Looking back, “The Scandal of Altruism” will likely serve as the dividing line of Season Four. Alliances are broken, characters die and a new Big Bad emerges from the ashes. What should ideally serve as a devastating, dramatically rich hour of television, however, comes up a bit short due to all the corner cutting the show undergoes in a frantic attempt to hit these beats. And that’s been my issue with the show for a while. It frequently has an interesting destination, but more and more often has fallen over itself in getting there.
The episode begins with Sarah attempting to negotiate with Susan Duncan in order to get the parasitic gene-warper removed from her check. In exchange, Susan demands access to The Original, aka Siobhan’s mother, Kendall. After the standard Orphan Black talky standoffs, Evie Cho assists in the removal of Sarah’s implant, thus fulfilling this season’s recurring theme of one gag-worthy set piece per episode.
Predictably, the negotiations all go to hell and the episode ends with two major developments. One, Evie is revealed to be the mastermind behind Beth’s suicide, as well as the one who’s been manipulating Susan behind-the-scenes. Right off the bat, this twist isn’t nearly as impactful as the writers seem to think it is. For one, Evie has only recently become a presence on the show. Second, while the actress they’ve cast pulls off the cold, calculating persona perfectly well, she lacks the gravitas that past heavies such as Leekie, Susan Duncan or, heck, even some Castor clones possessed.
After this reveal, we bear witness to the death of Kendall. On paper, Kendall’s demise doesn’t really have that much impact as it should, as she was introduced late last season and has only appeared sporadically since then, mostly for the sake of being fussy and grumpy. And while this season has had her participate in one or two heartfelt moments with her daughter and Cosima, the show treats her departure with an emotional upheaval that seems better suited for a more prevalent character (if, for instance, Siobhan had died). And though the character gets an unmistakably kickass moment before she’s shot through the head (“No tears, Cosima. These shites aren’t worth the salt.”), it all feels a bit hollow. Even the death of Paul, a character who was barely a presence after two seasons, felt impactful in the end, precisely because he’d been around since the beginning and had a longstanding relationship with Sarah. If nothing else, the episode’s concluding montage demonstrates once again how lucky the show is to have an actress as gifted as Tatiana Maslany. Despite these narrative somersaults, it’s Maslany’s reaction to Kendall’s death (both as Cosima and as Sarah) that drives that emotional stake into viewers’ heart. In this moment, we feel the pain, even if the reasoning for it is not clearly laid out in the text.
At one point in the episode, Siobhan exclaims aloud, “I’m sorry, what’s happening?” It’s a fairly accurate assessment of this particular entry. Between Evie and Ari, there’s double crossing galore and, frankly, it all seems more driven by some nebulous twists-per-season quota—logic/plot holes be damned. For instance, while roping in the Beth flashbacks provide some of the show’s strongest moments, it also raises more and more question about the instigating event of the series. If she was the all-knowing supervillain all this time, why did we never see Evie or her surrogates when Sarah was posing as Beth? In trying to connect everything, the writers are only making things more and more complicated. I suppose next week’s entry will show whether this knot will loosen up or snake into more and more loops.