yet another special interest group demonstrates the extraordinary confidence with which Orphan Black has thrown so many balls into the air. The question as we close out this season, though, is whether the show can catch them. A newly-guaranteed second season will help, but at this point, I'm more concerned with the show maintaining the balancing act than pulling more tricks out its hat.

Stray observations:

  • I’ve said before that Vic belongs in a Guy Ritchie movie, but I take it back. He’s totally a Wet Bandit.
  • Also, Vic should probably just forget he ever had hands at this point, because yikes.
  • Loved Alison ominously spinning the wheel of colored safety scissors. Now that’s good production design!
  • Throwing it to the comments – where do you think we landed on Aynesley being Alison’s monitor? It ended ambiguously, but if it turns out she is, I would love it to pieces. Planting a curious, pushy neighborhood friend as a monitor is the perfect cover.
  • If Paul had a tracker on Beth’s car all along, how did he not notice something was up before? I know Beth was erratic, but come on, dude.
  • Tonight’s music choices were on point. “Wannabe” into “This Is How We Do It” into “Lovefool”? Alison’s playlist can stay.
  • I know you’re all super into Alison’s yoga pants, so I’ll just be over here admiring Cosima’s glasses/coats/dresses/scarves/tights.
  • “Dress suburban.” “You’ve got to be joking.” “I know. It sucks to be my sister.”
  • “I whacked him and it felt so good!”
Filed Under: TV, Orphan Black

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