Orphan Black's penultimate episode has a lot of mommy issues [TV recap S2E9]
Caroline Siede reviews the latest episode of BBC America’s clone drama
My enjoyment of Orphan Black’s twisty plotting is based on the assumption that the showrunners have a plan. Plenty of shows have built up fascinating mysteries and mythologies only to falter when it’s time to start answering questions. Given the strength of Orphan Black’s world building, I prefer to remain optimistic that both the show and the season are building to a meaningful conclusion. Tonight is the first time my faith has wavered.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done.” It’s just that I’m not sure the episode gelled as well as it could have. Last week’s episode (which I liked more than many of my fellow critics) was similarly busy and fractured, but the complicated Felix and Tony scenes served as a unifying throughline. Tonight’s episode has a lot of interesting pieces swirling around with little to ground everything. More importantly, I’m not fully convinced this works as a penultimate episode for the season.
Ever since the action-packed first few episodes of season two divided the Clone Club, I’ve been waiting for a reunion. It’s a necessity the show itself hinted at in “To Hound Nature In Her Wanderings” when Sarah explained, “We’re stronger together. Go figure.” When the Clone Club briefly reunited on Skype tonight I realized just how long it’s been since they’ve been a unit and how much I’ve missed these interactions. Cosima, Alison, and Sarah are still working to help one another, but I was hoping that separating them early in the season would pay-off down the line. So far that hasn’t been the case.
I have similar concerns about Rachel. While she’s become an important player in season two, it feels like the writers are keeping her motivations unnecessarily opaque. Tonight she takes her most drastic actions yet—kidnapping Kira and bringing her back to Dyad—but I’m still not exactly sure why she does so. My impression is that she both wants to impress Dyad head honcho Marion and has some innate desire to be a mother, but I’m not sure how much of that explanation I’m writing myself. Subtext is well and good, but Rachel’s motivations have to become text at some point. I need something more concrete than watching her have an emotional breakdown while clutching a martini and viewing the home video we’ve already seen countless times.
Rachel’s decision to kidnap Kira is also troubling within the larger context of the series. A big part of what makes Orphan Black so great is that it celebrates female individuality. They may be created from the same DNA, but the clones are unique. Celebrating the diversity of the female experience is a powerful statement both within the world of the show and for Orphan Black’s place on television. With almost all of the clones now focused on motherhood, that diversity is becoming homogenized. Motherhood can be part of the female experience, but it isn’t the sole female experience. Right now every main clone but one is defined by maternity in some way. That’s always been the case for Sarah and Alison, but now Rachel and Helena are slotted into mothering roles as well. That leaves Cosima as the sole clone who isn’t associated with children and even her treatment is tied to her infertility.
Interestingly, although Alison is the clone most often labeled “mother,” she’s also the clone we see do the least mothering. Her children only ever appear to be instantly shooed out of the room. It’s an odd choice that I suspect has to do more with scheduling than anything else, but thankfully Alison’s plot is so enjoyable tonight that’s a minor complaint. Orphan Black offers up pitch perfect black comedy as Alison and Donnie struggle to wrap Leekie’s body, store it in their freezer, and then to bury it under their garage. I love everything about Alison and Donnie as bumbling suburban criminals and after watching two seasons of their strained marriage, it’s genuinely sweet to see Donnie prove himself tonight and win his way back into Alison’s heart (or at least her pants).
What works less well is Vic’s involvement with the Hendrix family. I really love the work Michael Mando is doing as a partially reformed Vic, but Vic and Angie’s reappearance feels like a plot contrivance designed to let Donnie take control and get Alison hot and bothered. If this puts an end to Angie’s investigation into Alison’s life, I’m not sure what the point of that subplot was. If we’re getting more of Angie and Vic next week, I’m not sure we needed to spend so much time with Vic-the-spy tonight.
While I also have some similar nitpicks about Sarah’s story, it at least works like gangbusters on an emotional level. A bone marrow donation may be a safe procedure, but that doesn’t mean Sarah can’t be racked with anxiety and guilt as she watches a doctor cut into her child. As always Tatiana Maslany and Jordan Gavaris do amazing work with very little material to make their relationship to Kira and each other feel deeply lived-in. I also love that Sarah once again grants Kira agency over her own life. She explains the procedure and doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that Auntie Cosima might die without Kira’s help. The Clone Club is really starting to act like a family—Sarah even refers to Cosima as her sister—and Kira is becoming an increasingly important figure in it.
My nitpick, however, is that the Bird Watchers have no reason to tell Dyad their location. Why not just deliver the extracted bone marrow after the fact? It’s a needless risk with disastrous results. Rachel impersonates Sarah, knocks out Felix, and kidnaps Kira. It’s fun to see Rachel delve headfirst into manipulation rather than just issue orders from her office, but I don’t buy that the Bird Watchers are this dumb or that they haven’t thought about the potential of Rachel impersonating another clone before, especially considering how often Sarah does so.
I do appreciate that Rachel’s machinations allow Delphine to step out of Cosima’s shadow. Rachel promotes Delphine to Leekie’s old position as Interim Director of the Dyad Program. While Rachel’s ultimately using her as a pawn, she’s right in saying Delphine understands both the scientific and the human side of things. In fact, Rachel uses Delphine’s humanity against her by planting false evidence she knows Delphine will report to Sarah, thus providing a way to get Sarah temporarily out of the hospital. This season hasn’t been particularly interested in teasing out the question of Delphine’s loyalties (they've always been with Cosima), and this episode officially puts that question to bed once and for all. Now that she realizes how much she’s been used by Dyad, Delphine despises Rachel as much as the rest of the Clone Club does.
The Proletheans, meanwhile, become even more horrifying than I thought possible. After impregnating Helena with her fertilized eggs, Henrik moves on to negotiating a marriage between Mark and his daughter Gracie. It’s grossly patriarchal, but at least we know Mark and Gracie actually are fond of each other. As with all things Prolethean, however, that happy public face is a shield for something far, far more insidious. In perhaps the most disturbing scene in Orphan Black history, Gracie sits numbly with her legs up in stirrups as Henrik calmly inserts his embryonic child into his teenaged daughter. Henrik will take any measures necessary to give Helena’s “miracle children” a chance at survival, including seizing control of the reproductive rights of everyone in his family.
This is a story about domestic abuse and the strength it takes to escape an abusive relationship. Helena grew up at the mercy of Tomas, but after spending some time in the real world with her seestra she sees her former abusers in a new light. She won’t standby as Prolethean children are threatened with violence and she gives Gracie a healthy dose of perspective: “You’re a good girl Grace. But if you don’t want to have my babies, don’t have my babies.” Helena came back willingly because she wanted to become pregnant, but she doesn’t feel compelled to stay once she has what she came for.
Even better, Helena inspires Gracie and Mark to escape the cycle of violence as well. In perhaps my favorite moment of the episode Mark confidently tells Gracie to explain that she doesn’t feel she’s being treated like a broodmare. Gracie simply turns away and in that silence Mark’s whole worldview comes crashing down around him. The show rightly offers no sympathy for Henrik, but there’s still hope for those he abused. Gracie stands up to her father and tells him to go to hell. Mark—his eyes finally opened to the female Prolethean experience—refuses to let Henrik lock up Gracie. When Helena attacks Henrik, Gracie and Mark make their escape with little concern for the malicious man they once considered a father. It's a game changing moment for both of their characters.
In a scene that’s equal parts unsettling and satisfying, Helena reverses the roles and forces Henrik into the stirrups where she subjects him to her whims. For once Helena uses her sadistic temperament against a man who undoubtedly deserves it. She burns the Prolethean compound to the ground—perhaps killing the sleeping Proletheans inside it—and runs away to find her seestra. Helena once thought of the Proletheans as her family, but she now knows she deserves better.
Orphan Black has a lot of balls in the air at the moment. Assuming it can stick the landing, some of the concerns I raised tonight may be less important in the long run. There’s a lot riding on next week’s finale, but if any show can pull it off, it’s Orphan Black.
Clone Club Conversations
- That’s Tatiana Maslany’s clone acting/body double, Kathryn Alexandre, as the Prolethean midwife. She acts opposite Maslany in every scene with multiple clones in a process that’s documented in this BBC America featurette. Her first onscreen line? “I’ve done this many times.”
- Cosima, Duncan, and Scott make an absolutely adorable makeshift family in the science lab. I would totally watch their spin-off sitcom.
- The way she says the word “secure” is a dead give away that the Sarah who storms into the hospital is actually Rachel. For whatever reason, this is the first time I didn't buy a clone as another clone. It felt more like Sarah pretending to be Rachel, rather than Rachel pretending to be Sarah.
- Apparently Mark was in the army (not just the Boy Scouts). Will that tie him in with Cal/Paul/Sammy/Project Leda/every other mysterious military connection on this show?
- I do not understand how Orphan Black feels about Paul. His continued absence from this season implies they want him to go away. Tony’s message last week implies he’s going to be a big player. Maybe we’re leading up to his noble death next week? One can only hope!
- “Have you ever seen Dexter? I mean random scuba divers are finding everything.”
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