A slash of blood, a pulsing wound, a gaping hole, an exposed brain: Orphan Black isn’t a subtle show, but damn if it isn’t an arresting one.

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Just as he did with last season’s standout “Governed As It Were By Chance,” writer Russ Cochrane creates a disquieting and horrific world for this week’s chapter, “Newer Elements Of Our Defense.” His script, along with Chris Grismer’s arresting direction, lays bare the main conflicts of this third season in often excruciating detail. Shaky point of view shots peek through eerie cornfields, wounds gape and gush. As much as these characters have been through, Orphan Black rarely lets them breeze by without fully feeling the chaos around them. Where another show’s hardboiled protagonist might learn to become numb and yank a bullet out of someone’s leg, Sarah’s visceral revulsion at Mark’s bullet wound makes her chug cheap vodka out of the bottle. After all she’s been through, Sarah’s still a woman in over her head. An incredibly resourceful, tough woman, but still a woman who got swept up in bigger and badder things than she had ever anticipated when she was a petty con artist. Her revulsion at Mark’s wound and his attempts to breathe through his intense pain feel more real than so many other televised injuries that it’s startling in and of itself. So many series will stage battles, standoffs, fistfights, and slaughters without living with the physical consequences, but Orphan Black has rarely let its violence off the hook.

That’s not to say the entire episode is all dark corners and blood splatters. Alison and Donnie continue to spin off into their own orbit of suburban drug dealing, this week discovering that Ramon didn’t sell his business because he’s going to college, but because the game was getting too dangerous with his supplier. The Hendrixes are summoned to a parking lot meeting with the shadowy figure, and for a second it almost looks like this might tie the plot into one of the larger conspiracies on hand, but no: the supplier turns out to be some dude Alison dumped in high school (Justin Chatwin). It’s a funny twist, but I found myself a little disappointed that it wasn’t someone we knew from before, or someone who could connect Alison back to Dyad, Topside, or the Proletheans—though there’s always time for that shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, Cosima and Scott are getting nowhere with the sequence without Duncan’s key, so Cosima reluctantly agrees to go out drinking with Felix in a vain attempt to get over Delphine. I love seeing Felix and Cosima together, and can’t wait for Cosima to delve into the world of smartphone dating with “Sapphire,” but the tiny subplot just emphasizes how lost both these characters have gotten in the larger shuffle. Also, Felix deserves better than to spend half the season in “gay best friend” mode, which the show has generally done a good job avoiding in the past.

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While Cosima and Alison have their own adventures, though, the beating hearts of this episode belong to Sarah and Helena. Their fight to find each other in this episode is a startling mirror image of their coming together in “Governed As It Were By Chance.” In that episode, Helena stumbled towards Sarah, drenched in blood, and Sarah, literally stuck in a corner, cowered away in terror. Helena had been to hell and back, and she still opened her heart and forgave her sister for shooting her, because her sister was all she had. This time, Helena’s once again stumbling towards escape, but Sarah’s also fighting tooth and nail to reach her. When Mark brings up the fact that she’s working awfully hard to save someone she once shot, Sarah’s face flickers with pain: “the more reason I’m doing this.”

Sarah, on a mad hunt for answers, comes across more than even she was expecting. The box Gracie got from Finch—which Mark thought was useless—reveals that not only was Johanssen the Duncans’ lab assistant, but he managed to create his own Castor embryo. When Sarah tells Mark as much, he remembers something Johansson once told him—which leads them to a graveyard. As it turns out, Gracie’s mother carried the Castor child, which died in infancy. Mark and Sarah bicker as she digs up the grave, and while they still don’t trust each other, there are shades of the bond they reluctantly shared when Sarah helped him dig a bullet out of his thigh. This only intensifies when Rudy shows up (again) and taunts Sarah by bringing up Kira (again). As he grips Sarah’s face and looks ready to take her out once and for all, Mark limps in and orders Rudy to stand down. Mark’s personality makes a strange shift when confronted with his little brother. He’s much more authoritative, even calling Rudy a “jackass” in a gruff but affectionate tone we haven’t seen from him yet. The Castor clones are more similar to each other than not, which Mark confirms to Sarah was kind of the point, but their immense overlap makes it hard to get invested in any one of them.

While Sarah literally digs up game-changing clues, Helena’s storyline is what makes this episode stand out amongst the others this season. After watching her get kidnapped, tortured, and locked away again, “Newer Elements Of Our Defense” finally lets us see how Helena plans to fight back—and it’s not just with fists and feral rage. In fact, Helena knows exactly how to play up how people see her, with her frizzy blonde hair and consumptive red eyes. She knows that everyone is just waiting for her to snap, and so she plans her escape around those exact expectations. It’s just another example of how everyone around Helena constantly underestimates her when she may just be the smartest one of them all.

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Okay, so she’s still talking to an invisible scorpion friend, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Helena’s resourcefulness here. She uses the drawstring on her pants to cut off circulation in her arm, stages a rabid breakdown, and fakes a blackout when they inject her with something to calm her down. Soon she’s unguarded in the infirmary, and she immediately seizes the chance to poke around—or to find out what’s in the next “box” she needs to escape, as per the scorpion. Helena then stumbles around the base and wills herself to stay awake enough to understand the obstacles in front of her. The drawstring gambit will only stave off the drugs for so long, a fact that comes into sharper focus as Helena’s vision loses focus. The countdown to her inevitable blackout paired with these sharp, disorienting visions in her half-awake state puts even more pressure on her escape. Later, when Helena is back in her cell with some more knowledge of what’s out there for her, she gnaws a chicken bone into a key. In an episode that focuses on Sarah and Helena’s quests to find each other, getting a window into Helena’s street smarts is fascinating after having already seen similar moves from her twin. Also, lest we forget: Helena was once an assassin. She knows how to be efficient.

Helena’s ingenious moments make her more interesting in “Newer Elements Of Our Defense,” but the scene in which she puts a Castor clone out of his misery makes this episode one of Helena’s best. There’s that awful moment when she unveils Parson’s exposed brain, hooked up to machines in the stark fluorescent light of the operating room. Parsons widens his eyes, grips Helena’s arm as she turns to go: “Kill. Me. Please.” While the scorpion encourages her to leave him behind so she can get the hell out of there, Helena just looks at Parson’s terrified face, and softens. Tatiana Maslany lives and breathes these characters at this point, which shines through in subtle changes of expression like this. Helena tenderly holds her brother’s chest, exhaling softly to soothe him as she selects the sharpest tool—and then she plunges it into his brain. Helena was an assassin, but her latest kill is an act of deep compassion.

It’s heartening that Helena has such a strong storyline this week after spending so many in various levels of captivity, and it makes this episode easily the most engaging one in this third season to date. Still, “Newer Elements Of Our Defense” strains under the weight of the show’s ambitious bigger picture. Sarah’s confrontations with Mark and Rudy are just part of the routine now. Mark sneaking up on Sarah in the hotel room—though slick—leads to the second time in as many episodes where he points a gun at her head only to have her divulge the information she just found out. The Prolethean storyline is finally showing signs of dovetailing with Dyad, but even Gracie’s miscarriage can’t make spending time with these blank slate Proletheans more compelling. Cosima updates Alison on some of their discoveries, but Alison is still on a completely different show, and Cosima has done nothing but pine and stare at the cipher. Rachel, Delphine, and Topside are drifting somewhere in the show’s periphery. Orphan Black only has ten episodes in a season, which means we’re already almost halfway through—and this third season is still wobbling on its legs.

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Stray observations:

  • It’s real cute how Alison asks the drug dealer lackey if he works for Marci Coates, like everyone is as cutthroat as she is for this “election thingy.”
  • Kristin Bruun is really crushing it in the comedy arena this season. “A storage locker! Like in Breaking Bad!” (Alison: “Sure.”)
  • I’d say “poor Gracie,” but honestly, getting kicked out of the Prolethean cult for good is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to her.
  • It’s been a while since I’ve asked about this, so here I go again: where are Alison and Cosima’s parents?!
  • Also: what is Justin Chatwin’s hair doing, exactly?
  • “Did you just shush me?”
  • “Eat my shit!!! Eating my shit…”

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