Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Orphan Black 4.07 - "The Antisocialism of Sex"

Despite the fact that last week’s episode skated too closely to emotional torture porn for me, I was still looking forward to this week’s post-trauma outing, since Dark Nights of the Soul are inherently character-heavy, and that is totally my jam as a television viewer. And truly, the hour didn’t disappoint. An in-depth study in grief across the spectrum personalities of Clone Club, “The Antisocialism of Sex” delivered character, catharsis, and fucking phenomenal performances - four of which from Tatiana Maslany alone. I hope they gave her a day off after they filmed this one.

ORPHAN BLACK 4.07 - “THE ANTISOCIALISM OF SEX”

After an ending like last week’s, of course the focus of this episode was largely on the fallout. How are the clones coping? How is Siobhán grieving? What happens now, with Project Leda, Evie Cho, and Susan Duncan? Weirdly, though, the hour begins with Rachel: suddenly freed, still limited in her movement, and tasked with a big-ass flight of stairs to ascend. I guess this is actually an apt allegory for the sisterhood and its own challenges at this juncture - a sisterhood to which, it bears stating, Rachel decidedly does not belong.

It’s fitting, then, that Rachel is the only clone in a position to make a power play (okay, "power play") in the episode. She is still, after all, a proclone, system-raised, and separate from her sisters. With her mother ousted by Evie Cho, Rachel steps up and tries to assert herself... only to be shot down. Not only that, but she’s rebuked on the sole reason of her DNA: “Did you really think Neolution would let a clone take a position of real importance?” Rachel may sport a blond bob and a loathing for her sisters, but she’s still one of them, at the mercy of her own biology. Nature, in this area, will always trump nurture.

Even though Rachel’s bits in this episode are rather unassuming, given the comparative lack of sobbing, punching, and police arrests, it is her storyline that gives us the plot pivot into the season’s final act. Evie Cho lays out the new stakes for the clones: while it’s not necessary for Neolution to go full Helsinki (an extermination effort that took out Mika’s family and friends), all of the self-aware sisters are not safe from its continued efforts to eliminate the remnants of Project Leda. (Krystal Goderitch, therefore, would presumably live on, misguided yet oddly effective as ever.)

We can guess that this pursuit will fill the final hours of the season, but more than that, this story corner also gives us the idea that Rachel Duncan is being... called. Now, if you, as a teenager, weren’t also obsessed with a book comparing Star Wars to the monomyth studied by Joseph Campbell, let me explain: all stories in human history, spanning every time period and culture, share a certain structure - common touchstones along a character’s journey as they are pushed into their true power and purpose. This gave rise to the concept of “the Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which totally has new meaning when applied to the Clone Club.

And, as much as Rachel fights it, she is one of the Thousand Faces. She, too, is a hero, because they have a common goal: she, too, needs a cure - not just for herself, but for Charlotte, whose symptoms aren’t ebbing. And so Rachel, like any hero, receives a call: the moment when a hero is beckoned out of their ordinary world and compelled into the unknown to fulfill a larger goal.

Let’s stop here, for a moment, and jump into another storyline, shall we? Usually, when we talk about the Hero of Orphan Black, there’s one main figure: Sarah Manning. Sarah Manning, however, was never really called. Not exactly. She stumbled, conned, found a family, and started fighting for them. Sarah fell into her circumstances, and has struggled to gain anything resembling an upper hand since the Pilot. This all came to a horrific and tragic low point last week, with the destruction of their research, and the murder of Kendall Malone. And so, Sarah Manning retreats into her shadow self, and tries to refuse the fact that she was ever caught up in this nightmare journey. This is also part of the Hero’s Journey - the Refusal of the Call. Uh-uh. Not me, pal. Pick a different Chosen One and keep moving.

So Sarah tries to drink her reality into oblivion, and pushes away anyone who attempts to tether her in this world of terrors. But the Call persists, as it always does, and Sarah Manning finally, formally, received hers -- and listened. Sarah’s Call is from Beth herself, who appears to her in hallucination throughout the episode, haunting her her until Sarah stops to pay attention. “Bring us together. We need you.” The leadership role that Sarah stumbled into is hers to seize, to accept, in order for her to embody her power and purpose. In order to keep everyone together during this ordeal.

This isn't so unusual, though.  We basically expect Sarah Manning to get a Call, as she’s our primary POV character, and she’s borne the Hero Mantle for much of the series. She’s the glue, as Felix says. But do we expect a Call for Rachel Duncan? On any other show, probably not. But this is Orphan Black, and clone parallels and connections are Lifeblood.

So, two storylines over from Sarah Manning, Rachel Duncan receives her own Call, which also appears to her in a hallucination, as she’s lying on the ground after falling from the stairs. The physical fall is insult to injury - Evie Cho has subsumed Susan Duncan’s work, and removed the Duncans from any possible power. And, from this counterpart low point, Rachel envisions a swan, in an echo of the illustration shown to her from Neolution’s first printed work. Even if the swan is conjured by her robot eye, the Call is still clearly communicated: the leadership role that Rachel was adopted into is hers to take back, to be responsible for, in order for her to assume her power and purpose.

Please allow me to go full capslock on you for a moment: HOW COOL IS IT THAT. I love, love, love that Rachel and Sarah are brought back into parallel, with opposing forces, even though they ultimately have the same goal.  Not only that, but their parallel is devised to embody the central character themes on which this whole show is built: claiming power and purpose, through togetherness.  Developing and positing the clones in conjunction with their own similarities and differences will always be good material, especially when it's directly connected to core themes.

As such, the Orphan Black writers didn't stop there.  Not only were Sarah and Rachel joined in theme and repositioned as foils, but Sarah and Beth were brought to the forefront to facilitate Sarah's call.  What's interesting about their dynamic is that it exists as a paradox, because their connection is that they never coexisted.  The timeline exists as Before Sarah and After Sarah, and the audience holds them distinct in the show's narrative.  Sarah’s connection to Beth is entirely constructed, entirely symbolic, and it’s made even more meaningful when that’s all there is: one instance of locked eyes, crossed paths, and... it's all over.

And yet... and yet... they share so much.  They have the same burden, the same family, the same responsibilities, the same demons, the same path, and the same choices.  So here at the end of trail, back at the beginning, Beth is the one to give Sarah the strength to step forward.

There were many things, big and small, that I loved about Sarah and Beth's spectral interactions in this episode.  Sarah seeing Beth in all the mirrors was a fine conceit, but it was made superb by the match cuts of Sarah and Beth both snorting a line and coming up for air. Of course, this invites the episode’s initial connection between the two, visually linking them, and then allowing the depth of their interaction to come to light in the bridge scene.


You could argue that, in this scene, Sarah is not talking to Beth, but only to a projection of who Sarah perceives Beth to be.  I think this is 100% logical, but I think this idea actually cheapens the moment.  Sarah's Beth hallucinations in Season 3 felt more akin to this construct, because we, as an audience, couldn't verify who Beth really was.  But now?  We've spent time with Beth, and the Beth that appeared to Sarah was the Beth that we got to know this season.  I'll chalk it up to whatever supernatural mojo you want to put forth; for me, that was Beth Childs interacting directly with Sarah Manning, for the first and last time.

The writers, then, get full resonance out of this milestone.  It's Sarah's Call, after all, and the balm that eases her wounded rage and self-hatred.  There was such meaning in every moment, and I found myself fascinated with the way that Beth handled Sarah during their conversation.  The spectrum of emotions that play on Beth's face in the train scene is truly fantastic, and resonant, and heartbreaking.  Beth regards Sarah with love, with pity, with amusement, with longing and loss and compassion and pain.  She teases her, she's stern with her, she's fond yet strict, both warm and cold - it's everything you would expect of a loving yet hard-nosed sister before her final goodbye.  It's definitely the most emotion that we've ever seen from Beth, and this contrast completely fleshes out the tragedy of who she was, and of the connection yet divide between her and Sarah that can never truly be reconciled.

In that this is the culmination of the audience finally allowed to know Beth, beyond what she left behind, the episode’s design spins the Beth-Sarah construct into a new light, which adds another dimension that wasn't there before.  As we originally accepted the story, Sarah rekindled the torch that Beth had found too burdensome to carry. She stepped into Beth’s identity, her life, and her place of leadership in Clone Club - and the question was this: where does Sarah succeed, where Beth failed? What’s so special about Sarah, the Main Character, the Chosen One? Inadvertently, through the narrative construction, the writers posited the idea that Sarah has Something that Beth did not, that would ferry the clones through the end of their journey. Felix even says it: “You’ve got to be stronger than her.”

This season, this episode, we learn that this telling of it isn't exactly true. First of all, Beth never “quit” the investigation because it was too much. She sacrificed herself to bury the investigation and keep her sisters safe. She didn’t see Sarah coming out of the black, and had no intention of passing a torch to anyone. Second, when things hit rock bottom for Sarah, as they did for Beth, Sarah finds herself doing exactly what Beth did - numbing out from reality and hanging her life over the train tracks.

Third of all, the episode wrote in exactly what NEEDS to be different between Sarah and Beth. It doesn’t have anything to do with Sarah’s traits vs. Beth’s traits - because actually, they’re quite similar. As Beth says: there’s more than biology between them. The difference comes from Beth herself, in the form of the Call - Beth’s only failure was disconnection, through bad circumstances and a noble intention. The only thing Sarah can do that Beth could not? Stay. That’s it.

This construct does right by Beth, even in the midst of her inherent tragedy, and also does right by Sarah, in that it connects to the character's individual development.  Wild by nature, one foot out the door, Sarah Manning's arc is defined simply by compelling her to stop running.  To honor her relationships, to be a good mother to Kira, to fight for her sisters and accept that she is not a Lone Wolf in the Night.  The Call works on two levels for Sarah - only by fulfilling her character's core growth can she step into her true power and purpose.

When she finally does, officially accepting the torch from Beth, we are renewed. The dawn comes, and Sarah goes to make peace with Siobhán, after harsh words and reopened wounds. I loved that the beat in that scene was not forgiveness. Tatiana Maslany and Maria Doyle Kennedy played that moment perfectly, because it fulfills Beth’s plea and Sarah's arc. No smiles, no relief; not forgiveness, but togetherness. Not everything is okay, but family stays, and that’s enough. Sing it with me!  WHAT A GREAT ARC OUR SARAH MANNING HAS.

Sarah actually gets two more clone comparisons in the episode, after the plot-based Rachel parallel, and the character-based Beth connection. The two additional ties both serve the drama in-episode - with Cosima, in the inherent stakes of their combined spiral at the end of their tether, and with Alison, in contrast of their coping skills. Where Sarah and Cosima spend the episode backsliding into recklessness and self-sabotage, Alison skids hard in the other direction, white-knuckling her life and every minutiae she can actually control in it. Interestingly, she does have one brief breakdown at episode’s beginning - but in private, and as soon as eyes are on her - her husband’s, it's worth noting - she shuts off all vulnerability and goes full Stepford.

Of course, Alison is followed around by pitying but well-intentioned men asking her in very calm - and perhaps condescending - voices if she’s doing okay. She dodges them comedically each time, but the episode does a fantastic echo when Duko appears at her doorstep after Donnie’s arrest and asks her how she’s “holding up.” The payoff, as the third of three insipid inquiries, with the twist element of danger, makes this moment chillingly good. It also reveals to Alison that he knows, even though she’s never met this man, and ramps up the fear to great effect.

In non-clone-related news, Art gets a very satisfying moment to beat the shit out of Duko, tearing down any pretense of unawareness, and surely putting a big target on his own back. Felix comes through big time for both Cosima and Sarah, pulling them back from the brink, as well as taking care of Siobhán in her grief. Kira probably wished she didn’t have the ability to emotionally connect to all the clones, seeing how all of them were devastated and miserable this episode. But no one fared worse than Donnie, who got arrested after storytime at his daughter’s birthday party.

And perhaps the one who fared the best? Off-screen Delphine, who went from reportedly dead to not-actually-dead-but-carted-off, based on the eye-witness account of Detective Goderitch, Manicurist. Alongside the plot shift and the Calls, add this to the end-of-season quests; there’s finally some hope to balance all the fear. We also have the return of MK - who could magically have backup files for all the research... although that seems like a too-swift Ctrl+Z for a situation given this much gravity in the story. Either way, she’s reaching out to Kira, and almost definitely as a friend, considering that she introduces herself as Mika - the name Beth called her.

So the climax ebbs, the sun rises, and the tortured souls make it through the Dark Night. We’ve been pulled through to the other side, and begin the descent into the season’s final hours with ramped-up stakes, renewed sense of purpose, and that Orphan Black Clone Togetherness that binds and grounds this spinning sci-fi thriller. “The Antisocialism of Sex” made the most of these markers through tried-and-true storytelling touchstones, and wields its characters to full emotional effect in an exploration of grief, desperation, and connection. Seriously, can someone get Tatiana Maslany a blanket and a cup of tea? And like, whale sounds or something.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

  • In case you were wondering, the four standout performances for me were Sarah, Cosima, Alison, and Beth. The full range of emotional spill that each of these characters required resulted in a damn fine symphony of acting. Throw in Rachel and her restraint by contrast, and it’s even more impressive.
  • BISEXUAL SARAH MANNING!!! That is all.
  • Rachel may be living in a prison, but at least it’s HGTV’s 2016 Dr. Moreau Dream House.
  • Y’know, leave it to the Victorian era to birth Neolution. This kind of humanly grab for complete control like we’re not all sloppy bags of emotions and blood flow is so totally Victorian it’s not even funny.
  • I am SO ready for the Hendrix-Stubbs musical revue.
  • You get the feeling that Alison isn’t arrested alongside Donnie because Duko has specifically arranged it that way, and if the implications of that are not scary as all get-out, I don’t know what is.
  • A lovely moment with Siobhán thanking Art for sticking with them. As we’ve quickly learned, that kind of investment is usually at the cost of your life, so Art continues to remain a champ.
  • And, finally, as much as Felix might resent his perceived sidekick role... it was gratifying to see him being a stalwart and compassionate righthand dude to basically everyone in this episode. Another solid champ.

3 comments:

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