Orphan Black's uneven finale offers a game-changing cliffhanger [S2E10]

Caroline Siede reviews the season two finale of BBC America's clone drama

Welcome to the trip, indeed. Orphan Black’s stellar second season ends with a finale that showcases the best and worst of what this show has to offer. In the “worst” column are unnecessarily complicated plotting and a tendency to unceremoniously drop threads it's lost interest in. On the “best” side are lovely character moments and game-changing twists that have me giddy with excitement about season three. The last five minutes of “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” prove that even if the show occasionally fumbles the details, it has its big picture firmly under control.

The finale kicks off with possibly the best cold open since that epic diner fight in the premiere. Sarah’s shouting match with Mrs. S intercuts with her eventual surrender to Dyad. She’s stripped down and dehumanized as Dyad scientists bark questions about her first sexual intercourse (at 14-15 years old), abortions (yes), and ovulation (I don’t know). In the flashback, we see the moment Sarah decides to surrender herself to Dyad in the desperate hope of saving Kira. She suddenly stops yelling and thrusts herself into Mrs. S’s arms. As Mrs. S turns to comfort Felix, Sarah is already out the door.

This is every one of Sarah’s worst fears realized. She’s fully at the mercy of Dyad, forced to sign away her medical consent in the hopes of glimpsing her daughter. Rachel positions Sarah behind a two-way mirror as she asks Kira how it felt to be abandoned. Dyad’s Dr. Nealon straps Sarah to a bed, informs her they are about to remove her ovary, and warmly notes he looks forward to her next pregnancy. Sarah’s been fighting against Dyad for almost two whole seasons and now she's offered herself to them unconditionally.

Unfortunately, the show is more interesting in freeing Sarah than in exploring the consequences of her surrender. The Clone Club immediately starts forming various plans to get her out of Dyad’s clutches. The upside is that all of the relationships the show has built over its second season coalesce in satisfying ways. Having spent time there in "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est," Helena returns to Art’s apartment after burning down the Prolethean ranch. He immediately calls Felix for help since the two became fast friends is “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings.” Felix is in charge of keeping Helena in the dark about Sarah's surrender so as not to unleash her wrath on Dyad (although that wouldn't be a bad plan come to think of it). With Delphine banished to Germany, Scott officially earns the spot in the Clone Club he’s been working towards ever since he joined Cosima’s team. Kira, meanwhile, does some class A cellphone pickpocketing and makes a phone call to Cal for help. Cal shows up on Mrs. S’s door and after the two compare spy skills, he reveals he’s been in contact with a Dyad insider. None of these interactions would have been imaginable at the start of the season, but they all feel perfectly natural now.

Orphan Black goes into full on heist-movie mode as Cosima and Scott—with an assist from Kira—convert a fire extinguisher to a deadly pencil-launcher. Meanwhile Mrs. S and Cal aim for a diplomatic solution through negotiations with their Dyad insiders, who turn out to be Paul and Marion. In both cases it feels like Orphan Black trying to be cool for cool’s sake. Cosima and Scott’s weapon relies on one too many contrivances (Rachel has to willingly deliver Kira’s drawing and send everyone out of the room while Sarah has to decode their message and position Rachel to be crucially injured by a “weapon” she’s never used before) and it’s disappointing when their plan goes off without a hitch. Even odder, the violent breakout is ultimately pointless as Mrs. S and Cal convince Marion to free Sarah and Kira anyway. Sorry Rachel.

This episode devotes so much time to secret negotiations in parking lots that there’s little room for the kind of character work that normally makes Orphan Black so compelling. That particularly hurts Sarah and Rachel. While we know much more about her backstory than we did at the start of the season, Rachel still remains frustratingly opaque compared to the other clones. She informs Delphine that “none of this is personal” before sending her away, yet that veneer drops as she watches her adoptive father die. After years of running from his obligation to the clones, Duncan kills himself rather than give the genetic cipher to Rachel. And while Tatiana Maslany gives a heartbreaking performance as Rachel desperately begs her father not to leave her again, I'm not sure Rachel's dualities and contradictions add up to something more yet. She smashes Kira's bone marrow and then gets stabbed in the eye with a pencil, which feels like a random endpoint for her season two arc. I’m pretty sure she’s not dead, but I’m also not sure I’m thrilled to have her back next year.

If Rachel’s arc has had season-long problems, Sarah’s arc fails on an episodic level. She’s set free about halfway through the finale, which means we barely have time to process the horror of her surrender before she’s back hanging out at Felix’s loft with the rest of the Clone Club. Literally every single one of Sarah’s worst nightmares came true in the past 24 hours and her only response is a measured, “I don’t think we can do another bone marrow donation for a few weeks.” Even if the show didn’t want to leave Sarah in Dyad’s hands, to ignore the emotional ramifications of the experience is a total cop out. This show needs consequences. Sarah can’t take everything in stride, especially the trauma she just went through at the hands of Dyad.

And while I’ve been pushing for a Clone Club reunion all season, it feels somehow unearned tonight—a fine capper to this season but not to the episode that proceeded it. It’s genuinely weird to see Alison show up at Felix’s loft given that the episode ignores her up until then. On the other hand, there are some genuinely lovely moments as Helena meets Cosima (“I like your hairs”) and reunites with Kira (“I’m so happy to see you I’m going to eat your fingers”). I wrote in my season one recap that the clones were still unsure of their relationship to one another. A season later these women (and Felix) are firmly celebrating their unique sisterhood. Unfortunately that clone dance party—which is aiming to be a big cathartic moment for the episode— is easily the dumbest thing Orphan Black has ever done. The clone special effect is particularly weak—the clones look imported in from separate green screens—and poor Kira is shunted off to the corner to dance alone because they couldn’t figure out a way to handle the complicated clone shooting schedule and a child actor’s limited hours. Presumably someone in the writer’s room shouted, “Tumblr would love this!” but it feels like tacked-on fan service, not a natural development for the episode. Cosima and Sarah's late night sisterly chat, on the other hand, is a much more moving clone reunion.

Ultimately the second half of this finale is less interested in wrapping up the threads of season two than in wiping the slate clean and starting over for season three. And while that obvious re-shifting is slightly annoying, leave it to Orphan Black to have me salivating over next season already. If there’s one thing this show does better than anything else on TV, it’s reveal a plot twist.

Sarah goes to visit Marion, who promises her more information on Dyad. Once inside her palatial home, Sarah spots a little girl shyly running through the halls. The show cleverly puts Sarah and the audience in the same mindset of confused recognition. We’ve seen this face before and it takes a moment to place it. This is the little girl from Rachel’s home movies. That can only mean one thing and both Sarah and the audience realize it at the exact same moment: There’s a new generation of clones. Or one of them anyway. Marion reveals this girl’s name is Charlotte and she’s the only successful second-generation clone out of 400 attempts. Marion isn’t just a Dyad overlord, she's an adoptive mother who’s just as involved in this mystery as the Clone Club. And while that huge reveal might be enough to sustain a lesser show, Orphan Black is saving an even bigger bombshell for last.

Marion explains that Project Leda was never shut down but compartmentalized into two agencies. Dyad controlled the female clones while the military’s Project Castor raised a set of male clones. I’ve heard fans float the idea of male clones before, but I wasn’t sure it was a route the show should take. The idea of more Felixs or Cals or—god forbid—Pauls running around never excited me. But leave it to Orphan Black to pull off the perfect clone reveal. Marion leads Sarah to a cell where a shirtless man is doing pull-ups, his back to the camera. As Sarah gasps, “I know him,” the camera cuts to Mrs. S and Paul watching Helena being marched onto a military plane (which we learn was part of their negotiations to free Sarah). Then we seemingly randomly jump to Mark’s sweet wedding before returning to the airfield and sweeping past a guard. Turns out that Mark cutaway wasn't random at all. While Mark's busy getting married, a guard with his face watches Helena board a plan. We cut back to Sarah starring in shock as a crazed, mohawked version of that same man presses his face against his glass prison.

So Mark is a clone! It’s a reveal that had me jumping out of my seat with excitement. Ari Millen has easily been my season two guest star MVP with stand out moments in "Ispa Scientia," "To Hound Nature," and last week's "Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done." Giving a brilliant actor little to do over the course of entire season just to end the finale with a huge bombshell is the kind of ballsy move that makes me fall in love with Orphan Black all over again. Creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson have been playing a long con so subtle the audience didn’t even know to look for it. Even in its press materials, Orphan Black has always downplayed Millen as a new cast member, allowing for the kind of genuine surprise that’s so rare on TV anymore. Even as an ensemble player Millen has been a standout, and I'm excited to see what he does with an acting showcase like this.

So what to make of this finale? In my opinion it’s probably the weakest episode of the season. It's exciting potential is squandered by subpar plotting. Yet it must be said that even Orphan Black at its worst is better than most other shows at their best. If I’ve been harsh on this show it's only because it sets the bar so incredibly high for itself. Even after this flawed finale, I can’t wait to watch season three, and that’s an impressive trick to pull off. Orphan Black isn’t afraid to continually reinvent itself and push the boundaries of what sci-fi can do. With a smart, funny, female-driven show this good, I’m happy to stick around for the—occasionally bumpy—ride.

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Published 1:44 pm Sun, Jun 22, 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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