Family Day at the New Path Wellness Center features neat rows of pastel-colored name tags and, as Felix (Jordan Gavaris) observes, “some kind of public flagellation,” a felicitous setting for the crazed brilliance of “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things.” The frustratingly inconsistent second season of Orphan Black has been a tale of two series, zigzagging from merely serviceable to wholly magnificent, and “Knowledge of Causes” qualifies as the best of times. Focused, witty, and energetic where “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” was distracted, self-serious, and flat, this episode is a giddy reminder of the show’s intermittent greatness.
Though several key developments occur outside of New Path’s walls, the Family Day conceit lends “Knowledge of Causes” the feeling of a bubble episode—a tightened structure, as evidenced by last season’s stellar “Variations Under Domestication,” that plays to the show’s narrative and thematic strengths. In confining multiple clones, their allies and adversaries, and the population at large to a limited space, the series allows for the novel discoveries of a controlled experiment, and the Petri dish of “Knowledge of Causes” teems with life. From the opening moments, in which Alison (Tatiana Maslany) abruptly admits the truth of Aynsley’s death to Vic (Michael Mando) and then presents him with a pair of multicolored, patchwork gloves, the episode embraces bold, surprising details. Upon discovering that Vic intends to sell her out to Detective Angie Deangelis (Inga Cadranel), for instance, Alison enlists Felix’s help with a whispered plea that turns suddenly, hilariously sour. “I can’t go to jail, Felix,” she says. “I don’t have the temperament. If I’m in the shower and they touch me, I’ll cut them!”
This playfulness proceeds apace (the ironic inclusion of “Love Is All Around” on the soundtrack, Sarah’s dismissive “I atone you” after Vic attempts to make amends, the explosion of glitter and confetti that follows his drug-induced face-plant into a table) building momentum for the episode’s extraordinary central set piece. I use the word “giddy” advisedly, for the culminating Family Day sequence stands among Orphan Black’s finest: Funny, risky, and tremendously meta-fictional, it left me grinning like an idiot. In the chaos that descends from Felix and Sarah’s plan to keep Vic from spilling the beans to Angie, Sarah finds herself forced to impersonate Alison in front of the New Path patients’ families. Orphan Black regularly sets Sarah the task of imitating her fellow clones, cannily highlighting not only Maslany’s peerless performance, but also the stark differences that prevail even among genetic replicas by dint of nurture’s course. “Knowledge of Causes” hews to this pattern, as Sarah describes the archetypes of addiction (“pill poppers and booze hounds, hopheads, tweakers, rummies”) in the terms of an orphaned British hustler rather than a suburban American housewife.
Indeed, the subsequent role-play with Donnie (Kristian Bruun) stitches together many layers of performance with a knowing wink, registering as a comment on Orphan Black’s unyielding position that who we are is always subject to revision. The scene witnesses Maslany playing Sarah pretending to be Alison mimicking Donnie, while Bruun, in the high point of his time on the show, plays Donnie lampooning Alison. (“Don’t stammer, Donnie!” he says in a lilting voice, hand held to clavicle in perfect caricature. “And stand up straight or I’ll withhold affection!”) Sarah soon strays wildly off script, and Donnie’s confused reaction might be considered Orphan Black’s heretofore unspoken motto. “Now who are you being?”
Several subplots the writers arrange around the Family Day core appear faintly drawn by comparison, kept afloat by the knowledge that the season’s conclusion is nigh, and the accompanying hope that each narrative will eventually be resolved. Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) approaches Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer) with a deal, Duncan and “the missing science” in return for Kira (Skyler Wexler), while the latter reunites with Sarah after a lengthy separation. The unofficial competition for “Worst Parent/Parental Figure of All Time” remains fierce, with Leekie surging momentarily ahead after threatening to take care of Rachel’s newfound emotions by any means necessary, and Cal (Michiel Huisman), having little to do except flirt with Sarah and fiddle with his computer, joins Paul (Dylan Bruce) in the race for “Most Useless Hunk.” Of the also-rans, Michelle Forbes’s debut as Marion, a Dyad Institute powerhouse, holds the most promise, if only because the actress almost single-handedly carried season one of AMC’s The Killing.
Quibbling with a few extraneous elements seems miserly when it comes to an episode so dense with electric moments, and much of “Knowledge of Causes” indeed resounds with that potent question: Now who are you being? For both Cosima, enraged by Delphine’s failure to report Kira’s involvement in the stem cell treatment, and Rachel, gaining the upper hand on Leekie with Marion’s help, the answer requires staking claim to an unwanted identity. “This is my lab. My body,” Cosima bellows at Delphine. “I’m the science!” “It’s foolish to spare you, but you raised me,” Rachel tells Leekie. “Nurture prevails.” The women speak with finality, as though in counterpoint to the fluid personas of the Family Day role-play. Yet, given what we know about Cosima and Rachel, their statements are no less out of character than Sarah’s impression of Alison. However fleetingly, the calm, objective scientist acts as an impassioned, subjective ethicist, and the calculating, unfeeling businesswoman acts as a foolish, sentimental child.
The episode takes its title from Francis Bacon’s unfinished novel, New Atlantis, in which the ideal institution of the author’s envisioned utopia endeavors to achieve “the knowledge of causes, and secret motion of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” It’s an altogether fitting and unexpected detail in an hour brimming with them, for within its pitched battles between religion and science, nature and nurture, the series has always signaled an abiding distrust of any force that threatens to replace individuals with ideologies. Happenstance, of the kind that results in Aldous Leekie’s shocking death just before the closing credits, may be the show’s secret motion, but in this world cause and effect ultimately turn on the imperfection of human empire. “Now who are you being?” Donnie asks, but Sarah, like Orphan Black itself, declines to provide a single answer. The possibilities are endless.
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