In “Variable and Full of Perturbation,” Ethan Duncan (Andrew Gilles) reads to Kira (Skyler Wexler) from The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel about a mad scientist experimenting with the creation of human/animal hybrids. “How does it go?” he asks Rachel (Tatiana Maslany) later, revealing that they read it together in bygone days. “The bit about how he’d be forgiven for hate, but not for irresponsibility?” The allusion to Dr. Moreau is a fitting complement to the Dyad Institute (after all, both interfere with human individuality in the name of some abstract, directionless “science”), but “Variable” is jumbled and strange. Two episodes from season’s end, Orphan Black appears no closer to revealing the puzzle’s final shape.
The most inexplicable and, well, delightful twist in “Variable” is the appearance of Tony, the Clone Club’s first trans man, played by Maslany with the Canadian-accented coarseness of a transient rough. Tony’s long, tangled hair and unfortunate beard belie a loyal, if somewhat randy, soul. It may be a measure of how much Orphan Black has won me over, warts and all, that watching Tony sidle up to Felix (Jordan Gavaris) for a kiss left me so discomfited. A protective pang sounded in my head when I realized that Felix sleeping with his foster sister’s lookalike was bound to end badly. In fact, the sweetest moment involving Tony comes when he’s off screen, as Orphan Black sneaks in a little instruction on the appropriate pronouns. “So, I got it right,” Art says. “She’s a trans clone.” “He’s trans,” Felix replies. “He’s, yeah.”
Tony’s sidekick, Sammy, dispatched by Dyad Institute baddies in the opening moments, asks him to pass along a message. “Tell Beth, ’Keep the faith. Paul’s like me. He’s on it. He’s a ghost.’” Spectral, indeed: In “Variable,” Paul (Dylan Bruce) is AWOL, and the series has dithered so long on what to make of his double-agent routine—other than a periodic opportunity to strip him naked—that the absence almost feels like a relief. Within Orphan Black’s nesting doll of shell games, diversions, secrets, and lies, Paul’s role remains among the least developed, lacking the prickly intimacy of Sarah’s wary trust in Mrs. S or the witty tumult of Donnie (Kristian Bruun) and Alison’s strained marriage.
After last week’s brilliant, multilayered send-up of Alison during Family Day at the New Path Wellness Center, not to mention Donnie’s accidental killing of Dr. Aldous Leekie, the couple is back home, smoothing out the remaining bumps in their relationship. (“Your wife’s a clone,” she coos. “See? I use the ’c’ word too.”) As it happens, all they needed was to tell the truth, and the alliance they forge by admitting their respective crimes felt absolutely true to the show’s zany notion of domesticity. Changing the sheets, changing the lining around the corpse in the trunk. What’s the difference?
It’s in the Dyad Institute’s sterile corridors, offices, and laboratories, however, that “Variable” begins to arrange the elements of the season’s approaching denouement. Despite the engaging interlude in which Cosima shows up Scott (Josh Vokey) and his fellow nerds at Dungeons & Dragons, eliciting surprised, slightly longing stares, much of the proceedings felt dry and utilitarian, as though the writers realized they better get their shit together in time to wrap things up. Cosima is pissed at Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) until she isn’t (huffing helium is apparently the new couples counseling); Rachel is interested in reconnecting with her father until she isn’t; Ethan seems relatively harmless until he doesn’t; and Kira flips through the menacing scientific diagrams he’s squeezed in the margins of his copy of Dr. Moreau. By the time the episode fades to black, Cosima collapses from her advancing respiratory illness, writhing violently on the floor of the lab, and Tony’s once again on the run.
It remains to be seen how any of this will play out, but Wells’s novel carries dark portents. When the protagonist, Prendick, a shipwrecked Englishman stuck on Dr. Moreau’s island of horrors, finally returns home, he finds that he “could not get away from men…prowling women would mew after me, furtive craving men glance jealously at me, weary pale workers go coughing by me, with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood.” Life on the far reaches of scientific ethics has left him terrified of both man and beast—or, to put it more precisely, the beast in man.
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