Orphan Black: Governed As It Were By Chance [s2e4]

Caroline Seide recaps the latest episode of the BBC's clone drama; the season's fourth outing heads into unsettling territory.

By Caroline Siede at 9:08 pm Sat, May 10, 2014

Almost every week Orphan Black celebrates female agency. The show’s central women take control of their lives even when things are spinning out of control. Tonight, however, almost all of the show’s protagonists wind up trapped by external forces. In “Governed As It Were By Chance” Orphan Black makes the case that a world in which women have no power is a bleak, frightening place.

Women are trapped tonight in a whole bunch of different ways, but it’s Sarah and Helena who bare the brunt of the consequences. Two weeks ago we learned that Sarah and Helena’s bodies are mirror images of one another. Tonight their stories reflect and refract in much the same way. But before we delve into Orphan Black’s two most unsettling plotlines, let’s check in with everyone else first.

After hitting rock bottom—and the community theatre floor—last week, Alison wakes up in rehab. Alison has always been the most trapped member of the Clone Club. Her suburban life and familial responsibilities keep her tied down in a way Sarah and Cosima aren’t. Add to that the fact that her husband is also her monitor, and Alison is locked into a constant psychological battle in her own home. But at least in her suburban prison Alison can pretend that things are going along swimmingly. A stint in rehab takes away the façade of normalcy. For Alison Hendrix, “tinkling” into a cup in front of a stranger may be the lowest she can fall. With Felix’s support (rehab will be like a spa week!) and Donnie’s threats (he’ll take the kids away if she doesn’t complete the program), Alison agrees to grin and bear her way through her entrapment. Rehab may help Alison in the long run, but right now it’s difficult for her to see it as anything other than an obligation.

Unlike Alison, Cosima isn’t trapped in a physical sense. Instead she’s bound to the ticking time clock of her illness. That time crunch is made even more visceral by the videos of Jennifer Fitzsimmons wasting away. Cosima cast her lot with the Neolutionists in order to get access to research that may save her life. So far that’s proving to be a surprisingly positive decision. She has access to a lab and data, and she still finds time to visit Felix’s loft and help Sarah research Project Leda. If the Neolutionists are planning to contain Cosima, they’re playing a long game. So far it’s her illness, not her surroundings that have Cosima feeling confined.

 Mrs. S, meanwhile, throws off the maternal bonds that defined her character in season one. Instead she’s playing badass detective/saucy seductress as she reunites with old flame Carlton. Carlton brought Sarah to Mrs. S all those years ago and he’s come to the U.S. for largely mysterious reasons. There’s some ominous hinting about a “ferryman,” but the real joy of watching this plot is seeing Mrs. S take matters into her own hands and find time to hook up in a bar. (In other words, get it Mrs. S!) Mrs. S is posed to be a major player in the clone conspiracy even if it’s still unclear exactly how she fits into the larger puzzle.

All of which brings us to everyone’s favorite pair of “seestras.”

“Governed As It Were By Chance” features a very different Helena than the one we’ve come to love (or love to hate, as the case may be). The old Proletheans used Helena as their assassin, but gave her the semblance of freedom. Rather then physically abuse her himself, Tomas used psychological manipulation to convince Helena to self-harm. In both instances Helena had the illusion of agency: she chose how to assassinate the clones and she was the one who took the knife to her own body. The old Proletheans were monstrous, but they also gave Helena a false sense of control over her life.

The new Proletheans aren’t interested in giving Helena a semblance of agency; they simply take what they want from her through force. To test her fertility, Henrik drugged her and removed one of her eggs in order to artificially inseminate it. That violation shakes Helena to her core. When Henrik goes to stroke her face she cowers in her bed like a small child afraid of a monster. We’ve seen Helena unhinged and we’ve seen Helena in charge, but we’ve never seen Helena terrified and it’s immediately unsettling.

When she fights back against Grace’s attempted assassination (who woulda thought Grace had it in her?) it feels like a return to form for Helena; once again she lashes out in violence to protect herself. Yet when her escape route leads her to the Prolethean lab, it’s clear she won’t be able to compartmentalize these abuses the way she learned to do with Tomas’ cruelty.

Helena’s kinetic flashbacks are scored by discordant music. Images of metal instruments, gloved hands, and her legs being spread open are cast in a green hue and cut together into a disconcerting montage of memories. Helena starts trembling like a leaf as soon as she enters the space and once again it’s unsettling to see her so frightened. Although she escapes from the compound, she won’t be able to escape the memories of what happened there.

Sarah is on the opposite trajectory of Helena; she spends most of this episode in control of her life only to wind up more trapped than she’s ever been. Thanks to Cal’s well-timed car crash, Sarah escapes Daniel’s clutches and hits the road in Cal’s suspiciously unregistered RV. As usual, Sarah has a clear plan for moving forward. She turns to Cosima for help investigating Project Leda, leaves Kira with Cal, and breaks into Mrs. S’ house to get answers.

After a quick—and enjoyably unsentimental—reunion with Felix, she discovers that Project Leda was a medical research endeavor spearheaded by Susan and Ian Duncan. Those two scientists were destined to be Sarah’s parents until Amelia smuggled her away and they ended up with Rachel instead. With Rachel poised as an increasingly important figure in the creation of the clones, Sarah decides to break into her empty hotel room and get a better sense of the woman they’re up against.

We’re so used to seeing Sarah escape from inescapable situations and at first it seems like that will happen again tonight when Daniel confronts her (he turns out to be Rachel’s boyfriend and monitor). Even after he knocks her out and ties her up, it’s easy to assume Sarah will convince Daniel not to hurt her. When he actually started to cut into her flesh I gasped. Orphan Black goes decidedly dark with a gruesome close up of Sarah being tortured by a man who has no mercy.

Sarah is saved not by a deus ex machine, but by a woman who has every reason to attack men who hurt women. Helena’s disposal of Daniel feels not like a plot twist, but like the natural convergence of two stories about women being tortured by men who seek to control them. Helena arrives just in time to save Sarah from the full-on Van Gogh treatment, but Sarah hardly sees her as a guardian angel.

Tatiana Maslany is just fantastic as she plays both sides of this family reunion. Last week she showed off Sarah’s emotional vulnerability and this week we see Sarah truly petrified for the first time. She can contain her fear around Daniel, but once she sees Helena all bets are off and she’s shaking and crying in pure terror. Interestingly, Helena is equally scared. She knows the Proletheans did something to her but she doesn’t know what. It turns out she’s come to Sarah not for revenge, but to ask for help. Helena presses her body against Sarah’s and their two halves make a whole.

That image is mirrored in the episode’s final scene. Back in the Prolethean compound, Helena’s egg is fertilized as Henrik and his family look on in joy. Even in their zygote form these potential children are already trapped and that’s a bleak place to be in the world of Orphan Black.

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Published 9:08 pm Sat, May 10, 2014

About the Author

Caroline Siede is a freelance writer living in Chicago where the cold never bothers her anyway. She frequently contributes to The A.V. Club and documents her experiences in the city on her blog Introverted Chicago. When not contemplating time travel paradoxes, she often tweets sarcastic things @CarolineSiede.

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