When it comes to thrilling dramas like Orphan Black, penultimate episodes can usually be more exciting than the finales they build to. Season finales become preoccupied with tying off loose ends, with delivering the payoff season-long arcs build to. There’s time in a penultimate episode to play around a bit. It’s your last chance to throw in twists for the finale to uncoil. Take last season’s “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done” or the first season’s “Unconscious Selection.” Both were penultimate episodes that outperformed their finales with excitement, tension, focus.
And even though we’re not yet sure what season three’s finale looks like, I have a hard time believing it won’t be better than “Insolvent Phantom Of Tomorrow,” which drags its feet as it builds to a reveal that packs more of a fizzle than a punch. As Caroline Framke said last week, “Ruthless In Purpose, And Insidious In Method” was one of the best episodes of the season, even though it didn’t have any of the explosive, loud moments that people usually associate with Orphan Black’s thrills. “Insolvent Phantom Of Tomorrow” does have a lot of action. There’s a lengthy fight sequence scored by an impromptu performance from Mrs. S and her old local band (!!); Helena goes full-Helena on some drug lords; Delphine threatens Shay with a tub, a razor blade, and a detailed knowledge of the dorsalis pedis artery. But despite all the clanging, it’s a boring episode that seems more interested in questions and answers than the characters asking them. I will take a single Krystal scene over a million dramatic fight sequences.
“Insolvent Phantom Of Tomorrow” is all plot, no heart. Well, there’s a little bit of heart there, like Helena bonding with Alison’s daughter Gemma (almost all of the episode’s emotional beats, in fact, belong to Helena). But character moments are buried under the writers’ clunky attempts to move all the pieces into place for the finale. In the first act, Mrs. S, Sarah, and Felix sit in a London pub, waiting. “Insolvent Phantom Of Tomorrow” burns slowly, building to the discovery of the Castor original. The original clone’s DNA holds the key to curing the Castor clones’ defects, as well as Cosima’s illness, and every nebulous party at play in Orphan Black’s universe—Castor, Topside, Sarah and the Clone Club—wants that key. Thanks to Mrs. S’s shadowy network, Sarah tracks down Kendall Malone, the Castor original, who turns out to be Mrs. S’s biological mother.
It’s not a particularly mind-blowing twist. The second Mrs. S crashed Sarah’s meeting with Kendall, I anticipated her “hello, mother.” It seems like every time a new mysterious character is revealed on this show, they turn out to be somebody’s mom, which makes sense for a show that’s so obsessed with family and motherhood. But the Castor original reveal doesn’t really tie into the thematic framework of the show. The twist isn’t backed by a whole lot of substance. Siobhan has been fleshed out more this season, and her intentions/motivations have become clearer. It’s welcome character development, because Maria Doyle Kennedy is wonderful, and for a while, it seemed like the show only used Mrs. S when it was convenient—if not entirely logical—to do so. We’ve learned more about Mrs. S and her backstory in the past few episodes than in the first two seasons combined, and while this trip to her hometown continues that development, I’m not so sure meeting her bio mom adds much to the character or the story. It’s more so just another example of how intricately connected the Orphan Black rabbit hole is. Everyone and their mother is part of Castor/Leda/Topside/Dyad/Clone Club—whether they want to be or not.
Speaking of mothers, if there’s anything that saves this episode from being a total slog, it’s Helena. “Insolvent Phantom Of Tomorrow” builds on the oddly endearing Donnie/Helena bonding that went down last week. Helena nurses Donnie’s busted face and shares some of her frightening past with him in her usual straightforward way. When she learns Pouchy has taken her frozen embryos as collateral, Helena insists on going with Donnie to get them back. In both the early scene with Gemma and the Pouchy standoff, Donnie tries to remind Helena that she’s on a new path: Now that she’s going to be a mother, she needs to cool it with the whole violent murderer thing.
Now, besides not really fitting what we know about the character, the idea that Helena can just change overnight simply because she’s going to be a mother also seems to rely on the assumption that babies just magically change people. I would expect that from a lesser show, but not from Orphan Black, which is overall more nuanced and radical when it comes to motherhood and fertility than a lot of sci-fi series. On TV—and in life—a woman’s ability to conceive is directly associated with her value. Male characters become fathers, because it makes them more sympathetic. Female characters become mothers, because it’s expected of them, because no matter how much a woman does or accomplishes, motherhood is still seen as the ultimate role for a woman to fill. The Proletheans definitely adhere to this line of thought: Once Gracie miscarries, they literally banish her, as she’s no longer useful to them. But while motherhood is certainly one of Orphan Black’s central themes, it doesn’t hold up motherhood as a woman’s worth; instead, it centers agency and choice.
On Orphan Black, Helena and Sarah’s ability to conceive is tied to their worth, but in a much different way. The people who created the Leda clones never wanted motherhood to be an option for them. As Framke wrote in her review of “Community Of Dreadful Fear And Hate,” it makes them targets. This season has really driven home the idea that while motherhood may not be the choice for all women, it should always be a choice. Castor has broken about a million laws, but there’s only one reason Mrs. S wants them shut down once and for all: “Castor is sterilizing women. We cannot let that happen,” she says emphatically to Sarah. And the writers realize that motherhood doesn’t just automatically change who Helena is. Donnie can tell her to follow her new path, but if Helena feels like her chosen family is threatened, she’s sure as hell going to pick up Pouchy’s paper cutter to deliver some bloody poetic justice. No baby can change that. Helena is a mother-to-be, but that’s not all that defines her.
Much like Mrs. S, Delphine has had a more clearly defined purpose this season, especially since the premiere put her role in pretty explicit terms: She’s the new Rachel. That initially seemed like the perfect move for the character, because Delphine works best as a villain. But where it starts to crumble is on the motivation front. Rachel’s driven by, well, Rachel. Her own drive to survive and thrive fuels every choice and betrayal she makes. Delphine cares, sometimes, about Cosima, and other times about…the science? Maybe? She’s not self-interested like Rachel, and she rarely seems invested in the clones who aren’t Cosima. At this point, it’s just tiring to pinpoint exactly where Delphine’s allegiances rest and why. Scott’s relationship with Cosima makes infinitely more sense—or, at least, is more consistent.
In this episode, even though it’s not clear if Delphine is trying to expose Shay as a Castor spy in order to protect Cosima or in order to protect Topside, her paranoia that Shay isn’t who she says she is reads as totally believable. Thankfully, Evelyne Brochu has had more to do this season, and “Insolvent Phantom Of Tomorrow” reiterates just how great she is when the writers allow Delphine to dive into her dark side. Delphine is truly terrifying as she threatens Shay, who, as it turns out, is telling the truth (or mostly telling the truth) and had nothing to do with the leak.
Paranoia has plagued the Clone Club since the beginning (anyone can be a monitor!), but season three in particular has shown the characters at their most paranoid. None of the characters are sure who they can trust, so neither are we by proxy. Their trust issues have bubbled and festered into a truly toxic disease that pushes Delphine to become her most villainous self and Cosima to doubt her own intuitions. I’m glad, ultimately, that Shay wasn’t a plant. At a certain point, it would just be ridiculous if everyone who entered the clones’ lives had some evil ulterior motive. Instead, it’s much more believable—and compelling—that Delphine and Cosima were wrong about Shay. Gracie is the much more obvious answer for the leak to Castor, and even though she was right there under their noses, they missed it, because paranoia and logic don’t tend to be the best of friends. The moment when Delphine realizes Shay’s innocence hits a lot harder than the Kendall Malone reveal, because it’s rooted in the characters’ anxieties, and we’re right there with them, unsure who to trust.
- Shoutout to Caroline Framke for letting me step in while she’s on vacation. The very first review I ever wrote for The A.V. Club was of Orphan Black, almost exactly a year ago. And it’s still one of the most difficult shows to review, so hats off to Framke for doing it every week!
- I guess the original Castor clone reveal is presumably meant to be surprising not just because she’s Mrs. S’s mom, but because she’s a woman. Kendall explains: She absorbed a male twin in the womb and carries his genetic material in addition to her own. So she provided the DNA for the Leda and Castor lines of clones…which, sure, cool. But I don’t know, y’all. It just wasn’t quite worthy of a jaw-drop like the Rachel switcharoo last week was.
- When Gracie hugs Helena goodbye before her “doctor’s appointment,” Helena immediately knows it’s a more permanent farewell. It’s a brilliant, subtle acting moment for both Tatiana Maslany and Zoé De Grand Maison.
- Helena straying from her “new path” effectively gets Alison and Donnie out of the drug dealing business, which probably should have happened several episodes ago. Alison’s turn as Nancy Botwin 2.0 has provided some much needed humor amid all the Castor bullshit this season, but at times, it was so tonally and narratively dissonant from the rest of the season that it just became jarring. Hopefully the finale folds Alison back into the Clone Club happenings.
- I do think it makes sense that Gracie was the leak, but I also think it’s annoying that she betrayed the seestras for a man. I know she’s young and sheltered, but her making this choice simply because she was promised she and Mark could be together sells the character a bit short.