The final act of “Scarred by Many Past Frustrations,” which, as it happens, is an appropriate description for viewers who’ve struggled to connect with Orphan Black this season, is nothing less than a salve. After two weeks in the weeds, “Newer Elements of Our Defense” offered, as I wrote, glimmers of hope for a return to form, and the conclusion of tonight’s episode makes good on the promise in spades. Beginning with the soused, lighthearted dance party among Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy), and the scantily clad Gracie Johanssen (Zoe De Grand’Maison), “Scarred by Many Past Frustrations” speeds through tonal registers and narrative twists, devoting particular attention to the relationship we’ve come to care about most, that between Helena and Sarah (Tatiana Maslany). Reaching into the characters’ pasts and pressing forward with ruthless betrayals and shocking revelations, the episode may turn out to be a one-off, but it roped me back in with a reminder of what the series is capable of. “Scarred by Many Past Frustrations” is vintage Orphan Black.
It’s a measure of just how bloated the series has become that the writers still manage to pack so much plot into an episode without Alison and Donnie, not to mention Kira, Cal, Rachel, and Delphine, but the streamlined structure lends “Scarred by Many Past Frustrations” a much-needed sense of momentum. With Helena and Sarah imprisoned together at Project Castor’s desert compound, and Det. Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard) bringing the exiled Gracie to stay with Mrs. S, the hour seems stripped of extraneous matter; even the machinations of Rudy (Ari Millen), Paul (Dylan Bruce), and Dr. Coady (Kyra Harper), desperate to cure the Castor clones’ genetic defect, function mostly as a symbolic hurdle for the “sestras,” as the episode mercifully dispenses with much of the usual filler about stem lines and DNA samples. (Admit it, you don’t care whether the Castor clones’ brains explode, short-circuit, or meltdown; you care that they’re the Leda clones’ enemies.) The only narrative thread that seems out of place is Cosima’s, diving into online dating with a “bodyworker” named Shay (Ksenia Solo), though Maslany’s adorable awkwardness in the role makes it all worthwhile. Expressing her fear of farting, nervously covering her mouth with her hands, offering a goofy high five—if you don’t find Cosima endearing here, I fear your soul’s gone black.
Speaking of renewed focus, the lion’s share of the episode is set in two adjacent cells, as Helena and Sarah, separated by a grate in the wall, spar over the terms of their ever-tumultuous kinship. Urged on by the scorpion, which seems, in her distress, to have taken even deeper root in her psyche, Helena at first recoils from Sarah’s olive branch. Partaking in the “guilty pleasure” of self-harm, her back a mosaic of scars, I wonder if Helena’s mistrust has been beat into her, and not merely suggested. “Sarah’s lying. She’s poison,” as the scorpion says. “She’s going to melt you like butter.” Yet Helena’s traumatic experience has also taught her to seize the slightest opening, and after Sarah tearfully admits to her own mistakes in childrearing, the sestras, seemingly back on good terms, devise a plan to escape. It’s no less choppy and convoluted than any of this season’s other action sequences, and yet it’s more thrilling than all the other hostage taking, gun slinging, and fist fighting combined. With credit to Maslany’s carefully drawn performances, Orphan Black is always at its best when most attuned to the Leda clones’ distinctions. When allied, the sum of their individual skills produces a kind of heroic synergy; when working at cross-purposes, their genetic equality, their inborn sameness, creates a bristle of tension. Though leavened somewhat by her ambivalent pause as she reaches the top of the Castor compound wall, Helena’s parting words to Sarah (“Now we are even, sestra”) are run through with the long-gestating bitterness of sibling rivalry, taken to the usual Orphan Black extreme.
In tandem with Gracie’s “I love alcohol!” and ghastly “clubbing” outfit, a hilarious, pell-mell assemblage of black mesh and ripped cuffs, the aforementioned moment between Sarah and Helena allows the series to rediscover the affective balance of its finest hours. (Little else on television that treads such serious terrain is simultaneously so comfortable with comedy.) The result is an episode that arrives at its cliffhanger ending having earned it, instead of using narrative switchbacks as a crutch. After all, while the suggestion that the Castor clones have been spreading a gruesome sexually transmitted disease is intriguing on its own, the fact that we’ve only recently come to see Gracie’s softer side is what lends it an emotional kick. This is what I meant by “vintage Orphan Black”: a series that hitches its sense of ethical disgust, its use of conventions from science fiction, horror, and action-adventure, to its human core, refusing to turn away from past scars.
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