Picking up where “Formalized, Complex, and Costly” left off, in the field where Prolethean matriarch Bonnie Johanssen (Kristin Booth) shot her daughter’s husband, Mark (Ari Millen), at close range, tonight’s episode of Orphan Black finds the sestras (Tatiana Maslany) forging several unexpected alliances. Though the current season remains bloated with frantic subplots, it appears that the series has begun to heed President Eisenhower’s warning, in the passage from his Farewell Address to which the title alludes, against the “temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” Bending the narrative to Maslany’s performance by focusing on the Clone Club’s familial and romantic attachments, past, present, and future, “Newer Elements of Our Defense” offers a glimmer of hope for a return to form. “I know you don’t trust me,” Sarah tells Mark, as if speaking to viewers disappointed by the previous two episodes. “I’m all you’ve got.”
And so, while Gracie Johannsen (Zoe De Grand’Maison) suffers a miscarriage and subsequent exile from the Prolethean cult 2.0, “Newer Elements of Our Defense” expends most of its energies on the core quartet of Sarah, Helena, Cosima, and Alison. With Delphine, Det. Art Bell, and Paul Dierden all absent, and both Rudy and Dr. Virginia Coady (Kyra Harper) reduced to minor functionaries, the episode breathes, finding more space for the black comedy that’s always been necessary to balance the frightfully serious tale of religious extremists, unethical scientists, and ruthless military strategists. As Sarah and Helena, still yoked to the garbled mythology of Castor and Leda, attempt to push the narrative out of its rut, it falls to Alison and Cosima to revive our interest in the clones as characters, and not merely pawns in some barely understood conspiracy.
Focusing on the clones’ familial and romantic attachments, it offers a glimmer of hope for a return to form.
The image of Alison adding up drug money with a desk calculator in her craft room, the neat piles clipped and color-coordinated with Post-it notes, is the sort of sly detail that’s long made her domestic travails so much fun to watch. Her scenes with Donnie (Kristian Bruun) rely on winks and nods, as when he suggests moving the contraband to “a storage locker, like on Breaking Bad,” and for a series all too consumed by its own narrative contortions, the self-awareness is refreshing. (“Oh my God,” Donnie asks, shortly before Sarah digs her hand and then a pair of pliers into the bullet wound in Mark’s leg, “is anyone else’s life this chaotic?”) To wit, their driveway encounter with a supplier’s muscle (Gavin Fox) features perhaps the season’s best line to date—“Did he just shush me?”—and the revelation that drug kingpin Jason Kellerman (Justin Chatwin) is Alison’s high school boyfriend offers the potential for a host of compromising positions. Alison’s always at her hilarious best when she goes off the rails.
As for Cosima, at least for now, the series seems prepared to back away from her “deep thoughts” about the meaning of life in favor of a burgeoning friendship with Felix (Jordan Gavaris). Both characters have been underutilized this season, shoehorned into transitions between Sarah’s pursuit of Helena and Helena’s imprisonment at the Castor compound. The aging club kid and the shy science nerd have never fit quite comfortably into either the suburban satire or the action-adventure of the series, but their interactions in “Newer Elements of Our Defense” suggests that the story of Felix pulling Cosima out of her shell could function well on its own. After accusing her of pining for Delphine and memorably telling her to ditch that “yeti-lined sweater,” Felix brings Cosima to the pub and goads her to try Sapphire, a sort of Grindr for lesbians. “Not love, darling. Not love,” he reassures her when she protests that she’s not ready to get too involved with another woman just yet. “I’m talking about a scratching post! Something to rub yourself up against.” I’m already envisioning a streamlined version of the series, with Helena and Sarah battling Coady and the Castor clones, Alison and Donnie thrown off course by her flirtation with Kellerman, and fast friends Felix and Cosima enjoying a little casual sex on the side while holding down the fort.
This is probably wishful thinking, not least because the rest of the episode is full of “spectacular and costly action” masquerading as a miracle. Until proven otherwise, each new twist must be treated as a cheap cliffhanger, rather than a concerted effort to push the plot toward a satisfying conclusion. What with Sarah’s homespun surgery on Mark’s leg, Helena’s stab into a Castor clone’s exposed brain, and the search for a baby’s skeleton, it’s a grisly episode even by Orphan Black’s standards, though there’s no assurance as yet that these developments will amount to much. The composition of the action sequences, shattered by the rapid-fire editing and leaning heavily on the score for suspense, lacks the precision and care of, say, craft-room Post-it notes and yeti-lined sweaters. It seems a little lazy, for instance, to have Mark keep passing out on Sarah at inopportune moments and then revive just in time to catch her in his motel room or corner her with Rudy—as lazy, perhaps, as using a scorpion to telegraph Helena’s thoughts.
In the end, though “Newer Elements of Our Defense” opens the season to a more fruitful focus on the characters, it still closes off engagement with the dense, complicated thematic terrain of nature and nurture that has often marked Orphan Black at its best. The clones have never been mere scientific phenomena, but also products of circumstance, perhaps Sarah most of all, yet she seems to understand her temporary alliance with Mark in purely genetic terms. “You know I’m not really your brother,” he says, as she digs up Bonnie and Henrik Johanssen’s deceased infant. “Well, you are,” she replies flatly, with only a faint echo of what this diminished series once was. “Biology says you are.”
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