“Formalized, Complex, and Costly,” President Eisenhower’s description of the technological revolution that accompanied World War II and the Cold War, is an apt title for tonight’s episode of Orphan Black, which hardens the narrative lacquer smeared across “Transitory Sacrifices of Crisis” by throwing its full weight behind the ties between the Castor clones (Ari Millen) and their genetic “sestras” (Tatiana Maslany). There’s now no escaping the fact that the series is more or less bound to play out the curdled dramatics of the two groups chasing down their own origin stories, hemmed in all the while by Proletheans, corporate science, and military might. “Welcome to Clone Club,” Cosima says to Det. Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard) early in “Formalized, Complex, and Costly,” but on the evidence of the third season so far, it may be time to bid Orphan Black farewell.
Perhaps the clever conceit of plumbing scientific texts for episode titles and structuring themes has run its course. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address seems a rather thin, if astute, bit of rhetoric by comparison with On the Origin of Species and the entire oeuvre of Francis Bacon. More to the point, the current season appears content to offer only the most schematic illustration of Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the “military-industrial complex,” preferring an increasingly impenetrable cartography of abstract forces over the texture of characterization. In this sorry state of affairs, even Maslany’s star seems dimmed.
In part, that impression may be a function of the writers’ inconceivable decision to hand half of the spotlight to Millen. Significant stretches of the episode pass with no sign of the Leda clones—as former Prolethean Mark and his new wife, Gracie Johanssen (Zoe De Grand’Maison) evade both her late father’s religious cult and Mark’s military past, or as Rudy snivels in “mother” Rebecca Coady’s (Kyra Harper) after it becomes clear that the Castor clones’ neurological defect is a precipitate killer. The return of the Proletheans also suggests Orphan Black’s unwillingness to cut its losses when it comes to failed subplots. Why, with Johanssen’s père dead and the compound burned to the ground, send Gracie back into the lion’s den? Why reveal now that Art had feelings for Beth Childs, and return the focus to his partnership with Sarah, long since abandoned? Why set up Paul Dierden (Dylan Bruce) to defend Project Castor in a dry “budget review” when he’s barely registered even in his much sexier role as Rachel’s boy toy? As if the series didn’t have enough narrative clutter to fight through, Orphan Black continues to reintroduce these phantom limbs from seasons past, seemingly desperate to bail out the sinking ship. Unfortunately for viewers, these developments aren’t lifeboats. They’re icebergs.
And so, like Titanic’s Jack and Rose, I’m left clinging to whatever driftwood I can find. Given the dread seriousness of “Formalized, Complex, and Costly,” this mostly takes the form of the remaining gestures at humor: Donnie (Kristian Bruun) calling out Alison’s campaign slogan, “Say no to bullies, on the board or in the class”; the delicate little boxes of homemade soap by which the “pharmaceutical entrepreneurs” hawk their supply of happy pills; Scotty (Josh Vokey) telling Felix (Jordan Gavaris), as Cosima saws into Seth’s skull, that “YouTube’s an amazing resource.” That’s about it. Rachel, her aphasia improving as she recuperates from surgery, is a nonentity so far this season—and so is Helena, for that matter, despite her centrality to the plot. The uninspired exchange of insults between Alison and electoral opponent Marci Coates (Amanda Brugel) betrays a weakness for the lazy rhythms of the cat fight in an otherwise promising narrative thread, while Cosima’s running metaphysical commentary scarcely suggests the former richness of Orphan Black’s attention to nature, nurture, and the composition of the self. To have the one true rationalist on the scene wonder whether a collection of neurons and gray matter cased in bone is “all we are” is tantamount to an admission of defeat.
By the time Gracie conveniently appears in the café where Art and Sarah discuss his former interest in Beth, I felt defeated too. After more than two seasons, I realized that I still have no sense of the geography of Orphan Black’s universe, no grasp of the conspiratorial architecture behind its cloning programs, no interest in most of the supporting characters, no more reason to recommend the series as a sometimes-dazzling reconfiguration of science fiction’s raw materials. All that’s left is the knowledge, as Scott and Cosima find upon analyzing Seth’s genetic code, that the Castor and Leda clones are siblings, now inextricable from each other, and from the sad, steep decline of Orphan Black. “Welcome to Clone Club” may be the defining line of “Formalized, Complex, and Costly,” but I can no longer count myself a member.
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