Be careful what you wish for. In my recap of last week’s “Certain Agony of the Battlefield,” I pleaded for more “multilayered texture” to “lighten the mood,” and as if part of some cruel trick, tonight’s episode of Orphan Black obliges with an hour of paper-thin comic contrivances, all topped with a generous sprinkling of mawkish sentiment. Absent the narrative crutch of imprisoned sestras and Castor conspiracies, “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” must stand on its own two feet, and the fact that it stumbles so badly doesn’t bode well for this shambolic season’s looming finale.
Not to make too much of the stereotypical Mexican cantina in which the episode opens, where Helena (Tatiana Maslany) gambles as Sarah mourns Paul Dierden and a magical señorita sniffs out the former’s pregnancy from a perch behind the bar, but the sequence nods at several of Orphan Black’s current shortcomings. If you’ve stuck with the series this long, there’s no reasonable expectation of realism, and yet the cheap decor, less “authentic” than your average roadside Chili’s, evinces the same shiftless approach as much of the writing and direction: The sequence forgoes specifics in favor of painfully broad characterizations of both people and place, such that even the promised confrontation between Helena and Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) runs out of steam before it really gets going. (Sarah, who often seems to traverse the whole of North America in a single episode, misses out on much of the running time to…take a shower.) The organic playfulness that once marked the series is now over-determined, seasoning stirred into the stew too late to do much more than camouflage its flavorlessness or otherwise jettisoned entirely.
The fact that it stumbles so badly doesn’t bode well for this shambolic season’s looming finale.
A useful point of comparison might be last season’s antic “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things,” which similarly pressed pause on the central narrative arc and offered up a lively, witty bubble episode in the process. “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” tries to recapture the magic of throwing the sestras together in unexpected arrangements, replacing the New Path Wellness Center with what amounts to a campaign stop for Alison, but the episode is a lumbering, lethargic shade of the second season’s finest hour. In order to spite Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), who interrupts her lolling in bed with Shay (Ksenia Solo), Cosima sets out to procure a urine sample from Alison rather than provide her own. (Her cough is worsening as well. Does she know something about her already fragile health that we don’t?) Mistaken for Alison, she’s forced to speak to the assembled voters, practically sending Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Alison’s campaign manager, into convulsions, and though the clones’ avert disaster, the sequence has none of the light, energetic command of the New Path role-play. As the episode’s title suggests, it’s a dreadful interlude indeed.
The usual humor of Alison’s Lily Pulitzer sheen (the campaign’s pink beanies with white pom-poms are a nice touch) don’t amount to much more than icing on a sunken cake, and indeed Alison’s testy relationship with her mother, Connie (Sheila McCarthy) proves quite the disappointment. There’s no fire to their exchanges, which, given that Alison once stood by as a garbage disposal asphyxiated her neighbor, registers as a missed opportunity. It’s all prim barbs about Donnie (Kristian Bruun), whom Connie calls “Mr. Chubbs,” and Mommy’s disapproval of Alison’s political ambitions, coming off nearly as cheap as the cervezas in that back-lot cantina. So, too, is the chaos of Donnie’s rendezvous with Jason Kellerman’s (Justin Chatwin) which has all the dramatic interest of a Saturday Night Live send-up of Breaking Bad, and none of the laughs. (In the right light, Chatwin even resembles Aaron Paul.)
Whether the decision to cap this failed stab at screwball with a thick syrup of speeches and confessions is a last-ditch effort to save the episode or an ill-timed attempt at seriousness, the closing stages of “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate” are no less lackadaisical than the opening ones. Cosima discloses her autoimmune disorder to Shay, who I still fully expect to betray her, and Rachel, in a nice turn of phrase, describes her father’s coded copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau to Scott (Josh Vokey) as “our secret language,” but the purpose of the sequence mostly seems to be recapitulating a few Big Themes as a way of winning back our sympathies. Alison’s “rousing” paean to family may be, in the broadest sense, apropos, but as it applies to the construction of Orphan Black this season, it’s clear that the series now comes up short more often than not. “You make room,” she says of a family that’s grown too large to fit in its home. “You adapt. You find creative solutions to keep people together.” Alas, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. My only wish now is that the writers would start to take their own advice.
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