If you follow these weekly recaps of BBC America’s almost-great drama with any regularity, you know by now that I take Orphan Black’s allusions to the prolific work of English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon seriously. It may simply be a writer’s prejudicial affection for the clever arrangement of words, but in truth such signposts crystallize both the thematic thrust of the series as a whole and the strengths and weaknesses of each individual episode. Bacon’s complex alchemy of faith and reason is the framework in which Orphan Black situates its suspicion of any system or institution that threatens to elide the personal and the familial. His words frequently reflect the stylistic and narrative messiness (“Governed As It Were by Chance”) or precision (“Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est”) of individual episodes, as though a self-reflexive comment on the episode’s shape. In this vein, “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done” perfectly describes the penultimate entry in Orphan Black’s often inspired, sometimes vexing sophomore season: Pushing the series into previously unexplored terrain, the episode counts among the best hours of television I’ve seen so far this year.
Never before have we witnessed Alison (Tatiana Maslany) and Donnie (Kristian Bruun) operate so effectively in tandem. The burial of Aldous Leekie, dispensed with in stages that scaffold the proceedings from the opening minutes, calls up fond memories of Alison’s musical, Blood Ties, with its juxtaposition of the macabre and the merry. The initial montage glories in the same light, speedy touch as Alison’s encouraging “pitter patter,” by which she amicably urges Donnie to get cracking on that corpse. She’s pretty in pink, he’s in a fatherly blue button-down, and as they bicker gently about the flower-printed plastic sheeting, the angle of the body, and the stench of decomposition, we begin to see, finally, a delightfully twisted marriage of (killer) equals. The details of the subplot are impeccably wry, amplifying the bold suburban satire that constitutes the show’s finest invention. They slather on hand sanitizer as they discuss where to dump the body, for instance, and Alison’s response to Donnie, when he suggests throwing Leekie in the lake, is a minor classic of pop-cultural wit. “Have you ever seen Dexter?” she asks. “I mean, random scuba divers are finding everything!” She masters the art of the jackhammer; he holds Vic (Michael Mando) at gunpoint and tells utterly ineffectual Detective Angie Deangelis (Inga Cadranel) what we’ve all been thinking for eight-plus episodes (“All these women and you just can’t put it together, can you?”); and the whole thing culminates in an amorous encounter on the freezer where they stored Leekie’s corpse. “I wanna be messy,” Alison says devilishly, but the tale of their revitalized marriage is as tightly choreographed as any theatrical number.
Never before have we so thoroughly understood the terrifying project of Prolethean leader Henrik Johanssen (Peter Outerbridge), who implants embryos formed from his sperm and Helena’s stolen eggs not only in Helena herself, but also in his daughter, Grace (Zoe De Grand’Maison), with plans to impregnate other “brood mares” soon. In my recap of “Governed As It Were by Chance,” I expressed reservations about the clinical depiction of the sexual violence perpetrated against Helena in order to set Johanssen’s messianic fantasy in motion, but here the series appropriately framed the horror of his rape, incest, and abuse in terms of the trauma wrought on his victims. “you’re a good girl, Grace,” Helena says sadly, “but if you don’t want to have my babies, don’t have my babies.” (Her instinct to protect the innocent is worthy of Ellen Ripley: She grabs a miserable Prolethean mother by the neck and threatens to gut her like a fish.) Though the series has yet to forge the same sense of urgency in its approach to religious fanaticism as it does in the corridors of the Dyad Institute (the Proletheans remain just a sideshow, kidnapping Helena whenever the writers need to disrupt the narrative), the escape from the cult’s compound has a certain stark finality. Helena does exact her revenge, strapping Johanssen to the hospital bed and using his favored tool of torture against him, but it seems meaningful that the final image of the farm depicts Helena pausing on a distant hill to watch the buildings burn. Her arson assumes the cast of a purifying fire, erasing the possibility of her ordeal ever happening to someone else.
Never before have Maslany and the writers excavated the dark caverns of Rachel’s psyche with such commitment, nor have the cruelties of Project LEDA appeared so similar to the Proletheans’ worst excesses. (Orphan Black’s failure to flesh out the allusion by acknowledging that the tale of Leda and the swan hinges on a rape now seems particularly inexplicable. Rachel’s desperate reaction to the news that the clones were designed to be infertile, not to mention Cosima’s worsening autoimmune condition, clearly frame Project LEDA as a violation—of bodily autonomy, of individual choice, of human dignity—no less grave than sexual assault.) Though we’ve long known of Rachel’s penchant for reliving the family idyll preserved in her collection of home movies, her descent into what might be called madness begins in earnest after a terse exchange with Marion Bowles, played by the remarkable Michelle Forbes. Their deliciously mirthless air kiss foretells the tone of the conversation, and Forbes, the only performer on the series capable of upstaging Maslany, lends Marion an air of quiet menace. She’s intimidating because she’s learned to couple her bright smile and concerned eyes with an unnerving stillness: She’s a snake in the grass. “You were bred into this, given every advantage,” she accuses Rachel. “But Sarah, Sarah’s a product of chance, and yet here we are, at loggerheads with her.”
Whether intended as an insult or not, Marion’s words set Rachel reeling, and the succession of emotions that speed across Maslany’s face as Rachel immerses herself in those nostalgic childhood images is nothing short of masterful: joy, affection, relief, enmity, shame, jealously, and ultimately loneliness. (If Maslany doesn’t receive an Emmy nomination in July, there should be a congressional inquiry.) By the time the fateful surprise arrived, and Rachel, impersonating Sarah, spirited Kira (Skyler Wexler) away to a frilly bedroom in an undisclosed location, I was so strung out on the episode’s unrelenting brilliance that I cried out, “Oh my God! Holy shit!” Like next week’s finale, “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried,” “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done” takes its name from the sixth aphorism of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, published in 1620. “It would be an unsound fancy and self-contradictory,” Bacon wrote, “to expect that things which have never yet been done can be done except by means which have never yet been tried.” To put it another way, “Oh my God! Holy shit!” is right.
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