Tough love hurts. In “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est,” a rollicking mid-season wallop that counts among Orphan Black’s best episodes, the cruelty of kindness justifies cuffing hands, sewing shut lips, and stripping bare, though in the end a gentler approach proves more effective. “Knowledge itself is power,” the Latin of the title promises, but when it comes to understanding people, delicacy is often better than force.
As the episode begins, Rachel Duncan (Tatiana Maslany) returns to her blood-spattered apartment to find the corpse of her former monitor, Daniel (Matthew Bennett), stretched out under a plastic sheet. Thanks to Maslany’s perfectly modulated performance, simultaneously terse and tender, the exact terms of Rachel’s arrangement with Daniel remain unclear, though the evidence points to a relationship that went beyond the professional. She demands to see the body and closes the eyelids, two surefire ways to indicate attachment, and stammers through the present tense as she hands over monitor duties to Paul (Dylan Bruce): “This is Dan. This was Daniel’s gun,” she says. When Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) comments that Daniel “was a very loyal man,” even her brusque reply (“To you”) suggests a certain kind of intimacy. Is it possible to feel betrayed by someone you don’t care about?
More important than the details of Rachel’s seeming affinity for Daniel, sexual or otherwise, is the implication that Rachel is capable of such feelings at all. “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” is Orphan Black’s first extensive treatment of Rachel, and the picture that emerges is far more complicated than her reputation as a heartless “Proclone.” As she hurriedly returns the idyllic home video labeled “Cambridge, 1991” to a drawer stocked with other tapes, or plays cool with Paul when he walks in on her watching the VHS a little later, it becomes clear that she has some stake in hiding the fact that these are precious mementos, the clutter in an otherwise streamlined existence.
Why Rachel deems the archive worth keeping is another matter, for “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” decidedly refuses to settle on a singular understanding of family ties. On the one hand, Kira (Skyler Wexler) calls Cal (Michiel Huisman) “Daddy” and cleverly intervenes when a nosy police officer starts asking questions; on the other, Henrik Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge) and his monstrous wife, Bonnie (Kristin Booth), imprison their daughter, Grace (Zoe De Grand’Maison), in the stables, stitch her lips together, and threaten to impregnate her with Helena’s child if the escaped clone doesn’t return. Even by the standards of Orphan Black, in which the good parents are hustlers, killers, addicts, and absentees, this seems like a grave misreading of Dr. Spock.
The bonds that sustain a modicum of trust in this orphaned world exist mainly between siblings, and the unlikely sorority that forms among Sarah, Helena, and Felix (Jordan Gavaris) is the catalyst for some strangely poignant moments. (There’s also that throwaway montage, set to Tears for Fears’s “Head Over Heels,” of Fee getting ready to bone the bespectacled coroner—a sop, I suspect, to viewers lamenting the absence of Alison’s camp humor, but a delightful one nonetheless.) Helena, sporting a crescent of fur along her bike helmet’s lid, touchy about her new nickname (“Meathead”), resembles a child passed between chaperones, albeit one who can pick a lock and handle a sniper rifle. For the first time, it’s Helena’s personality, rather than her suffering, that makes her a sympathetic figure—if still an exceedingly weird one. (She eats anchovies straight from the tin with a deluge of yellow mustard, a meal I’ve been having nightmares about ever since.)
By the time the climax arrives, the miserliness of “Governed As It Were by Chance” is a distant memory. Though this week’s allusions to the “Swan Man” “play[ing] God” did little to dispel my worry that the show’s use of the Leda myth, at least as described in Cosima’s truncated version, may cast the mystery of Project LEDA in dangerously limited terms, it’s apparent that Orphan Black is playing the long game. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’ll happily savor Rachel forcing “Big Dick” Paul to undress as “Meathead” watches through her rifle’s scope; Sarah’s emotional plea to save “sestra” Felix from prison by lowering the gun; Art looking on in wonderment as former enemies become fast friends. As the old adage counsels, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and “Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est” is sweet stuff indeed.