Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Orphan Black 4.02 - "Transgressive Border Crossing"

With Orphan Black’s flashback premiere throwing forward to Sarah Manning at episode’s end, there was no telling whether the ensuing episodes would devote any more time to Beth’s last case and her final days. Connecting characters were set up to cross into present-day - MK, the cheek cutters, and Detective Duko - so theoretically “The Collapse of Nature” could be the only hour in the past, as we push forward with Sarah on the run.

But “Transgressive Border Crossing” does indeed return to a modified flashback format, as we truly spend more time “back at the beginning of all this shit.”

ORPHAN BLACK 4.02 - “TRANSGRESSIVE BORDER CROSSING”

The success of “Transgressive Border Crossing” lies in the fact that it isn’t just flashback, but rather a synthesized connection between past and present. The two timelines are merging, as MK bridges the gap between Beth and Sarah, and Art and Sarah uncover new mysteries through Beth’s surveillance.

Here’s what we learn: Beth has an encounter with Detective Duko at her apartment, where they both speak with dangerous candor from under thinly-veiled poker face. It seems clear that he knows Beth’s identity as a Leda Clone, given his reaction to her suggesting that the story of her life is at the end of her investigation. So, when Beth later puts a blond wig on her head and a gun in her purse, it’s difficult to avoid any conclusion that doesn’t involve her killing Duko. After all, as Art says, Beth can’t let anything go.

But when she returns with blood on her hands, she tells MK they’re done, and she needs to drop the investigation. Stubborn-as-hell Beth, backing off? It only seems logical that Beth found something out during this encounter, especially when you add the fact that we all expect that she killed Duko. Maybe she didn’t even kill Duko; maybe he’ll show up in present-day, in the Sarah storyline, or Rachel’s. Regardless: there has to be something else.

Whatever it is, it also has to be enough to push Beth completely over the edge, as we realize in her last scene with MK that she is wearing the burgundy dress and tightly-wound bun of our first encounter, on the train tracks. The slow recognition of that outfit, followed by the immediate understanding - and dread - of what was coming was phenomenally executed, and capped beautifully with MK’s vulnerable pleading for Beth to stay. There are few more heartbreaking sentences in the English language than “Please don’t leave me; I need you” - and even fewer when they’re not heeded, to tragic result.

Embedded in MK’s present-day conversation with Sarah, this section of the episode finally humanized MK into a fully-fledged character and Leda Clone to Care About. Between the close-ups on her face as she talks to Sarah in the laundromat, and the way she talked to Beth the last time she saw her, MK is now officialy initiated into Clone Club empathy. Not only that, but her dynamic with Beth called to mind another sisterly relationship on the show: that of Helena, with Sarah.


Sure, Beth and MK were not mirror-twins in utero, à la Meathead and Sestra, but the way they interact has shades of similarity. Beth and Sarah both occupy protective Older Sister role, while MK and Helena are both childlike and emotionally stunted, behaving lovingly towards the sisters who treat them with respect. This echo is yet another element of loss in Beth’s suicide, and I hope the writers spend time allowing MK to open up to Sarah in Beth's place. Given that Sarah immediately echoed Beth’s choice to call MK Mika, sensing that it meant something to her, this path seems likely, and should be rewarding.

Of course, Helena’s going to be tracking down Sarah, to share the important news that she is having twin babies with her boyfriend-husband Donnie Hendrix. Helena’s stories have recently skewed towards comedic, so it was nice to see the emotional turn this one eventually took, rewarding Helena’s relationships with Sarah, motherhood, and weirdly enough, Donnie himself.

It’s these last two that might stir up trouble, though, as Helena inadvertently disrupts Alison’s household, patience, and emotional landscape. I find it interesting that the show chose to show Alison struggling with uncomfortable feelings of jealousy towards her sister(s) that can have children. On the one hand, it’s totally understandable, especially for someone like Alison who doesn’t cope well with dashed expectations and perceived failure of self. At the same time, I wish the scene had been written differently, in a way that reminds the audience that Alison does have kids. She and Donnie have always been portrayed as the suburban mom-and-dad archetypes, and we forget too easily that they are actually parents.

Orphan Black’s writers have perhaps painted themselves into a corner on this issue, crossing their messages inadvertently through plot points. This has been, since the beginning, a show about found family. Sure, the family mostly comprises genetic identicals, but there’s an element of reward in that these separated sisters did, in fact, have to find each other. More than that, this nucleus has amassed a group of people unrelated by blood who serve - choose to serve - wholly and completely as mothers, daughters, brothers, sons, sisters, and in-laws. We don’t have to look far to see that in this episode, with Mrs. S. serving as Cosima’s shoulder-to-cry-on and stand-in mom.

But also… last season’s reveal about Kendall Malone and Siobhán pulled a Once Upon a Time, and now everyone’s a blood relative in a tangled-up genetic lineage. The writers even shine a light on that in this episode, as Felix feels like he’s an outsider and reveals that he’s been searching for his own birth family. And in the same hour, Alison’s kids go unmentioned and unshown as she expresses pain over not being able to have children.  This coincidence of events paints a portrait, however unintentional, that there's more validity and value in raising children by birth, and identifying families by blood.

Ultimately, Felix and Alison’s character motivations are completely understandable, but I do wish the narrative provided the validation that adopted children are, in fact, and irrevocably, enough for the families they are adopted into - especially for Alison’s kids, who are not white, and seldom talked about. Now that we’re on a show with an encompassing bloodline, found family narratives require extra reinforcement, especially when it’s been a core construct from Day 1.

“Transgressive Border Crossing” did mention another now-missing member of the Clone Club’s extended family: Delphine Cormier, who was last seen by the audience in a parking garage. Oh yeah - and mysteriously shot. In-universe, Cosima is suspended in uncertainty, knowing nothing except that Delphine disappeared. While the showrunners have intimated that Delphine is in fact dead (complete with some tone-deaf commentary), I am holding out hope. Because, frankly, if she’s dead, this is not great storytelling. Let’s lay it out:

  1. If she’s dead and we just find out later, it’s a terrible choice. Why drag it out?
  2. If she’s dead, the best possible scenario is that we find out later because she did something important the night of her death. Obfuscating Delphine’s death can only be a successful strategy if it is also obfuscating new information or a plot twist.
  3. Worst case scenario if she’s alive: the Neolutionists have seized her and done some experimental body-altering shit against her will. The New Rachel goes the way of the Old Rachel, as it were, and Delphine could become a rescue mission.
  4. Best case scenario, point-blank: she’s alive, laying low, and scheming - and the writers are just building natural suspense. After all, the Orphan Black showrunners talked about Helena like she was dead for months, only to show that she was alive and well, and now that bitch is having babies! I have hope. As Mrs. S. said: “It’s a war. Anything can happen.”

[prayerhandsemoji]

STRAY THOUGHTS
  • Episode MVP obviously belongs to Mrs. S., who fiercely burned down their Iceland haven looking all badass yet snuggly in her fair isle sweater. Bonus points for calling Cosima “chicken” and being emotional support.
  • Anybody else notice that Sarah’s styling her hair like Mrs. S. now? Cuuuuute.
  • “You alright with this?” “No, but it’s where we’re at.” What a nice bit of dialogue.
  • Just to make the body horror of the season even more traumatizing, Sarah now has a MAGGOT ROBOT IN HER MOUTH. OH GREAT. I DON’T MIND HAVING NIGHTMARES, THANKS, ORPHAN BLACK.
  • As if we didn’t need just one ticking clock on a clone’s health, we still have Cosima struggling in the background, and now Kendall has leukemia that everyone can look forward to.
  • Consider me curious about how the pregnant lady fits into Beth’s mystery. Any chance she was carrying a Leda clone? Or was the visit to Beth’s house just part of the premiere investigation about her boyfriend?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Orphan Black 4.01: "The Collapse of Nature"

Since the first shocking moments of Orphan Black’s pilot, one mystery in particular has always captivated the audience: who exactly is Beth Childs?  Her demise is the inciting incident for the whole show, and the unknowns and loose ends of her existence propel much of the drama in the first season.  But as the show has sprawled further and further, the woman at the center has largely remained a question mark - until now.

ORPHAN BLACK 4.01 - “THE COLLAPSE OF NATURE”

Yes, finally, Orphan Black devoted an episode to Beth Childs’ backstory, choosing to focus on the events leading up to the accidental murder of Maggie Chen - the fallout from which serves as a challenge for Sarah to deal with in the first season. As a result, everything in “The Collapse of Nature” is familiar yet new, as we look at old events with fresh eyes and new information.

That’s the key, of course, to pulling off a flashback hour: information. What does the audience already know, and what do we need to tell them? How can we take past events and inject stakes and obstacles to engage the audience, instead of propping up old news without any new questions?

This particular type of quandary reminds me of another rabbit-hole science fiction show: yep, Lost, which relied exclusively on the flashback (and flashforward) as a narrative device. But Lost faced issues of pace and payoff, especially when negotiating how to dole out information and when. With Orphan Black firmly reestablishing itself as a science fiction show in this premiere, the comparisons don’t stop there. We have a similar beast - a serialized sci-fi mystery with humanity at its core to anchor the sprawling world expansion.

In general, “The Collapse of Nature” does well with pace and payoff - although it takes some time to ramp up to its best material.  The first two-thirds of the episode are part-and-parcel procedural, with its lead cop burned out and drugged up on the job.  Of course, Orphan Black is anything but typical, and we’re quickly reminded that this is also science fiction, and body horror.  Olivier Duval is a human in this universe who existed and also had a tail that he apparently liked to accessorize. JUST IN CASE YOU FORGOT.

Along these lines, the episode used these kinds of callbacks to fill their first two-thirds: we are treated to a carousel of characters we haven’t seen in awhile, like Olivier, and Paul, and Leekie, and Angie, Raj, Astrid, and Lieutenant Hardcastle.  We get to see Beth on the phone with Alison and Cosima, and a surprise chance encounter with Felix, when he was momentarily arrested for solicitation and public urination.

All of these were fun to witness, especially for a long-time viewer (my personal faves were Raj and Angie) but part of me wishes there were more meaning in these old faces.  First of all, most of them are dead now, which cast an eerie pall over the proceedings.  (It also gives Art, who has survived most of these people, a well-deserved present-day weariness.)  But beyond that, the Neolution mystery that connects to Sarah’s current storyline was planted retroactively in newly-devised characters like MK, Roxie and Frank, and Detective Duko.  It would have been massively cool to pull a familiar character into new relevance, instead of show-ponying them for novelty’s sake.  At the same time, I totally get that it would also be massively difficult to pull that off, given the fact that most of them are dead now, and and a lot of time has passed.  And truly, I don’t wish to believe that Raj is anything but a lil crumbcake of an IT guy with earnestly misplaced crushes.

So really, we look to characters we know a little better for an emotional anchor in this ghostly flashback.  Beth, right? She’s our POV character. But even she is something of a stranger to us, as she floats through her own narrative barely engaged. That’s totally the point, though, and it still gives us the episode’s most powerful moments - in the final third of the hour, when the narrative transcends procedural and delivers us the character piece that's always underpinned this story.


Beth spends most of “The Collapse of Nature” struggling to connect, and being wholly unable to. She is being suffocated by everything unsaid - the emerging mysteries of her identity, her disintegrating relationship with Paul, and her own burgeoning secrets.  So she fights to connect - she refuses to wear a mask, she begs to be seen, to be looked at - but she’s fighting a battle beyond her being. She’s already slipping out of her own life, fading from everyone around her. And even though she’s surrounded by people throughout the episode, there’s a degree of superficiality to all of her interactions. There are only two moments of genuine connection that Beth is granted: with Art, and with MK.

Structurally and narratively, the love scene with Art is the dam-breaking moment of relief before everything truly falls apart for Beth. Yes, it precedes her fatal encounter with Maggie Chen, but it also falls after Paul’s refusal to acknowledge Beth.  When Beth escapes to Arts, she is still seeking - and ultimately given - someone who truly sees her, even without knowing everything about her.  A relationship - a love - that transcends truth, in its many forms.  Art understands who Beth is, fundamentally, despite the complications he can't pinpoint, and is trying dearly to hold onto her as she’s slipping away.

Last season, Sarah assumed that Art was in love with Beth because he was the one Beth called after shooting Maggie Chen.  At the time, without context, that choice didn’t feel particularly informed or original.  It seemed like an easy excuse to keep Art involved with the clone mystery, when we didn’t really need one at that point.  But now?  Now, with context and chemistry, it’s so much more nuanced and complicated than “Art was in love with Beth.”  Their relationship finally has the texture it’s deserved since the beginning, and the idea that it was likely unresolved when Beth committed suicide is truly heartbreaking.  Can any romance on this show catch a break?

Of course, this is a show that prioritizes clone sisterhood above all else, and the last moment we get with Beth is on MK’s couch, Beth’s eyes slipping shut and MK offering comfort - in person this time. “The Collapse of Nature” kept Beth from interacting face-to-face with her genetic identicals - Alison and Cosima on the phone, MK by video chat - and only in the end is she allowed a moment of rest in the refuge of a sister. Knowing the kind of sister-family the show has assembled for Sarah in Beth’s stead, it’s not hard to conclude that Beth might have stood more of a chance with the clone club support system Sarah has had the opportunity to inherit and foster.

But this is history that has already come to pass, and so “The Collapse of Nature” has no choice but to push Beth believably over the edge with Maggie Chen’s murder.   In the final moments of Beth at her own crime scene, it’s difficult not to think of our last glimpse of her on the train tracks in the pilot.  The dead-eyed stare she gives Art from beyond his conversation is eerily reminiscent of the look she gives Sarah before she ends it all, at the beginning.

And with that, we’re back to the present day and Sarah Manning, as the mysteries continue.  I’m left wondering: is the premiere the best episode for a flashback episode? I wager that, much like with Lost, this decision will have little consequence in the future when you’re bingewatching. You can just jump from 3.10 to 4.01 without a yearlong memory fade. But now? It feels a little slow to grease the wheels and get them grinding, especially when we’re not nested in the present. I almost wonder if the OB gang could’ve done a present-timeline premiere, set up a bunch of mysteries - including MK and the cheek cutters, and then placed the flashback immediately after.

Regardless, I’m certainly primed now, and ready to hit the ground running. The Neolutionists are chasing Sarah, and we certainly have more to explore with systems and the individual, nature and nurture, and chance and design.  I also found myself missing the latter Clones - Rachel, Helena, and Krystal, so I’m looking forward to checking in with them.  Armed with information from the past and a few villains to carry into the present, this season is refreshed and ready to go.

STRAY THOUGHTS:

  • Add Beth to the company of Rachel and Alison as Clones Who Can’t Cope.  All three have trouble bending and not breaking, as they rely on self-destructive tendencies to numb out and suppress negative emotions.  Meanwhile, Sarah, Helena, and Cosima all embody or embrace chaos, and can deal with the loss of control.
  • Will the mystery of Maggie Chen go even further?  Was she in that alley for a reason?  We know she was involved with DYAD and the Proletheans, but did she have a connection to Neolutionists also?
  • Another tragedy of Beth: she skirted so close to so many mainplayers in her investigation, but was (presumably) never able to learn the whole truth before her death.
  • There’s material for more flashbacks here, since we still don’t have the block of time between Maggie Chen’s death and Beth’s suicide. There’s also the question of Beth’s life before things started unraveling.  I want to know the earliest beginnings of all the clones, frankly, as well as how Beth first started her investigation and met with Cosima and Alison.
  • No Delphine? Even despite her early ties to Leekie and Neolution? Honestly, there was a curly-haired extra with her back to the camera in the Leekie/Beth scenes, and I was half-expecting the woman to turn and be - GASP - Delphine. And it wasn’t even the right hair color. In any case: sigh.
  • Paul was the worst monitor ever. Like, honestly. HE WAS REALLY BAD AT PRETENDING TO BE BETH’S BOYFRIEND. No wonder Beth was ready to claw her face off out of frustration. Or, y’know, shoot him. (Yikes.)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Orphan Black Season 4 Sneak Peek

Egads!  BBC America has treated us all to the first four minutes of Orphan Black's Season 4 opener one week before it's set to air.  Mark those calendars for April 14th at 10 pm, and behold:


Of course, the world twists madly on, around Sarah, and Rachel, and Alison, and Cosima, and Helena, and - well, you get the idea.  But we're given time with some new characters as well as familiar faces in this Season 4 sneak peek.  Let's round them up.
  • New Clone Alert!  We meet M.K., who serves as our eyes and ears for new information.  Except it's not new new information.  Nah, this is actually old news, because we are in a pre-pilot flashback!  (More on that in a moment.)  M.K. wears a mask for the most of the clip, and of course, that mask looks like a sheep.  Clone imagery, check!  The question, of course, is if M.K. herself knows that she's a clone.  Where exactly are we on this investigation?  
  • The answer to that question might be revealed through Beth Childs, who also makes an appearance in the sneak peek.  She's still alive, and in contact with M.K., presumably on her quest to uncover the mysteries of DYAD and her genetic identity.  M.K. sends Beth GPS coordinates, Beth numbs out with medication, and goes to meet her in the dead of night.  We don't know exactly how long she is for this world, but it seems we've already begun the process of "losing it, clinically."
  • Of course, when Beth storms out, she leaves behind her monitor - nice to see you again, Paul!  He's as poker-faced and intense as ever, under the thin guise of caring partner.  Knowing that these two are dead now - as well as the dysfunction of their relationship - makes their whole interaction here more than a little unsettling.
  • Then there's the mystery of what M.K. actually sees, in the forest: two paramedics burying a body, not in a hurry enough to not stop and make out a little bit.  There's no real evidence that this couple killed the person they're burying, but the Hendrix-esque Murder Couple vibe they give off doesn't really paint them innocent.
So, naturally, Orphan Black kicks off raising questions!  Who is M.K.?  When are we?  Who is in the body bag, and who's burying it?  Where are Alison, and Cosima, and Mrs. S in this pre-Sarah timeline?  With the reveal of Trojan Horse Neolutionists from last season's finale, it only makes sense to rewind and look at past events with new information, and new eyes.  The exploration of Beth's backstory and pre-pilot events is definitely worthwhile, and helps this show stay grounded in its sci-fi spiral.  Onward and upward, Season 4!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Book Three Review

At some point during the Book 3 finale of Korra, I e-mailed my friend one simple message: HOW MUCH CAN ONE AVATAR TAKE


THE LEGEND OF KORRA, BOOK THREE

Of course, the first instinct after watching Book 3 is to compare it to Book 1 and Book 2, its vastly different predecessors.  Where Book 1 was a plot-driven crime story inhabiting a vibrant city and its characters, Book 2 was an Avatar-centric exploration of cosmic themes and world-building mythos.  Book 1 gave powerful moments to its supporting cast, whereas Book 2 struggled to involve its ensemble with its strong focus on mythology.  And where Book 1’s stand-out episodes ramped up the stakes and obstacles through action and reaction, Book 2’s highlights unraveled backstory that underscored the plot events.

So, with such a variation between Book 1 and 2, Book 3 could really go in any direction.  But it’s nothing so drastic - in fact, it mines a nice blend of characteristics from both previous excursions.  Book 3 shares the swift and organic plot advancement of Book 1, with the strong themes and gamechangers of Book 2 - and altogether turns out a damn good batch of episodes.

It’s worth noting that Book 3 was able to nimbly rework what didn’t quite gel in the season immediate before - Book 2 struggled with supporting characters, villains, love triangle, and focus.  Yet while Book 3 swiftly clears up all of these issues, it doesn’t completely eschew the events of Book 2, as it takes place only two weeks after Harmonic Convergence.  Things are different, yes, but they’re different as a direct result of the changes from the end of last season.  There are consequences to Korra’s decision to leave the spirit portals open, and there are also repercussions in the Love Triangle, which has drastically shifted in focus.  As Korra said, this is a dawning of a New Age, and from the very first episode we understand this to be a world where vines eat buildings and Asami is more important than Mako.

Okay, that last bit is partly a joke - but just barely.  Book 3 finally shelves the lackluster love story, and it does so in the most hilariously pointed way.  The premiere more or less glues Asami to Korra’s side, and the remainder of the season gives them a multitude of interactions entirely devoted to putting the Love Triangle behind them and building an independent dynamic.  The blatancy of this choice is LAUGHABLE, and I mean this in the best, most loving way.  It’s as if the writers woke up from a fever dream and realized JUST HOW BADLY they’d failed the Bechdel Test with Korra and Asami.  “Dear Viewers:  We know.  We’re so sorry.  Let us make it up to you.  Love, the Korra writers.”

This decision to bring Asami into Korra’s immediate circle goes hand-in-hand with a general uptick in the Handling of Supporting Characters.  Book 2 wasn’t really conducive for this, and it was lovely to see it carried out so nicely in Book 3.  All the characters share screentime together, and most of them are actually relevant to the furthering of the story.  Better still is the simultaneous expansion of personal arc for these characters, in a way that progresses with plot.  Ventures like Jinora’s spiritual journey, the discovery of Mako and Bolin’s family, and Lin’s history with her sister fill out the season meaningfully and organically.  Furthermore, these connections to core characters help facilitate the inclusion of thematic and logistical backdrops such as Zaofu, Ba Sing Se, and the Airbender tradition.  Our world is expanded, and our plot greases forward without a hitch, simply because we’re grounded in characters we care about.

Naturally, because this is the season of “Change,” these smooth pivots are particularly helpful.  But within the narrative, change isn’t portrayed as being so swift - and morever, it’s painted with the specificity of a different word: rebuilding.  We begin with the world having to rebuild after Harmonic Convergence, and we end with Korra having to rebuild her body and her identity after giving herself up to Zaheer.  In the middle, the Air Nation is rebuilding its ranks, Korra is rebuilding the Avatar legacy, Zaheer is rebuilding the Red Lotus, and characters like Lin and Suyin are rebuilding once-ruined relationships.

What’s lovely about this exploration of rebuilding is the inherent complex material that accompanies it.  Rebuilding is more specific and powerful than change, because it doesn’t just focus on the difficulties of adjusting to a new present.  It also addresses the challenges of leaving behind a forgotten (or unforgettable) past - and the pain that comes with it.  How does one rebuild a culture, exactly?  How can an Avatar make the right choices without guidance from those who came before her?  Can we forgive loved ones who wronged us?  What can we let go of, and what must we let go of, in order to move forward into the change?

The concept of rebuilding illuminates the internal struggles of characters like Korra, Tenzin, Lin, and Zaheer, but it also regroups the ensemble.  Once again, this season does right by the group.  Korra’s supporting players are united in a revitalized and connected purpose, from new characters like Suyin, to old characters like Asami, who fell prey to irrelevance in Book 2.  All characters - both supporting and main, heroes and villains - are given importance because they plug into a larger thematic landscape: they are devoted to shaping a still-fragile, post-war culture.  The only difference between Hero and Villain is method: Korra seeks balance through preservation and revitalization; Zaheer seeks it through annihilation.

You could argue that rebuilding is a larger theme of The Legend of Korra as a show, simply because it is set in a world that is teetering on the line between old and new, tradition and modernity, war and unity.  But Book 3 brings forth an underlying question at the core of this complex political discussion: is it right for one person to make choices about a group of people?   When you remove imposing yet long-standing structures, the one thing that remains is chaos, followed by people attempting to seize or maintain power.  Zaheer emerges with a philosophy that is sound in theory, but raises questions of morality when applied to reality.  Korra as a Hero is not exempt from this questioning  - she makes choices that are sound in theory, but she has to deal with the actual repercussions of them, like public dissent, or wild spirit vines.  In both cases, the idea of one making a choice for all creates complications in practice and suggests a portrait little different from an absolute ruler like the Queen.

From this aspect, we get a season that is actually highly politicized - and successfully deployed in this structure, where past efforts didn’t quite embody the goal fully.  (Tarrlok was wielded as a councilman only briefly, as that role was usurped by his place as the villain’s brother, and the Book 2 politics of the Water Tribes were too complicated and sudden.)  In Book 3, though, we begin to fully understand that the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom are, in fact, monarchies, and that the Earth Kingdom in particular suffers from a huge class divide.  This is shown to the audience organically, through character: we meet the Queen through Korra’s status as the Avatar; we meet the People through Kai, and Mako and Bolin’s family.  We know Korra to be of the people, but the Villain claims that he is of the people, too.

More than this, Korra’s Book 3 goes one step further from mere government and politics, and explores the relationship between nation and identity.  In this New World, the borders are blurred: Republic City is land from the Earth Kingdom, Airbenders are cropping up in Ba Sing Se, and the Queen is using new Airbenders to join her army.  In spite of these crossed lines, most people hold allegience to their motherland.  Earth Kingdom Airbenders don’t just drop their lives in the Earth Kingdom to become nomads, and Mako and Bolin’s grandma still keeps a portrait of the Queen over her mantle.  Identity and nation are intertwined, and this serves as both a tenet and obstacle for Tenzin as he endeavors to conform to Airbender Tradition while bringing in men and women from all walks of life.

Then there’s Korra, from the Water Tribes, serving all nations without a past to guide her.  She’s also politicized this season, as Episode 1 finds her squarely in the role of Civil Servant.  Of course, that role is soon truncated as President Reiko banishes her, and I honestly continue to find myself highly interested in the Avatar’s position Of the People, despite the fact that Tenzin totally shot that down and told her she’s not responsible for people’s everyday worries.  Whatever, Tenzin.  The Avatar has a public approval rating.  I’M HIGHLY INTERESTED.

Regardless, politics and identity affect Korra too, as the main character, and by season’s end, we see a huge shift in Korra’s sense of self and power.  As a particularly strong-headed fighter, Korra has always derived her identity from her role as Avatar.  The title, the power, the abilities.  Book 1 saw Korra terrified to lose her bending, and depressed when she was forced to face that reality - briefly, anyways.  She’s also still training throughout the first two books.  But in Book 3, this is Korra as a fully-formed Avatar.  She has a quest independent of self-betterment, and it fittingly results in self-sacrifice.  She ends the season with her power completely stripped away because she gave up her entire being - body, mind, power - to preserve the future of the Airbenders.  She walked knowingly into that vulnerability, let it completely tear her apart, and now she has to recover from that - visible to the world.

Book 3 brings Korra’s development to a climactic, satisfying peak, and in doing so, precipitates a completely new reality for her, one that will challenge everything she has ever believed about her identity and her power.  Within the same series of choices, she fulfilled one quest, and begot another.  The cycle of build, destroy, and rebuild - and more than ever before, the pain inherent in the process.  The coda of Book 3 is heart-droppingly resonant, because it finally manifests the worst moments of coping with change and identity - a broken present and a hopeless tomorrow.  (Genius points to the writers for setting this moment against a ceremony heralding the exact opposite of Korra’s feelings: a hopeful future from a broken past.)

In this way, Korra herself enters the void.  Much like Zaheer losing his earthly tether by way of P’Li’s death, Korra herself loses her earthly tether through the divestment of her power, and the death of her sense of self.  Zaheer’s outward experience is internalized emotionally in Korra, in a culmination of their common arcs embracing Airbending tradition, for both good and evil.  What’s even more beautiful about this is the continuation of gray area between the concept of “good” and “bad.”  Zaheer, unlike Korra, is a natural devotee of the Airbender Tradition, and embraces Guru Laghima’s teachings to serve his “evil” agenda.  Losing P’Li would be painful, except that emotional connection was the last thing holding Zaheer to the earth.  The void is comfortable for Zaheer; it is positive and fulfilling of his beliefs.  But for Korra, our “good” heroine, who struggles to connect with Airbender teachings of meditation?  Her void is a nightmare.  It is pain, and loss, and emptiness.  All this, despite the lineage of the message, traced back to a guru - presumably, a “good guy.”

So, Korra is left to rebuild, as the new Air Nomads take her place as a power for peace, resolving the question of nation and identity by promising to serve all nations as disciples of balance.  The concept of good and evil is no longer represented fundamentally by shapes and Beings, but rather in human shades of power, choice, and agenda.  And deeper than this, is the soul of a human, who must weather the natural endings and beginnings that mark everyone’s lives.  These themes are spun together masterfully in plot and ensemble, and most importantly - embodied and emblazoned in Korra, the main character whose journey is still the meaningful center of this changing world.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Rose DeWitt Bukater, Titanic, and Freedom

Note: this is a repost of a previously-removed piece.

---

Let’s be honest: we’ve all made fun of Titanic at one point or another.  You know - the sweeping love story, the weeping audience, the overwrought Celine Dion song that just wouldn’t go away in 1997.  There was Titanic mania, Titanic backlash, and now the film’s legacy exists almost exclusively as a pop culture echo, woven intrinsically into the collective psyche as the subliminal urge to stand on the bows of ships and shout, “I’m king of the world!”  There is a strange and permanent aura surrounding the film that can’t be denied, let alone erased.

To that end, it’s easy to lose the original merits of the actual film amidst the cultural discussion and film history reverb.  Titanic came to define what it means to create a “blockbuster” - a vast, sprawling epic that requires a mammoth shooting schedule, unprecedented CGI, and at least two and a half hours of end result.  The investment is huge, and so is the payoff - monetarily speaking, of course.  But films so large in scope as Titanic often miss the emotional investment, the emotional payoff.  The narrative can easily get lost in the grandeur, the special effects, the “blockbuster moments.”  And every good film, no matter how big or how small, requires an intimate and specific story anchoring the spectacle.  

You’re probably two steps ahead of me by now.  You’re probably thinking, “Ah yes, she’s referencing the intimate love story set against the huge historical backdrop!”  Alas, you would be incorrect.  While the ballad of Jack and Rose is effective, powerful, and transcendent, their love story is not quite the center of the film.  Their love story is not precisely what makes Titanic emotionally resonant and honest.  It’s a part of it, certainly, but it’s not the source.  Because at its core, Titanic is not a love story.  No - at its very essence, Titanic is a story about freedom.  And that freedom is embodied in the character design and journey of Rose DeWitt Bukater - the film’s sole main character.

It’s not difficult to defend Rose as Titanic’s individual lead.  She is the voice of the story, the only character that spans from 1912 to 1997, and the only character who changes.  She is afforded a hero’s entrance, a developed design, and a flawlessly constructed arc.  Every story decision made about Titanic - its historical context, the DeWitt Bukater family, Jack Dawson as love interest, the Jack-Rose love story, the conflicts and obstacles - it all comes back to Rose as a main character.

Rose DeWitt Bukater exists at a very unique place in history.  Coming of age in 1912, the world around her was changing.  Technology, communication, business, social norms - they were all on the brink of modernity, poised for a huge shift from Victorian order to contemporary chaos.  Rose, without realizing it, was very much a part of that.  Born to a good family name whose liquid assets dried up, it is of the utmost importance that Rose marry into new money in order to keep her status.  This is why she is on board the Titanic - after meeting her fiancé Cal in England, the family is now traveling back to America where an engagement party awaits them.  But Rose, already embodying the 20th century’s disdain for tradition and inhibition, feels suffocated by her lack of choice in the matter.  She is not content to be a pawn in someone else’s game, denied the freedom of opinion and choice in favor of serving a fading ideal.  To her, the Titanic is a prison.

But Rose can’t articulate her place as it relates to social history.  She doesn't understand that she feels the stirrings of modernism, while she reads Freud and revolts against propriety and etiquette.  She instead languishes in a constant state of despair, unable to comprehend her own feelings.  She buys modern art because it speaks to something inside of her, but she can’t explain what she likes about it - it’s “truth but no logic.”  She rebels against her mother, who tightly binds her into the confines of a corset without second thought.  She feels like she’s “standing in the middle of a crowded room screaming at the top of [her] lungs, and no one even looks up.”  This unacknowledged frustration with Victorian repression leads to a bold - and necessary - character choice for Rose.  Unable to take the suffocation anymore, she rushes to the stern of Titanic and prepares to throw herself into the ocean.

Of course, this is where Rose’s story becomes entangled with Jack’s.  The easiest takeaway from their initial encounter is to say that Jack saved Rose’s life.  Yes, that is true.  But there is much more to understand about their relationship than a mere knight-saves-damsel construct, even when it’s expanded to umbrella their journey together, as in Rose’s description of “he saved me, in every way that a person can be saved.”  Truthfully, “Jack saves Rose” as a unilateral statement cheapens Rose’s character arc a bit.  It’s actually much more interesting to explore the dynamic from a slightly different angle, especially as it pertains to Rose herself.  Even more, Titanic as a film hints encouragement at this analysis.

I say this because Jack Dawson is actually kind of a boring character.  He's weirdly good at everything, he's kind, he's lucky, he's handsome, he's poor but happy.  There's not a lot of dimension there.  He’s of the utmost importance, sure - but only insofar as he extends to Rose.  He is designed to be a representative foil, although calling the relationship “poor boy falls in love with rich girl” is an extreme oversight.  It’s more textured than that, even if the paradigm helps fuel the lovers’ obstacles.  More than anything, Jack represents modernity.  He exists to pull Rose into her true identity, to model a life she herself never knew she wanted.  He travels with only the clothes on his back, and lets his art take him to Paris.  He feels more than thinks; he has no responsibility but to his own happiness.  Where Rose is threatening to end it all at ship’s stern, Jack is embracing the freedom of flying at ship’s bow.  With his boho philosophy of “make it count” and no lack of coincidentally-important survival skills, Jack serves mostly as a spirit guide to Rose’s emotional fulfillment and physical safety.  He is a bizarre spectral over the whole film, beckoning Rose forward and forward until she’s ready to take the steps for herself.

I was gobsmacked when I realized this, because it means that the second-most grossing movie of all time - the movie that redefined the modern blockbuster - has a main female lead whose male love interest is simply an accessory to her own arc.  Because while Rose may say that Jack saved her, the fact of the matter is that she saved herself - with Jack’s help.  This can be seen perfectly in Jack’s encouragement to Rose after she’s slipped off the railing.  She dangles there in a panic as he desperately holds on, and the expectation is that he’ll be able to pull her up and over.  In any other flattened love story, it’d be as simple as that.  But Titanic does something in a tiny microcosm that echoes into the larger story of Jack and Rose: Jack tells her he won’t let go, but she’s got to pull herself up.  He can’t do it for her.  This same sentiment is echoed during their conversation in the gymnasium - Rose tells Jack that it’s not up to him to save her.  He replies: “Only you can do that.” 

Sweet merciful feminism, how much more loving could this film be of its main character’s empowerment?  Titanic puts forth the concept that while Jack may be there to save Rose, it’s on her to take initiative.  This is therefore all the more rewarding when she actually does.  She takes Jack’s hand and pulls herself up; she meets Jack at the clock; she finds Jack at the bow of the ship and says, “I changed my mind.”  The entirety of Titanic is Rose DeWitt Bukater actively fighting for her life - her own life. In a genius twist on tragedy, the sinking of the ship provides the perfect opportunity for her to externalize that.  At film’s beginning, Rose is ready to fling herself from the back of the Titanic.  At film’s end, she clings to it with every hope and intention of survival.  Even when a boat comes back to rescue her from the water, she must let go of her love, swim to a whistle, and proclaim her intent to live.  She has to fight for it.  And for a character who was one step from throwing her life away at the beginning of the film?  These are huge moments.

Ultimately, Titanic is a film about freedom.  This concept tethers Jack to Rose, and Rose to the story itself.  Every step of Rose’s journey moves her closer to freedom from the shackles of what society demands of her, closer to the kind of life Rose might choose for herself if given the opportunity.  In the film’s final act, she poses naked, has sex, and fights with her life to save the person she loves.  Even when she can save herself, she chooses solidarity with her love over waiting idly for fate to run its course.  She spits in a man’s eye, punches a guy in the face, and wields an axe.  The hair and costume choices are purposeful: she wears a simple dress with no corset, her hair down and unadorned.  Rose even takes ownership of her name, choosing to call herself Dawson instead of DeWitt Bukater.

By the end of the film, Rose’s transformation is complete.  When we first see her embarking in the beginning, she looks up to see the Titanic - her prison.  When Rose arrives in America, she looks up to see the Statue of Liberty - freedom.  And we know, through the photos that tell us what she did with her life, that she embraced that freedom Jack helped her choose, and lived a life she wanted.  It is this journey, and how it’s connected to her identity and her love story, that provides the emotional depth to Titanic.   So while this film may forevermore reign as one of the biggest movies of all time, presented with cinematic gloss and occasional Hollywood implausibility, it’s tethered emotionally to a well-constructed main character, whose design and arc interact beautifully with her historical context to create the love story that’s transcended the film itself.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Orphan Black 3.09-3.10: “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow," "History Yet to be Written"

Even though the last two episodes of Orphan Black’s Season 3 play independently, they really could be considered Part 1 and Part 2 - halves of the same whole, setup and payoff, plot and character, in a final expression of a bisected season focused on duality.

(But then we couldn’t get two cool titles, and I can’t argue with that.)

ORPHAN BLACK 3.09-3.10: “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow,” “History Yet To Be Written”

Truthfully, I have little to say about 3.09 independent of the finale.  The events of “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow” play largely for plot and setup, and individually the episode doesn’t carry much emotional weight.  I spent most of the hour squirming in my seat under the duress of suspense and the conviction that everyone was making the dumbest decisions possible in their situation.  Yes, they were hard decisions, as Cosima pointed out in the finale, but as they were happening, there was a bewildering sense that no one had the right information and everyone was pushing forward without hesitation.  STRESS.

There were markedly fewer character moments in the penultimate episode, as the hour was overtaken by reveals, plot twists, and the natural culmination of the Delphine-Cosima-Shay love triangle - Delphine threatening to stage Shay’s suicide and leave her bleeding out in the bathtub.  Ah, l’amour.  We also got the Big News that Siobhán Sadler’s mother is the Original - of both Castor and Leda, thanks to some fun science I know cursory-Google-search-levels about.  Then there’s the convenient expiry of Alison and Donnie’s time as Drug Dealers, thanks to a well-placed threat against Alison’s kids that triggers Helena’s murder button.

But none of this really lands in any emotional resonance until the episode after, which is all I really want to talk about.  “History Yet to be Written” makes the most of its emotional moments, and succeeds in wrapping up a scattered and inflated season in a grounded way that makes me excited for Season 4.

The main difference in Season 3 was borne of the fact that this is really no longer a chase show, after two breakneck seasons of pushing our heroes into a corner.  This worked!  This was wonderful!  It was a fitting expression of its main character: a young woman who was a little too good at running.  But as the villains have shifted, Sarah is not back on her heels.  She’s gained some power.  And it took the first half of this season to figure out what to do with a main character whose instinct to fight has overtaken her instinct to flee.  This is no longer a chase show.  Now what?

The key, of course, still lies with Sarah Manning.  The second half of Season 3 has proven that the show’s structure changes best with the natural evolution of its main character.  Yes, this isn’t a chase show anymore because logistically, there aren’t as many pursuants.  But also, this is not a chase show anymore because Sarah Manning isn’t running.  Sarah Manning is choosing to stay, and fight, and protect her family.  This is now a show where Sarah Manning calls the shots and negotiates with enemies - and allies - and has to make sacrifices because she wants to keep her family safe.

Much like “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method,” “History Yet to be Written” exhibited this new structure to great effect: Sarah & Co. hatch Plan, everyone in Clone Club contributes to Plan, Plan goes awry with new information, Sarah & Co. live to fight a new enemy.  It’s a solid structure because it allows our heroes to do things, with the added bonus of involving everyone, building in natural tension and opportunities for twists.  Emotionally, this has evolved organically into the Family Show it has intended to be, and it’s now operating logistically as a Teamwork Show.  It’s like the Partridge Family!  If the Partridges were all genetic identicals and their music career were a concerted effort to protect their bodies and minds from scientific corruption.

Regardless, this is the word of the season: taking information we already knew and bringing it back in new situations, with new interpretations.  Season 3 has shone when it grounds new situations in familiarity with its original premise and characters.  We need a lifeline in the rabbit hole, after all.  “History Yet to be Written” continues this exercise, in ways both big and small.  There’s Sarah’s toast to Beth, as well as sly visual throwbacks - a standalone shot is dedicated to Delphine putting down her briefcase before meeting her untimely end, much like Beth’s in the pilot, and we see Virginia Coady react to a driver’s seat murder - through the windshield, with a violent blood splatter - much like Sarah, in the pilot.

But narratively, the biggest grounding device is the return of two symbiotic elements: 1) the Neolutionists, and 2) the subsequent reminder that HEY YOU’RE WATCHING A SCIENCE FICTION SHOW.  I think we forget all too often that a character in the first season HAD A TAIL.  (And we’re not talking about a monitor.)  Looking back, it’s easy to see that Orphan Black perhaps dissolved Neolutionism as a potential villan too soon, as it killed off Leekie and focused instead of DYAD, Topside, and the military.

But this is not to say that that decision was a mistake, because the revival of Neolutionism is well-crafted in a way that suggests that was the plan all along.  It refreshes the stakes, revives the villains, and reminds us that we are, in fact, in a science fiction show that lands moments of off-kilter body-horror like nobody’s business.  There’s now an instant lightning rod to the first season, and it twists our previous information into fresh story fodder.  Until now, Orphan Black has traded largely in systems - the group vs. the individual.  There’s the corporation, the military, the church, science, the private sector, the public system; we have characters that represent each outpost, and lines are divided and crossed very purposefully.

But Castor and Topside and DYAD are under attack from within: Neolutionists do not act as a group, but rather as a parasite.  They are everywhere, infiltrating every system from within to destroy it.  They shapeshift as necessary to achieve their goals, in an echo of their eugenic purposes.  The enemy is no longer identifiable by group, the Goliath villains of seasons past.  Nah, we have individuals to worry about now, and the secret affiliations that define their agendas.  This gives us new paranoia, new villains, and a new set of bedfellows - like Ferdinand.  (Who, by the way, has the most hilariously disturbing reaction to the Neolutionist reveal.  He’s like a mad Jeff Goldblum character who’s not above murder by bludgeoning and sulfuric acid bath.)

The Neolutionist poison provides a new interpretation on everything we’ve already learned: Rachel’s own mother turned away from science in favor of neolutionism; Rachel was raised by a man who was operating on neolutionist agenda; Delphine skirted awfully close to the cause while working for the same man, and again while working with Nealon; Rachel’s new eye is the product of hi-tech bionic retrofitting typical of neolutionism; Rachel herself is at the hands of the neolutionists now.  (Okay, a lot of these are about Rachel.  Can you tell I’m excited for her arc next season?  I’m delighted the writers have succeeded in finding ways to keep her in the narrative.)

Beyond the logistical plotting, “History Yet to be Written” also dealt some solid emotional work in the episode - in both cases, as payoff to the bombs dropped in “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow,” and relationships that have been developing since Day 1.  Of course, we have the dinner party, where the World’s Best People sit together to celebrate Alison’s school trustee win.  Clone Club in harmony is the happiest, most wonderful thing this show can put forth, and “History Yet to be Written” finds countless tiny moments to do this.  From Alison and Donnie’s inclusion of Helena in the family - finding Jesse Towing!  letting her make Babka Cake! - to Mrs. S’s soft “we’re so proud of you” to Alison, I repeatedly want to curl up in a ball and cry about how much I love these people being a family.  (SOMEBODY GO GET KRYSTAL GODERITCH AND PUT HER AT THE TABLE.)

There’s also the emotional grounding of last week’s big reveal: it’s no coincidence that Sarah Manning, Kendall Malone’s female genetic identical, went into the custody of Kendall’s own daughter.  Kendall chose for the lost clone to be sent to her daughter, as a last vestige of herself to give her daughter, who wanted out of her life.  Written out, it seems like a fairly logical conclusion, but major props to Maria Doyle Kennedy - a continuing MVP - and Alison Steadman for selling this to full emotional capacity.  Never did the words “Jesus, Ma” ever make me so verklempt.

Then, of course, there’s the whole other TIDAL WAVE OF EMOTIONS this episode brought about.  Aren’t you proud of me for waiting FOURTEEN PARAGRAPHS to talk about Delphine?  Sweet Delphine, brave Delphine, BADASS DELPHINE.  In her potential curtain call, Delphine worked with Sarah, passed on crucial information for the clones’ survival, got punched in the face, gave her blessing for a new relationship, tried to atone for her mistakes, killed a man, kissed the girl, and got shot in a parking garage.  THIS IS THE KIND OF CONTENT I WANTED FOR DELPHINE.

Finally, finally, we got more from Delphine’s point of view than just moody scotch drinking and words left unsaid.  She was deployed into the narrative in full embodiment of her position, negotiating her role as DYAD’s New Rachel (is there a title for this job?  Would I even use it if there were?) and her care for Cosima.  That’s been constant tension in Delphine’s worldview, as a “double agent” - can she do what is best for the Leda sisters, on their terms?  Can she respect their right to make their own decisions?  Can she protect them without abusing her avantage in power?  Delphine has long struggled with this gray area, a writing choice executed to excellent effect.  There’s never any question that Delphine loves Cosima.  She’s not a mystery.  Instead, she’s a tough choice.  Can she love Cosima in the right way?  She went against Cosima’s wishes in S2 to deliver her DNA to DYAD, in an effort to find a cure.  And in S3, with the crisp emotionless exterior of New Rachel on her shoulders, she went full-fledged monitor - tailing, investigating, and ultimately threatening torture to Shay in an effort to keep Cosima safe.

“History Yet to be Written” allows Delphine to live in these sins, and demonstrate that she has done terrible things for the one she loves - and still sells it, flaws and all, as the genuine peak of Romance this show will likely ever ascend.  She atones for her sins with Shay, and gives Shay and Cosima the foundation that Cosima and Delphine were never able to have: honesty, on Cosima’s terms.  Delphine and Cosima began their relationship tangled up in a lie, and never quite succeeded in maintaining a relationship that didn’t hinder Cosima’s personal power, because of Delphine’s affiliation with DYAD.  Delphine’s sins were lying, and making decisions for Cosima - and here she is, offering the truth, and giving complete power to Cosima over the choice to tell it.

It’s difficult, in retrospect, not to compare Delphine’s potential exit with Paul’s earlier this season.  Here we have two monitors who continued to work with their respective groups despite having developed personal relationships with their subjects.  Here we have two people who revealed themselves to be squarely Team Leda in the episode leading up to their demise.  Yes, there are many similarities between Paul and Delphine.  But Paul was a mystery.  Delphine is a tough choice.

This difference is manifested in clear, sharp focus: Paul’s last words to Sarah: “It was never Beth I loved.”  Delphine’s to Cosima: “Give your sisters all my love.”  Paul’s moment played like a reveal, and isolates Sarah as the recipient of his love.  Delphine’s, however, plays as a payoff - to the conversation in Season 2, where she first tells Cosima she loves her.  And when Cosima replies that she comes with a small army of clone sisters, Delphine says, “Then I love all of you.”  On a Family Show, with a table of World’s Best People sitting in solidarity with the sisters they’re fighting to protect, this is the only declaration of romantic love that has any weight.  This is not a show about boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, or husbands.  Remember, Kendall Malone took away her daughter’s husband and gave her a little girl.  This is a show about moms and daughters.  Delphine loves all of them.

It’s incredibly sad, then, that Delphine could very easily be dead.  My first instinct - if it’s not a shot to the head, then anything’s possible.  At the same time, her narrative was very neatly wrapped up, with a balls-out heroic ending.  It could be a question of, “Is there any story left?”  Even so, getting shot certainly would provide new material, and I still want to see Delphine operating in the narrative, in her point of view and complicated position.  Sure, you can’t sustain a mystery, but tough choices are always the stuff of good story.  You just need to let the audience see her do more than drink scotch and brood.

Of course, this all leads to the question: who shot Delphine?  Given the focus on neolutionists hiding in plain view, it is likely that the person who pulled the trigger has ties to the movement, making it fairly full-circle for Delphine as well.  It is also probable that we already know this person.  Shay, perhaps?  Who knows.

Because, truly, I’m not in it for the mysteries.  The third season ends on Sarah’s reunion with Kira, as they take Kendall Malone to hide in Iceland.  Four generations of moms and daughters defying the odds, and a little girl with her mom in the snow - not unlike little Rachel Duncan and her mom at the start of the hour.  It’s choices like this that set Orphan Black apart - yes, this is a chase show, a mystery show, and don’t forget, a science fiction show.  But at its heart, this has always been, and will always be, a show about family.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • I really love Sarah teaching the Castor boys a lil’ somethin’ about clone swap.  Castor may have been trained for strength and power, but Leda knows how to use what they’ve got to get themselves out of a sticky situation.  And even though they’re much more varied than Castor, they stick together, and work together.
  • I mentioned nothing about Helena shepherding Rudy through his death, but it’s a lovely moment in that plays in both genuine sadness and honest truth - Rudy is to be both pitied and loathed, and that’s okay.  That’s human, sometimes.
  • God bless Jesse Towing.  Neolutionism couldn’t reach a simple country truck driver, right?  RIGHT???
  • I really love the little detail of Donnie saying “we” found Jesse for Helena, like he and Alison did it together.
  • Kudos to Ksenia Solo for rocking what could otherwise be a thankless, one-dimensional role.  Shay has the narrative misfortune of being the unpopular leg of a love triangle, as well as the mystery of POSSIBLE THREAT or POOR UNSUSPECTING GIRL WHO JUST GOT EMOTIONALLY ABUSED BY HER NEW GIRLFRIEND’S EX.  It’s a tough hand to get, and I think she makes a great choice playing the seeming reality of the situation with 100% honesty, and letting the narrative work the audience’s suspicion.  
  • Helena and Sarah exchange exactly two words in the episode and they’re perfectly delivered.  The way Sarah says “Sugar?” is both fond and strict - perfectly older-sister.
  • The only moment from 3.09 that I really want to talk about is Delphine’s face when Cosima calls mid-torture with important information and opens with “Hey, how’s it going?”

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Orphan Black 3.08 - "Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method"

The structure of Orphan Black’s third season is, fittingly, a story of two halves - a first and a second, paired together to complete a whole. Where the first half was Castor, the second half has been Leda - perhaps too literally, as the focus shift from one to the other has only served to highlight the audience’s greater investment in our lady clones than their (creepy-ass) brothers.

As such, the second half of Season 3 has delivered three great episodes in a row. 3.06 accelerated quickly and explosively, 3.07 featured all the Leda clones in an Alison-centric ‘burbscape, and 3.08 combines the the best elements of its two predecessors and spins a fantastic hour grounded in characters and relationships we care about, with the quick twists and turns of a classic OB outing. For me, it easily dethrones 3.06 as the best episode of the season thus far.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.08 - “RUTHLESS IN PURPOSE, AND INSIDIOUS IN METHOD”

A major reason this episode works well is the continued focus on the Leda clones - not just on the sisterhood as a whole, but equally distributed on its individual members, and the relationships they have with each other. Every clone is deployed in this episode, and they co-exist in the same space in a way that makes the world feel more intimate, instead of spiraling out of control. Even as the show reveals yet another layer of power by episode’s end, we, as an audience, still feel tight to the core group of clones under pressure from outside forces.

Yes, the group is as together as ever. Helena and Gracie move in with Alison to help with the soap front, Cosima and Sarah devise a plan to reclaim Duncan’s code, and Felix and Sarah carry out morally grey errands at the behest of Rachel - who’s with everyone, until she isn’t. All three of these aspects are wonderful choices, for different reasons.

First, it’s lovely to see Alison’s previous declaration of “mother hen” being taken seriously in an effort to move these characters around in believable ways. Alison graciously bringing Helena and Gracie under House Hendrix also allows her story sphere more relevant screentime, by sheer force of numbers. Not only that, but it allows Helena the opportunity to demonstrate her mom skills, simultaneously letting us actually see the Hendrix kids, a clamor I may as well tattoo on my forehead. Cherry on top: it’s a comedy goldmine.

Cosima and Sarah also have a sweet Skype conversation, in a fond callback to their main communication of seasons past. This scene was a lovely way to deploy some exposition and outline Clone Club’s intentions for the situation, and the writers sweeten it with Cosima opening up a bit to Sarah about her relationship with Shay. Later, these two are the brains behind the plan to trick Delphine and Rachel into getting Duncan’s book back. Altogether, this dynamic is one of my unexpected favorites - while relationships like Sarah and Felix and Sarah and Helena are more outwardly meaningful, the interactions between Sarah and Cosima are quietly poignant. They’ve grown to love each other at a distance, with mutual admiration for both the traits they share and the traits that distinguish them. Some of my favorite scenes in the second season belong to Cosima and Sarah interacting (the phone call in “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings,” and their conversation in “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” both come to mind). It’s always nice to see their dynamic deployed in another quiet moment of unity, and even used to position them as two strategic brains of the operation.

Sarah and Felix’s task in the episode also provided a lot of material, refracting into a spectrum of well-developed threads and choices. On a base level, it’s lovely to give Felix something to do, especially when it involves the trappings of a Sarah con - deceit, theft, identity swap. It’s also fundamentally delightful to see these characters play different versions of themselves, reiterating the same face in a range of dynamics. With this notion, “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method” gives us a glorious gift: we meet a new clone, and she interacts not only with Felix, but also Delphine.

Krystal Goderich is perhaps the episode’s greatest success, simply because of the redirect that happens with limited screen time. Here is a character purposefully introduced as a somewhat vapid Leda clone - she works in a nail salon, talks with a Valley-ish affectation, and spills her scandals to anyone who will listen. She is designed to be poked fun of, a study in contrast - this woman has the same DNA as Sarah the Grifter, Cosima the Scientist, Alison the Mom, Rachel the Ice Queen, and Helena the Feral Assassin. What a world! Krystal is little more than a show pony to emphasize the power of nurture over nature.

But in less than seven minutes of relevant screentime, the OB writers pivot Krystal Goderich, and make her perhaps the most sympathetic character this series has ever developed. Not only is she actually smart, but she’s confused, and alone, and destined for a life of disappointment without understanding. She’s fully aware of her bizarre life, but unable to identify what exactly is conspiring around her. Not only this, but she has no idea that her DNA has fated her to fall victim to Rachel’s growling bid to leave the country and assume a new identity. And despite these horrible things in her life, she’s rationalized everything with a tragically optimistic motto: You can’t crush the human spirit. Um, how is this not the most heartbreaking character? The writers do a beautiful job not only dimensionalizing Krystal, but also affirming her through Felix’s fond encouragement for her, and his revulsion at doing something so horrible to a good person in order to appease Rachel, of all people.

Maybe the Mexican cantina owner can swoop in and save Krystal Goderich from her fate. ¿Por favor? La Camarera: ¡Salvando a las clones Leda, una a la vez!

Beyond the character work, “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method” employed a classic Orphan Black plot structure: the world spins madly underfoot as Sarah & Co. make difficult decisions trying to keep their power when it’s under direct threat of DYAD. It’s difficult to go wrong with this outline, although I have to imagine it’s probably challenging to reiterate it in fresh ways. That being said, this episode used the structure to great effect. The stakes were both comedic and horrific at once, even more so than Alison’s disturbed suburbia. Through Rudy’s threat to Scott’s cat, OB created a really low-level danger that actually operated in a huge, frightening way. I was screechingly terrified for poor Scott and his cat in that moment, even through the slight absurdity of the situation. The fact that we have a clear, consolidated villain in Rudy and Coady is also welcome, and the focus helps immensely.

The levels of manipulation also worked well in the episode. For one, it was interesting to see Rachel squirm through the hour as both an unempowered victim, and a powerful woman who still holds all the cards - and uses that to her advantage. Rachel’s place this season has been nothing short of fascinating in that she has been both heartbreaking and fearsome, not a shadow of who she was but of the security she was privileged with. She is still the same coiled snake, ready to strike at anyone who gets too close. The fact that she is in many ways trapped by her own body is a tragic manifestation of her own emotional restrictions and her discomfort with a lack of personal power.

The manipulation of the hour also brought us another layer of DYAD to fear - Dr. Nealon, and whoever the hell oversaw Rachel’s surgery at episode’s end. This is certainly welcome, from a plot standpoint, but I’m more concerned with the third result of manipulation: the scene with Cosima and Delphine. These two are playing a fucked-up game of chicken that is unfortunately quite grounded in real feelings. It’s more and more evident that their circumstances are destroying their relationship, slowly, certainly, and incontrovertibly. The show has done such a good job believably breaking them apart, without it feeling like an unmotivated romantic obstacle as story fodder for an ultimate endgame.

Cosima and Delphine have very real issues, and at the same time, very real love. That Cosima confessed her near-death experience as a way to distract Delphine from her plan is a perfect embodiment of their complicated relationship. The core sentiment is nothing less than true, and perhaps the most romantic thing any human could say to another - and yet circumstances conspire to wield that moment in complete deceit. The question with these two is always this: is their situation insidious enough to nullify their true feelings? Can they survive the amount of mistrust that’s permanently wearing against their relationship? Or are they doomed to their consequences, where their power imbalance will tear them apart?

Thankfully, Cosima lives another week to perhaps answer these questions in future. But, we have much before us in the last two episodes. Rachel is now in a coma, Shay is perhaps a Castor mole (for some reason), and the team is little closer to breaking Duncan’s code, which is not only encoded, but also in RIDDLE FORM. Goddammit, Duncan. I don’t know why I expected anything different.

Regardless - after three solid episodes in a row, and with a homecoming field trip to London in front of us, I am altogether excited for the last two episodes of Season 3. Though it was slow going at the beginning, the Leda half of this Janus season has turned towards great character work, plot development, and unique expansions of the world we’re in.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • “Identical twins are so creepy,” says Krystal. Tell me about it, Delphine thinks. One time I totally made out with my girlfriend’s genetical identical and that was really weird. And this coming from someone who enjoys lovers!
  • Donnie continues to be an unsung hero used perfectly in relation to Alison. “I may be a bitch, but I’m Alison’s bitch!” Bless you, Mr. Hendrix.
  • “How are you gonna know without me?” Cosima and Delphine’s relationship flirts with toxicity again through this vaguely threatening imposition of Delphine’s power in Cosima’s life. I mean, we’re pretty sure you mean DYAD, Delphine, not you… but… this just reiterates Cosima’s restricted access to treatment and knowledge in a totally unsettling, fuck-you-Delphine kind of way.
  • Half an episode later it’s impossible not to feel all fluttery and emotional about their kiss. FINE, Orphan Black. You win!
  • Scott’s cat is named Denise. Internet, I love animals with very human names.
  • Speaking of, shout out to Josh Vokey, who plays Scott. He’s already done a great job playing small but impacting moments as a tertiary character, but this episode cemented some fine work as he becomes more integral to the story, as well as Cosima and Rachel.
  • Gracie wears Alison’s checked pajamas from the house party in Season 1. Hopefully no one told her Alison tortured Donnie in them.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Orphan Black 3.07 - "Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate"

Step right up, folks, it’s time to review Orphan Black’s annual circus event! Mundane situations contrasting dangerously high stakes! Wacky clone swaps! Pastels! Yes, it’s our traditional return to Planet Alison, and the only thing missing on this year’s carousel was glitter torture.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.07 - “COMMUNITY OF DREADFUL FEAR AND HATE”

Given the episode title and the fact that this is an Alison-centric endeavor, I was expecting something far more sinister than what actually transpired. Alison’s storylines are usually marked with high absurdity and tragedy, as she’s completely disenfranchised and struggling to exert her independence. A control freak in a uncontrollable world, Alison is frequently the narrative’s fool - to great comedic and empathic effect.

Yes, the hallmarks of Hendrixica are there - at its most basic, this is a sidecar episode set in a domestic environment, where high-stakes dangers threaten the picture-perfect suburban normalcy, rendered broadly in hijinks and clone swap. And of course, in traditional OB absurdist fashion, a lot of ridiculata is mined from Donnie - the fact that his name is Donnie Chubbs, the reveal that Alison’s mother is poetically named Connie, and, naturally, Donnie’s basic fluency in Portuguese.

But this episode balances these little choices with two very weighty reminders, that are grounded very purposefully in theme and character.  Number one: Alison chose Donnie.  Number two: Alison is capable as... well, holy freakin' Christmas cake. “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” stays put and stays sentimental where previous episodes have swerved into tragedy: it allows Alison a moment to defend her choices not only verbally, but in action. She sticks up for Donnie, she stands up to her mother, she gives Cosima advice not out of ego but compassion, and she nails her school trustee speech and gets a standing ovation. Not a bad episode for ol’ Ali, eh?

From all angles, Alison doesn’t just provide the setpiece for the hour, this time she’s actually the hero of it. Sarah doesn’t swoop in and save the day; Cosima doesn’t take over and hold down the fort. Alison keeps everything together, meeting her own needs and extending herself to the people around her. She is finally the main character. As such, it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase her character in a way the show hasn’t yet tackled - and generally, the episode did exactly that.

First - back story. This arrives in the form of her mother, the woman who raised her, and we quickly realize that Alison was brought up in a tightly compressed childhood of unachievable expectations and constant negative commentary. Alison is very much the product of her upbringing - nurture prevails - both in propagation and reaction. However, with Sarah and Cosima - her “cooler” sisters - out of the way, we are shown that Alison’s weaknesses can be her strengths. She can meet demands; she can check boxes; she can organize and command and prepare and succeed. Not only this, but the episode goes out of its way to portray these characteristics as not only fundamental skills, through compliant medical reporting to DYAD, but also attractive, through her potential romance with Jason Kellerman.

So we get a new light on Alison’s pre-established characteristics, and on top of that there’s a huge sign of character development, one I wish were underlined, highlighted, and circled in the episode. Point an enormous flashing arrow at three little words: “My clone, mother.” This is spoken by a woman who refused to use to use “the ‘c’ word” at the beginning of the show, and lived in deep denial about the reality of their situation.

It's true that Alison’s choice to introduce Cosima is motivated by defiance, given that it follows another attempt by Connie to belittle and control her daughter's life. But I don’t think that makes the choice any less earnest, or important for Alison. If anything, infusing that moment with a defiant act of rebellion only serves to show us what Alison is truly made of: moxie. Remind us of anyone else? For all the disparate characteristics of our Leda Ladies, there’s at least one thing they all share: nerve. Ali gave her mom a test, and her mom failed by refusing to acknowledge her daughter’s point of view. It’s almost as if the moment cements Alison’s place firmly in Clone Family - she didn’t choose them, but they’re hers.

Considering the layering triumphs in this moment, I do wish the episode emphasized just how big this was for Alison. Yes, she got a standing ovation, saved her man, stuck it to her mom, and even technically got another guy to kiss her - but there was one important element of Alison’s involvement in the episode that I would have liked to seen punched up and made more noticeable: her level of empathy.

Alison’s behavior in the episode is hallmarked at every turn by a fairly uncharacteristic level of outward compassion. This is not to say that Alison hasn’t been a compassionate person, but she’s thus far been shown as largely uptight, discerning, and manslaughter-y. Yet, in “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate,” Alison really does live up to her self-bequeathed title of “mother hen” - particularly towards Cosima. She’s downright nurturing to her, most notably after Cosima completely effed up her trustee speech. Alison’s a mom too, everybody! Welcome reminder!

I found myself wanting “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” to take a pink highlighter to these moments, to draw particular attention to this development for Alison. Perhaps if Ali were a bit impatient with Cosima before understanding the situation, or less willing to talk about Clone Club goings-on at the venue; perhaps if she and Cosima had a longer conversation about Cosima’s health, or if her kids actually made a meaningful appearance in the episode - these little things could have served to punch up her genuine care for her family.

It’s a minor quibble, but of particular importance, because not only is this - family - the theme of the episode, it’s also delivered directly through Alison’s trustee speech, in a rather sweeping grandiose moment. It would have been nice to see that theme more clearly embodied in her actions, not just her words. Even so, it’s a very sweet theme, and it’s always lovely to see a unified front between the Clone Club. Mrs. S. is gonna be a granny! May she be added to the guest list of Helena’s fantasy baby shower.

Of course, “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” also dealt with Cosima’s trust issues, and the renewed seriousness of her condition. I’m still wanting more straightforward insight into Cosima’s emotional state this year, although it makes sense that Cosima would hold back her true feelings. Her trajectory is interesting; in the first two seasons, she was entirely complicit with DYAD, submitting herself not only to testing but also the monitor system. She knowingly began a relationship with her monitor, and has largely been okay with that, because her feelings for Delphine were real. Cosima the Scientist has always let discovery and passion guide her open heart.

Now, though, she stubbornly refuses to even submit to a urinalysis. This begs the question: does Cosima’s change of heart correlate to any new information about shady DYAD, or is it exactly that - a change of heart? Delphine’s clearly attempting to exert her power over Cosima not only at DYAD but in their relationship, and the two spheres remain as overlapped as ever. Cosima still can’t separate her emotions from the relationship with DYAD, even with a differently-defined situation. If Delphine thought anything about her position would be easier without dating Cosima, this is looking entirely naive in retrospect. The anticipation that comes with waiting for this to blow up is one of the more deliciously tense aspects of the season.

But, there were no meltdowns or blow-ups in the episode, as “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” honored the traditional hallmarks of an “Alison episode,” yet added the rather genuine and grounding elements of theme and character development for the most-fringed clone. Alison’s success in the hour is welcome, given Cosima’s worsening condition, and the inevitable messiness of Rachel, Sarah, and Delphine coming together to decode Duncan’s sequence. With only three episodes left, we should be ramping up nicely for the end of the season.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
  • Admittedly, it felt a bit odd to focus on Helena’s forgiveness of Mrs. S. when this season has thus far made a point of Sarah’s grudge against her. I would have loved a beat of forgiveness before the “I’m so tired, mum.” Nothing fancy, just a lil somethin’.
  • We talked about mundane situations with dangerous stakes, but were the obstacles also a touch mundane? The “wrong briefcase” trope is pretty tired, especially given that they devoted a specific shot to “grabbing the wrong envelope.” We all saw it coming. Other obstacles: nebulously faked panic attack, and the time necessary to count money. Hm.
  • I am ENDLESSLY FASCINATED by the role the cantina owner plays in this episode. Surely this was foreshadowing, right? Surely she’s going to bust out with something awesome in a future episode, right? There was so much attention paid to her understanding of and involvement in Helena and Sarah’s situation… but why?
  • I want to meet Cosima’s family now too. I’m guessing they don’t know she’s dying. They could also be halfway across the world doing research projects to benefit developing countries, and therefore with limited internet access. Still. Cosima could totally send an e-mail.
  • “There are not two Pouchies, darling.” Line delivery of the season? Also, Felix + Alison 4-ever.
  • Sarah Stubbs loves Alison so much. What an angel.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Orphan Black 3.06 - "Certain Agony of the Battlefield"

Before airing, there was a lot of hype surrounding the sixth episode of season 3.  Excitement!  Intrigue!  Promise!  And yes, it lived up to the expectation.  “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” is the best we've seen since the beginning of the season, and there are two main reasons for this: movement, and connection.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.06: "CERTAIN AGONY OF THE BATTLEFIELD"

Movement is the most basic reason this episode works as well as it does.  Things HAPPEN, and they happen to characters we care about.  We learned things, and this new information spins events in a new direction, stimulating characters to make choices and DO things.  The episode had not only ACTION, but REACTION, from Felix’s torture of Rachel, to Delphine’s return, to Paul’s discovery and subsequent sacrifice.  We are given refreshed stakes, a new villain, and reiterated themes.  This is the episode that revitalizes the season.

But this episode proffers more than movement; it gives us connection.  And this, I would argue, is what truly sets “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” apart from its in-season predecessors.  Connection is what gives us meaning, and grounds us in characters and relationships we care about.  As this show sprawls bigger and deeper, connection is what holds the far-reaching pieces tight to center.

The biggest connection of the episode was the tether to the original construct of the show: runaway girl steals identity of suicidal woman.  During Season 1, learning more about Beth was intrinsic to the plot, so that Sarah could believably live her life -- but as the show has developed outward, it’s been altogether too easy to forget who started this investigation in the first place.  Yes, Sarah is our main character, but she is carrying a blood-stained mantle.  “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” reminded us of this death toll, as it confronted us with Beth in Sarah’s fevered hallucinations, and what happened to send her - and us - on this journey.

The entire Beth sequence was fantastic, simply because there were a lot of layers to parse.  On a fundamental level, the stakes are refreshed for Sarah: the woman who came before her, a sister she never knew, fell victim to this pursuit.  She will not be the last.  Moreover, Beth is a projection of Sarah’s own point of view.  This Beth contains shades of Sarah, and it’s fitting that Beth screams at Sarah and calls her a liar.  Sarah herself is frustrated and disappointed and disbelieving in herself - in her ability to be a leader, compared to a cop with a nice house and beautiful life.  After all, Beth chose this fight.  Sarah just got sucked into it, in a moment of desperate self-preservation.  Will it consume them both?

But it’s through the divine anything-goes nature of dream sequence that we were given some truly lovely details of connection and meaning.  It’s not only a question of who, but where.  Sarah is led to Mrs. S's kitchen by a young Leda clone - herself?  A young Beth?  Or perhaps even a young Rachel?  As she finally arrives home after the journey from her prison cell, she’s greeted with Helena’s drawings on the fridge, and Beth holding two cups of tea.  This is a projection of Sarah’s family, fractured and fucked-up as it is.  At home with Mrs. S, with her sisters; these are the people who truly created her.  And this is, too, a happy ending, a drawn and dark surreality of what could have been.

Now, contrast that to the bright opening sequence in the first episode of this season, “The Weight of This Combination,” and we have another connection to draw meaning from.  Sarah’s fantasy both parallels and contrasts Helena’s, fittingly, and it seems that this season’s structure is therefore bisected into two halves.  It also serves as an extension of fantasy and reality that's been used throughout this season, from the very first moments of episode 1.  “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” defines this motif more in surreality vs. reality, but Alison and Donnie’s rap video sequence, Helena and Pupok, and Sarah's fever dreams still all contribute to a disorienting and delightful tension between what is real and what isn’t.

Finally, these moments of connection trickled all the way down to the editing.  During Sarah’s dream sequence, they match cut Sarah’s horror-stricken face to her shots from Beth’s suicide in the Pilot.  Holy shit.  Even moments of reveal were stitched together across the continent, as Paul and Mark reached the same conclusion about the Castor STD at the same time as Cosima and Delphine.  Little choices like that help to connect the disparate characters and locations.  For me, the flashback cutaways to Paul felt a teensy bit less motivated, but I did appreciate the “What kind of guy am I?  You know what kind of guy I am” snippet simply because it’s such a non-answer that reminds us that Paul was so good at vaguely defining himself in a way that could easily be perceived as charming.  What a line, Major Dierden.

It bears stating, though, that Paul was deployed to best effect in this episode - which is the least they could do, since they were going to kill him off.  But in all seriousness, I love that Paul sprang to action when he realized that Coady was experimentally sterilizing women without their consent.  While Paul’s loyalties were purposefully nebulous throughout, this is a story fundamentally about women fighting for the right to their own identity and decisions - and to see Paul go out blazing in support of that was both rewarding and resonant.

Even beyond Paul, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” used its characters and the story around them to excellent effect.  At the most basic level, it was lovely to have all clones at play and in action - we had substantial moments with Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima, Rachel, and Dream!Beth.  (Did Tatiana Maslany sleep at all when they filmed this?)  One step deeper, the specific choices regarding these characters were grounded in emotion, and not plot.  Felix tortures Rachel because he loves his sister, and he’s afraid she’s in danger.  Rachel breaks down because her life is in pieces now, and she’s left only with her own memories and a paintbrush.  Helena returns to save Sarah because they are sisters, and the guilt was too much to bear.  Cosima acts with compassion towards Gracie because she is not just Geek Monkey - she is life, and humanity, and warmth.

Actually - let’s talk about Cosima more, because I wish the show would.  I admit, I yawned a bit at the idea that she has a new love interest, because, well, lady-loving aside, who cares?  The start of it was a bit sudden, and looking too much like a Triangle for me to be truly engaged.  But the choices being made about Shay and how the relationship develops are providing some welcome insight to Cosima’s emotional landscape this season.  With both Delphine and Shay in the episode, the contrast becomes apparent: Cosima went from dating Science Chic, who is currently flat-ironed to within an inch of her structured wardrobe, to Zen Buddhist Babe, who specializes in spiritual counseling, flowy robes, and juicing.

This leads me to a desperate, begging, impatient question: when are we going to see more of Cosima’s spiritual arc this season?!  If you’ll excuse the inelegance: I want it.  Gimme it.  Please???

In all seriousness, I am 100% invested in where Cosima’s storyline goes from here, even with regards to Delphine and Shay.  They are, after all, the two polarities of her personality, and therefore relevant to her seeming negotiation of science and faith.  Even on a logistical level - how exactly does one date outside the Clone Club and its extended monitor pool?  This can’t end well, right?  It seems inevitable that Delphine will make some emotional decisions that will not be well-coiffed when under the pressure of hair straightening, tight zippers, and missing your girlfriend that you’re still in love with but sacrificed for the wrong reasons.  Messy Delphine Breakdown: we are a go.  (Maybe Shay can help her with some spiritual counseling afterward.  I feel so much more at ease with a spiritual counselor in the ensemble.  Everyone on this show needs it.  Which means that Shay is not long for this narrative, sadly.)

Even with these impassioned pleas, it’s near inarguable that “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” was the best outing this season.  Not only does the episode push forward with new stakes and mysteries, it put forth an ensemble of emotional connections grounded in the show’s own strengths.  More than anything, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” reminded us not only of the original premise, but also of its central and dire themes, surrounding that with the characters we love trying to do the right thing in chaotic situations.  What more could we want?

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
  • Blah, blah, Paul loved Sarah and not Beth.  This felt a bit too easily-worked, especially in conjunction with Art talking about how he loved Beth.  Romance tradesies only really works on sitcoms, methinks.  Also: poor Beth.
  • What would Beth think about Sarah and all this new information?  I'd love a kinder, more compassionate Beth to eventually come to Sarah in hallucination, just to tell her poor sister she's doing okay.  This shit ain't easy.  Both ladies deserve some peace.
  • We got mention that Mark was on Sammy’s team - not Paul’s, in a bit of clever cover-up for their scene last year that made no mention of dying Castor clones.  Double cleverness - Sammy is presumable Tony’s buddy that sent him to Beth Childs last season.  (CONNECTION!)
  • I love Dr. Virginia Coady in all her villainy.  Is she still alive?  Because from the previews, we got another mama in town, and I want Mrs. S. to get her groove back.
  • If Rachel knows Duncan’s code, then why the hell did she go to such great lengths to get them last season?  I assume the brain injury has something to do with the sudden information, in a dark bit of irony.
  • Delphine’s taking this “monitor” thing way more seriously than she ever did when she was actually a monitor.  Babygirl is so non-threatening that she may as well have been swigging scotch out of a sippie cup.  (I say lovingly.  I'm actually really worried about Delphine.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Orphan Black Season 3 First Half Review

Forgive me Clone Club, for I have dropped the ball. In a perfect world, I would have every review individually posted the day after the episode airing, analysed corner-to-corner, free of awkward run-on sentences and full of quotable insight. Alas, the reality is this: I spent the entire premiere review babbling about Delphine and then she disappeared for four episodes and I couldn’t get my act together and write anything else. Am I that transparent-slash-lazy? (Apparently.)

So, in an attempt to make up for my absence, and a compromise on the amount of content I’d otherwise have to saddle myself with -- please accept this humble review of the first half of Orphan Black Season 3.

ORPHAN BLACK 3.02 - 3.05 - Half-Season Review

With Season 3 halfway complete, it’s a bit easier to have some perspective on the shape of the story and how it’s being deployed. It was clear from Episode 3.01, though, that this season is ticking at a different pace. And even though it’s intentional, and organic to the current story, it also presents some issues about the way this season is forced to develop.

The challenge is in the change: I would argue that this show’s DNA is built on showing Sarah Manning on the run or kicking and screaming. This fight-or-flight instinct has worked beautifully for OB in the past two seasons, because its main character is defined by a storytelling element that organically raises the stakes and demands audience investment. Yes, we are searching for answers, but we are also being chased, and this influence from both directions means that the show can speed forward easily with mystery and danger.

Now we’re in Season 3, and every pursuant threat has been neutralized: the police are no longer on Sarah’s tail, DYAD and the Proletheans have been eliminated (thanks to a well-placed pencil and some fire), and Cosima’s illness is mysteriously ebbed. What exactly are the elements of danger urging Sarah and Co. forward?

Enter the boy clones.

The boy clones exist in a strange space on the show, because they are both villain and mirror to our Leda clones. This is, of course, not a bad thing - look at Helena and Rachel, after all. But this abstract is not quite to maximum effect in execution. From a plotting perspective, their existence alone doesn’t really amount to a threat level on the Leda clones comparable to what we’ve known. And on a character level, I fear we just don’t care about them. Selling their content in Season 3 has been contingent on the audience caring about them. They are in a position much like the Leda clones in Season 1 - they are dropping dead from a mysterious genetic deviation, seeking answers as the clock runs out. We should care! Hell, we did care!

So why aren’t we caring now? I have no doubt that the OB writers know how to make an audience engage with a character. I think the bigger issue is a conflict of focus. With the Boy Clone Reveal (™) of last season, much of the audience flipped out, and we were reassured that the Boy Clones would not steal focus. (We were given no warning about Delphine and her hair straightener.) But… if the Castor Clones going to occupy the screen with Leda-style stakes and obstacles, propelled by the driving elements of mystery and danger… then we have to care about them, or else it all collapses.

It feels like there’s a reluctance to give these clones more screentime than absolutely necessary, so we get plot-relevant information about Castor, but no emotional anchor or barometer. It’s the Paul Problem, but multiplied - the characters fall flat, so we are kindly not invited to care about them, but they’re still around. And even though the boy clones are experiencing similar dangers as the girl clones, our earned love for the Leda ladies doesn’t really translate to Castor compassion. It’s more something along the lines of Why the hell aren’t my favorites onscreen more?

This isn’t helped by the fact that the Leda clones are largely sequestered into their own storylines right now. Scoot Alison out any further and she’s basically on her own HBO show. Cosima’s dissecting dead guys and going on dates, and Rachel is re-learning how to speak. They’re not working together on anything, because there’s little to work on. There’s nothing behind them chasing them forward, and the only character being pulled into action is Sarah. But even to find Helena, she gets tangled up in the Castor narrative point of view for three episodes.

There are, of course, interesting elements both at play and emerging. I love that Cosima appears to have a question of science and spirituality running undercurrent in the wake of her recovery. I love that Orphan Black continues to proliferate its active characters with a spectrum of badass Mothers holding shit together - the latest of which, Dr. Virginia Coady, is yet another brand of tough. Where Mrs. S. is a rebel and Marian Bowles is an executive, Dr. Coady is military. She is clearly Mom-with-Sons, and wields her motherhood with weaponized grit and guilt. I’m curious to see what she’s capable of, to achieve her goal.

The interaction between Helena and Sarah will always remain a core dynamic on the show, and their reunion and subsequent teamwork is full of depth and nuance. The push-and-pull of their love is a fitting manifestation of the individual frictions in their own personalities, and their inexorable tether to each other.

Helena herself remains a showcase this season, pivoting yet again into another dimension of her character. Season 1 saw Helena as a monster, then a victim. Season 2 showed us a victim, a fighter, and a kid sister. Season 3 is synthesizing these ideas, keeping every aspect of Helena alive and tangible, in a fascinating dance. Helena takes two lives in two episodes, and the dichotomy sums it up: one is a mercy kill, to allow a suffering soul some peace. The other is a sudden strike, to eliminate a body standing between herself and the exit. Helena is capable of both love and torment, wrapped messily in the same package.

Not only this, but Helena’s actions tell us more: she betrays Sarah, because Sarah betrayed her. Helena has been caged for much of her life, and brainwashed to recite the lines of an institution. In Season 1, she acted for the Proletheans. In Season 2, she acted for Sarah - her family. Helena’s connection to her sisters is a driving force for the character, but her role as watchdog and protector is not a huge deviation from her participation with religion. She just readjusted her faith, and devoted it to her sestra.

But with Helena’s choice to leave Sarah at the compound, we see Helena acting of her own feelings. This is a different wound, and harder to identify. But she recognizes betrayal because she now also recognizes true love. There’s this wonderful thread happening with Helena’s emotional independence, that really kicked off last season with Jesse. She is beginning to seek love, and independence, and relative normalcy, in a way that allows for her own wishes and desires and feelings. And while the narrative is reminding us that Helena is capable of terrible, monstrous things, Helena’s betrayal of Sarah is the most human we’ve ever seen her.

In all, the first half of season 3 sprawls far and can’t quite pull its weight into momentum. I suspect, though, that like other intricate world-heavy mysteries before it, this season of Orphan Black might be best devoured in one sitting, binge-style. Waiting week-to-week for each episode is a challenge, and certainly not an advantage to the plates they’ve got spinning.

Even so, the characters at the core of this show remain wonderfully developed, performed, and beloved, and any stumbles or stretches are grounded by Tatiana’s performances and the dynamics in the Leda clone sisters and their allies. As this show sprawls further and plots deeper, the family story at the center is always the best investment and reward.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • Art being in love with Beth is not something I didn’t want, but also not something I needed? I’m delighted to have Art in the fold but giving him a romantic reason after all this time feels a bit false. If you show us his dedication, it’s not necessary to declare his motivation.
  • The reveal of the Castor Clone STD is interesting and horrifying by the same token, in an extended grim horror about tampering with the clones’ reproductive systems. It also twists the story back into the realm of violation of womanhood, a theme this show handles with fire.
  • The “us vs. them” philosophy is taking new meaning in this third season. The military clones are purposefully designed to be part of a whole, to the point where they are branded with their affiliation. They are not individuals, but simple participants. This also translates to a level of exclusivity. Dr. Coady tells Mark about Gracie: “She’s not one of us.” Meanwhile, Sarah’s acting like the boy clones’ genetic brother status means they’re doing Thanksgivings together now, and Mrs. S. is taking in more wayward kids like family-expanding is going out of style. I’d like to see this friction and shift explored more in future episodes.
  • I’m excited for Delphine’s return, but I’m not sure it could have as much impact as I had expected for the season. She hit the scene hard in the first episode and then disappeared, taking my dreams of a focused character breakdown with her. But maybe it’s not too late.
  • I’m curious if the reveal that Cal designed and sold weapons will be paid off in the second half of the season. Hopefully in a non-tragic, Kira-is-safe kind of way.
  • Strange feelings about Art and Mrs. S. interacting with shared concern towards Sarah??? Please play with this more, writers. (But mostly, I’m highly invested in getting Mrs. S’s groove back and patching things up with Sarah.)
  • Sarah’s plea as Helena left her only served to heighten the horror and heartbreak we all felt. Though desperate and reactive, “Without me, you have nobody,” is also a bit cruel.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...