Tatiana Maslany's performance has dominated every conversation about Orphan Black, and deservedly so. She's been so good that it's easy to forget the show's lead actress is also playing its four distinctly unique lead characters. Even besides being a blast to watch, her ability to transform into every character thrown at her and distinguish each as a separate, particular entity is crucial to the show's success. Without Maslany, it would be much harder to buy the most central conceit that every clone is a completely different person despite all sharing the same face, and therefore each is worthy of study. It's an incredible tightrope-walk of a performance. Every week I'm left gaping at my screen, wondering how in the hell she'll top herself (or any versions thereof).
I haven't always been able to say the same of the show. Orphan Black had a remarkably self-assured start, but it’s still a new show that is working out its identity. As Dennis said last week, there tends to be a funny push-pull with sci-fi shows between the inherent cheesiness of the genre and taking the nuances of the characters seriously. Some, like Doctor Who or Eureka or more recently Lost Girl, embrace the cheese, while others reject it for fear it'll kill the drama or make the stakes seem less threatening. Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) refused to include aliens in its space odyssey so it could prove itself to be as gripping a drama as any HBO series on the secret lives of tortured suburbanites - and so it did. But inevitably, sci-fi will always have a certain level of camp. After all, we're dealing with a genre that thrives on speculation, technological fortune-telling, and tentacles.
Orphan Black has taken great pains to maintain a level of realism despite its central clone conceit. Careful characterization helped, as did modeling many of the episodes after thrillers and procedurals instead of relying on fantastical twists. Then we met the neolutionists and, well…shit got weird. After Orphan Black had already established itself as a sci-fi show grounded in reality, the neolutionists' melodramatic machinations left me cold. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a blanket hater of cheesy sci-fi. I may have hated Doctor Who's farting aliens, but the uber-campy Red Dwarf has always made me die laughing. Sure, part of this is personal preference, but mostly, it’s self-awareness. If you're going to have a villain with a writhing penis-tail, know that he’s ridiculous. But even while Orphan Black depended on its outlandish neolutionists, it was unsure just how far to go with them. They never quite clicked with the rest of the show’s aggressively grounded tone.
But tonight’s excellent episode goes a long way toward resolving my hate-hate relationship with the neolutionists. “Unconscious Selection” packs just about everything I’ve grown to love about the series and then some. It resolves the Kira cliffhanger before the credits roll as if to let us know that yes, that was a Big Thing that happened, but this is going to be an entire episode of Big Things, so sit tight. Kira's miraculous recovery raises eyebrows at the hospital and at home; Sarah even asks Cosima if there's a possibility Kira's "different" thanks to her clone mother. At this point, all signs point to "YES, OBVIOUSLY," but seeing as they've got several drooling clone connoisseurs breathing down their necks, Kira's hypothetical genetics take a necessary backseat. So it’s not as if this episode is any less crowded than previous ones. It may be the most crowded yet. But "Unconscious Selection" takes full advantage of the show's previous character work to keep the action from veering off in all directions. It's complex, it's tight, it's tense, and holy shit, Helena and Sarah are actually twins?!
For all the false talk of twins and triplets and doppelgangers, it’s hilarious to me that twins are now a real, significant part of the clone picture. But it’s also a credit to the show that a secret twins reveal isn’t just flat-out ridiculous. At first, their birth mother giving “one to the state and one to the church” seems a little too simplistic, but now that the show’s established just how far the neolutionists will go to keep the clones in their purview, it’s easier to understand her panic. More importantly, Orphan Black’s commitment to the clones’ relationships really makes this revelation sing. Sarah may bicker with Cosima and roll her eyes at Alison like they’re sisters, but her actual blood sister gets a loaded gun. Still, we don’t have to know they’re twins to understand that Sarah won’t pull the trigger. The hardened Sarah of the pilot might have, and I might have cheered her on. But both the writers and Maslany have given both Sarah and Helena enough vulnerability at this point to convince us that these crazy kids might just stand a chance. That’s the difference between pulling a SECRET TWIN!! twist out of nowhere and the deft hat trick Orphan Black pulls tonight; they’ve laid clues and supported it the entire way. Go back and watch Helena and Sarah’s diner scene again. I dare you not to get chills.
Now, there’s been speculation that everyone’s heightened interest in Sarah is because she’s the original, but it makes more sense now that she and Helena are special because they’re the only clones that escaped observation. Leekie wanted to know who Cosima was in contact with not because he was trying to determine how many clones there are – he already knew that. But everything changed the second Delphine said Sarah’s name. Where Helena at least teased her creators, becoming Leekie’s “white whale” in the process, Sarah Manning was a black hole. (I don’t know why they couldn’t find Sarah despite her well-documented criminal record, but hey, threatening nightclub owners is some time consuming stuff.) When Sarah meets Leekie, she sees him as yet another creepy guy who’s obsessed with her, but as the final twist reveals, Leekie knows she’s the One Who Got Away. Despite dismissing Tomas’ religious fire as fringe fanaticism, Leekie’s wide-eyed wonder at the sight of Sarah reads exactly the same way (thanks largely in part to a nice series of acting choices from Matt Frewer).
While I complained a couple weeks ago that the villains were too broad to make a serious impression, tonight pushes them from two-dimensional cacklers to real threats. Helena's captor slash caretaker Tomas gets a snarl to go along with his fanaticism, a hard edge that flips a switch in him the second he understands that Helena looked into the eyes of a clone's child, and let her go. It’s unclear whether he himself knows Helena is a twin, but it’s only a matter of time before he and Leekie realize that Sarah having a child likely means Helena could have one, too. At the very least, though, we get our first indication that Tomas knows Leekie, even enough to know how much Leekie would want to study Kira. It’s no accident that as the villains draw closer together, so too does the drama of these warring factions and their unwilling playthings.
The exception to this rule, though, comes courtesy of Cosima and Delphine. Cosima does make some progress on analyzing the clones’ genetic code (with an assist from her newly depressed lab partner), learning that each has something like a barcode that helps the neolutionists keep track of which is which. But her confrontation with Delphine almost convinces me that Fawcett and Manson should have left romance out of the picture. I don’t care if she thought she was on her side, there’s no way Cosima would have left Delphine alone in her apartment with all that sensitive information. But the narrative demanded that Delphine find the research and break Cosima down, so there it is. I’ve spent a lot of time praising Orphan Black’s attention to detail and the fact that it has such a clear plan, but if there’s anything that doesn’t respond well to being meticulously plotted out, it’s romantic entanglements. Sarah and Paul are only convincing as spy and sex-against-walls partners, and Cosima and Delphine’s flirting started out cute but has become increasingly confused in the grand scheme of things.
Despite some problems in Minnesota, though, the real reason why this episode works so well is that it strikes a smart balance between the rapidly complicating mythology and character building. Even while I was trying to get ahead of Helena and Sarah’s drama, “Unconscious Selection” really takes off when it lets us have some real fun with Alison and Felix. Alison, freshly smarting off her street brawl with Aynesley, comes to the hospital to spend time with Sarah’s family because she can’t stomach the thought of facing her own. But as Alison herself says, “I can’t help feeling like it’s my daughter in there.” Felix has desperately been trying to remain cool in the face of unbelievable circumstances, but as Alison looks at him and begs for help, he has to give in. He can’t help feeling like it’s his sister in there. While Maslany is typically on point with Alison's desperation, "Unconscious Selection" marks Jordan Gavaris' best episode yet. Felix starts off typically flip in the background of Alison’s hilarious intervention, until he goes into the bathroom with his best brother face on, and tells her to suck it up and show these suburban nightmares who’s boss. It’s telling that he doesn’t seem to count her among them anymore, even after she scrubbed his loft within an inch of its hedonistic life. As with most characters on Orphan Black, it’s stunning to look back and see how far they’ve come.
- I somehow got to the end of this review without even mentioning Art, which is weird given that it’s the first time I've been interested in his Sarah-less scenes. In fact, I would have been fine with leaving the police department alone for a few weeks and coming back with exactly what we saw tonight: Angela losing patience, Art giving Sarah/Beth an ultimatum, and finally, Art finding out that Beth is dead (long live Sarah Manning). It also would have been easy for Sarah to respond to Art’s, “last chance to come clean, Beth” with, “I’m not Beth,” but having her double down and drive away was a much more exciting choice.
- Looks like Leekie is taking orders from yet another higher-up, and I’ll just put it out there: I’m pretty sure we’ve seen that silhouette before. About time we saw Maslany with a bob, don’t you think?
- Credit where it’s due to the wardrobe department, which heard Felix’s demand to “fetch me something gay” and decided that Alison would give him those pants.
- "Your drug paraphernalia is in the drawer. So is the paraphernalia that was by your bed." "Did you wash that, too?"
- "I'm Felix. Gay friend." "Acting coach." "Well, that's perfectly fine here." "….which one?"
- “I’ve never been with a woman before.” “Yeah, it showed.”
- "Phhhh….wow. Gay."