Tonight’s episode of Orphan Black, “Transitory Sacrifices of Crisis,” comes all too close to the grievous error of which its title warns. Alone, the phrase, cribbed from Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, may suggest light at the end of the tunnel, but in context it’s the very sacrifices we make on the altar of expediency that set us up for disaster down the line. “To meet it successfully,” Eisenhower says of the Soviet threat, “there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle.” Suddenly consumed by the need to explain Project Castor, by its crisis of narrative, Orphan Black seems increasingly willing to jettison the rich characterization of the “sestras” in favor of constructing conspiracies, and “Transitory Sacrifices of Crisis” may be the show’s worst episode to date.
One need not dance on the grave quite yet. For every mess of misdirected energy (“Governed As It Were by Chance”), the uneven second season mustered a genuine corker (“Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things”), and it remains to be seen whether season three can overcome its current growing pains. But tonight’s episode is dreadful enough to foreshadow what Orphan Black’s demise might look like: an insistent, joyless journey into an expanding universe of shadow corporations, military installations, and male fantasies in which even the delightful Alison Hendrix (Tatiana Maslany) finds herself in a second-rate spinoff of Weeds. Orphan Black is a series that has intermittently squandered and embraced its potential, and like a wayward child it may be time for some tough love.
After a brief glimpse of Dr. Nealon (Tom McCamus) making a shady phone call about the escape of the Castor clone formerly imprisoned by the Dyad Group, the episode turns to scar-faced Rudy (Ari Millen) bringing a woman (Natalie Krill) back to his hotel room, where his mustachioed twin, Seth, attempts to join in the fun. “We’re brothers,” Rudy “reassures” her, with a sinister whisper, when she protests. “We were taught to share.” With all due respect to Millen’s shapely backside, it’s unclear what the scene adds to our understanding of the Castor clones besides a frisson of sexploitation, particularly given Millen’s rare ability to be both cartoonish and utterly inexpressive at once: Fine, we get it, they’re creeps. That the writers decide to play out the subplot, after the woman reports the assault to Det. Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard), only worsens the effect. “Like, what is that? Is that a trophy?” she asks, telling Sarah (posing as Det. Beth Childs) that the brothers took a lock of hair. “But I consented to the first guy, so that’s not rape, right?” For a series premised on a kind of sexual violence, namely the forced sterilization of most of the Leda clones, and the forced impregnation of Helena by the Proletheans, Orphan Black consistently skirts the issue by allowing such questions to hang in the air. To dig into the trauma many of the female characters face would, of course, require devoting less time to waterboarding, logic tests, corporate malfeasance, and general narrative blather, which seems to be the show’s preferred frame of reference these days.
Against the frat-house bickering of Rudy and Seth, or the bland slab of beefcake that is Paul Dierden (Dylan Bruce), at least Cal (Michiel Huisman), newly in possession of a big-city apartment, offers a modicum of humanity—until, that is, he once again goes into hiding with Kira (Skyler Wexler) at episode’s end, after the poor girl suffers yet another near-death experience. (By this point, she’s going to need more psychotherapy than Sally Draper and Paige Jennings combined.) Scott (Josh Vokey) also makes for a rare genial presence, joining Cosima, still awakening to “perspectives on the void,” for a meeting with Dr. Nealon that amounts to little more than a brief synopsis of the foregoing cloning plot. This is, perhaps, the crux of the issue with “Transitory Sacrifices of Crisis.” As Orphan Black falls further down the rabbit hole of its own convoluted mythologies, it seems to trust the audience less and less to keep up, forgetting that the series at its best, in the early stages of season one, was not a grand sci-fi parable, but rather a tightly scripted procedural, buoyed by multifaceted characters and deft changes of tone. Tonight’s episode further reduces that whole lovely tapestry to little more than an explanatory video, as if Dyad’s PR department had taken over the writers’ room.
Even Donnie (Kristian Bruun) and Alison’s reliably entertaining antics now threaten to become threadbare, repurposing the now-familiar ordinary-suburbanite-as-drug-kingpin idea to give them something to do. That’s not to say Alison, a far primmer figure than Nancy Botwin and Walter White, might not find herself in some hilarious situations along the way, and her upcoming electoral battle with Marci Coates (Amanda Brugel) holds the same satirical promise as last season’s glorious community-musical subplot. But it’s sad to see the unimaginative construction of the Dyad/Castor narrative seep into Alison’s domestic dark comedy: Donnie’s “Fist me! Fist me!” on the sideline of the soccer pitch may be a funny surprise, but their awkward meeting with young pill pusher Ramon (Alex Ozerov) seems plucked whole cloth from another series.
About the fruitless effort to make Helena’s torture, Seth’s “glitching,” Kira’s hostage crisis, the return of Prolethean Mark, and Castor Project “mother” Dr. Rebecca Coady (Kyra Harper) more than a way of biding time, the less said the better. “Where are these mangoes? I would like to see these mangoes,” Helena says during her own logic test, and, metaphorically speaking, I feel the same way: If Orphan Black is set on polishing this turd of a storyline into a diamond, it’s time to show us the goods, and fast.
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