(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. Plot echoed character. 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 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 a 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 (yay!) and 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 and 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 staging throwbacks - a standalone shot is dedicated to Delphine putting down her briefcase before meeting her untimely end, much like Beth in the pilot, and we see Virginia Coady react to a driver’s seat murder much like Sarah in the pilot - through the windshield, with a violent blood splatter.
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.
- 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 Castory, 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?”