Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Season 2 Review

One thing that I didn’t initially realize about Avatar was the scope and pace of the show - all three seasons span one overarching story, with a consistent narrative pull. Most TV shows segment their plot into individual seasons, and it seemed unexpected to spread one large plot across the whole show. Then somehow it was equally unexpected that Korra does quite the opposite. After finishing the S1 finale, with the villains vanquished and the protagonist embodying new powers, the question is immediate: what’s Season 2 going to be about?

Well, turns out there was no possible way that anyone could have accurately predicted what was coming next. Because HOLY NARRATIVE SHIFT, BATMAN.


Okay, let’s get it out in the open: Book 2 has some flaws. It’s definitely an imperfectly-executed season, that’s top-heavy in content and overstuffed with side plots that either a) aren’t unraveled with maximum interest, or b) ultimately don’t matter. This leads to a strange paradox where the whole thing is somehow both rushed and slow to pace, both thematically intricate and undercooked. This also makes it very difficult to parse, and even harder to evaluate unilaterally.

For my purposes, the shining core of the season belongs to Korra, her relationship with the spiritual world, and the mythos of the Avatar role. Korra’s spiritual development is something that was touched on in the first season, and Book 2 evolves her even further, with deliberate and organic growth. The season doesn’t start to gel until Korra is swallowed by a dark spirit and connects with the Avatar lineage, and from there, this thread is the strongest through to the finale.

What I love about Korra in Book 2 is the way the narrative handles her. She is very purposefully a flawed protagonist. The first we see her in this season, she uses the Avatar State to win a race with Tenzin’s kids. Not exactly the picture of responsibility. More than that, she’s decidedly stubborn with her parents and Tenzin, and puts her faith in the wrong guy. She’s belligerent with authority, argues endlessly with Mako, and she definitely makes some mistakes. But what’s lovely about her arc in Book 2 is the subtle transition that is best identified simply as maturity. I love a good growing-up arc because its hallmarks are difficult to identify, and therefore more challenging to devise and track from a writing perspective.

In doing this, Korra develops its main character without deploying the oft-used device of “one fatal mistake.” Yes, there is inherent tragedy in the fact that Korra has fundamentally altered the lineage of the Avatar - but there’s also the solace that she really didn’t do anything wrong. Some shit went down, she did her best to stop it, and even though she was ultimately successful, some bad consequences snuck through. She didn’t have a fatal flaw; she didn’t make that One Doomed Mistake; her weaknesses weren’t her undoing. In fact, the show takes time to develop her out of her weaknesses, and doesn’t rub her face in her shortcomings. The narrative teaches her by guidance, not through punishment. Korra is not humiliated or shamed; she tries, and she learns.

This is beautifully supported in the origin story of the Avatar. It would be very easy to dramatize Wan’s mistake of helping Vaatu, and to portray his subsequent responsibility as tortured penance for his errors. It would also be very easy to invent an Avatar back story where the first Avatar is blessed with powers because he is Chosen, Special, and Good. Korra isn’t interested in unilateral incarnations of Good and Evil in stark contrast to one another. Why else would Vaatu and Raava be intertwined? No, there is no good or evil - there is only choice. Wan made a choice with some bad information, and his eventual responsibility of power is directly correlated to this concept of human error anchored by good intention.

What’s fantastic about this decision is that it’s echoed thematically throughout the season. If you ignore everything else in Book 2 but Korra’s spirit-related storylines, this shit is tight. (A bit heavy, yes, but TIGHT.) The key learning point for Korra is that the spirits are neither good nor evil, but rather a reflection of the humans they interact with. “A New Spiritual Age” is the best episode of the season for me, simply because it’s such a keystone moment for Korra’s development. A surreal dreamscape painted with metaphor and parable, Korra’s journey to the spiritual world is actually a journey within, illuminating the relationship between fear, faith, and the reality you manifest from inside yourself.

That your world is colored by your own perspective brings to light another of Book 2’s strongest storylines - the explored dynamic of Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi. Like with the origins of the Avatar, it would be all too simple to portray Aang as an amazing hero, person, and father. The Aang-and-Katara family is in prime position for fawning and glory, given their roles in Avatar (and also that they’re awesome). But Korra once again doesn’t dally with flat dynamics where it counts - Aang’s family is not perfect, and many of the issues stem from his role in it.

It is so refreshing to see a protagonist and all-around narrative hero portrayed critically and dimensionally, without judgment. I loved watching the push-and-pull between Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi, and each new way that their issues surfaced. Of course, Bumi’s experience is unique because he isn’t a bender. Of course, Tenzin’s experience is unique because he carries the airbending tradition. Of course, Kya’s experience is unique because she played a strong caretaking role, especially with Katara. And I love that Katara isn’t used as a wizened motherly figure to step in and sort all this out. She sits back and lets it play out, which is maybe bad, maybe good - but definitely real, and imperfect.

Tenzin’s spiritual storyline is also strong, and full of refreshing choices that reflect Korra’s commitment to dimensional and thematic storytelling. First, it’s a lovely choice to give Korra’s spirit guide role to Jinora, not the traditional spiritual mentor. Then we learn that Tenzin’s never actually been able to visit the Spirit World, which is another fantastic choice. The resolution comes with Tenzin in the Fog of Lost Souls, fittingly, where he reconnects with his true identity and sheds the self-imposed burden of his father’s legacy.

Were this not already an excellent convergence of theme and metaphor, its effect extends from Tenzin to Korra, when Korra rises to the occasion even after the spirit of Raava is pulled from her. As Tenzin is not Aang, a powerful good who came before him, Korra is not Raava either. Their worth is not wrapped up in the legacy of Good, because good versus evil is a complicated concept. Good versus evil only exists because people make decisions to look for the light, or only see dark. People with good intentions make mistakes, people with misguided ideas try to apply them to everyone, and everyone struggles with a false perspective that limits their light - their true selves.

So, that’s the good stuff - and oh, is it amazing-level good stuff. It handles archetypal ideas with such light and shade, and grounds its mythos in theme and character. But chances are if you are not Korra, a blood relative of Aang, or directly tied to the myth arc of the Spirit World, then your part in Book 2 was some iteration of well-intentioned mess, theoretically awesome but effectively underwhelming by comparison. A brief run-through:

Issue 1. The social politics of Northern and Southern Water Tribes are ultimately lost on the season. It should be interesting, but the story affords very little time to understanding the cultural context for each place, and altogether it’s not enough to resonate. It is not promising when you have a Civil War in the first act of your season that peters out in relevance halfway through. What works really well about the social politics is the idea that the Northern condemnation of the Southerners having abandoned their connection to the spirits, but unfortunately this barely even serves as relevant backdrop.

Issue 2. Connecting Korra to the conflict through her family didn’t work for the same reasons - why do we care about her parents? It’s unfortunate, but there’s no time to care. Ma and Pa Korra are standard parents without any defining qualities, and their presence feels flat and unnecessary. To boot, staging another brother-vs-brother waterbender conflict seemed a bit thin, especially when the Big Bad is the protagonist’s uncle. Could be interesting, yes, but it wasn’t made unique or individually developed in the narrative. Unalaq and Tonraq’s conflict didn’t connect to Korra in any meaningful way except the baseline that they’re family - but this choice never has any life breathed into it.

Issue 3. Varrick is another example of a potentially-interesting political and social thread. He is a delightful deployment of chaotic capitalism, funding both Team Avatar and the Southern Water Tribe to instigate the capital’s involvement in the Civil War. His use of propaganda is another interesting facet on the season’s brief exploration of the powerful mindlessness of public entertainment - but there’s not enough commentary there. The narrative spends too much time trying to create mystery about him being Good or Evil when it just doesn’t matter. Isn’t it more interesting if we know all along that Varrick serves his own needs, for better or for worse? Isn’t it more interesting to posit a flawed and narcissistic force technically acting for Good? And isn’t a runaround detective plot revealing that Varrick might be a Bad Guy counterintuitive to some of the main themes of the season?

Issue 4. This same need for “mystery” plagues Unalaq’s villainy storyline as well, primarily in the beginning of the season. It’s painfully obvious, given Korra’s stubborn rebuke of Tenzin and Tonraq, that the Avatar is making a Huge Mistake with her alliances. The audience is screechingly aware that Unalaq is not going to have good intentions. So why not lean into that and show us some of his scheming? With both Varrick and Unalaq, it would have been better to not waste time with intrigue and skip straight to dramatic irony. Show us their maligned plans so that we can feel fear for what Team Avatar doesn’t yet know and what possibly might befall them.

Issue 5. Another bad side effect of “concealing” Varrick’s alliances is the fact that Mako chases a remote for four episodes. Mako as a hardboiled detective is a mostly useless story thread, because it’s tied to many things that narratively don’t weigh enough - the Civil War, Varrick’s evil plans, Asami losing her business. The sting episode is completely pointless, as it not only tangles dramatically with plot threads that don’t matter, but it also hints at Mako’s past gang affiliation without actually acting on it. Most importantly, it affords us only the briefest glimpses of Lin Beifong in Season 2, so what’s the point?

Issue 6. This leads me to the last issue - the season does its best to incorporate supporting characters, but the execution just isn’t there. Bolin’s character takes a turn for the south with his stint as a self-important actor/lovesick boyfriend. Asami is barely relevant, showing up when it’s time to pilot something or cause romantic tension. Lin Beifong’s shining moment is swinging the president to safety, which is awesome, but otherwise she is a mere accessory to the season. And it’s definitely a challenge - I don’t know that there would be an organic way to push Korra forth on her spiritual journey and effectively include the rest of Team Avatar, given the overarching themes of the season.  That being said, it was especially disappointing to see the reduced screentime for Asami and Beifong, considering the strong moments afforded them in Book 1.

Ultimately, though, this season went hard and did a massive amount of storytelling. It set out to change the show’s universe as we understood it - and it achieved that. It created real stakes for Korra and Tenzin, and let them experience failure and undoable consequences. Once again, I’m left at the end of the season wondering how exactly the show will spin this world anew. We move forward into the unknown, choices made, Avatar lineage severed, and the worlds connected to bring spirits and humans together again. Even with the issues of execution, Korra Book 2 puts forth a damn impressive display of character, theme, and storytelling - all in pursuit of a massive narrative shift that fundamentally alters its main character and the world around, and within her.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Season 1 Review

Recently, I started watching The Legend of Korra.

And I love it.

So, in the interest of writing about things I love - I’m endeavoring to jot down some of my ideas as I watch. At first, I planned on a casual liveblog, as a new format that encourages brevity and faster updates… but then I consumed the entire first season way too quickly to give any kind of play-by-play.

The good news is that I’ve pressed pause between Seasons 1 and 2 so that I’m able to write a season review! Half live-blog, half-analysis, I intend on it being a bundle of my thoughts and feelings in season-long batches. Those of you who have seen the whole show can point and laugh at all the things I don’t know yet, and all the emotions that haven’t yet destroyed me. (I do know the final shot though. I don’t live under a rock.)


A dear friend of mine introduced me to Avatar: The Last Airbender maybe four years ago, and I’m embarrassed to say it took me a stupid amount of time to get through the show. (Three of those four years, basically. I told you it was embarrassing.) For some reason, I needed time to adjust to the world, and my fondness for the characters was a slow build - almost as slow as me getting around to watching each next episode. But eventually, something hooked, and I started snowballing. I’m happy to say that, in the end, I love the show dearly. It does very lovely things with its characters and themes, and there’s so much heart and humor at its core.

I tell you about my experience with Avatar not because it’s particularly interesting, but because it’s necessary. At first Avatar was presented to me on the mere premise of I think you will like this show, but then Korra premiered, and the recommendation leveled up to you must watch this show because Korra is waiting for you. And after just one season of Korra, I can say that this is true. Korra feels like a heart-and-soul show for me, but I can’t imagine loving it as much without the foundation that Avatar built.

This is absolutely part of the show’s construction, though. Korra picks up 60 years after Avatar left off, giving itself perfect opportunities to cash in on the immediate questions the scenario entails. What happened to each of our kids? Where are Katara, and Sokka, and Zuko, and Toph? What kinds of lives did they lead? What kind of world did they help create? How do the events of Korra relate to the events of Avatar? Katara shows up in the first five minutes, as if to say, “Don’t worry, friends. You’re home.” Then we meet Tenzin, and Lin, and eventually Iroh, and we have connections to the old world that immediately draw us in and make us want to learn more. The mere premise of the show invites devotion, and as it marches on, the showrunners employ this emotional engagement with panache.

Have I mentioned I love the art of this show?

But it’s not like Korra relies solely on its history without creating anything of its own. The show wastes no time expanding its world in one swift motion - and oh, what a world it is. Republic City is brand-new and bustling, gleaming with art deco extravagance and looming threats of danger to come. (I love the STYLE of this show. It’s so unique and dynamic and textured.) There’s organized sports, organized crime, social unrest, and a well-orchestrated police force - all introduced and made breathing within the first two episodes. Korra takes its pre-existing world and isn’t lazy with it; rather bursting it forward with its own life and unique conflict.

With this distinct world comes distinct differences, mixing uniquely with distinct characterizations. The role of the Avatar in Korra is not the same as the role Aang played. Aang, as a hero, functioned in the narrative as an “only hope,” with extinction behind him and a long path to rebuilding a world of promise. This is a classic hero’s journey - he is chosen, to vanquish an evil and restore balance to a burning world. But by contrast, Aang’s emotional journey isn’t as archetypal. As any hero, he has to overcome internal obstacles, but unlike most heroes, these fears are connected largely to guilt and grief.

Korra, on the other hand, is inverse. She is not chosen in the embers of a once-great civilization - she inherits a vibrant world that may still be too new to stand strong. She is burdened not with building, but with maintaining, and where Aang was tasked with staying hidden, Korra must exist in the spotlight. The Avatar is a public position, and she is in full view of an entire civilization, with its own political strife, criminal robber barons, and social division. Her mistakes are on display for all to judge, next to the expectation of her status and the yet-developed mastery of her skill.

Korra smash!  Korra has archetypal Hero weaknesses!

What makes this even more interesting is that Korra is the one with the classic hero’s flaws - her emotional obstacles align more closely to archetype. She is impatient; she has a temper; she struggles to connect with the spiritual world. She is fearful of her mortality, headstrong - maybe even a little arrogant - and she occasionally rebels against the teachings. This is the Young Hero as we know him - which is why Korra is even more unique; this is the Young Hero as we know her. Plug that into her context of maintaining a civilization instead of building one and we’ve got ourselves a fresh and dimensional take on the typical tropes we’ve seen before.

Between Korra’s role in a fully-developed new world, and the conflicts created by the Equalist movement (Amon), the government (Tarrlok), and the corporation (Hiroshi Sato) -- Korra excels at dimensionality right out of the gate. What’s frustrating, then, is the one part of the show that is disappointingly flat: the love triangle.

Love triangles are tropy, risky business. They are often sexist, boring, trite, and oversimplified. Rarely are triangles a worthwhile endeavor, purely because there’s little to do: Character A likes Character B! Character B likes Character C! Character B is confused! Character A’s feelings are hurt! Character C feels awkward! Character A doesn’t hate Character C, but maybe a little bit! There’s no easy resolution, and yet that doesn’t necessarily propagate compelling drama along the way. Triangles are best when no one’s a bad guy, everyone’s developed, and all the relationships are earned. (Bonus points if the relationships connect thematically to the narrative. But not too much. They’re supposed to be people, not ideas.)

The love triangle on Korra is not ship-shape (no pun intended) with this criteria, frankly. Yes, no one’s really a bad guy. Two-thirds of the characters are developed. But… none of the relationships are earned.

Asami knows a bad triangle when she sees one.

Let’s start with Asami and Mako. They just seem to be paired off because they had a nice meet-cute and two hot people start dating, right? Especially if it will anger the main character. (Sucks to be you, Character A!) They have a mildly charming date, sure. They seem to like each other, sure. But nothing’s really constructed for them. They’re just… there.

But hold your sky bison: Mako-and-Korra is equally left-field-adjacent. Mako’s original brooding-grumpy-guy facade fades into… generic attractive talented guy? Korra’s a catch because she’s… the Avatar? There’s not enough to support the relationship. There’s not even a moment where Mako makes a choice to help Korra fight the Equalists. At first he needs to save his brother. Then, after that, he just… does.

So both suggested sides of this triangle suffer from a complete lack of deservedness, and during most triangle-related scenes, I found myself chanting “you haven’t earned this” at my screen. Thankfully, I know how this all ends, so my patience wears a little stronger than it would otherwise. (The anticipation also helps.)

There’s the fact too that Mako hasn’t quite earned his place as the Romantic Lead and Alpha Male that the show has tried to bequeath him. This wouldn’t be so bad, except he’s the hinge Character B, which frankly is the load-bearing element of a Love Triangle. Character B has to be well-developed and sturdy. We need POV, we need motivation, we need backstory, we need empathy. With Mako? We have little. He has the typical orphan origin story, but the show didn’t find any reason to give us more information. He makes no real choices that define his character, and the only time he’s shown any exceptional pluck was fighting off blood bending to save Korra’s life. (In episode 12 of 12. We waited awhile.)

Same, guys.  Same.

Meanwhile, supporting characters are far outshining. Namely, Asami Sato, daughter of the city’s richest businessman. The city's richest businessman who also happens to be funding the bad guys, and a super terrible dad to boot. When Asami forsakes her relationship with her father and chooses instead to fight directly against him - well, this kind of choice skyrockets her one step down from Main Character status, impeded from full target mostly because the show is called The Legend of Korra, not The Legend of Asami. She defies stereotype, is sharply-defined, and makes a Big Choice. And, awkwardly, she’s the other leg of this triangle. Character B, our load-bearing character, is officially the weakest.

But even despite the flaws of the triangle, Season 1 deploys a well-developed, richly-detailed, and emotionally-resonant batch of episodes. It has a strong point of view, fleshed-out characters, and the same brand of heart and humor that its predecessor embodied. Both connected to its past but rumbling towards its future, The Legend of Korra stands on its own as a series, with a fantastic Hero at its center. I’m endlessly curious about where things will go from here.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have more episodes to watch. But first, a Season 1 Round-up:

To quote several text messages that I sent during the course of my viewing: LIN BEIFONG IS MY EVERYTHING. Set up as both curmudgeonly and heroic, Lin is a badass pillar of noble stoicism and justice. She steps down from Chief of Police not because of injury or shame, but because she needs to pursue her enemies without the restrictions of her position. DAMN, WOMAN. And even though she gruffly dismisses Korra and keeps Tenzin’s family at arm’s length, she ultimately throws herself headfirst into danger to protect them. What a lady. 
For a serious answer, probably Tenzin and Korra, or Lin and Tenzin. But I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch a show where Asami drives around the city while Bolin creates ramps for her to speed off of.
Moments of choice will always be one of the most powerful tools that you can include in a narrative, and the biggest choice in Book One goes to Asami. That beautiful airless moment where she seems to accept her father’s offer to join the Equalists - only to refuse, and turn his electrified glove back on him. DAMN, WOMAN. This moment tells us everything we need to know about Asami, and jettisons the character into a new realm. Someone give this lady more scenes. The emotional content is too good to be left alone.
  • FAVORITE SCENE (Look, I’m cheating. So sue me.)
What I love so much about the final scene is the message communicated about the role of the hero in this narrative. So often, heroes, as Chosen Ones, experience a burden of isolation. From Buffy to Harry Potter, a destiny of greatness has long signified emotional alienation and disconnection. No matter the Rons or Willows, Gileses or Dumbledores - the Hero is the Chosen One. When the chips are down, he or she walks alone.
For the Avatar, however, deep personal challenge results in spiritual connection. When Korra is faced with her Dark Night of the Soul, she doesn’t have to be alone to weather the tumult. Instead, she has the full lineage of Avatar history at her spiritual disposal. When she is in the crucible, so are they, and our Hero is not truly alone. She is connected to power through solidarity, not isolated in her power from normalcy. What a comforting expression to impart to the audience; what a thing to show young people about enduring pain and finding strength.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Orphan Black 2.10 - "By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried"

FINALE FINALE FINALE FINALE. Why bother with any preamble?

ORPHAN BLACK 2.10 - “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried”

It makes sense, in a show that is constantly shifting the ground on which the characters stand, that a season finale reorients everything. “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” fulfills that disorder, picking up the show and setting it back down in a new landscape, calling both its characters and its audience to reevaluate what we think we know and challenging us to hold on as we tumble further through the looking glass.

The finale is also full of choices for its characters, which for any story inherently engenders an intriguing narrative pull, but of course, this is Orphan Black. This show has been very calculated in who is shown to have decisions.   Decisions are power, after all, and the power on this show has been squarely in the hands of patriarchal organizations - corporations like DYAD, religious groups like the Proletheans, government organizations like the military.

In positioning its female leads opposite these oppressive agencies, Orphan Black has delineated a clear feminist message, giving screentime and visibility to women whose power, personhood, and access to choice are all under threat. The point of the show has been to point the camera at women under watch, under knife, under pressure - and watch them struggle to make decisions denied to them.

But “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” finds us in a brave new world. We are on shifted ground, because suddenly we realize that the familiar bastions of power have fallen away. Gone is Leekie, gone is Henry, gone are Tomas and Daniel and Olivier and even the concept of oppressive monitors.

What’s left are the playmakers, and the playmakers? Are all ladies. We have Sarah, Cosima, Rachel, Mrs. S, and Marian Fucking Bowles, each taking decisive action in the finale, grabbing a toehold and making choices that spin the world in new directions. Not only this, but the men in the narrative exist basically as extensions to these decisions. Cal returns, not to kick down any doors, but to offer up his hacker knowledge on the altar of Mrs. S.’s badass direction. He and Paul both act as liaision between Mrs. S. and Marian Bowles, twin beefcakes serving secondary to juxtaposed warrior mom-babes. Art and Felix take a backseat so they can help Sarah handle Helena’s return. Ethan Duncan and Scott give their time and knowledge to Cosima’s service and Sarah’s aid, and Jesse exists simply as a fair prince for our heroine to quest to.

In short: the menfolk carry out the intentions of the take-charge ladies and don’t utter a peep of protest. And not only that, but their roles are defined by passivity and communication, things that are traditionally prescribed to narratively-sidelined females. Cal and Paul trade in information, peacekeeping, and negotiation; Art and Felix basically babysit; Ethan and Scott simply facilitiate. And Jesse’s in a goddamned tower waiting for true love’s kiss. These are the definitions of female-bound narrative function, and in the Orphan Black universe, they are purposefully doled out to the gentlemen without question or argument.

So the topic of gender on this show spins anew, at a slightly different angle. The remnants of the patriarchies we knew are being run by Rachel Duncan and Marian Bowles, and the surviving members of the Proletheans are Gracie and Mark. Finally, for the moment, the women are running the narrative as well as the show - is that permanent? Does this twist in nurture change the fundamental nature of this show? And, beyond that, how is the big reveal going to work?

Because yes, it’s even more interesting, then, that this same episode introduces the concept of Project Castor. Turns out that there’s not just the batch of female clones, the group of Tatiana Maslanies running ‘round, but there’s also a batch of male clones. They are property of the military, and for one brief millisecond, everyone’s blood ran cold at the possibility of more Pauls. But it’s a small army of Ari Millens, and regardless of the actor, it blows this universe wide open.

Ground shifted again, and Orphan Black challenges us to stay in the spiral. And that’s the question - is the audience willing to follow a herd of Ari Millens in the same way we have the pack of Tatiana Maslanies? Will we care about Castor as we’ve cared about Leda? Will characters like Alison and Art remain relevant as the universe tilts anew? And will it fundamentally change the show if we extend the narrative of cloning to men, considering the effort made to illuminate the power imbalances of gender, the claims made on women’s bodies, and the concerted fight for agency in a world that denies it?

Obviously, I have no answer for these questions. The fact remains, though, that this is, at the very least, interesting. Men harvested by the military is, after all, another facet of feminism, the prescription of strength and aggression sacrificed to emotionally-detached hegemony. Using women’s bodies as vessels for reproduction is not a far cry from using men’s bodies to serve state-appropriated violence. Masculinity and femininity are two sides of the same coin, and they remain interrelated, no matter the “men’s right’s activists” trying to divorce them. These concepts prescribe limiting standards based on preconceived values of behavior, and taken to this conclusion, deprive the participants of identity, agency, and individuality.  Sound familiar?

In shouldering Project Castor, Orphan Black is reshaping and reiterating their conversation about nature, nurture, gender, identity, and order - especially as an extension of systems vs. the individual. The military is the least-explored of the systems that Orphan Black has introduced, so it seems like a natural - and potent - progression of focus. Provided that the show continues with its modus operandi (and all their Latin episode titles), I’m guessing that the chaos of life and deviation will tear through the rigid demands and shape something new, much like Sarah, and Cosima, and Tony, and Helena, and the entirety of Project Leda. The thematic concept embodied in these women doesn’t just vanish with a batch of boy clones.

So, that’s the season, eh? The world we’d learned in Season 1 continually expanded throughout these ten episodes, and blew wide open at the end. Because of this, I’d say that Season 2 wasn’t quite as tightly paced as Season 1, and the writing was burdened with the challenge of including everyone in the multiplying narrative threads. It was no small feat, and overall, I think it was successful. But moving forward, with a new sprawl of concepts, I’m definitely curious about how both the characters and pace will balance with it. April can’t come fast enough.


  • This episode does some excellent editing work, particularly with sequences. There are two main sequences that thread together several disparate ideas, to help keep the pace up. The opening sequence with Sarah’s interrogation and her reaction to Kira’s abduction is a tour de force of acting and tension, and the sequence of Cosima and Kira winning science works well as a swift setup to build the climax. There’s also the final mini-sequence, revealing the subject of Project Castor over hallowed organ music - a tonally delicious cap.
  • I wish very dearly that we got to see the moments after Duncan took his own life. It’s horrific to imagine a man you know as father committing suicide right in front of you, and this hooks fascinatingly into Rachel’s complicated relationship with Ethan Duncan. In the moment of panic, Rachel shrieked, “You cannot leave me again,” in a heart-wrenching outburst of childlike neediness and fear. I would have loved to see the aftermath of this, that moment after, of grief and horror and stillness. Instead, the writers just use the moment for shock, as it serves as an Act Out.
  • Who else experienced severe heart palpitations at JUST HOW LONG it took for Cosima to wake up in the morning? Not cool, Orphan Black. NOT COOL.
  • Cosima and Sarah end their season arc with a bed scene, of all things! All kidding aside - I loved the shift that these two took towards each other this season. Cosima’s life was suddenly on the line next to Kira’s, and the friction of what Sarah and Cosima, individually, were willing to sacrifice to ensure Cosima’s wellbeing has been a lovely way to etch their relationship. This season saw Sarah fighting to save Cosima’s life, and the finale saw Cosima fighting to save Sarah’s.
  • Clone dance party? Now they’re just showing off.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Orphan Black 2.09 - "Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done"

So hey, this is the penultimate episode of Orphan Black’s second season, which means that a lot of loose ends get tied up, and new events push the storyline forward into the finale.  Alison and Donnie bury the hatchet (and the body), Cosima buys more time with Kira’s bone marrow, and Helena burns down the whole damn Prolethean complex to return to her sisters.  Most everyone is out of the woods by episodes’ end - except, of course, Kira, and by extension, Sarah.  This is the natural order of the show, echoing last season’s finale, and we hope this is going to drag everyone back into the woods - the natural order of the show.  After all, this season has marched steadily from EVERY CLONE FOR HERSELF, back towards CLONE SISTERS.


Truthfully, the two most interesting clone sisters this episode were the two that have never interacted - Rachel, and Helena.  But despite having never met face-to-face, Orphan Black actually interacts them quite a bit - thematically.  Rachel and Helena are both products of their contexts, bequeathed entitlement through their affiliations with corporation and religion, respectfully.  They stand on opposite sides of Sarah, given inverse relationships with control and chaos, but the same relationship with power.  They dye their hair blonde to differentiate themselves, to assert their own identity - which is ironic, considering that their identity is not derived from themselves, but through their alliances.  They feel power because of their belonging - to DYAD, to the Proletheans - and the narrative of Orphan Black has been slowly tugging the rug that these two stand on.  As an audience, we watch them reorient themselves, and wait for the big yank.

“Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done” puts Helena and Rachel forward in the narrative, and through this, lets them demonstrate their similarities and differences.  The episode does this mainly by letting us watch their relationship with a) their institution, and b) children.  We witness Helena begin her willing reintroduction to life with the Proletheans, an off-shoot of the context she was raised in, and we are shown Rachel completely ensconced in DYAD.  And within those respective walls, we see Helena interact with a child not too different from herself, and we see Rachel interact with Kira, and the opportunity to raise Kira through DYAD.  Basically: both women are faced with children that might echo the life she herself lived, raised in the snug empowerment of a stringent affiliation.

But in their reactions to the same basic stimulus, the differences between Helena and Rachel are illuminated, in the synthesis of chaos and control - we see the ability for these characters to change.  Helena connects with Faith (an ironically-named little girl) because Faith echoes to Helena her own self.  They zero in on each other, equally fascinated.  And when Faith is chastised by Alexis much like Helena was chastised by a nun in Ukraine, Helena protects Faith.  She steps between Faith and the life Helena got, and acts as an agent of change.  It’s echoed again with Grace - Helena puts herself between Gracie and the life her father’s forcing her into, and protects her from it.  And it ends with the ultimate change agent: fire.  Helena levels the whole compound, wildly burning it to ash for a better rebirth.

But where Helena destroys pain by fire, Rachel preserves it in ice.  In the throes of her original context, Rachel has a similar opportunity as Helena.  She’s kidnapped Kira to harvest a cure, yet she still puts her up in a pretty bedroom that’s decorated very carefully to be a home for a little girl.  She sits with Kira, waits for her to wake, and greets her warmly.  (Or as warmly as Rachel greets anyone.  Kira probably still felt a chill cascade over her.)  And the icing on the cake: she tells Kira, “You may even grow to like it here, just as I did.”  Here Rachel is, facing a child who might walk down the same path she did, and she says, “YEAH I KNOW IT SUCKED TOO BUT I LEARNED TO LIKE IT AND SO WILL YOU.”

So where Helena is an agent of protection, Rachel is an agent of perpetuation.  Helena, who was tortured, brainwashed, and caged, is capable of change.  Change is chaotic, and Helena thrives there.  Rachel, however, is not capable of change, because it can’t be controlled.  It is predicated on letting go, and Rachel is fundamentally incapable - and unwilling.  All season long, I’ve been waiting for some crack in Rachel’s exterior - to watch the hard shell split away and let all of Rachel’s issues come roaring out.  And yet, when this happened, it still felt dissatisfying to me.  Rachel reset right back to zero and pretended she didn’t just have a screaming fit where she broke things and threw plants.

It’s frustrating, and yet at the same time, this episode provided the saddest justification for that: unlike Helena, maybe Rachel is not capable of change.  And what else would make that difference but her sisters?  Helena can be an agent of change because she herself was changed - by Sarah.  She jailbreaks out of Prolethean Land because she belongs somewhere else, with her sestra.  She is no longer trapped by her context, because someone gave her a new place to belong.  Rachel doesn’t have that.  Not unlike Dr. Frankenstein’s creation (thanks for the thematic assist, Henry), Rachel is a monster because (cheese alert) she wasn’t shown love.

Or wasn’t she?  That somewhat thin conclusion doesn’t stop there, because Orphan Black has developed something deeper and more complicated for Rachel.  We have actual home videos that indicate Rachel was shown love in her life.  Not only have we seen these home videos, but Rachel traps herself with them.  She locks herself in a glass room with a martini and watches her own happiness, and tells herself it was all a lie.  Rachel was shown love, but she rejects that it could be real.  Helena may have tortured herself with a blade, but Rachel tortures herself with memories, and feelings she won’t allow herself to feel.  So like the home videos she watches, she’s stuck in a loop of self-torment until she implodes.  Then, she carefully reconstructs her facade, and the whole process is nothing short of fascinating and horrific.

I used to wonder how Helena could ever survive in this narrative.  How could she truly live in this world, all teeth and violence and remorse?  But Orphan Black has successfully resurrected the character for Season 2, and given her a believable chance at change and belonging.  Now, I find myself wondering if Rachel can survive this narrative.  “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done” shows that she is similarly-derived as Helena, but suffers fundamental differences in how she moves through her own life, and what she allows herself to feel and do.  Can the writers feasibly keep her as a villain, in a time loop of tragedy and outburst?  Can they develop her, and let her change?  Or is Rachel the Javert to Sarah’s Valjean, doomed to pursue her endlessly, until she decides to step over the edge of her ivory tower?

  • Rachel/Marian interactions are deliciously loaded.  I like extending the idea of Leekie as surrogate father to the idea that Marian is Rachel’s surrogate mother, and their interaction was delightfully laced with a daughter’s false respect and a mother’s polite disappointment.  I practically screeched at Marian’s backhanded insult to Rachel about Sarah.  She may as well have said, “Why can’t you be more like Sarah, Rachel?  You’re genetically identical, and yet Sarah’s pretty much outsmarting at every turn.”
  • I also dearly enjoyed Marian asking if Rachel, too, was intrigued by Sarah. “BIOLOGICALLY,” Rachel replies with a barely-suppressed eyeroll.  “I MEAN I GUESS SHE’S COOL IN LIKE A GENETIC WAY LIKE IF YOU WANT TO LOOK AT HER SCIENTIFICALLY BUT MOSTLY I THINK HER LEATHER JACKET IS DUMB AND HER ACCENT IS STUPID AND I’M NOT INTERESTED IN HER UTERUS AT ALL SO I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU WOULD ASK, MOTHER.”  Then she goes back to reading Tiger Beat, and muttering under her breath how embarrassing her mom is.
  • Kudos to Orphan Black for giving Kira the decision about her bone marrow donation, and double kudos for letting Mrs. S. be the one who points it out.  On a show about choice, and agency over women’s bodies, it’s nice to see it echoed down into plot decisions and applied to young girls.  Kira’s body, Kira’s choice.  They gave her all the information going in, they didn’t sugarcoat it, and Kira was courageous and made her own choice.  Sure, this was a plot thing that had to move forward anyways, but it was still nice to see it pushed there by Kira’s own decision.
  • Did Rachel really say that Delphine makes a good interim director because she’s telegenic?  I won’t lie; I looked that word up to see if it had a scientific definition - telomeres?  genes?  science things I vaguely remember from high school?  But NOPE, it literally just means, “Delphine looks good on TV.”  “Well… yeah,” says all of the audience like this isn’t news at all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Orphan Black 2.08 - "Variable and Full of Perturbation"

Hello, universe.  Remember when I wrote Orphan Black reviews?  Yeah, me neither.  And if it turns out that I barely remember Orphan Black itself, just leave me a little comment to nudge me towards accurate information.  Additionally, since this is the episode with Tony, please let me know if I inadvertently demonstrate ignorance towards his trans identity, or the trans* community.  I will absolutely make corrections.

So let’s do this, shall we?  It’s only five months later!

Hey guys, remember us?


Variable, and full of perturbation.  There’s a fairly linear connection between this phrase, and Tony himself.  After seventeen episodes of dealing with the Clone Club identified as women, the showrunners now give us Tony, from the same batch of clones -- Tony, who identifies as a man.  That’s a pretty significant variance, given our understanding of the words “genetically identical.”

Clearly, the writers have introduced Tony to do exactly that: raise questions about what it means to be genetically identical, and the biology of gender identity and expression.  They’ve wheeled out a substantial topic to parse, and yet they concurrently do something kind of wonderful: they don’t try to.  No one says, “Hey, how can this be?”  They only say, “Oh, I guess this can be, then.”  Which is lovely, because that means that Tony’s identity, itself, is never called into question.  Questioning the existence of a trans clone is not any different than questioning the existence of a trans human, and OB’s not playing that game.

What’s nice about this portrayal is that it falls in line behind the LGBT representation that Orphan Black has already casually yet firmly displayed.  Cosima’s sexuality is never questioned, and so neither is Tony’s.  Gender and sexuality will always slide back on the list of main identifiers for these characters - like Cosima told Rachel, it’s not the most interesting thing about them.  Sure, they’re clones, and that’s always going to hold the trump card on interesting, but also, it’s quietly prescriptive: clone or no clone, that’s how it should be.

As a result, this plugs into grander, more universal themes.  Humanity is a central tenet of this show, and every clone expresses the need to be treated as a person and not a project.  We are not what defines us; we define ourselves.  This contextually-LGBT philosophy is actually central to the show, echoed across all the main characters, regardless of sexuality.  The ability to express one’s own identity is a human right, regardless of gender, sexuality, science, or nature.  It blows my mind a little bit that Orphan Black is thus a show that doesn’t narratively sequester LGBT themes in a “niche,” but rather carries them over to all the main characters.

So really, “variable and full of perturbation” is not just a phrase for Tony, a trans clone.  A major theme this episode was, “It’s not just me; it’s all of us.”  We’re not talking about Tony being variant or perturbed because he’s trans.   All of the clones are variable, and full of perturbation.  There are two previous episodes that have some version of the word “variable” in the title, and if you look up “perturbation,” you don’t necessary get the synonym “disturbed” (a word you really don't want to see applied to anyone identifying as LGBTQIA) - you get the emotional application, “anxiety, mental uneasiness,” and the scientific application, “a deviation of the system.”  If that doesn’t describe everything about Orphan Black, I don’t know what does.

Moreover, we get a few narrative connections between Tony and the other clones - mainly Cosima, and Sarah.  In this episode, both Cosima and Tony demonstrate the idea that they too, don’t call into question their own identities.  There is no crisis in key moments that would cause breakdown for others - Cosima casually strolls up to her maker and shakes his hand, and Tony has the biggest non-reaction to being told he’s a clone.  Identity issues are long since sorted through, and these two are the most resilient and adaptable in the bunch.  (LGBT themes may not be “niche” on this show, but it’s still important to acknowledge how they might manifest uniquely in context.)

There’s also Tony and Sarah.  Of course, Felix says, “He has some of your worst qualities,” about Tony the clone, but we also get a little scene with Rachel that illuminates the concept of variance.  What exactly is it about Sarah that makes her so different?  Why - not how, why - did she succeed in fertility when they were designed to be barren?  Like Tony, she was raised out of the control of DYAD, unmonitored, and that has cultivated a whole host of “chaos” on her identity.  Can we say exactly what happened, biologically, genetically, environmentally?  No.  It’s just who she is.  And the same goes for Tony.

The idea that “it’s all us” is specifically voiced by Cosima, as she struggles to forgive Delphine for betraying her trust in favor of protecting her.  (What’s that about respecting what people express about themselves?)  Delphine can’t make decisions for Cosima, because a) that’s a basic human no-no, but also, b) Cosima comes with Sarah, Kira, Helena, Alison, Tony, and yes, even Rachel.  No clone is an island; their fates are entwined.  Rachel herself voices this as well, as she uses the phrase “all of us” not once but twice in this episode (once with Delphine, once with Duncan).

So, from a thematic perspective, Tony slides easily into the world Orphan Black has created for itself.  Welcome to the family.  But from a narrative perspective?  Admittedly, the introduction of Tony feels something like proof of concept.  He whisks in, from nowhere, and whisks back out, into the black, with only the Clone Phone as a direct line back to the narrative.  In the grand scheme of the season, it’s likely that he will lift right out without any consequence.  Hell, in the episode, he lifts right out without much consequence.  They had to really work the timeline to pull Sarah out of her own plotline to even meet him.

Yes, they invented a reason to make Tony relevant: he comes bearing a message.  Mystery!  Intrigue!  Suspense!  Well - theoretically.  Tony’s message comes from Beth, via his dead partner (or monitor?) Sammy.  Narratively-speaking, messages from the dead are usually good devices.  But this one fell short.  There weren’t enough stakes generated during the time Tony held onto the message (except the looming threat that Felix was going to kiss a genetic identical of his adopted sister) - and the reveal of the message, which should ramp everything up, felt more like the air going out of a balloon.  Something about Paul, or something?  At which point Sarah screwed up her face and said, “Paul?”  Like she was trying to place him.  Us too, Sarah.  Us too.   His absence isn’t all that inconvenient, nor his is silence all that irksome, contrary to what Rachel says.

In all seriousness, bringing a message that Paul is military and is “on it,” is not all that revelatory, mostly because that message seems to baseline “he’s a good guy, DON’T WORRY” and not much else.  Yawn.  Orphan Black has long-suffered from a Paul Problem, and this message pretty much sums it up.  He’s supposed to be a mystery, which is supposed to invest us - but the problem is, there’s not enough there to make us care.  And they can’t give us more information to hook us, because a) then there’d be no mystery, and b) this is not Paul’s show.  As a viewer, I would probably be annoyed about following Paul through a mysterious adventure, thereby taking screentime away from more interesting elements of OB.

In a way, “Variable and Full of Perturbation” reminds me of a one-off episode that borrows elements of a different genre - in this case, a crime mystery.  We begin the hour in the middle of a car chase, where we meet a brand new character, and then wonder how this all connects to the main narrative thread.  In other words, the pre-credits sequence was exactly like one in Bones or Castle, with a hint of Lost sprinkled in.  Then, Tony has a mysterious message, and won’t talk until he gets more information - which Felix isn’t willing to give up until he gets more information, through Art.  Stand-off.  Art conveniently gets information, with no obstacle.  Added to that, there’s the suspense that someone’s going to come after Tony and shoot him too - except it doesn’t even come close to happening.  It’s very cop show-ish, without much air in it.

Let it be said, though, that genre-borrow isn’t necessarily a bad thing - but it definitely makes itself noticed.  In another way, the hour reminded me a bit of the Lost outing that “explained” Nikki and Paulo, distracting itself with a conceptual hook and letting an element of tension and dramatic irony carry through the diversion.  (And then promptly ending with only a remote possibility that this would be brought up again.)  But the bad thing about Nikki and Paulo - and the risk of genre-borrow and one-off episodes on serialized shows in particular - is the nagging question who cares?  Why care about these yahoos when Jack and Kate and Sawyer are traipsing around?

This same nagging question surfaces with Tony, unfortunately.  Would it have been better to parcel off some of Tony’s screentime to another character - Cosima, or Helena, or even (dare I say it) Paul?  If there weren’t another story thread or emotional beat that could have benefited from more clocktime, I wouldn’t necessarily say yes.  The problems in Tony’s storyline could be fixed within Tony’s storyline.  But in “Variable and Full of Perturbation,” there was another area that could have used the extra time - with Rachel Duncan’s meltdown.

That sequence should have been great!  Here’s this character who’s been buttoned-up for so long, pressurizing her emotions in fragile glass, and finally - she combusts.  It’s a huge deal, right?  Except it wasn’t, really.  The cutaways were, first of all, confusing, because it was difficult to tell the time and place for of her breakdown.  The sense of disorientation pulled the audience out of the moment, and we weren’t so much feeling anything as wondering where we are.  You could argue that the cuts helped to make her explosion more jarring in contrast with her usual demeanor, but I personally feel like we should have seen a stone-faced Rachel slowly crack and then unleash her tornado of pain and anger.  Cutaways just don’t do it justice, especially when they untether the audience from the emotions.  The scene would have benefitted from more screentime to build that emotional climax, and unfortunately, Tony’s part is the storyline with excess time to give.

So, in the end, the point of bringing Tony into the fold kind of remains on the idea that the OB writers wanted to demonstrate that a trans clone is, indeed, possible.  And y’know, given the space that Orphan Black has created for LGBT characters, and the way their presence is fundamentally thematic in all of the main characters -- it’s hard to argue with that.  This is the concept episode, the genre episode, the proof of concept, and the proof that identity - gender, and sexual - is in a person’s voice, not their DNA.  But in the realm of television writing - story building, plot threading, stakes and obstacles - “Variable and Full of Perturbation” was a little left of target.


  • How much did I love Kira’s exasperated “MO-OOOOM!” at Sarah questioning if Dr. Moreau was appropriate for kids.  How lovely that they still get to have some hints of “normal” mother-daughter interactions.
  • Kudos to Josh Vokey, who plays Scott, for the scene where he finds out that Cosima is 324B21.  It’s a lovely little moment of realization and compassion, as suddenly the science becomes very human for him.
  • THE KIDS ARE TRUANT.  Alison’s manner of speaking is still the best thing ever.  Also, of course she would criticize Donnie’s sloppy handling of Leekie’s body.  And of course she’d be irate that Donnie used one of her guns.  Of course, Alison.
  • “You cannot imagine the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires.  The thing standing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow creature - but a problem.”  This week, on meta-relevant excerpts from in-narrative novels!
  • Did Tony remind anyone else of Apolo Anton Ohno?  I mean, it’s Canada.  He probably skates.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Orphan Black 2.07 - "Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things"

Let’s just break this down for a second: this episode of Orphan Black was both sinister and absurd, equal parts mania and measure, comedy and disaster.

Ladies and gentlemen?  I believe we have found the episodic incarnation of Alison Hendrix.


It’s obvious that Alison was meant to be the centerpiece of the episode, and it makes sense that her character traits sprawl outward from her place at the epicenter, wreaking havoc in both funny and awful ways.  This calls back to the delightful season 1 outfit “Variations Under Domestication,” which served as a little sidecar of pastel suburban horror to Sarah’s squeeze between the cops and the corporation.  Sarah imitating Alison?  Check.  Hiding a body from Alison’s peers?  Check.  Craft supplies in conjunction with bodily harm?  Oh, check.

Of course, when it comes to Alison, absurd ridiculata is usually followed by genuine terror and heartwrenching tragedy.  So not only did we have the hijinx of trying to dispose of Vic and cover for Alison, but there was also Cosima learning that Delphine betrayed her trust, Alison discovering that Donnie participated in a “social experiment” with no knowledge of its real repercussions, and Rachel finding out that Dr. Leekie killed her mother.  And of course, the errant gunshot that capped the episode and dropped all of our jaws - rounding out the hour as absurd, tragic, and violent - just like Alison herself.

But Alison wasn't the only focal point of the episode - there was also Rachel Duncan.  Helena was absent, and while Sarah and Cosima certainly had their emotional moments, the bulk of the screentime was devoted to Alison and Rachel, and the rapid unraveling of their worlds as they know it.  Remember a few weeks ago, I charted Alison and Rachel as characters both wildly resistant to vulnerability?  Neither of them can cope with a loss of control, and they both take great efforts to construct the world around them to the exact specifications of their liking.

In “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things,” both Alison and Rachel receive new information that nudges their worlds off their axes, and watching them struggle to deal is a fascinating character study, both individually and together.  Of course, Alison has been perpetually unempowered since the start of the show, and her unraveling has been a slow, steady, and tragicomic descent.  Learning that Donnie’s betrayal was foolish instead of malignant is just another disintegration of an already-crumbling world.  Rachel, however, is buttoned-up in an apex of power, and the news that Leekie killed her mother is the trigger on a what will likely be a sudden implosion.  In other words: we only just witnessed the early tremors of the inevitable self-destruction of Rachel’s carefully-selected identity.  What more, Rachel has power - where Alison is locked up and disenfranchised in rehab, Rachel has the ability to start a war. (Cue Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball.")

This connection between Alison and Rachel also makes the final moments of the hour more inspired than mere plot shock and gun horror.  After all, the newest chasm in Alison’s life comes with the knowledge that Donnie’s affiliation with DYAD is laughably innocuous, even though it destroyed everything anyways.  And the first crack in Rachel’s world comes with the earth-shattering truth that Leekie killed her mother and raised her in DYAD's image.  So with these control-centric ladies spiraling into terrifying and uncharted new worlds, who should cross paths at the end of the episode but the two men whose actions were the cause?

It’s also a huge statement to set up Leekie as a powerful villain in this episode, and let Donnie Hendrix kill him with an errant bullet.  We learned Leekie was the Mad Scientist, the Villain, and Donnie was the Fool - and yet it’s the fool who puts a bullet through the Villain’s brain.  For a man attempting to design an outcome, it's awfully ironic he was felled by happenstance.  For Donnie, it's accidental vengeance, an irony of agency - suddenly the extension of Alison has power, just as the extension of Rachel does not.  Moreover, it's a new Secret Motion of Things to push us forward into the final act of the season.

Of course, with Aldous Leekie’s demise waiting at episode’s end, Orphan Black revealed a new stratum of power within the DYAD corporation: Dr. Marian Bowles.  Here’s a new shadowy figure for us to observe and suss out - because with DYAD in particular, power dynamics are nebulous and shifting.  Every episode adds new information that reveals a different dimension to the chain of command.  The heads of this beast twist and snarl, and we only learn how it operates if we pay close attention.

Here’s what we know about Dr. Marian Bowles: upon first glance, she appears to be a scientist.  But then, you realize her pristine white coat is not of a laboratory but of an office.  She is a well-groomed businesswoman, silver-tongued and shark-toothed.  She gives Leekie the impression it’s the two of them against Rachel (she’s even costumed the same as him during their meeting - white exterior, black underneath) - when in fact, it becomes her and Rachel against him.  After all, she and Rachel are to sit in the big chair.  Not the lab coat, but the businesswoman’s coat.  Marian is obviously meant to be another interpretation of Rachel - perhaps an amalgamation of Rachel and Sarah - and I’m curious to see if the show will present her as a pseudo-mother figure to Rachel, to match Leekie as her pseudo-father, and foil Mrs. S. as a mother figure to Sarah.

Which leads me to another instance of having to Pay Very Close Attention to understand the true structure and inner workings of a design: in this case, of Rachel Duncan and her Nebulous Tucked-Away Emotions.  She meaningfully interacts with two father figures in the episode: first with her adoptive father Ethan, who’s probably a shell of how she remembers him, and then with Aldous Leekie, the man who took her in and raised her as one of DYAD.  Leekie hijacked Rachel as he hijacked Project Leda - and yet, Rachel shows him mercy when he’s meant to be disposed of.  “Nurture prevails,” she says, without a single tear in her eye, leaning coolly against a desk, rattled but keeping it together.

Compare this to her interaction with Ethan - who, it bears stating, is just the previous Nurturer for Rachel.  He is not her nature - that we know of - he’s simply the man who came before Aldous Leekie as a Father Figure.  We are not privy to the conversation that they share; however, in the moments leading up to it, we see tears shining in Rachel’s eyes and a fairly recognizable struggle for composure.  Combine Rachel’s lack of emotion with her action of mercy, and a big question mark for how she interacted with Ethan - and we’re looking a mysterious puzzle of a lady.  I’m guessing Rachel Duncan understands her own emotions even less than we do, so watching this shake out is going to be interesting.

“Nurture prevails” is of course a big statement to come out of the mouth of one of the characters on this show, given the constant push and pull between nature and nurture as indicators of someone’s identity, appearance, and behavior.  It's also applicable to a few other situations in the episode.  Nurture leads Rachel to make her choice; Nurture gives Sarah similar destructive calculations as her adoptive mother; Nurture connects Alison to her adopted children; Nurture brings Felix to Alison’s aid, and Sarah to Alison’s aid, and Sarah to Cosima’s aid.  Nurture is fingerprinted all over the episode, with one notable exception: Cal Morrison.  Cal is biologically connected to Kira, and, while having been absent from his role as Nurturer, takes up the mantle through his biology as genetic dad.

The idea of a study in nurture spins a few facets in new light.  What exactly comprises nurture?  If nurture is caring for someone, cherishing and fostering and encouraging - then Orphan Black presents us with a variety of flawed expressions.  Delphine is tragically intent on nurturing Cosima, at the expense of Cosima’s agency and Kira’s potential safety.  Alison loves Donnie, but the way she shows it can be destructive for him.  Mrs. S does what’s best for Kira at the occasional expense of Sarah; Leekie cares for Rachel but hides a devastating truth from her; Donnie loves Alison but allows for social experiment on his family.  In short: Helena is not the only character on Orphan Black that loves imperfectly through misaligned expression, and thus nurture is rendered in a gray area as a function of good intent, personal agenda, and difficult circumstance.

As we move forward, it seems the best example of nurture is perhaps exemplified with Sarah: with Cosima's life on the line, she seems ready to bring Kira in to DYAD and negotiate a cure.  Given that Sarah's original character construction hinged on Kira and Kira alone, it's a huge statement about her development if she makes this choice - even if she's running a con.  Sarah and Cosima may share identical DNA, but it's the relationship and the circumstances that are informing Sarah's decision.  Nurture prevails, indeed.


  • “FINKS AND RATS AND SNITCHES AND FUZZ” is the greatest assembly of human language, ever.
  • WHAT’S NEW WITH PAUL: we found out he likes pottery!  And that’s it for this week on WHAT’S NEW WITH PAUL!
  • When Cal told Sarah he has people in Reykjavik, I half-expected her to say, “But I have people here.”  And then I would’ve cried.  Sarah Manning's family arc, everybody.  Sniff.
  • Can’t lie; I felt a genuine pang of sympathy seeing Cal watch Sarah go - probably wondering if he would ever see her or Kira again.
  • I very dearly enjoy when Orphan Black reminds us that Alison has children, and is family-oriented not just in the comedic-soccer-mom way.  Motherhood is such an important facet of this show, and Alison’s kids should be included in that.  Not only that, but it’s a way to connect Alison to Sarah, and Mrs. S. - narrative connections that are personal faves - and a handy construction to keep Alison in the fold.
  • Where does Rachel’s power hit a brick wall?  When is she limited, because she’s a clone?  I wait anxiously to find out.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Orphan Black 2.06 - "To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings"

Remember how the story of season 2 has been less CLONES ASSEMBLE and more EVERY CLONE FOR HERSELF?  And remember how that’s inherently upsetting?  Well, turns out that defining this thematic switch as an actual LACK for the characters, emotionally, is infinitely more upsetting.  I need about ten thousand years to cry about clone sisters, and the way this episode underscored the concept of family by crossing it with a main theme: the assertion of humanity.


The title sets it all up: this season, our clone sisters have set out on their own paths, isolated from one another.  We’ve seen it in every episode, and it’s a tragic pang of reality about their individual situations.  But this episode doesn’t just unequivocally present this story as the new normal; it wistfully shows us a few hints of what might possibly be, if only our heroes weren’t under constant duress.  If only Cosima and Sarah could go break Alison out of rehab right now.  Maybe Helena and Sarah really could be true sisters, having adventures.  Maybe Helena could have a relationship with a boyfriend.  Including these moments of connection served to highlight the fact that the clone family is splintered right now, and created a beautiful kind of yearning in the audience that they could actually be a family, and maybe even one day, free from this.  They are, after all, stronger together.

This emphatic inclusion of emotional unity amongst the clones is thus a big indicator about the theme of the episode.  The concept of family is the big throughline, the empathy anchor.  It anchors emotional moments like Sarah and Cosima’s phone call.  It’s mentioned casually, like when Mrs. S refers to the clones as “Sarah and her sisters.”  It’s embodied in larger storylines, as Helena and Sarah have the most absurdly wonderful sisterly interactions on what is basically a road trip.  It emerges in small details, like Helena’s cover story at the bar comprising the identities of her sestra clones.  It even reveals in dialogue: Alison judges Vic for abusing Sarah; Sarah tells Cosima they’re stronger together; Cosima worries about her illness putting fear in Sarah over Kira; Helena is momentarily fooled when Gracie refers to herself as her sister.

This episode deploys the concept of family in full force, and its purpose is more than just to tug at our heart strings.  After all, we also reunite with the shady Mrs. S, and meet the elusive Ethan Duncan for the first time.  These are both examples of family - Sarah’s foster mother and Rachel’s adoptive father - that have ulterior motives for their loved ones.  Siobhán Sadler continues to be maddeningly (delightfully) gray in her actions and motives, and Ethan Duncan reveals himself to have been Rachel’s first monitor.  “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” brings into sharp focus the repeated conflation of family with experiment, to fantastic and horrific result.  Because this, even more than individual isolation, is the reality of the clones’ situation.  Who can you trust, when you are a loved one but also a project?  How can you forge genuine human connections when it’s possible the other person may not see you wholly as human?

Orphan Black has danced with all these ideas in the past, but “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” brought them to the forefront, and fused the clones together with these shared bounds.  Helena is supposedly a member of the Prolethean’s family, but she’s also their science experiment and the womb for their new generation.  Delphine loves Cosima and wants the best for her treatment, but we’re reminded that their relationship is not just love: it’s a science experiment, and a power imbalance due to restriction of knowledge.  Paul and Mark sit in dark corners of a bar and talk about Sarah and Helena like property: “You take your girl, I take mine.”  Even innocent Scott, upon realization that DYAD has clones, asks bluntly if he can see one, like he’s at a zoo - not realizing the woman he has been working with is in fact a human AND a clone.  And Alison, adrift Alison, who thinks she may finally have another human caring for her recovery, is in fact being tasked with another kind of monitor.

Basically, this episode was filled with relationships that are blemished by the other party treating the clone as something other than simply human - whether object, target, possession, task, or even womb.  This has always been a core theme of the show, and a great source of tension: how do the clones assert their humanity, when they’re derived from science, and patented property?  Not only that, but their existence is, as Ethan Duncan so succinctly put it, proof of concept.  They’re a project, conceived on paper but made breathing and living and loving - only to be owned and monitored.  What results is a painful and fascinating tension, and another important theme for the clones: the importance of asserting their humanity.

Last week, I charted Sarah as the character defined by chaos and vulnerability, and her capacity to find power in that space.  This week, it was demonstrated completely, as the emotional pinnacle of the episode came with her confrontation of Ethan Duncan.  She doesn’t threaten Duncan with violence, or attack him with reason.  She humanizes herself, and Cosima, and Alison, by telling Duncan who they are as people.  A brilliant scientist; a mom.  She confronts Duncan with their humanity, which is so often denied them because of their origins.  She forces him to look her in the eye, and tells him that she is not a concept: she is a human consequence for his actions.

What’s even more beautiful about this moment is that it pays off the quietly-building theme of family.  Sarah doesn’t assert just her own humanity; she asserts the humanity of her sisters as well.  The reality of the situation really isn’t “EVERY CLONE FOR HERSELF.”  Her situation is also Alison’s, and Helena’s, and Cosima’s.  They are stronger together, through their vulnerability, in the sanctity of a family that knows the importance of humanity unmarred by treatment as object, target, possession, task, or womb.

Of course, the implications of Sarah’s conversation with Duncan is also interesting under the lens of gender.  While it’s true that Sarah uses her and her sisters’ humanity to appeal to Duncan, it also manifests in a gendered way: “your little girls are dying.”  Typically, the show draws parallels between humanity and femininity - which makes the expression of strength through vulnerability all the more powerful.  Orphan Black’s female clones may be unempowered, they may have flaws - but they are active, and strong.

But this is an expression of the clones shared solely with the audience.  For the purpose of Duncan, Sarah just wrangled them all into “daddy’s little girls,” to incite fatherly love and paternal protection.  Combine this with the fact that Duncan claims that they pursued cloning because they wanted not just babies but little girls, and we’re very squarely in the idea that gender is of huge importance to this show’s narrative.  It is no coincidence that this alignment comes in an episode where our leading ladies are engaged in relationships with individuals who see them as less than human, and where they voice their strength through togetherness.  Under the lens of gender?  This is a big statement about women, the right to their own bodies and identity, and the power in women connecting.

In short: “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” is a damn good hour of television.  But it’s also something more: it’s a damn good episode of Orphan Black.  It inhabits its own universe and harvests its own themes and creates more meaning with them, putting them to use not only in the plot twists and narrative turns, but also in the characters’ actions and emotions.  This show sprawls in the most engaging and thoughtful way, and “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” demonstrates that near-perfectly.


  • Helena’s boyfriend storyline seemed bewilderingly out of place at first, until the slow dance revealed why it’s important to this episode in particular.  Here is Helena allowed to feel finally.  Her whole life has been a series of interactions in line with the theme of the hour: families manipulating or dehumanizing her.  She even perceives her relationship with Sarah in some level of mistrust, leveraging her knowledge to achieve togetherness.  But dancing with Jesse in a bar?  Helena’s heart is finally ungoverned, free of constraint, and achingly human hoping.  What could have been a goofy storyline actually ended up being thematically resonant and beautifully important.
  • Alison basically has two monitors now.  Ha.  Ha ha ha.  (I cry.)
  • So much comedy in this episode, which made the heartwrenching moments even more poignant by contrast.  Plus, each clone had funny moments in her own specific way - which means that Tatiana Maslany is not of this planet, basically.
  • After several rewinds and a best-effort attempt to understand Science, we’re on with the idea that Cosima’s stem cell donation came from Kira’s baby tooth, yes yes?  In which case, it seems to point to the idea that Mrs. S. is responsible for that.
  • Speaking of Mrs. S, I am so all-in on the Murder Lady of the Night intrigue, it’s not even funny.  She’s the protagonist’s MOTHER, which has its own archetype at this point, and yet here she is, in a t-shirt and beanie and wielding a gun.  Motherly protection, indeed.
  • And, finally, I am also very ready to see what the show does with Rachel’s father, especially as it might mirror Sarah’s relationship with Siobhán.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Orphan Black 2.05 - "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est"

Bam boom!  Orphan Black is finally greasing the wheels and getting this season MOVING.  "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est" got back on track with breakneck pace - and along with some great storytelling and narrative devices, created a pretty gripping hour of television.


There are several reasons "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est" works so well - but mainly, they all stem from the fact that it allows its characters to MOVE and DO.  The first episodes of this season found Alison trapped, Helena trapped, Cosima trapped, and Sarah hiding.  The show, by nature, limits the choices these characters have - but when their hands are bound completely, it can sometimes make for a less dynamic narrative thread.  At some point Sarah’s gotta kick through the bathroom wall.  So, "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est" freed up Helena and Sarah, dialed up Rachel, created communication between Leekie and Cosima, and, since she’s immobile in rehab, wisely left Alison out of the picture.  (More on this down below.)

In other words, this episode allowed for characters to make and act on their choices, thereby knocking down dominoes into other characters who in turn make and act on their own choices.  Plot forward, characters changing and adapting.  This kind of scenario is when Orphan Black is firing on all cylinders, and "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est" didn’t disappoint.  But as we all know, I’m rarely focused on plot.  Nah, I’m here for the characters.  Let’s discuss.

Last week, the show did a wonderful job setting up Rachel, Helena, and Sarah as the three central figures of the season, inherently interesting because of their complicated connections and thematic representations.  It became clear that the writers were intending to compare and contrast Rachel and Helena with regards to Sarah - with their shared elitist views endowed to them by their group-based context, and the ways in which they challenge Sarah.

This episode followed through on this similarity, even going so far as to put the words right in Felix’s mouth: “You’re now pitted between two psychopaths!”  Sarah found herself trying to keep her feet in the crossfire of Rachel and Helena firing up their actions.  Helena doesn’t stay caged at Art’s long; instead she gets a sniper rifle and goes to take out Rachel.  Rachel doesn’t mourn Daniel’s death long; instead she manipulates Paul, frames Felix for murder, and shuts down Cosima’s treatment in order to force Sarah’s surrender.  Rachel raises the stakes, Helena creates an obstacle, and the drama for Sarah is elevated.  These ladies don’t mess around, and the show is better for it.

But regardless of episode construction, I keep going back to the title of the hour: “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est.”  In Latin, it means “knowledge itself is power.”  And this episode of Orphan Black presented a whole smorgasbord of material touching on knowledge, power, and the inherent consequence of lacking either: vulnerability.  It’s a core function of the show’s themes, with a rather drama-rich result for its characters.  After all, vulnerability - or a lack thereof - is a cornerstone of most human interaction.  And we saw it all over this episode.  How does each character handle being vulnerable?  Do they seek power for themselves, or over others?  Who chooses vulnerability, and who resists it?

The relationship between knowledge, vulnerability, and power crops up with pretty much everyone in the hour.  Rachel refuses to be vulnerable with Paul, and therefore seeks power over him sexually.  Sarah chooses to be vulnerable with Helena, and in turn receives compliance with her wishes.  Delphine discovers that DYAD is exerting power over Cosima by denying her access to “the science.”  Leekie chooses to amend this, despite the possibility of being vulnerable as a result, and in return receives information from Sarah.  Rachel keeps secrets from Leekie in an effort to disenfranchise him, because she doesn’t trust him to make the right decisions.  Cosima keeps the truth of her illness from Sarah to avoid seeming vulnerable, or pitied.

Let’s talk Rachel for a moment, since she’s the character with the most pronounced relationship to vulnerability, power, and knowledge.  Thus far, Rachel has stood in a glass tower, staring out the window with all the knowledge, all the power, and no vulnerability.  She has designed it that way.  Rachel is so embedded in her own rigidly-defined power structure that she bends no rules for no one.  Her sex with Paul almost plays as compulsory, as though she’s obligated to have sex with her monitor, simply because it’s how the power structure at DYAD works.  Rachel doesn’t appear to have any emotions clouding her relationship with power, because that’s the best way to keep it.  It’s exactly what her criticism is of Leekie.  And even though she was sleeping with Daniel, she insists on seeing his bloodied corpse.  She refuses to be treated with consideration to her feelings, because obliging is an admission of having them - and being vulnerable.

But the show does something interesting with Rachel and vulnerability, during the sex scene with Paul.  Here, Rachel is in complete control.  She instructs Paul what to do when, and slaps him when he move towards her without permission.  This situation is designed to be physically intimate without being emotionally intimate, and still Rachel is vulnerable - because Helena has a sniper rifle leveled at her across the street.  There’s a wonderfully tense dichotomy going on here.  The writing and direction allow the audience the dramatic irony of knowing Rachel’s vulnerability, while simultaneously witnessing a situation where she’s actively denying anything less than absolute power.  And to make that situation a sex scene, where some level of vulnerability is implied, is even more telling.

It’s also an expression of Rachel’s big flaw: nothing is absolute.  Life is chaos, not controlled.  She can manipulate situations to her will using power and knowledge, but vulnerability can’t be kept out forever.  Sometimes another version of you is pointing a sniper rifle at your face and you’re none the wiser.

What’s even more interesting is the show’s definition of science in comparison with Rachel’s outlook.  It’d be easy to conflate science with control.  But Cosima, the show’s bastion of science, is expressive, adaptable, and full of life.  Rachel, however, is science through corporate: an inflexible pillar of controlled data and measured outcomes.  She’s doomed to fail.  Messy humanity - embodied by Cosima, Sarah, and Helena (messy, messier, messiest) - will overtake her.  Her glass tower will shatter, and fall.

So of course, it makes sense that the person on the other end of that sniper rifle is the one person who threatens Rachel’s power in the messiest way possible.  Cosima is confrontational of Rachel.  Sarah is even more confrontational of Rachel.  But Helena?  Helena is the most confrontational.  She is not controlled science; she is controlled religion.  She is as fragile and destructive as Rachel, but unlike Rachel, she’s completely chaotic.  She may kill in the way Rachel would likely kill - from a distance, with a clean bullet through the head - but Helena goes and plays in the blood.  She’s untamed where Rachel is repressed, and that’s the biggest threat of all to Rachel’s repression.  (I hope they meet soon.)

What’s notable too about the sex/sniper scene is the way in which OB uses the tension of intimacy and power to tell the story.  It serves almost as a dramatic device, ramping up the suspense.  Then I realized that the episode does something similar in two other places - first, with Felix and Colin, and second, with Cosima and Delphine.  In the case of Felix and Colin, sex and intimacy is used to underpin Felix’s complete vulnerability when the situation changes, and Paul bursts in with a gun.  The tone changes on a dime, and Felix goes from playful and confident to terrified and dominated.  He doesn’t know what’s happening, and he has no control over it.  It’s a jarring switch of vulnerability, power, and knowledge.

The other example belongs to Cosima and Delphine.  When Cosima finally receives her treatment from Delphine (thanks to Dr. Leekie) the scene plays very plainly like a sex scene.  But not a sex scene like Rachel and Paul’s, or Colin and Felix’s - because it’s not actually sex.  Unlike the other two relationships, Cosima and Delphine’s is basically defined by emotional intimacy.  Delphine kisses her cheek, whispering “mon amour,” and the whole thing is shot in in a series of extreme close-ups, all backlit with narrow depths of field.  It’s a complete embracing of intimacy - and vulnerability, by admission.

The show goes out of its way to have Cosima and Delphine talk about how they don’t know what’s going to happen - but they’re okay with that.  Which of course begs the question: is there power in vulnerability?  Usually a denial of knowledge means a denial of power, and the victim of that is forced to be vulnerable.  This is how Rachel views the world.  But when you’re in a loving relationship with your monitor, what else do you have but vulnerability and trust?  The monitor dynamic is inherently a power imbalance, yet Cosima surges forward, completely vulnerable, and mostly okay with that.  To choose to be vulnerable, as Cosima has done with Delphine and DYAD - is there power in that?

I’m inclined to say yes, considering what "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est" designed for not only Cosima, but for Helena and Sarah as well.  With Helena threatening to kill Rachel, and with Felix’s safety on the line, Sarah was at the mercy of other people’s power - Helena, and Rachel’s.  But in order to stop Helena from pulling the trigger, Sarah chose complete vulnerability - not just physically, but emotionally.  She steps in front of the gun, puts herself in physical danger, and tearfully confesses to Helena that she isn’t just using her.  Sarah shows emotional vulnerability, and Helena puts the gun down.  Like with Delphine and Cosima, there’s power in intimacy, and emotional honesty.

Considering how each of the clones were deployed in this episode - and taking into account Alison, who specifically wasn’t - there’s a very interesting spectrum going on with them, in terms of how the show has designed their traits and how they’re embedded in the narrative.  It’s almost as if they can be plotted with consideration to two extremes: vulnerability and power, and control and chaos.

  • There’s Rachel, who wields power and control, and is screechingly uncomfortable with a lack of either. 
  • Then there’s Alison, who has a similar need for control but lacks any kind of real power - she’s perpetually vulnerable, and completely disenfranchised in rehab for the episode.  It's why Alison is both a comedic and tragic figure: her comfort zone is in complete contrast to her situation pretty much at all times.
  • Inverse of Alison and in split-contrast to Rachel and Sarah (fittingly) is Helena, who actually has some kind of power, usually violence-derived, and she’s completely chaotic.  
  • Then there’s Sarah, who’s split-contrast with Alison and Helena (her two most interesting interpersonal reactions, in my opinion) and inverse of Rachel, her narrative foil.  Sarah thrives in chaos, but she also thrives in vulnerability - and the show is strongest when Sarah’s power is threatened.  
  • Finally, there’s Cosima, who I would actually put at the neutral point on both spectrums.  The brain who thinks with her heart, she can find vulnerability in power and knows there’s no such thing as control.
Of course, there's a lot of room for interpretation and debate with this graphic, as characters shift in different situations and episodes.  It's not an exact science here.  But there's a lot of interesting things to mine from this perspective - the two clones that thrive in chaos are the two in the black, ungoverned and still pursued by DYAD.  Looking at Sarah and Alison in positions of vulnerability also illuminates a syllogism of the Orphan Black universe: vulnerability equates humanity, equates motherhood - and Sarah and Alison are the two clone mama bears.  Helena and Rachel both operate in power, because they were raised by systems which instilled in them a kind of twisted sense of entitled empowerment.  Diagonally across the graph are pure challenging foils, and adjacent are complicated expressions of similarity and difference (and still challenging in their own way).

So, denying vulnerability, coughing up knowledge, and shifting power means that the plot has accelerated for next week, as more shit hits the fan and Mrs. S. comes back to tantalize us with Lady of Mystery intrigue.  But even beyond plot, "Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est" gave us rich character moments carved out in vulnerability and intimacy.  Another excellent exploration as applied to theme, character, and the confluence of the two.


  • So, I was wrong about Rachel knowing she has a monitor.  But, this fits, and is still interesting.  Rachel’s compulsion for order and system is even more remarkable now knowing that she’s willingly subjected herself to the monitor program.  It means that she cares more about order than she does about seeming elite.  Or, order is a key component to seeming elite.
  • I feel badly saying this episode was better for not having Alison in it, because Alison is a treasure and very frequently in the running for My Favorite Clone (every fan’s personal struggle).  But caging her in rehab means there’s not much to do with her, and she slows things down.  I would love for her to function in the narrative more than that, though.  It reminds me of her scene in Season 1 when she admits that Beth and Cosima were helpful as the law and the science, and she… was the pocketbook.  More for Alison, somehow, please!
  • Effective use of the Proletheans, too.  Minimal exposition or mystery, just pure body horror and suspense-building.
  • Cal to Kira: “You’re quick on your feet.”  Seriously, was there anyone who didn’t say aloud “LIKE MOTHER LIKE DAUGHTER” in that moment?
  • Art!  Art!  Art!  I love having Art in the narrative because he's basically the only one who actually signed up for this shit.  He has no ulterior motive except loyalty and friendship and justice.  What a dreamboat.
  • First the Ferryman, now the Swan Man.  Probably not the same guy.

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