Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Orphan Black keeps its eye on the prize

Tatiana Maslany
Ian Watson, BBC America

One of the finest aspects of Orphan Black has always been its ability to be about four shows in one. While in virtually any other TV series this would be evidence of a complete inability to manage tone, on this one it’s just the show’s way of showing the infinite variations in these women’s lives. So while one scene may be suburban satirical comedy (see: Alison returning home with some kind of punk realtor haircut and a silly tattoo), the next is a grueling exercise in body horror.

The creeping dread that pervades “Gag or Throttle” is partly an effect of most of the action being centered on Rachel, the show’s resident Bond villain, with her carefully enunciated “privacy” and flat but expressive face. Her presence in a scene generally keeps the tone somewhere on a scale with two points: menacingly polite or horrifically violent. And this episode swings back and forth between those poles with regularity.

In addition to solving various mysteries with galloping speed, this season has also really doubled down on the ways that Neolution has absolutely zero respect for the bodies of their experiment subjects, and women’s bodies generally, by extension. They’re bodies, nothing more. So when we see the humiliation Rachel has been put through her entire life by the group, it’s both unsurprising and excruciating. Because of course Leekie has always treated her like a stranger, even though he was the closest thing she had to a family.

Neolution has crafted its own biggest nemesis here. They brought Rachel up inside the system, raising her to always be aware of the degree to which she is kept out, and desperate for some small piece of acceptance. And then they couldn’t make the simple gesture of not treating her like a vessel for experimentation, thus ensuring that she knows an awful lot of details about them, and she has an ax to grind. There has rarely been a moment on this show more “set the world on fire” than Kira saying “Who hurt you?” and Rachel answering, with venom, “All of them.” Because the turning point for Rachel in Neolution was always going to involve her burning the whole thing down. She does not do things by halves.

But it takes a long time to get to that point. She doesn’t make any obvious move to help Sarah’s people until there are only 6 minutes left in the episode. Thanks to what essentially functions as Chekhov’s eyeball, however, you know it’s only a matter of time. From the moment she learns the secret behind her bionic eye, and that Westmoreland has essentially treated her like a surveillance camera, you know what’s going to come. Everything else is just filler until the moment she’s staring down that brutal glass spike.

The journey there, though, is a brutal step-by-step process into how little the organization Rachel has given her life to cares about her. This has got to be the only show on television that would open a scene where the first visible image is a speculum with lube squirting onto it. And then after a woman she’s never met before casually mentions murdering her mother while giving her a gynecological exam (moments after she’s learned Neolution is still calling her by her serial number), Rachel is left alone, in a dingy basement, cleaning herself off in a hospital gown. For someone who prizes a pristine physical appearance as much as she does, it’s a profoundly naked moment, in both a literal and symbolic sense.


Proper names also provide a nice beat of parallelism in this episode. Westmoreland’s true identity as John Patrick Mathieson is a massive step in the project to take him down, and it does not feel accidental that we learn Rachel’s serial number in the same episode. Names have power, whether in revealing who you really are, or in representing the degree to which you’ve earned the respect of those around you.

And then, finally, we get to the moment we know has been coming since Rachel finds the tablet in Westmoreland’s office. Suddenly, the drinking binge makes a lot more sense. She’s been self-medicating, because she knows what she’s going to do. She has always been a very deliberative character. The tension-building music cuts off, abruptly, as she contemplates that glass spike. She’s already ignored her chance to run off with Sarah’s people. Instead, she chooses to stay behind, twitching and bloody in the Dyad offices, a gory gift for the people she’s just royally screwed over. As final gestures go, it’s a pretty damn bold one.


Stray observations

  • While I’m happy to see Alison return, I almost wish those scenes had been in a different episode. I just wanted to get back to Rachel pacing the halls of Dyad like a raging drunk Valkyrie.
  • But while we’re at it, Donnie’s wary glance at the glue gun was a fun callback. And we know Alison hasn’t totally changed: note the tone of voice when she corrects his reading of her tattoo. Liver deep, everyone.
  • Kira does prove to be a effective hustler when it comes down to it. Everything she says and does around Rachel is clearly chosen with care. But one of the most meaningful things she does is putting her hand on Rachel’s when Rachel is picking at her nails. Has anyone in her life ever extended that kind of affection to her?
  • I saw this tweet being passed around earlier this week from the writer Laurie Penny: Most of the interesting women you know are far, far angrier than you’d imagine. Whether you agree with that overall concept or not (I’m guessing it’s going to ring true with some of the women here, at least), it feels very, very apt for Rachel in this episode.
  • Kudos to Rachel on a perfectly executed plan, also. The way she uses Sarah’s information is masterful—she both makes the tip more legitimate when she passes it on to the people who matter, and she gets Mr. Frontenac out of Dyad with the threat.
  • Reading assignment: Uzo Aduba interviewing Tatiana Maslany for Interview magazine.
  • So, uh, what happens to Rachel now?