Midway through “Mingling Its Own Nature with It,” Alison Hendrix (Tatiana Maslany) hurries into a dress rehearsal for the musical that’s consumed her attention this season. As she enters the building, she steals a sidelong glance at the production’s crimson-and-white poster, composed of slanted lines and spare illustration as though designed by a hack apprentice of Saul Bass. The musical, we learn, is called Blood Ties, and the fatal/familial pun rings true: The latest episode of Orphan Black is all about the costs of kinship.
Even Alison, whose story has recently proven a reliable leavening agent for the series, seems more bereft than simply neurotic. She’s taken up drinking and pill-popping in the daylight hours, plagued by guilt over Aynsley’s death; convinced that her husband, Donnie (Kristin Bruun), remains her monitor, thus breaking the agreement she signed with the Dyad Institute last season; confronted by Detective Angie Deangelis (Inga Cadranel) about the mystery of Beth Childs’s death; and anxious about her starring role in the musical. Listing back and forth like a ship on rough seas, botching the dialogue, and searching for a friendly face in the audience, she ends her breakout performance with a startling tumble from the stage that might have played like slapstick, but didn’t even make me chuckle. I’ll admit I briefly believed, watching her lie motionless at the first row’s feet, that the series had gone wholly dark and allowed her to break her neck.
The concluding montage of clips from “the next Orphan Black” makes clear that she survives, but the episode assumes a somber tone nonetheless. Each subplot turns on an unnerving encounter with the far extremes of “family.” It can be difficult to love Orphan Black in its most serious moments (its greatest asset has always been a sly self-awareness), but “Mingling Its Own Nature with It” succeeds by approaching the gravity of the subject matter at oblique angles. When Cosima performs an autopsy on new clone Jennifer Fitzsimmons, who appears in a video diary of her own demise, there need be no explicit commentary that they are sisters of a sort: Cosima’s recognition that she’s essentially cutting herself open, exploring the cysts and polyps that render most of the clones infertile and may eventually kill them, is right there in her eyes.
Of all the dysfunctional domestic arrangements on display, Helena’s is by far the creepiest, and not only because “that Shakira-haired look-alike,” as Angie describes her in the episode’s sole laugh line, has a propensity for self-surgery and spitting food on the floor. Henrik Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge), leader of the breakaway Prolethean colony where she’s being held, proclaims her “a part of the family,” but what this entails turns out to be the kind of ritual that might have made followers of Charles Manson blanch. Treading the boundary between wedding and funeral, the ceremony features Johanssen in a Stetson and Helena in a lacey white dress, being “bound together before God” by the black ribbon that encircles their clasped hands. He carries her off as a groom holds a bride while crossing the threshold, and the implication that he plans to impregnate her raised the hairs on my arms: Every family may be, as Tolstoy once opined, unhappy in their own way, but this way seems particularly damning.
“Mingling Its Own Nature with It” further crystallizes Orphan Black’s overarching concern with blood ties and their absence, with nature and nurture. What constitutes a family, the biological or the experiential? Are the clones closer kin than the Prolethean cult, than Mrs. S’s foster family or Alison’s adoptive children? Given these inventive approaches to the fluid nature of who we consider relatives and who we do not, it’s perhaps no surprise that the one “traditional” family portrayed in the episode proves the least compelling, at least for now.
On the run from last week’s safe-house killings, Sarah decides to hole up in a rambling red cabin that belongs, unbeknownst to Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and Kira (Skyler Wexler), to Kira’s father, Cal (Michiel Huisman). With longish hair and a shaggy beard, a tech wunderkind’s money, and a clone’s baby-daddy’s eccentricity, he’s an appropriately sexy and mysterious figure to bring into the fold, but the episode rushes through his and Sarah’s complicated history to find them playing house. Even for a series that willfully (and usually effectively) stretches credulity, the notion that this lone woodsman would so easily accept Sarah’s paternity claim and forgive her for skipping town years before with $10,000 of his money is difficult to accept.
By attempting to forge a family from such threadbare connections, “Mingling Its Own Nature with It” violates the precept of its title, taken from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. “[T]he human understanding is like a false mirror,” he writes, “which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.” Perspective is the mother of misperception, and here Orphan Black receives the rays of Sarah’s desire for “normalcy” so forcefully that it forgets for a moment an even deeper instinct. Sarah’s too cagey to allow the possibility of domestic bliss to win her over so quickly, because she understands that family bonds can turn out bloody indeed.
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