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.


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.)

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.


  • 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.
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