“The spirit of man,” Francis Bacon wrote, “is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance.” Narrative perturbations abound in the latest episode of Orphan Black, breaking the stalemates of Project LEDA, Helena’s captivity, and Alison’s substance abuse as the sophomore season launches into its second act. But even as it disrupts the geometry of the central clone quartet, the grimly utilitarian “Governed As It Were by Chance” encapsulates certain of the show’s weaknesses as surely as “Governed by Sound Reason and True Religion” testified to its strengths.
The consequence of Orphan Black‘s stylistic alchemy is, at times, a penchant for jarring changes in tempo, as the series metes out clues to its overlapping mysteries in fits and starts while simultaneously relying on a cliffhanger before every commercial break to raise the stakes. Left hanging last week by the image of Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) and her Dyad Institute kidnapper, Daniel (Matthew Bennett), being T-boned on a country road, we soon learn from “Governed As It Were By Chance” that this “twist” was just marking time. It changes nothing. Sarah quickly reunites with Cal (Michiel Huisman) and Kira (Skyler Wexler), while Daniel, presumed dead, eventually slithers out of the brush and heads back to the city for another confrontation with his quarry. Orphan Black admirably combines slow burn and cheap thrill, but in dead-end moments like these it’s hard not to be frustrated by the misdirected energy.
With apologies to the Dadaists and Babel fans out there, the problem may be that “chance” rarely succeeds as an organizing principle when it comes to the creative arts. Coincidence may thrust characters into compelling situations, but it’s choices that make them characters in the first place, rather than mere pawns in the plot. After all, Sarah witnessing Beth Childs’s suicide is necessary, but insufficient to set Orphan Black in motion; as important as their encounter on the train platform is Sarah’s subsequent decision to assume Beth’s identity. By contrast, the shallow “surprise” of discovering that Alison’s been admitted to rehab against her wishes is unsatisfying, the kind of trickery the series usually avoids. Though Alison’s prudishness provides much of the episode’s comic relief (“Do you have to watch me tinkle?” and “I don’t believe I’ve ever done ‘the nasty’” had me in stitches), the rest of her ordeal seems dashed off—governed, as it were, by chance.
Nevertheless, the episode is not wholly absent the thematic coherence of the show’s finest hours. In fact, if there were some pithy Baconian aphorism to pin it to, the producers could have called it “Doing the Nasty”: Sex, not serendipity, is of primary importance. The juiciest detail arrives courtesy of that kinky ol’ minx Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) unbuckling a strapping companion’s pants in a not-so-dim hallway. His name is Carlton (Roger R. Cross), and he’s the man who brought orphaned Sarah to her doorstep all those years ago. What the pair knows about Sarah’s shadowy past remains largely unexplained, but it’s nice to see Mrs. S let her hair down for once.
For the most part, though, “Governed As It Were by Chance” approaches sex warily, as a locus of power rather than pleasure. Even the comedy the subject fuels is of the cruel variety: Felix lands a dig at Cosima and Delphine, “locked in some kind of transgressive lesbian geek spiral,” while Sarah marvels at the thought of Rachel Duncan having an affair with Daniel, seemingly impossible for a woman whose apartment is “straight out of Cold Bitch Digest.” Helena’s memory of a gruesome procedure at the hands of Henrik Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge) serves as a reminder that sex can be nasty in the original sense of the word—indecent, repugnant, profoundly harmful. I predicted after last week’s eerie Prolethean wedding ritual that Johanssen planned to impregnate her, but here it’s revealed that the rape occurs in a makeshift surgical chamber, with Helena treated as though she were one of the cows. The theft of her eggs to create a budding embryo is the most disturbing turn Orphan Black has ever taken.
At the risk of sounding too heady, it’s possible that this development is what left “Governed As It Were by Chance” tasting so sour. Though the violence Johanssen perpetrates in the name of his messiah complex is fair game for dramatization, the scene’s clinical quality frames his despicable act as a failure of bioethics on par with human cloning, and so offers a troublingly incomplete understanding of Helena’s fate. Worse still, there’s a second crucial moment in “Governed As It Were By Chance” that glosses over sexual violence. As Cosima explains to Sarah midway through the episode, Project LEDA takes its name from the Greek myth of Leda and the swan. The exchange is clearly designed to indicate that Sarah and Helena share something in common with Leda’s demigod twins, but Cosima fails to mention that numerous versions of the story portray the children as a product of rape. Even beyond the context of what happens to Helena, the omission is inexplicable: Narratively speaking, solving the mystery of Project LEDA doesn’t hinge on grasping the allusion, nor can a series that’s named every episode after writings by Charles Darwin and Francis Bacon reasonably claim ignorance. Whether or not these concerns turn out to be but the conspiratorial ravings of a critic taking television too seriously, the flaws in “Governed As It Were by Chance” illustrate the episode’s unintended lesson: choices matter.