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?
- 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.)