Wracked by high fever, Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) slips into delirium midway through “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” and comes face to face with the origins of Orphan Black. Infected via blood transfusion with the Castor clones’ STD, she passes through a tunnel in her mind’s eye only to greet Beth Childs in a gauzily lit kitchen of the afterlife, where she receives a message from her late “sestra” to the tune of the straining score. “We do terrible things for the people we love,” Beth says, referring to the impenetrable Paul Dierden (Dylan Bruce). “Stop asking, ’Why?’ Start asking, ’Who?’” Thus freighted with delusions, dream sequences, flashbacks, and musical interludes, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” strings together a series of arresting images, but by the time Paul unwraps a grenade from his palm in the final minutes of the episode, these flickers of style add up to little more than a placeholder for dramas still to come.
Credit where credit is due: For a series whose main aesthetic feature is its utter featurelessness, with wan laboratories, anonymous cityscapes, and desert installations, the sudden darkness and illuminated tent of Sarah’s opening nightmare, for instance, offers at least a fillip of visual interest. From there, though, the narrative relies too heavily on her sickly visions to convey the pertinent information—and, far more frustrating, as part of a last-ditch effort to humanize Paul before killing him off. The muscular cipher has drifted in and out of Orphan Black for more than two seasons with little to do and even less to say, practically invisible except in various states of undress, and yet the series mourns him with melodramatic music and the polish of selfless heroism. He sacrifices himself in order to save Sarah and destroy Project Castor’s nefarious science, which, hey, that’s great! We sure appreciate it, Paul, R.I.P. But why would the writers give such a bombastic farewell (a stabbing, a shooting, and an explosion) to a character they never seemed to care much about in the first place?
The same might be said for the scorpion, which Helena devours in a delightfully repugnant scene somewhere in the sand dunes beyond the Castor compound. This jet-black symbol of psychological displacement, whispering advice since “The Weight of This Combination,” wasn’t without merit, particularly as an experiment in depicting the consequences of trauma, but as a narrative device it serves no higher purpose than the angels and devils hovering beside the cartoon characters of yore. Like Sarah’s visions and Paul’s death, the scorpion mostly illustrates the depths of the current Orphan Black morass, functioning as an unsatisfying end run around the surfeit of plot rather than a hard-earned window into Helena’s mind. Good riddance.
It’s telling, by contrast, that the most engaging stylistic detours in “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” are those furthest from the center of the Castor conspiracy. As we learn that Dr. Coady (Kyra Harper), Rudy (Ari Millen), and the other male clones have orchestrated the infection of dozens of women, in a truly malevolent scientific “study” that pays no heed to the victims’ “abdominal pain,” “vaginal bleeding,” and rapidly atrophying ovaries, the episode pauses to check in on Alison and Donnie (Kristian Bruun) as they prepare to expand their narcotic enterprise. Against the horrifying details of the STD’s spread, which may well prove to be a way of reviving Orphan Black’s rather courageous interest in institutional and individual mistreatment of women, our first glimpse of Alison and Donnie is pure, unadulterated satire. One might quibble with the fact that their subplot has essentially nothing to do with the rest of the episode, but setting a couple of white suburban naïfs’ glitter-bombed, money-grubbing, half-undressed, slow-motion twerk to Riff Raff’s “Dolce & Gabbana” is a stroke of genius. The sequence manages to send up cultural appropriation, lighten the mood, and seem strangely in character all at once, the very sort of multilayered texture the series needs more of.
“Certain Agony of the Battlefield” also features more than its fair share of grindingly dull developments. Shay (Ksenia Solo), prying into Cosima’s personal and professional lives, seems increasingly likely to be planted by Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), who occupies herself by spying on their burgeoning affair; Helena comes back to the Castor military base to retrieve Sarah, who proves resistant to the STD; Coady and Rudy snarl and growl with abandon, but (unfortunately) appear to escape Paul’s grenade. When the episode combines its otherwise haphazard strengths, however, the result is surprising, visually compelling, and even somewhat moving, yet another indication that Orphan Black still has all the tools of a great series, even if the execution too often falls short.
After a pained conversation with Kira (Skyler Wexler), Felix (Jordan Gavaris) goads Scott (Josh Vokey) into revealing Rachel’s whereabouts, and the exchange that follows bristles with unexpected intensity. Pushing her around and peppering her with questions, painting a bright blue eye on her bandage and tapping her head with the brush, the man separated from both his sister and his niece by the course of events unleashes his pent-up emotions in a ferocious torrent, all while surrounded by Rachel’s coded abstracts. It’s a measure of just how effective Gavaris is here that I, like Scott, wanted him to stop (stuttering and confused, Rachel’s no use to him anyway), and the episode’s final image, of Rachel sobbing before an unfinished canvas with a photograph of her father nearby, only provoked my sympathies further. With their splashes of color and illegible symbols, their acute throbs of grief and anger, both scenes, though brief, stand out amid the rather drab, inanimate strands of action-adventure in “Certain Agony of the Battlefield,” as if to remind us that the series is often at its best outside the trenches. Stabbings, shootings, and explosions may nudge the narrative forward, but Orphan Black’s always been most stylish and satisfying when it turns to the war at home.
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