“Men observe when things hit, and not when they miss,” Francis Bacon once wrote, “and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other.” Published posthumously, his “natural history, in ten centuries” Sylva Sylvarum is a pastiche of “experiments” in the philosophy of science, but his aphoristic caution aptly describes the dangers of the episodic review. Weighing the merits of individual installments in a beloved series, particularly one as disposed to bouts of whiplash as Orphan Black, the standout moments tend to linger while the disappointments fade. The second season finale, however, provides an opportunity to reconsider the whole. “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” is best understood as a microcosm of the previous nine episodes: plagued by the same intractable flaws and buoyed by flashes of brilliance, a sloppily written marvel of editing and performance.
“There are other forces vying for our fate, Sarah,” Rachel Duncan (Tatiana Maslany) noted in the season premiere. “We’ll get Kira back, together.” The oft-kidnapped Kira (Skyler Wexler) remains a narrative pawn, shifted around the Orphan Black chessboard to bring more powerful pieces into the open, but the strongest scene in the finale fulfills Rachel’s promise, after a fashion. Her conversation in Kira’s dainty Dyad Institute bedroom is directed primarily at Sarah, who watches her through the two-way mirror in a darkened anteroom, and though Kira brings them together as adversaries rather than allies, the moment ably condenses each woman’s vulnerability to forces beyond her control. Sarah, embroiled in conspiracies she never imagined before Beth Childs jumped in front of a train, and Rachel, desperate to reverse the infertility built into her genetic code, are nothing if not children of circumstance. Indeed, the scene’s final image conveys the collision of overlapping opposites with beautiful economy, Sarah’s wan, haggard reflection bleeding into Rachel’s sharp, cold clarity. They are, finally, the two poles against which the other clones are measured: “the wild type” and the controlled experiment.
Orphan Black’s obsession with nature and nurture, in fact, structures each of its subsidiary concerns. Organic loyalties—marriages, friendships, foster homes, adoptions—proliferate against corporations and cults that treat reproduction in the gruesomely utilitarian terms of “brood mares” and “synthetic sequences”; the unpredictable choices of the individual challenge the strict precepts of the collective; human emotion resists the domineering influence of scientific logic and religious faith. The series succeeds in plumbing these thematic depths on the strength of Maslany’s extraordinary effort, which manages to draw sharp, empathic distinctions among the clones without sacrificing any of the ensemble charm that prevails when they’re on screen together. To my mind, no series relies so heavily on a single actor, and Maslany’s is, quite simply, the best performance currently on television.
This season found Alison in fine fettle, audaciously funny in an otherwise grimly serious universe, and the finale witnesses the culmination of Helena’s return from villainy’s abyss. Once simply a murderous bit of hair and makeup, she’s now a lovable fish out of water, her sketchy persona filled out with delightful details. Her dream of marrying Jesse, which she explains to an incredulous Felix (Jordan Gavaris)—“I think he had to go to war and become tow-truck driver,” she says—is one of those sweet, throwaway moments that Orphan Black so often transforms into little gems. (“I like your hairs,” as she tells Cosima upon their first meeting, is another.) When it comes to the macro-narrative, unfortunately, the writers treat Helena no better than Kira. The alliance between Paul (Dylan Bruce) and Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy), which results in Kira’s escape from Dyad and Helena’s kidnapping, clumsily trades one MacGuffin for another. How can we be expected to sustain interest in a character who’s spirited away by nefarious forces every other episode?
These casually plotted disappearances of one or another supporting character constitute an unsettling trend for the series. At this point, much of the cast (Gavaris, Kristian Bruun, and Michelle Forbes excepted) functions as furniture for Maslany to maneuver around rather than as flesh-and-blood figures in their own right. In the finale, Mrs. S is the same old battleaxe she was at the outset, her make-out session in “Governed As It Were by Chance” notwithstanding. Art appears to have given up detective work for Helena babysitting duty. Paul and Cal (Michiel Huisman) serve as information conduits and hold their beefcake summit in the airplane hanger. Vic (Michael Mando) and Angie (Inga Cadranel) are absent entirely. Though it would be unfair to expect Orphan Black to juggle so many personas as deftly as it does the clones, the lack of even rudimentary development for the aforementioned characters has begun to wear thin.
More to the point, this penchant for the half-baked includes the show’s ever- expanding universe. Few recent series have discovered their best stuff in the bottomless well of mythology (see Lost and True Detective), and Orphan Black is no different. What began as a taut thriller of mistaken identities and unsolved crimes seems poised to keep erecting superstructures without satisfactorily explaining them. Without deigning to resolve much of substance about Project LEDA’s origins, Ethan Duncan’s change of heart, Henrik Johanssen’s fanaticism, Aldous Leekie’s endgame, Rachel’s desire to bear children and Sarah’s ability to do so, and without examining the complex human choices that might have led to these developments, the series proceeded to introduce Paul’s mysterious military unit, Marion’s Topside cabal, and Project Castor’s new set of clones. Vague intimations of unethical science, religious fervor, corporate profiteering, and warmongering can scarcely sustain the show’s conspiratorial bent. Straw men are unworthy opponents, particularly for a series of the high caliber Orphan Black intermittently displays. Consider Bacon’s warning about hits and misses one last piece of sage advice: When it comes to its unrealized potential, Orphan Black would do well to remember both the flaws and the flashes of brilliance that marked season two from beginning to end. Ipsa scientia potestas est, he claimed. Knowledge itself is power.
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