It’s good to be back in the Clone Club. The return of Orphan Black quite literally hits the ground running and never lets up in this action-packed, clone-filled premiere. “Nature Under Constraint And Vexed” reintroduces almost every major player from season one, readjusts the show’s antagonistic forces, and ends with a bombshell reveal. I’m not convinced it’s a pace the show can maintain for the entire season, but it’s a hell of a fun way to jump back into the world of Orphan Black.
“Can we back up for a sec?” asks Felix, who’s decked out in assless chaps and flirting his way into a five way. “No. We need to go, Fe,” responds Sarah. That could very well serve as a thesis statement—not just for Sarah but also for this premiere. This isn’t an episode interested in easing the audience back into its world or revisiting the past; like its protagonist, Orphan Black is only interested in moving forward. (Those who do need a refresher, however, can check out my season one recap.)
Before the opening credits role we’ve already met a new villain, watched two people die, and seen Sarah escape from an inescapable situation. The cold open is a heart stopping five minutes and one of the best action sequences this show has ever produced. Orphan Black is never more enjoyable than when its heroes are backed into corners (or tiny bathrooms as the case may be) and ingeniously fight their way out. When left without an escape route, Sarah Manning simply breaks through a wall. A lesser show might rely on a deus ex machina to save the day, but Orphan Black allows its protagonist to be remarkably intelligent in her response to danger.
Sarah drives most of the plot in this premiere with her attempts to acquire a gun, gate crash a Dyad Institute gala, and rescue her daughter Kira. When put under pressure (the “constraint and vexed” part of tonight’s title) Sarah acts on instinct and sees things in black and white. The Neolutionists have her daughter—or so she thinks—which makes them her enemy. For Sarah’s clone compatriots (who I lovingly refer to as her clone-sisters or “clone-sters”), the distinction between friend and enemy isn’t so clear-cut.
“This is my biology. It’s my decision,” Cosima tells Delphine as they draw blood in dim mood lighting. Cosima hasn’t ruled out that working with the Dyad Institute might be the best way to cure her respiratory illness. On the other hand, she’s not willing to lay all her cards on the table either. She knows the Dyad Institute patented the clones’ DNA—rendering them as property, not people—and she’s still trying to keep the Neolutionists at arm’s length. When constrained and vexed, Cosima thinks like a rational scientist. The only trouble is she’s also falling hard for her monitor Delphine. “I’m not going to apologize for my heart,” Cosima informs Felix and Sarah, “but I promise both of you guys I won’t get fooled again.” Behind the sci-fi shenanigans, Orphan Black is a show about female agency. Cosima may not be making the safest choice, but, importantly, it’s her choice to make and the other characters respect that.
Alison, meanwhile, is also exercising her right to choose. Last season she signed a contract agreeing to work with the Neolutionists in exchange for an unmonitored life. That life now includes cutting back on the booze and pills, salvaging her marriage with Donnie, and starring in a musical (that’s definitely not Cats). While the Dyad Institute hasn’t kept up its end of the deal—her secret monitor Donnie is still sneaking into her craft room in his underwear to check up on her—they are following the agreement to an extent. When Rachel’s right-hand-man Daniel realizes he’s accidentally kidnapped Alison instead of Sarah, he promptly apologizes and lets her go. Sarah sees Dyad as the enemy, but Alison has faith in her contract, mostly because it’s excuse to put the past—and the fact that she basically killed Aynsley—behind her. When put under pressure, Alison represses her emotions and puts on a happy face.
The season finale saw Sarah, Cosima, and Alison making drastically different decisions about their relationships to the Dyad Institute. While those splintered opinions could have divided the group, it’s refreshing to see that the Clone Club is as functional as ever. Alison might not want to be directly involved with breaking into the Institute, but she’s still more than happy to buy Sarah an unregistered gun from her Economart cashier/pill pusher Ramon. Whether their connection is natural or nurtured, these clone-sters still put each other first. The plot climaxes at the Dyad’s swanky event, but from a character point of view, the climax comes in a delightful scene in which the Clone Club and Felix reunite—with Alison on Skype this time—to come up with a plan.
Putting the main characters in one room not only allows for some nice character beats (“We love you Alison,” purrs Felix), it juxtaposes and clarifies the characters’ points of view. Hotheaded Sarah wants to break-in first and ask questions later while logical Cosima suggests negotiating with Rachel or at least forming a plan first. Alison also encourages Sarah to plan ahead, but asks to be kept in the dark so as to maintain plausible deniability in her new relationship with the Neolutionists. It’s a testament to creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett—who serve as the respective writer and director for this episode—that the characters of Orphan Black feel like distinctive individuals; there’s no mistaking an Alison line for a Sarah line. And Tatiana Maslany’s performances are so effortlessly unique, it’s easy to forget that ¾ of the characters in this scene are played by the same person.
Maslany also gets the chance to stretch her legs as Rachel, the newest clone iteration who made a quick appearance in the season finale but gets a proper introduction here. To its credit, Orphan Black plays its world building close to the chest, allowing details to emerge naturally rather than offering up forced exposition. It’s still unclear exactly how Rachel fits into the Dyad hierarchy. She doesn’t feel like the leader of the entire Institute, but she’s got authority over Leekie and enough clout to negotiate with both the Koreas. Rachel is an intriguing mystery and it will be interesting to learn more about her backstory, but so far the Dyad scenes rely a little too heavily on sci-fi tropes about mysterious organizations—especially when it comes to generic baddie Daniel, who seems largely perfunctory.
While the premiere fits in some nice character moments—like a stoned Felix asking Alison for a gun in the middle of the night—other plot mechanics are less organic. Detectives Art and Angie just happen to show up in the right place at the right time in one of the more contrived moments of the premiere. It’s not a major misstep, it’s just Orphan Black showing its work more than it does at its best. There’s a lot of dramatic potential in Art and Sarah’s uneasy relationship, but Angie continues to be one of the least developed characters on the show. Art and Angie temporarily arresting Sarah is perhaps one plot point too many in an already overstuffed premiere.
If the episode feels a bit constructed in the middle, it’s saved by a slam-bang ending. Once again proving she’s the best conwoman in town, Sarah impersonates Cosima—and even gets the hair almost right—to attend the Dyad gala. One awkward hug with Leekie later and she’s in the Dyad offices holding Rachel at gunpoint. Sarah and Rachel may look identical, but as Orphan Black proves time and time again, these clones are individuals. Rachel shares Sarah’s skills at manipulation, but she’s decidedly not a woman of action. Sarah, on the other hand, is more than happy to fire her gun—in a moment that made me jump out of my seat—and pin Rachel to the ground. When constrained and vexed, otherwise cool and collected Rachel is useless. It takes Paul—whose loyalties are still ambiguous—to both protect Rachel and let Sarah escape unharmed.
That would be plenty to sustain a season premiere, but, of course, this isn’t just any season premiere. Instead of cutting to credits as Sarah is about to confess everything to Art, we cut to a bloody boot and a shock of bleach blonde hair. “Excuse me, my sistra shot me,” Helena calmly explains before collapsing in a hospital waiting room. So everyone’s favorite unhinged Ukrainian is alive after all! It’s a genuinely shocking twist, not least of all because the cast has been so adamant about that fact that she’s gone.
It turns out this episode’s focus on the Dyad Institute was a red herring; the Proletheans are the ones who kidnapped Kira. Art tells Sarah that the mysterious man who attacked her in the dinner—Ali Millen’s creepy Mark—is a member of the extremist religious group. He works for a Mormon-esque sect that has apparently replaced Tomas’ old world branch. Mark shows up again alongside Helena at the hospital. But how did Helena survive a gunshot to the chest? What is her role in this newly organized Prolethean movement? And what do the Proletheans want with Kira?
Part of what made Orphan Black’s first season so exciting was the ever-expanding mystery around the clones and the people out to hurt them. Now that we have a decent number of answers to those questions, there’s a danger that the writers will keep expanding the mysteries until the show gets swallowed up by its own mythos (take a look at Lost if you want a prime example of that). With the addition of Rachel and Daniel to the Neolutionists, the introduction of this new Prolethean sect, and the return of Helena this show has a lot of antagonist forces in play. Given the strength of the first season, I’m willing to give Manson and Fawcett the benefit of the doubt that they can juggle all these storylines. This premiere is probably more action-packed than Orphan Black can sustain over the long term, but watching the show keep so many plates in the air tonight is exhilarating. Helena’s return is a reminder that in the world of Orphan Black anything is possible. Welcome to the trip, man.
Clone Club Conversations
• Welcome to Boing Boing’s Orphan Black reviews! I’ll be here all season talking about clones and craft rooms. I’m a big fan of the show and I’d love to discuss it more with you guys in the comments section or on Twitter!
• This week in Tatiana Maslany Shows Off: She speaks what I believe is German as Rachel, and she gets to do a whole song and dance number as Alison. Is there anything this girl can’t do?
• Last season all of the episode titles were phrases pulled from Charles Darwin’s The Origin Of Species. This season’s titles come courtesy of Francis Bacon. I watched this episode three times in preparation for this review and now I can’t get that song from Alison’s musical out of my head. “And we will sing, sing, sing…!”
• According to Leekie’s speech the Dyad Institute has been around since 1918 and has branches in 134 countries, including Vatican City. They also have enough power to influence real-life Supreme Court decisions!
• How did Sarah manage to bring a gun into an event that is apparently riddled with security? Maybe Dyad should invest in some metal detectors.
• Big Dick Paul continues to be the least interesting part of this series. Thanks to Dylan Bruce’s wooden performance it’s unclear when Paul is trying to play those around him and when he’s following orders. Can Tatiana just play Paul too?