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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