Near the end of Orphan Black’s season-two premiere, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed,” resourceful hustler and human clone Sarah Manning confronts her icy doppelganger, Rachel Duncan, in the offices of the Dyad Institute. As the ethically challenged scientific research center holds a lavish corporate gala, Sarah levies a gunpoint demand that she be reunited with her daughter, who disappeared in last season’s cliffhanger finale. “There are other forces vying for our fate, Sarah,” Rachel replies. “We’ll get Kira back, together.”
As in the show’s freshman season, the triangular struggle among Dyad’s “Neolutionist” creeps, a violent band of religious fundamentalists, and a diverse cadre of clones (all played by the extraordinary Tatiana Maslany) propels the story forward, but Rachel’s cryptic message suggests additional complications on the horizon. In particular, Kira’s escape from injury following a brutal car accident in season one now appears an omen. Is she a “biological goldmine,” as Dyad Institute founder Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) puts it, because she possesses superhuman qualities? After all, her mother’s murderous, fanatic twin sister, Helena, has now survived a shiv to the liver—removed by self-surgery—and a gunshot wound to the chest. A certain kind of invincibility seems to run in the family.
Thus poised between resolutions and new beginnings, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” is a satisfying reprise, but one that never quite matches the zany brilliance of the show’s best episodes. (For my money, that’s last season’s darkly comic “Variations Under Domestication,” in which fellow clone and suburban mom Alison Hendrix tortures her husband with a hot glue gun while hosting the neighborhood’s monthly potluck.) Though one of Orphan Black’s most consistently entertaining qualities is its mashup of genres (satire, science fiction, thriller, police procedural), the last of these, once bracing and twisty, has thinned almost to the point of vanishing. And I wish it would. As Detective Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard) and new partner Angie Deangelis (Inga Cadranel) follow the trail of the serial clone killings, each is reduced to a frustrated cipher, and the episode finds them with little to do except take Sarah into custody, snarl at her for a while, and release her without charges. Unfortunately, this underdevelopment of the supporting characters is spreading as quickly as the clones’ unidentified respiratory illness: the late Beth Childs’s hunky monitor, Paul (Dylan Bruce), is only interesting with his shirt off, and the wonky Cosima’s paramour, Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), remains enigmatic—and mostly not in a good way.
On Orphan Black, however, Maslany runs the show, and the episode wrings ample excitements from her incomparable performance. Indeed, coupled with the canny visual details, her prim, wickedly funny interpretation of Alison is the episode’s primary delight. When Sarah’s foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), arrives at Alison’s door in search of a gun, wearing chaps, an ocean of eyeliner, and little else under his long, black trench, Alison tidies the rolls of ribbon in her craft room before giving him a name. “You know a gun dealer named Ramon?” he asks. “He’s a gun enthusiast,” she replies. Later, she asks about Ramon’s mother after procuring a “lady grip” PPK from the trunk of his car, and assumes the lead in her community theater troupe’s new musical. Holding a mop as she sings of bloodstains, her cast mates carrying jugs of bleach (appropriately enough, they’re rehearsing a scene in which “everyone helps Sheila clean up after the unfortunate death”), Alison’s moment in the spotlight is one of those gleefully unhinged moments that continue to make Orphan Black such a genuine surprise.
As self-aware as the clones on which it centers, Orphan Black continues to hide a fervent argument for nurture over nature in the side pocket of the story. Despite their identical genes, Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Helena, and Rachel remain, in Maslany’s able hands, sharply drawn individuals, and their distinct personalities—suburban housewife or evolutionary biologist, orphaned grifter or religious radical—emerge as products of circumstance, belying Leekie’s claim that “To combine is to create, to engineer, divine.” As such, it’s fitting that “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” takes its title from Francis Bacon’s “Plan of the Work”: “I mean it to be a history not only of nature free and at large,” he writes, “but much more of nature under constraint and vexed; that is to say, when by art and the hand of man she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded.” As other forces vie to squeeze and mould the clones to nefarious ends, Maslany’s empathic attention to each character’s specific brand of vexation humanizes the consequences of tampering with humanness, and illustrates the limits of DNA in determining who we are. As Orphan Black so powerfully suggests, the biological basis for life may be defined in mechanical terms, but the act of living isn’t science. It’s art.