“There’s only one way this could go,” Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) tells Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) and Felix (Jordan Gavaris) at the beginning of tonight’s Orphan Black, as the trio settles in for a day at what must be London’s dodgiest pub. She’s referring, of course, to her plan to find and kill the Castor original, though her words might also be taken as a warning: Nearly three full seasons into BBC America’s declining sci-fi thriller, the last-act twist that marks “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow” manages to seem both inevitable and contrived, the culmination of thematic interests the series has long since abandoned. The episode thus emerges as the perfect hermeneutic for this most miserly and ineffective season of Orphan Black, a mixture of old ideas and new developments straining to hold our attention, an insolvent phantom itself.
For one thing, with Rudy (Ari Millen) beginning to experience the seizure-like symptoms that come with the Castor clones’ degenerative disease, and Dr. Coady (Kyra Harper) reduced to administering that imbecilic logic test, it appears the Castor Project will have come and gone without much more than the faintest shadow of character development or narrative purpose. Whether the writers admit defeat in next week’s season finale and wipe the slate clean, or save Scarface from certain death, Castor counts as perhaps the longest, most fruitless MacGuffin in recent memory, The 39 Steps of despair. Rather than pursue the implications of Castor’s campaign to sterilize women, as the Orphan Black of yore might have done, the series has succumbed to the temptation of too many cable dramas, which is to use sexual violence as a device without exploring its consequences. (For what once counted among the most reliably feminist series on television to fall into this trap is especially troubling.) Mrs. S claims the Castor original must be eliminated in order to prevent others from being targeted, but the women in question are more theoretical than real. The one character of any significance affected by intercourse with a Castor clone is Gracie (Zoe De Grand’Maison), whose inner life is a mystery, and in any case her parting words in “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow” are a profession of love for the man who infected her. Let’s just say this doesn’t strike me as adequate to the subject matter.
A mixture of old ideas and new developments straining to hold our attention, an insolvent phantom itself.
On that note, it’s Gracie, not Shay (Ksenia Solo), who revealed the existence of Duncan’s encoded copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau to Castor—yet another surprising twist that nevertheless left me cold. Besides her brief dalliance with rebelliousness, in this season’s singularly excellent “Scarred by Many Past Frustrations,” the character’s done so little of note that her betrayal doesn’t sting. Instead, it simply cheapens the cloud of suspicion that’s surrounded Shay all along, and reduces Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), as Shay remarks, to the ranks of Single White Female. As might be said of nearly everything on Orphan Black these days, a bit of misdirection can be fun, but a season’s worth is just irritating.
Which (eventually) brings us back to the key revelation of “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow.” The series is suddenly interested in peeling the onion that is Mrs. S, after 29 episodes as a woman without a past: She performs a musical number with her old band; shares jocular stories with a former lover, Terry (Daniel Fathers), shortly before watching him die; and finally meets her maker. What’s most surprising about the fact that Orphan Black should take this last part literally is that it’s no longer surprising at all, and the news that the Castor original is Siobhan’s mother is enough to merit a smack of the head. With her androgynous name and back-alley homestead, Kendall Malone is practically reverse-engineered to elicit a gasp, and yet the idea that the font of the entire Orphan Black mythology is, in effect, the mother of Sarah, Rudy, and Mrs. S is so gruesomely apt a climax to this soporific, uninspired season that I’m frankly disappointed I didn’t see it coming.
A series that once regularly considered complex questions of nature and nurture, faith and reason, Orphan Black now appears perfectly content to wrap up its third season with a neat genealogical ribbon. That the episode contains a few bright spots, namely Helena’s imitation of Alison, which Donnie (Kristian Bruun) describes as the product of a cold so bad it “messes with your syntax,” is scarce comfort, for the bones of the series have already been whittled down almost to nothing. In 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to his fear that democracy would become “the insolvent phantom of tomorrow,” he encouraged his audience “to avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience,” a lack of foresight of which Orphan Black is undoubtedly guilty. As I look toward next week’s finale with a mixture of relief and disappointment, I guess I’ve at least made peace with Mrs. S’s warning. There’s only one way for this to go: badly.
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