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The best sci-fi uses metaphor to critique real world problems. What makes Orphan Black so unique is that its “metaphors” (our clone protagonists) inhabit our very real, very prejudiced world. This is not a Star Trek utopia in which divisions of race and gender no longer matter. Here men seek to control women and politicians debate whether members of the LGBT community deserve basic human rights. Orphan Black centers on those hurt by real world inequality and so far that's translated into some of the most compelling, complex female characters and gay characters on TV. While the show could still do a better job presenting more people of color in its ensemble, "Variable and Full of Perturbation" takes its LGBT representation one step farther.
All of which is a long way of saying, “Holy Tilda Swinton,” we have a new clone! Tony Sawicki is a trans man, and thanks to a lovely bit coincidental timing, his introduction plays like a direct criticism of the trans-phobic article recently reprinted by the Chicago Sun-Times. As Felix explains as he corrects Art’s use of female pronouns, “He’s trans…Just another variation in my sister’s skin.”
This is a busy episode, but writer Karen Walton and director John Fawcett smartly let Felix and Tony’s complicated relationship ground it all. Scenes from their night together pepper the episode like a one act play running in the background. Elsewhere Walton and Fawcett rely on stylized visuals as both narrative shorthand and fascinating character development. This episode is a well-oiled, well-edited machine with its parts finely calibrated; Orphan Black is firing on all cylinders and it’s a thing of beauty. There’s plenty more to say about Tony, but first let’s check in on everyone else.
Reunions abound as the fractured cast starts to come together. After putting up with their fair share of manipulation, Alison and Cosima finally state exactly what they want from their partners: Now that she's home from rehab, Alison wants Donnie to stay and fight for their marriage. Cosima demands total honesty from Delphine, and she needs to know her girlfriend loves all of the clones, not just her. (Or, in the immortal words of the Spice Girls: “If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.”) It’s a wonderful showcase for both clones and their respective partners, who finally admit their wrongdoings and reaffirm their loyalty. Rather than let these reconciliations slip into the maudlin, Orphan Black gives Cosima and Alison the bulk of this week’s comedy. That’s business as usual for Alison, but it’s nice to see Cosima get two big comedic showcases. First she effortlessly crushes stereotypes of the “fake geek girl,” just as easily as she crushes Scott and his friends in their Dungeons & Dragons-style board game. And then she gets a hardcore case of the giggles as she and Delphine get stoned.
I’ve been fairly hard on Cosima this season, but that’s only because I think the show hasn’t used the character to her full potential. Tonight’s episode explores the facets of Cosima beyond “scientist” and “flirt.” Cosima's often painted as rational to a fault, but she’s equally defined by her big heart. Delphine made the mistake of trying to hide harsher realities from her empathetic girlfriend, but tonight she finally learns her lesson. When she suspects Dyad murdered Leekie, she comes straight to Cosima with the information and says, simply, “Tell me what you want.” For once Delphine backs up her promises of honesty with action. They end up saying, “I love you” for the first time, but Cosima warns Delphine that this is her final shot.
Meanwhile Donnie and Alison reconcile over something slightly more twisted: manslaughter. Now that she’s learned her connection with Donnie was once based on love, Alison will do anything to salvage her marriage, even if that means confessing her crime and helping Donnie properly wrap the corpse that’s starting to stink up their garage. Thankfully, this couple is way more fun when they are hiding bodies together than when they are hiding secrets from each other.
It’s Ethan Duncan who carries the non-romantic reunions this week as he reaches out to members of the clone family he created. Sarah still distrusts the scientist who abandoned his creations, but Kira takes a liking to her sort-of grandfather. Before he heads off to meet with Dyad, he leaves his would-be granddaughter the clone genome sequence scribbled in a copy of Dr. Moreau.
After their tearful reunion last week, Duncan and Rachel reunite on her turf. Duncan has dropped the senile act and there’s something cruel about the way he calmly tells his adopted daughter that she's "barren by design." Kira isn’t a miracle; she’s a flaw in his experiment. Through its sci-fi lens, Orphan Black examines the real-world issue of men who seek to control the reproductive rights of women
Fawcett visually dramatizes Rachel’s internal struggle: In her mind, she smashes a chair against Leekie's carefully studied experiments and lets her agony pour out in screams and tears. In reality, she calmly agrees with Duncan’s choice to make the clones infertile. As always, Rachel compartmentalizes her emotions in order to be an impeccable professional. There’s a strong undertone of jealousy as Rachel asks why Sarah, “the unmonitored tramp” was the only one successful in her fertility. It’s possible that Rachel tried and failed to get pregnant in the past. More importantly, making the clones infertile stripped Rachel of her right to choose whether or not to get pregnant. And if there's one thing Rachel detests, it's losing control.
Duncan’s other big reunion is with Cosima, a clone he has not seen since she was in an embryonic state. Cosima is adorably nervous to meet her maker (“It’s not everyday you get to meet your…Ethan.”). Sadly, their meeting is cut short as Cosima collapses in a seizure. I’ve never thought the show would actually kill off Cosima—and I still don’t—but this was the first time her illness has felt like a real-and-present danger. Let’s get her better soon, okay showrunners?
Which leads us back to Tony. As it has done with Felix and Cosima, Orphan Black eschews overused stereotypes about trans people (drugs, prostitution, shame), but also refuses to sanitize Tony into an angelic representative of his community. Like all of the characters on Orphan Black, Tony is deeply flawed and deeply human. He's a criminal who pushes buttons and tests boundaries; rather than scramble to play defense, Tony is all offense all the time. While the show isn’t arguing that his gender is the most interesting thing about him, it also realizes that Tony’s experience as a trans man is a huge part of who he is. In fact, Tony takes the clone reveal in stride precisely because he’s already spent so much of his life thinking about his identity. Tony knows there's only one of him, and the fact that he's a clone doesn't change that.
Tony’s introduction to the Clone Club doubles as a wonderful showcase for Felix. Rather than get Sarah involved with any more drama, Felix sets out to manage this new clone on his own. As I mentioned, Tony and Felix’s night together is the heart of this episode and the show smartly drops the plot concerns and gives these scenes room to breath. Jordan Garavis and Tatiana Maslany have always had amazing chemistry, and tonight it translates into a tête-à-tête that’s part interrogation, part competition, and part flirtation.
What to make of that kiss? On the one hand, it’s another affirmation of Tony’s individuality—he’s just a stranger who kisses Felix. On the other, there’s an easy Freudian take on the situation too, not least of all because Felix has been painting pictures of Sarah next to cartoon penises. My read however, is that their kiss illuminates a kinship between two very different people who nevertheless inhabit the same community.
Felix and Tony’s scenes pass what I’ll call the “LGBT Bechdel Test”: Two LGBT characters talk about something other than a straight person. If Art had been doing the questioning, the scene would have been about a straight person seeking to understand the trans experience (or worse, learning a lesson from it). Instead Tony and Felix skip the introduction to the "types" they represent (trans man and gay man) and attempt to figure each other out as individuals. They both use “shock and awe” tactics as a defense mechanism, only here there’s no one to shock. They are insiders in the same world and their kiss dramatizes that palpable connection that is both intellectual and sexual. While their conflict doesn’t wrap up as neatly as Alison and Cosima’s do, they reach a begrudging understanding by episode’s end. Tony and Felix are fighting similar battles for acceptance as individuals and while their methods are different, they can both respect a fellow warrior.
Really my only complaint about Tony is that he shows up with a message about Paul. His ex-military, now-dead friend Sammy wanted to tell Beth: “Keep the faith. Paul’s like me, he’s on it. He’s a ghost.” I would be perfectly happy if Paul took a permanent trip to Taiwan, but Tony’s message implies he’ll have a larger role to play in the future. Tony leaves the picture for now—with a green phone in hand—but I’m sure he’ll return again soon. I, for one, can’t wait to have him back.
Clone Club Conversations
- Here’s Tatiana Maslany’s fantastic explanation about why the show isn't arguing Cosima’s sexuality is a "choice." I’m assuming the same applies to Tony's gender identity as well.
- There’s a very valid argument that trans characters should be played by trans actors. There’s great power in having Maslany play Tony as just another clone—and obviously she has to play him for the show to work—but I’m curious if there will be any backlash over this episode.
- This week in Orphan Black mythos: H.G. Wells’ 1896 science fiction novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, tells the story of a scientist who performs painful vivisections on animals in order to transform them into people. He tries to control his experiments through a complicated set of rules, but they eventually revert back to their natural animal states. Spooky.
- Like Tony, Scott takes the clone revelation in stride: “It’s an honor, Cosima. An honor to be working with you.” Cue my tears.
- I adore the little moments where Kira reveals the kind of life she’s led. When she hears unfamiliar voices downstairs she matter of factly asks, “Should we hide?”
- “The kids are truant.”