Orphan Black often cloaks the clearest statement of an episode’s theme in an otherwise inconsequential moment. In last week’s season premiere, the terse exchange between a religious extremist and a restaurant proprietor over the merits of factory-farmed eggs expressed the ethical anxiety that accompanies the show’s depiction of human cloning: “They’re not normal,” the former says. “They’ve been interfered with.” The second episode of the season, “Governed by Sound Reason and True Religion,” also turns to a barnyard analogy. Mysterious country pastor Henrik Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge), performing a procedure to induce labor in one of his cows, shows a young follower that science and faith aren’t enemies but allies, symbiotic partners in the story of creation. “The rest is up to the Lord. Just helping them along a little bit.”
The frequently antagonistic relationship between “sound reason” and “true religion,” and the attempt to reconcile the two, emerges here as the structuring principle of Orphan Black’s sophomore season—exemplified by the decision to title each episode after the writings of Francis Bacon, whose body of work at once advocated empiricism and abhorred atheism. Johanssen, before collaborating in the Anton Chigurh-style murder of Helena’s handler, Tomas (Daniel Dash), quotes Albert Einstein on this point. “Science without religion is lame,” he relates. “Religion without science is blind.” As the leader of a cultish new group of Proletheans, inhabiting a rural compound that smacks of Waco or Jonestown, Johanssen’s deployment of Einstein’s aphorism functions as a statement of purpose. By combining religion and science in the struggle for control of the clones, he pitches himself as a prophet.
“Governed by Sound Reason and True Religion” finds Orphan Black in peak form, dispensing with niceties in favor of taut, economical sequences that push the narrative forward along these lines. In contrast to season one, which featured Alison, Cosima, and Sarah gradually coming together, season two appears increasingly determined to pry them apart. It’s a clever gambit, creating space for the series to pursue all sides of the argument without ending up a muddle. Orphan Black deftly blends its constituent parts into an engaging whole, but each element, like all great genre work, is satisfyingly conventional as well. You can practically plot the quartet of narrative threads on a chart.
Sarah remains every bit the hard-nosed action star, chasing Kira (Skyler Wexler) to a safe house in the middle of nowhere. It turns out that Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Sarah’s prickly foster mother, staged Kira’s abduction as part of an elaborate escape to Britain, and the ensuing drama reveals a host of new information about the older woman’s shady past. (To wit, she used to run guns and has a way with a carving knife.) Tempestuous and authority-averse, wearing multiple iterations of black, Sarah suggests the lead in a blockbuster film franchise. By episode’s end, which witnesses her attempting to strike out for new territory with Kira and Felix (Jordan Gavaris), she seems poised to become the show’s Bruce Willis, always being drawn back into the fray by threats to her loved ones.
Orphan Black’s treatment of Alison, a cheeky send-up that glories in Tatiana Maslany’s versatility, also continues to surprise, though in this case the thrills are more formal than narrative. Reinterpreting the suburban sitcom with gallows humor, Alison’s scenes juxtapose colorful sights and sounds with macabre content: the massive, Glamour Shots-style portrait at Aynsley’s funeral, for instance, or the upbeat tempo of a musical number about “picking brains off the wall.” In a brilliant comic moment midway through the episode, Alison conspires with Felix to catch her husband and monitor, Donnie (Kristian Bruun), while swigging from airplane-sized bottles of vodka in a kindergarten classroom, framed beside a basket of toys. “Got any ideas, or do you just want to keep drinking?” Felix asks. “I think I need to keep drinking for a while,” she replies. “And then I’ll have an idea.” No hour-long sci-fi potboiler has a right to make me laugh this hard.
As befits the episode’s title, though, the most important revelations arrive via new developments for Cosima, now ensconced at the Dyad Institute, and Helena, transported to recuperate under Johanssen’s watchful eye. In the former sections, as clean and bright as an operating room, we learn that Sarah is different from the other clones because she’s the only one capable of producing a child; in the latter, intermittently flickering and blurring like a religious vision, we discover that Helena survived her gunshot wound because she’s a “mirror”; the placement of her organs is reversed, so the bullet missed her heart. Johanssen explains that it’s “a yin and yang kind of thing,” which is also a fine way of describing Orphan Black’s invigorating high-wire act: It’s all about balance.