This has been a frustrating season of Orphan Black. While it’s delivered some thrilling moments—Rudy killing Seth, Sarah choking Ferdinand almost to death, Helena escaping the Castor compound—the show nonetheless failed to feel quite as urgent as it has in the past. There has hardly ever been more at stake, and yet the scattershot nature of the show’s many mysteries made it harder to connect to any of them. While there’s no doubt that second season was a little messy, there was hardly a time when I didn’t finish an episode and immediately want—no, need—to start the next. This year, I’ve heard more often than not about people failing to keep up without even realizing it. “I don’t know, I watched the first few, but I just…haven’t watched since,” more than one friend of mine said with a sad shrug. It started to feel like maybe Orphan Black’s commitment to keeps its audience in suspense had finally taken one too many turns and maybe even become too exhausting to sustain itself.
Enter “Certain Agony Of The Battlefield.”
This is the episode I had been waiting for this season. It practically pulses with terror, its nerves frayed and raw. It not only launches from one story to the next with a feverish urgency, but manages to check in on everyone in the core cast without feeling too cluttered. Some scenes are a little too impressed with themselves for their own good (see: Sarah’s fever dreams), but the episode as a whole feels like this season’s equivalent of season two’s “Governed As If It Were By Chance.” Both episodes flesh out existing storylines while simultaneously propelling them into unexpected directions. Both rocket into dizzying sequences that dare the audience to look away, and smirks when it can’t. Both end with Helena overcoming incredible obstacles, both mental and physical, to be by Sarah’s side. Sure, it took the third season two more episodes than the second to get to its pivotal episode, but “Certain Agony Of The Battlefield” at least signals a promising shift going into the last remaining episodes.
After beginning the season with the promising quest of deciphering Duncan’s genetic code, Cosima has mostly been left to deal with the vestiges of her romantic life. This has been fine, and even good, since watching a queer romance play out without self-congratulatory fanfare is still a rarity (not to mention that Ksenia Solo is an incredibly appealing actor). So it’s been fun, but it has also felt like a waste. So much of Cosima’s life last season already revolved around romance. It would be far more rewarding to watch Cosima in her true element, as a brilliant scientist on the brink of an enormous breakthrough. “Certain Agony Of The Battlefield” takes that note and runs with it, integrating Cosima’s tentative foray into dating again and her love of scientific puzzles into the action without any strain. She even gets to bring out her signature compassion when Gracie, trembling and afraid, walks into the Dyad lab to find out what’s wrong with her. Bringing Delphine back certainly strengthens Cosima’s storyline, as she forces Cosima to interact with both Dyad and her past head-on.
Alison, meanwhile, is still on an entirely different show. Her dreams of expanding the contraband business beyond their soap cart take them to her mother’s beauty shop. Bubbles is pink and meticulous—which explains a whole lot about Alison. I still want her to be more involved in the main story at hand, but looking back at last season, Alison has been on her own show for a while now. Sure, she at least checked in with her sisters more last season, but her disastrous turn in “Blood Ties: The Musical” and stint in rehab were still largely unconnected to the rest of the clones. It did eventually dovetail into the Dyad plot when Donnie accidentally killed Leekie, so there could still be time for the Hendrixes to find a place in the main action. At this point, though, Maslany and Kristin Bruun are having so much fun with the Hendrix family drug operation that I just can’t be mad. This season needs a dose of levity, and the Castor clones sure as hell aren’t going to be the ones to twerk in a shower of cash(!).
But while I’m sure Tatiana Maslany is relieved when she can slip into Alison’s Stepford reality, her most compelling scenes have always taken place take within the dank cells and constant danger of Sarah and Helena’s reality. Their deep and fraught relationship has consistently elevated the weaker plots around them, and their respective survival skills have also made for some of the most thrilling moments of the series.
Much to my surprise, though, the most compelling parts of “Certain Agony Of The Battlefield” come from characters that the show has underserved in the past. Paul has never been as compelling as the series hoped he was, even with a hefty promotion from Clueless Monitor to Undercover Castor Major. So his renewed purpose and vigor in this episode is startling—and in retrospect, probably should have been a tip-off that he was about to play all his cards. Both Paul and Dylan Bruce have always had the appearance of determination, but it’s not until Paul discovers that the Castors’ sexually transmitted defect sterilizes women that both the character and actor feel genuinely propelled to action. Learning that the Castor and Leda clones have the same defect is a huge revelation, but Coady’s involvement in trying to harness it for nefarious purposes might even be bigger. It helps that Coady’s willingness to spread the disease in order to understand it and the casual way in which she justifies possibly weaponizing it make her a much clearer villain to root against, so Paul taking a stand against her instantly makes him more sympathetic.
I’ve never been that invested in Paul and Sarah as a pair, but this episode sells the hell out of their final moments together. As Paul digs deeper into Coady’s treacherous research, Sarah shakes in shock, fury, and feverish nightmares as Coady uses her as a lab rat. It’s never quite been clear where Paul stands; tonight, he stands firmly with Sarah. He’s been sworn to protect the Castor clones, but discovering just how deep and twisted Coady’s research goes makes him take a stand against them to the point that he smuggles Sarah out, kills Miller when he tries to blow their cover and then, in a devastating final note, sacrifices himself to take out Coady’s research. Again, the cuts between the explosion and the home videos with Paul and Beth are a little too cute, not to mention that the show already used the same device when Duncan killed himself in front of projected home videos of him and Rachel. Still, this sacrfiice is exactly the right way to send Paul out of the show, and is the kind of twist that—finally—justifies so much of what he’s done as a character.
Then there’s Felix, whose entire job this season has been “Shoulder To Cry On.” But “Certain Agony Of The Battlefield” finally gives Felix the space to make a decision of his own. In an eerie echo of Sarah’s desperate attempts to find her sister, Felix grasps at whatever straws he can to find out where Sarah has gone. His mission brings him to a near-breaking point, and then face to face with yet another character that has spent most of this season adrift on the sidelines. Rachel Duncan, broken and alone, has been sitting in a dark corner of Dyad ever since Sarah sent a sharpened pencil through her eye, coming to grips with her new disability and painting through tears. It’s no wonder Felix goes off on her given everything she did to Sarah, but as he yells into her face, furious and desperate, the alarm and devastation on Rachel’s face evokes a sharp pang of sympathy for them both. It’s not just another testament to Maslany’s nuanced acting, but also Gavaris’ astonishing ability to channel such wildly different reactions to whichever character Maslany is playing against him. Just like with Sarah and Helena, the unexpected depth of this pairing is exactly the kind of character work Orphan Black does best. I never would have imagined that Felix and Rachel could provide such emotionally resonant scenes, but now I hope the revelation that she knows Duncan’s code will bring them together again, and often.
Even with Felix’s turning point and the bombastic nature of Paul’s sacrifice, though, the most shocking character to break out of “Certain Agony Of The Battlefield” is the clone that brought us on this journey in the first place. Beth Childs has loomed over the entire series, a grim specter of What Could Happen, so even getting to spend some time with her as an apparition of Sarah’s mind is significant. She’s a hardened Alison, jaded by time on the police force and in bed next to a spy, and she has no patience for Sarah’s quavering helplessness. But she doesn’t leave without giving Sarah a piece of the puzzle, one that Paul, Felix, Delphine, Rudy, Siobhan, and every Leda clone has known from the beginning even if they couldn’t acknowledge it: “We do terrible things for the people we love. Stop asking why, and start asking who.”
- I’ve given Dylan Bruce a hard time, but he nailed this episode. R.I.P. B.D.P.
- Delphine! Spying on exes is no good very bad unflattering behavior! (Your hair still looks great though, xo.)
- Another well-deployed death: Helena eating the scorpion. Yeesh.