Saturday, June 6, 2015

Orphan Black 3.07 - "Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate"

Step right up, folks, it’s time to review Orphan Black’s annual circus event! Mundane situations contrasting dangerously high stakes! Wacky clone swaps! Pastels! Yes, it’s our traditional return to Planet Alison, and the only thing missing on this year’s carousel was glitter torture.


Given the episode title and the fact that this is an Alison-centric endeavor, I was expecting something far more sinister than what actually transpired. Alison’s storylines are usually marked with high absurdity and tragedy, as she’s completely disenfranchised and struggling to exert her independence. A control freak in a uncontrollable world, Alison is frequently the narrative’s fool - to great comedic and empathic effect.

Yes, the hallmarks of Hendrixica are there - at its most basic, this is a sidecar episode set in a domestic environment, where high-stakes dangers threaten the picture-perfect suburban normalcy, rendered broadly in hijinks and clone swap. And of course, in traditional OB absurdist fashion, a lot of ridiculata is mined from Donnie - the fact that his name is Donnie Chubbs, the reveal that Alison’s mother is poetically named Connie, and, naturally, Donnie’s basic fluency in Portuguese.

But this episode balances these little choices with two very weighty reminders, that are grounded very purposefully in theme and character.  Number one: Alison chose Donnie.  Number two: Alison is capable as... well, holy freakin' Christmas cake. “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” stays put and stays sentimental where previous episodes have swerved into tragedy: it allows Alison a moment to defend her choices not only verbally, but in action. She sticks up for Donnie, she stands up to her mother, she gives Cosima advice not out of ego but compassion, and she nails her school trustee speech and gets a standing ovation. Not a bad episode for ol’ Ali, eh?

From all angles, Alison doesn’t just provide the setpiece for the hour, this time she’s actually the hero of it. Sarah doesn’t swoop in and save the day; Cosima doesn’t take over and hold down the fort. Alison keeps everything together, meeting her own needs and extending herself to the people around her. She is finally the main character. As such, it’s the perfect opportunity to showcase her character in a way the show hasn’t yet tackled - and generally, the episode did exactly that.

First - back story. This arrives in the form of her mother, the woman who raised her, and we quickly realize that Alison was brought up in a tightly compressed childhood of unachievable expectations and constant negative commentary. Alison is very much the product of her upbringing - nurture prevails - both in propagation and reaction. However, with Sarah and Cosima - her “cooler” sisters - out of the way, we are shown that Alison’s weaknesses can be her strengths. She can meet demands; she can check boxes; she can organize and command and prepare and succeed. Not only this, but the episode goes out of its way to portray these characteristics as not only fundamental skills, through compliant medical reporting to DYAD, but also attractive, through her potential romance with Jason Kellerman.

So we get a new light on Alison’s pre-established characteristics, and on top of that there’s a huge sign of character development, one I wish were underlined, highlighted, and circled in the episode. Point an enormous flashing arrow at three little words: “My clone, mother.” This is spoken by a woman who refused to use to use “the ‘c’ word” at the beginning of the show, and lived in deep denial about the reality of their situation.

It's true that Alison’s choice to introduce Cosima is motivated by defiance, given that it follows another attempt by Connie to belittle and control her daughter's life. But I don’t think that makes the choice any less earnest, or important for Alison. If anything, infusing that moment with a defiant act of rebellion only serves to show us what Alison is truly made of: moxie. Remind us of anyone else? For all the disparate characteristics of our Leda Ladies, there’s at least one thing they all share: nerve. Ali gave her mom a test, and her mom failed by refusing to acknowledge her daughter’s point of view. It’s almost as if the moment cements Alison’s place firmly in Clone Family - she didn’t choose them, but they’re hers.

Considering the layering triumphs in this moment, I do wish the episode emphasized just how big this was for Alison. Yes, she got a standing ovation, saved her man, stuck it to her mom, and even technically got another guy to kiss her - but there was one important element of Alison’s involvement in the episode that I would have liked to seen punched up and made more noticeable: her level of empathy.

Alison’s behavior in the episode is hallmarked at every turn by a fairly uncharacteristic level of outward compassion. This is not to say that Alison hasn’t been a compassionate person, but she’s thus far been shown as largely uptight, discerning, and manslaughter-y. Yet, in “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate,” Alison really does live up to her self-bequeathed title of “mother hen” - particularly towards Cosima. She’s downright nurturing to her, most notably after Cosima completely effed up her trustee speech. Alison’s a mom too, everybody! Welcome reminder!

I found myself wanting “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” to take a pink highlighter to these moments, to draw particular attention to this development for Alison. Perhaps if Ali were a bit impatient with Cosima before understanding the situation, or less willing to talk about Clone Club goings-on at the venue; perhaps if she and Cosima had a longer conversation about Cosima’s health, or if her kids actually made a meaningful appearance in the episode - these little things could have served to punch up her genuine care for her family.

It’s a minor quibble, but of particular importance, because not only is this - family - the theme of the episode, it’s also delivered directly through Alison’s trustee speech, in a rather sweeping grandiose moment. It would have been nice to see that theme more clearly embodied in her actions, not just her words. Even so, it’s a very sweet theme, and it’s always lovely to see a unified front between the Clone Club. Mrs. S. is gonna be a granny! May she be added to the guest list of Helena’s fantasy baby shower.

Of course, “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” also dealt with Cosima’s trust issues, and the renewed seriousness of her condition. I’m still wanting more straightforward insight into Cosima’s emotional state this year, although it makes sense that Cosima would hold back her true feelings. Her trajectory is interesting; in the first two seasons, she was entirely complicit with DYAD, submitting herself not only to testing but also the monitor system. She knowingly began a relationship with her monitor, and has largely been okay with that, because her feelings for Delphine were real. Cosima the Scientist has always let discovery and passion guide her open heart.

Now, though, she stubbornly refuses to even submit to a urinalysis. This begs the question: does Cosima’s change of heart correlate to any new information about shady DYAD, or is it exactly that - a change of heart? Delphine’s clearly attempting to exert her power over Cosima not only at DYAD but in their relationship, and the two spheres remain as overlapped as ever. Cosima still can’t separate her emotions from the relationship with DYAD, even with a differently-defined situation. If Delphine thought anything about her position would be easier without dating Cosima, this is looking entirely naive in retrospect. The anticipation that comes with waiting for this to blow up is one of the more deliciously tense aspects of the season.

But, there were no meltdowns or blow-ups in the episode, as “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” honored the traditional hallmarks of an “Alison episode,” yet added the rather genuine and grounding elements of theme and character development for the most-fringed clone. Alison’s success in the hour is welcome, given Cosima’s worsening condition, and the inevitable messiness of Rachel, Sarah, and Delphine coming together to decode Duncan’s sequence. With only three episodes left, we should be ramping up nicely for the end of the season.

  • Admittedly, it felt a bit odd to focus on Helena’s forgiveness of Mrs. S. when this season has thus far made a point of Sarah’s grudge against her. I would have loved a beat of forgiveness before the “I’m so tired, mum.” Nothing fancy, just a lil somethin’.
  • We talked about mundane situations with dangerous stakes, but were the obstacles also a touch mundane? The “wrong briefcase” trope is pretty tired, especially given that they devoted a specific shot to “grabbing the wrong envelope.” We all saw it coming. Other obstacles: nebulously faked panic attack, and the time necessary to count money. Hm.
  • I am ENDLESSLY FASCINATED by the role the cantina owner plays in this episode. Surely this was foreshadowing, right? Surely she’s going to bust out with something awesome in a future episode, right? There was so much attention paid to her understanding of and involvement in Helena and Sarah’s situation… but why?
  • I want to meet Cosima’s family now too. I’m guessing they don’t know she’s dying. They could also be halfway across the world doing research projects to benefit developing countries, and therefore with limited internet access. Still. Cosima could totally send an e-mail.
  • “There are not two Pouchies, darling.” Line delivery of the season? Also, Felix + Alison 4-ever.
  • Sarah Stubbs loves Alison so much. What an angel.

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