Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Orphan Black 4.03 - "The Stigmata of Progress"

I confess: I have officially reached the point in Season 4 where all my reactions to Orphan Black are just questions. This show has spiraled so much, contorting towards and away from characters, spinning new yarns, and reviving old ones. I can barely keep track anymore, and watching an episode now only yields a series of questions. What’s going on with Kira, unsettling child with obvious yet undefined powers? What happened with Beth and MK that we don’t know about? Why is Rachel dressed like she’s the face of Celine Dion’s new Pirate Loungewear collection?

Rachel Duncan is obsessed with neither Sarah Manning nor white silk pajamas, thank you very much.
It’s just too much to try and answer.


Questions can be great. In fact, it’s essential for any story to set up questions that lead the audience. Questions from Season 1 of Orphan Black, for example: Who is killing the clones? Who is Alison’s monitor? Is Cosima going to be okay? Are Paul and Delphine good or bad? What is Kira’s deal? Questions mean mysteries, and almost always audience engagement.

Similarly, there are some good questions in Season 4.  Namely: what is the function of the robot worm embedded in Sarah’s face? How did Beth and MK meet, and what exactly unraveled Beth during her investigation? What is the true intent of Neolution and its disciples, like Detective Duko? And seriously, what, in the name of creepy fictional children everywhere, is Kira’s deal?

But Season 4 is also inadvertently spurring questions perhaps unintentionally, about the direction and focus on the show: this is how we’re dealing with the Castor clones now, with the addition of Ira?  Where did Marian Bowles go?  How much can we believably keep the police at bay after two manslaughterers shacked up with a trained assassin? Is Art back at work or still on probation? Why are we paying attention to Felix’s birth sister? Have they mentioned Helsinki already? Am I supposed to know what that is?

There are so few takeways from “The Stigmata of Progress,” excepting an enduring lineup of questions. So let’s look a few.

1. The clones may have telepathic powers??? It’s unclear how exactly Helena knew the names of Alison’s campaign team - even Alison herself shruggingly attributes it to Helena’s killer instincts (literally). But the post-show chat raises the question of telepathy, given the way the scene was directed and edited. This is certainly not outside the realm of possibility, what with the show’s willingness to step into science fiction and familial connection. Honestly, I have no idea.  If it is true, I'm mostly just amused that the two sisters to first demonstrate it could not be more different from one another. I’m pretty sure the only way Helena and Alison could successfully communicate is telepathically.

2. Why are we paying attention to Felix’s sister??? I truly don’t know. Similar to the Delphine mystery, I can't sniff out what the writer's intentions are with this storyline.  Of course we think she might be suspicious, but she’s probably not, and why are we even exploring this anyways? Yes, it’s completely understandable for Felix to find his birth family, and also understandable that he feels taken for granted in his sidekick role Chez Clone Club. But also, this show is about Clone Club, so any stories not directly dealing with the clones and their mysteries are better off on the cutting room floor.  Felix is, in fact, a sidekick.

3. What happened to Marian Bowles? And Shay? And Krystal Goderich? With our return to Season 1 mysteries, some of the characters who played big roles in Season 2 and 3 have gone missing from the narrative - even ones who connect to current stories, or were involved in cliffhangers from last season. From the looks of the previews, we’ll be in touch with Krystal again soon, to which I say: GOOD.

It is tricky, though, to sell this return to Season 1 mysteries as intentional and well-developed. Without tight storytelling, more questions creep in: is this too close to retcon? Will the audience buy that MK stayed in hiding for so long? Is it believable that no one has just directly asked about some of the long-burning mysteries and complicated alliances? Orphan Black walks a careful edge, trying to keep air in their premises. But honestly? This show does best when it’s threatening to careen off the tracks.

So far, though, we’ve got a slow-burn season happening - for better or worse. In Season 1, the writers put Sarah Manning in a corner and forced her to kick her way through walls. In nearly every scene, the thing the audience feared happening always happened, and the characters had to adapt or fall back. The pace was fast, the stakes high. But this season isn’t moving so far, and, fitting to its title, “The Stigmata of Progress” showed that plainly. Rachel’s locked up, Cosima’s stuck underground, Helena, Alison, and Donnie are playing house, MK’s hiding, and Sarah’s just walking around Toronto. While everyone’s at home, the only sense of urgency comes solely from the ticking time bomb in Sarah’s face.

Of course, it’s difficult to keep the story tight and purposeful when it’s sprawled in different directions, with so many characters. (A factoid that further boggles the mind: more than any previous season, Season 4 has the most scenes with multiple clones. Imagine if they were separated!) Objectively, it’s a massive challenge to maintain the stakes and urgency of a plot-heavy serial four seasons in. But so far, Season 4 is asking a lot of questions, both good and middling, and we’re hopefully plodding towards answers.


  • Rachel’s dinner with Susan Duncan and Ira truly is the worst possible family dinner imaginable. Susan and Rachel’s dynamic is textually fascinating, but I’m waiting anxiously for it to bubble over and erupt the way it did with Ethan. Also: free Rachel Duncan.
  • I love noticing little personality traits cropping up in Charlotte that remind me of the other clones. She was pretty scrappy and precocious this episode, calling to mind both Sarah and Cosima.
  • Art has a framed photo of his parents on their wedding day above his TV. I love Art.
  • Art also played mind games with Detective Duko to let him know he knows. I love Art.
  • Felix’s wistful monologue about his mother was lovely, but again: what is the point??? I want Jordan Gavaris to have great material, but surely there’s a better way...?
  • The brief Sarah/Helena interaction was lovely and heartbreaking, even in those few sentences. “I don’t want them to grow up like me.” “Rub that belly for me.”
  • Big love for Auntie Cosima paying attention to Kira and offering to do a science experiment with her when she’s been feeling left out of the loop.
  • Speaking of clones and kids, I’m digging this bond they’re setting up between Charlotte and Rachel. When Rachel jailbreaks, she better take that kid with her.  

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