Friday, April 25, 2014

Orphan Black 2.01 - "Nature Under Constraint and Vexed"

ORPHAN BLACK IS BACK AND THINGS ARE HAPPENING!!! Oh, and I’m reviewing it. That’s a thing that’s also happening. And while OB is masterful at plotting and proliferating its mysteries, I doubt I will pay much attention to that here in these reviews. What interests me more about the show is the way it deploys its characters into a breakneck narrative, and still allows them to be the center of its universe. I’ll probably also delve into storytelling decisions and narrative construction, as usual, as well as the philosophy of science and humanity and all that good stuff.

Yeah, yeah, you say. Enough preamble. Get your shit together, you silly tit!


ORPHAN BLACK IS BACK AND THINGS ARE HAPPENING!!! Sorry. It just needed to be reiterated. Our second season opens with Sarah on the run, mere minutes after the last season ended. We are, of course, thrown into the deep end on this - and expected to keep up. After all, this is OB’s aligning principle, not only for the audience but also for Sarah Manning herself. And not only does it make for compelling TV, it simultaneously makes Sarah a fundamentally strong main character. We know this world as she knows this world, and we learn as she learns. We’re on this journey with her, and as we see her make choices in impossible circumstances, it allows the audience to connect with her. And this is of particular importance for a character like Sarah Manning.

When Sarah’s first introduced to the viewer, back in “Natural Selection,” she’s hardly likeable. She lies, steals, and squirms her way out of sticky situations. We don’t quite get her yet. The show’s aware of this, and Sarah’s likeability emerges as the audience is simply allowed to understand her, and ride with her. Because the Sarah we know now, in S2? She lies, steals, and squirms her way out of sticky situations. It’s not like Sarah’s changed. Her motivations haven’t even changed. But we root for her now, because her circumstances have changed. Orphan Black built its world around Sarah, and let her flaws become strengths.

But not only that - they also let them drive the narrative. The reason OB’s plotting works so well is because it’s mandated by Sarah. She is someone who improvises when backed into a corner - so OB’s plot isn’t afraid of backing itself into a corner. In fact, this show is better when it’s written this way. The suspense that goes along with “THAT THING YOU DIDN’T WANT TO HAPPEN IS HAPPENING” is powerful. That hope and fear breeds investment. And that, friends, is how we’ve all spent seven and a half hours marathoning the first season of this show. Because of Sarah Manning, the inarguable main character at the core of this show. She drives the action despite the forces around her, and simultaneously heightens the emotional investment of the audience. This show would not work nearly as well with another character at its center.

So naturally, as S2 begins, we see Sarah Manning in her element: on the run, and improvising her way out of sticky situations. As a matter of fact, the opening sequence of “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” feels eerily reminiscent of the first few minutes of “Natural Selection” - except the stakes are way, way higher. We know the situation now - we know Sarah Manning’s running for her daughter (like before) except now she’s much less certain she can get them out of their circumstances (unlike before). She stops at a diner to have a think (and a cup of tea) - and discovers she’s being actively pursued by a man in bolo tie and a creature I can only describe as what would happen if Joaquin Phoenix were an alien insect. (Sorry, Ari Millen. It’s the character! You look way less terrifying in real life, pinky swear.)

The stakes are high, the tension building, and like “Natural Selection,” “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” delivers us a trigger moment that sets the wheels spinning for Sarah (and a HOLY SHIT WHAT AM I WATCHING moment for the audience). In the pilot, it was Beth stepping in front of the train. In the season 2 opener, it’s George Hudson, noble diner cook, getting shot in the chest for standing up for Sarah, a perfect stranger. With one single death, the world turns on its axis, and Sarah finds herself cornered again - this time in a crappy diner bathroom, with Alien Insect Joaquin Phoenix trying to kick in the door.

So what does Sarah Manning do, when in a corner?

She makes her own exit - literally busting through the wall, and out onto the street.

(This is the point in the review where we all stand on top of something tall and shout SARAH!!! MANNING!!! to the heavens. Feels good, doesn’t it?)

The rest of the episode for Sarah echoes a large thematic construction for the show: she struggles to maintain her agency as oppressing powers in her life threaten her very existence. This is, frankly, another reason Sarah is such a successful main character. Strong characters are characters who make decisions - the stronger the decision, the stronger the character, generally. It usually also makes them more flawed, and therefore more interesting. Sarah definitely fits this bill. She actively asserts her decisions, because she refuses to be powerless, which is of particular importance in this world. Again, Sarah’s flaws are now strengths in the changed circumstances. Sarah threatens to crash a party with a gun; she kicks through walls; she makes Paul pay $20 for a phone conversation with her, wherein she calls the shots anyways. What a delight.

Along these lines, it bears stating that Sarah’s enemies affiliate with a tribe, whereas her allies are all individuals. It’s more apparent than ever in the “Nature Under Constraing and Vexed,” as she benefits from the help of the diner cook, the skater guy, the skater girl, and the little kid. Hell, even the help that Art, Paul, and Delphine provide to the clones relies on the idea that they’re betraying the organization to which they belong by acting of their own individual accord. Helena in the first season was the same, and it’ll be interesting to see where she shakes out in Season 2. The clones are constantly at the mercy of a persecuting group force - whether from a company like DYAD, a religious sect like Thomas’, or a justice system like the police. Angie, Rachel, Mark - they’re all acting on behalf of a group belief, because they don’t see the clones as people. Art, Paul, Delphine, and Helena, however, know the clones as humans, largely because they share human relationships with them. Art sees a partner, Paul and Delphine see lovers, Helena sees a sister. Like Delphine said: they’re invested. The humanity afforded the clones directly correlates with the help these people provide, which fosters the idea that they are thinking free of - and acting against - their embedded tribe.

Of course, OB is still playing with the idea of loyalty, particularly with Delphine and Paul. Does loyalty to Cosima mean heeding her verbalized wishes, or does it mean turning over blood samples to DYAD because they’re the ones who can save her? The cast and writers have been very clear that Delphine’s feelings for Cosima are genuine (mercifully side-stepping the evil/manipulating/doomed lesbians trope) and so what’s interesting is how Delphine processes these feelings and how that manifests in her choices. This particular decision clearly indicates that she still has some faith to her tribe, in spirit if not motive. Delphine is not being blackmailed, unlike Paul, and therefore her lingering loyalty to DYAD and Leekie speaks more of her faith in science than anything else. Ironically, this characteristic that’s “betraying” Cosima is probably also what connects her to Cosima. Even more ironically, Delphine’s approach thus far in S2 is very reminiscent of S1 Cosima: she knows she’s being played, but she still plays, through some faith in the system and her own power. She believes she can use her affiliation with DYAD as an advantage. But this is group vs. individual, and it’s difficult to be optimistic about that in this universe. It seems inevitable that Delphine’s conflation of science with a group of scientists is going to burn her this season.

As for Paul, his affiliation to DYAD seems particularly tied to Rachel, and is a bit more nebulous because his motivations are not his own. He is being blackmailed, and so Paul’s power is limited. Rachel seems to think he is the only one who knows what makes Sarah Manning tick, which is LAUGHABLE. Seriously. LAUGHABLE. Sarah Manning is literally the easiest person in this universe to understand. It goes like this:

I like to imagine Paul handed this note to Rachel after Sarah flees the building. She rolls her eyes at him and crumples it up, but after he leaves she fishes it out of the trash, smooths it out, and studies it for further understanding. She’ll get it one day.

The fact that Rachel seems to think Paul has some kind of special insight about Sarah is hilarious, because it means that Rachel Duncan may actually be a robot. What are human emotions? Rachel knows not.

All kidding aside, it does fit obviously well with the construct of group vs. individual and the treatment of humanity. Rachel can’t see Sarah as a human, whereas Paul does. Rachel throws around statements of power like “you’re not going to shoot me” and “no one lays a hand on me” as she’s actually faced with a gun and a human pinning her to the ground. Rachel has no concept of the messy particulars of humanity, and it’s not difficult to wonder why. For a character so buttoned (or zipped, as it were) I’m guessing there’s a whole host of messy humanity suppressed underneath her careful exterior. I hope dearly that Sarah is the one to trigger its emergence, simply by being so confrontationally human.

The theme of group vs. individual takes an interesting turn when it’s applied to the clones themselves, particularly as it extends to Sarah. Part of the changing circumstance that happened to Sarah over the course of Season 1 was the sudden entanglement with, well, people. Before “Natural Selection,” Sarah cared for three individuals in her life: Felix, Kira, and Mrs. S (and you could argue about that last one). Now, she’s accidentally allied with Alison, with Cosima, with Art, with Paul - and the definition of her family is shifting beneath her. But Sarah Manning protects her family at all costs, as does Alison. This is a group of people who have more power in togetherness, so they stick together. As a result, we get lovely scenes where Sarah leverages on behalf of Cosima to Leekie, where Cosima and Delphine are staying at Felix’s as a sort of clone refugee HQ, and Alison gets a gun to Sarah so she can threaten Rachel to save Kira. Together, they do make a family, through their biology and their shared persecution. It’s been one of my favorite things about this show - embedding Sarah in a grounding context and allowing her to struggle and grow with that.

I guess it’s time to talk about Alison now, yeah? Truthfully, I could have easily transitioned into talking about Alison for the last four paragraphs or so, because Alison shares something in common with each Delphine, Rachel, and Sarah, that merits talking about. For now, Alison is the clone under the least duress, because her family is safe, she hasn’t been shot, and her health isn’t compromised. In fact, Alison’s even on the upswing, as she’s given up pills and booze, and scored the lead in her community theatre’s musical. But it’s clear this is a very temporary situation for her. The terms of her agreement with DYAD won’t last forever, and Aynesley’s death will haunt her. Not to mention the fact that she doesn’t know she’s married to her monitor - which implies an extra level of hurt and betrayal. In short: Alison is a ticking time bomb. Like Delphine, her faith in a black-and-white concept is going to burn her; like Rachel, her undoing will be very very messy, and like Sarah, she will go to the mat for the things she cares about. And in true Alison fashion, this will likely be ridiculous and terrifying and tragic.  (And I will love it.)

But it’s difficult to truly make predictions for what might happen on this show. What seems fairly certain is this: on a show like Orphan Black, it’s no coincidence that the theme of survival is meant to run deep. This is, after all, a show where our main characters are under direct dehumanizing attack from three different outside forces with strong codes of behavior. This coincides with questions of nature vs. nurture, evolution and eugenics, and the power of humanity in principles. All of the characters interact with these themes, and reveal to the audience what they believe about them through their choices in this universe. It seems that those who adhere blindly to their belief system - Alison, Rachel, Delphine perhaps - are likely to break down. Whereas Sarah Manning, the main character and symbolic rulemaker of this world, is likely to survive. To borrow from another piece of fiction where mankind attempts to control nature: life finds a way. And Sarah Manning? The one clone who’s given birth, the one clone who refuses to see herself as anything other than a living, breathing, human individual, the one clone who spills messy humanity at every turn… Sarah Manning is the very definition of life. And she’ll find a way.


  • We learn that Kira has in fact been kidnapped by Helena’s people, not Rachel’s. It’s a lovely twist which is actually more terrifying, simply because we’ve seen the results of brainwash and abuse on a child involved with those beliefs, through Helena. Fear and stakes are now through the roof.
  • Ramon is an excellent one-off character, in that he’s clearly attracted to Alison’s dangerous soccer mom shtick, and not above hitting on Felix without any fanfare. You may stay, young man.
  • I am the MOST EXCITED HUMAN about Art being more involved with the clone story, and getting all entangled in everyone’s business. Here’s a third party who’s not a monitor, but still has to choose his loyalties carefully. Not only that, but he’s willing to go down the rabbit hole in the pursuit of truth and compassion, not only for Sarah but also for Beth. On a sidenote, was that a kid’s drawing on Art’s wall? Hmm…
  • I love Angie and I can’t be stopped.
  • The Rachel-Leekie scene clearly demonstrates that Rachel actually has power beyond Leekie. Leekie doesn’t have all the information, and is very obviously middle-rung, where we previously thought he was the Big Cheese. The DYAD rabbit hole goes deeper, and scarier.
  • This show rides so much comedy on Alison, and I couldn’t be more delighted by it. Also, if Alison ever finds out that Sarah’s the one to blame for her accidental-almost-kidnapping, I don’t think I’d want to be in the room for it. (Or maybe I would. I dunno.)
  • Let’s pour another one out for George Hudson. I bet he would’ve been damn proud of Sarah kicking through the bathroom wall and escaping.
  • HELENA RETURNS. This show is worse without her. I am highly interested in the role she’ll play this season. Complete incorporation into the clone club seems unlikely, yet I can’t entirely see her working against Sarah, even though Sarah shot her. Helena may be alive for now, but I can’t help but wonder if she won’t meet her actual end this season sometime. That’s part of the tragedy of Helena - how exactly can she live in this world, as she is?
  • The title of this episode is amazing.  That is all.

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