It’s hard to believe that we’re already halfway through Orphan Black’s third season. I’d say that’s because time flies when you’re having fun, but it’s more like time has flown by in a breathless blur. It’s thrilling, but shapeless. Conspiracies are layering on top of conspiracies, scenes straining under the effort of servicing every one. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t until after “Scarred By Many Frustrations” had ended that I realized just how much it tries to bring the drama back down to the personal level, after all.
There’s Cosima, trying to move on from the wreckage of her relationship with Delphine and shattered heart. So, she reluctantly decides to take Felix’s advice and go on a date. She uses a smartphone dating app (“Sapphire”) to make it happen, which maybe explains why she’s so surprised when it goes spectacularly well. Shay (Lost Girl’s Ksenia Solo) is gorgeous, patient, and smart. Their first date is adorable, thanks in large part to Tatiana Maslany turning up Cosima’s nervous rambling. Solo, who routinely steals scenes on Lost Girl with her brassy character Kenzi, wisely keeps it simple here. Shay is just as calm and Cosima is twitchy. Their chemistry is immediate, but if the mysterious camera tracking their every move is anything to go by, their innocent flirtation isn’t likely to stay that way for long. It’s unclear if Shay is in on whatever surveillance is happening, but if she is, it seems safe to say that Cosima won’t be dating again any time soon. There’s also the fact that Cosima and Felix probably should have realized that putting a clone out on the Internet for anyone to see and set a date with might not have been the best plan after all, but hey. Breakups are the worst.
Then there’s Gracie, trying to move on from the devastation of her family rejecting her and fear in the face of an unfamiliar world. When she shows up to Art’s doorstep, terrified and alone, he refers her to semi-professional mentors Felix and Mrs. S. Rolling his eyes before being compassionate is kind of Felix’s thing, so after some requisite banter about how he probably shouldn’t trust her, he eventually embraces the quavering former Prolethean. He can’t resist a project. For her part, Mrs. S is still smarting from the sting of losing Sarah, and so she can’t resist the opportunity to take care of Gracie, either. Her first scene with Gracie is so sweet it’s even a little jarring. After all, Mrs. S spent most of last season staring down the barrel of a gun. She tells Gracie (and later Felix, when he reveals he was eavesdropping) that Mr. S was killed in a bar fight. As with Shay, there’s a distinct possibility that this bar fight wasn’t random, because so little on this show ever is.
When Felix and Mrs. S let Gracie get drunk and dance in the safety of their living room, it’s such a cute moment that there’s no way it’s going to last; sure enough, Gracie only gets a few blissful minutes before she collapses. The action then intercuts between paramedics fussing over Gracie, Art talking to the woman Rudy and Seth assaulted, and Paul thumbing through Parson’s little black book. Pages keep on turning, and turning, and turning as Paul discovers more and more names. These are all the women Parsons slept with, and as Gracie and Patty (Natalie Krill) confirm, there is a real, probably awful reason the Castor clones keep such careful track of who they have sex with. The particulars of how and why are unclear, but Gracie and Patty’s red eyes indicate some sort of hyperactive sexually transmitted disease, which…is something. It’s a bold move, and not necessarily one that makes me excited to find out more, but it’s hard to judge without knowing more about it just yet.
Finally, there are Sarah and Helena, struggling to understand their surroundings, their enemies, and each other.
The direction take a direct approach with the twins, panning back and forth between their adjoining cells. The shots are often painstakingly slow, emphasizing just how stuck they are. It’s startling, especially because we have seen these two escape seemingly impossible circumstances time and time again. When Sarah opens her eyes and realizes that the Castor clones brought them to her base, her horror is palpable and chilling. In that moment, we know that she’s never felt more trapped than in that Castor camp cell.
The rest of the episode is a push and pull between the Leda twins. Sarah pleads with Helena through an adjoining grate to believe her, to forgive her, to just listen to her. Helena sizes up the situation, takes cues from her subconscious, and goes into survival mode. Then, when Helena agrees to work with Sarah to get them out, Sarah provokes an officer into punching her so she can go to the infirmary and smuggle out a sharp tool. This prompts a literal back and forth between the two, with Sarah swinging help her sister’s way as they dodge the security camera’s steady scan. The script wisely sets up this rollercoaster between fighting and reconciling to make it hurt more when Helena leaves Sarah behind. They may be twins, and they may feel each other’s pain more than they even want to admit, but they still are not quite a team.
Yes, Sarah and Helena bonded last season, and sure, Helena even got to dance it out with her other clone sisters. But this episode reminds us that Helena has a far more complicated history that cannot be erased by sisterhood, no matter how strong. Helena was brought up in a cruel and abusive environment, locked up against her will, tortured, and trained to kill. She still finds relief in self-harm; the crisscrossing red scars on her back create a living map of her pain. So as much as we would love Helena to trust Sarah’s word, it makes much more sense that she doesn’t. As much as we would love to see Helena and Sarah make a break for it into the desert, twins reunited, it makes much more sense that Helena takes the opportunity to go it alone. Like she says, having Sarah with her would be a liability. As Sarah sits in the cell in despair, Helena scrambles over stairs and up walls, clawing and scratching her way out of this prison, only stopping once to feel the brunt of how Sarah’s pain at being abandoned is “tearing [her] heart.” But she made her choice—they’re “even” now—and so she moves on.
After all this, it becomes clear that “Scarred By Many Frustrations” is named for Helena. While Sarah ends up with the brunt of the frustration by the end, the depth of Helena’s scars—both physical and mental—is what defines this episode. It’s far easier for us to gape at Helena’s decision to leave Sarah behind than it is for Helena to forget her fear, get over her past trauma, and trust a woman who has tricked her so many times in the past—even if she’s her sister.
It’s as strong a story as we’ve ever gotten with Sarah and Helena, who have so often been the beating, bleeding hearts behind the entire series. But even after all the heartwrenching and even physically painful scenes, there’s something’s missing. Reveals like the Castor STD and Helena’s betrayal don’t demand attention quite like they should. These conflicts are rooted in shaky ground, which makes for more hyperbolic drama than the searing emotional moments that made Orphan Black so spectacular. The show is making a noticeable effort to focus and choose what’s important, but until it succeeds, the twists and turns will follow in this season’s pattern: thrilling, but shapeless.
- Nothing from the Hendrixes this week, who were probably too busy strong-arming the PTA with their “pharmaceutical entrepreneurship” to do much else.
- “Dirty Paul. Maybe you’re next.” “Yeah, Paul! Maybe you’re next!” Love Helena and Sarah banding together against Paul, who continues to be terrible.
- Jordan Gavaris deserves some meatier material than he’s been getting, but I did enjoy Felix letting out a disbelieving, “HA.”
- Pretty saavy of the show to counter Cophine shippers’ angst with a beloved sci-fi actress like Ksenia Solo in the part of Not Delphine.
- Though hey, television: you know not every girl-on-girl seduction happens in the midst of a thousand Pier 1 candles, right?