Last year, Orphan Black entered the TV rat race as a scrappy, offbeat, underdog. By the time its 10-episode season wrapped, the show, and particularly Tatiana Maslany’s performance, had become one of the breakout success stories of the year. With its second season, the show returned to the airwaves amidst a wealth of newfound expectations.
And there’s the rub—few things can kill a show faster than unmanageable hype. At its core, Orphan Black is merely a well-executed genre exercise, a marvelous cocktail of thriller, sci-fi and broad comedy. As such, its second season found the show bumping into the inevitable issues that plague shows of this ilk. Primarily, despite its predilection for rapid pacing and twist-y storylines, the show often struggled to make its larger mythology as intriguing as its intimate character work. Often, its overindulgence in its conspiracy-thriller roots would become its undoing. “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” is filled with characters either switching sides or revealing themselves to be something other than what we expected. After seeming like little more than a Dyad pawn for much of the season, Paul is revealed to be a double agent for another organization that’s trying to help the clones; likewise, the once malevolent-seeming Marian Bowles is now presented as yet another ally; finally, Siobhan aids in the capture of Helena and—like Delphine in the previous episode—expresses immediate regret at having betrayed the clones.
At a certain point, keeping up with where the various characters’ loyalties lie becomes more trouble than it’s worth. For a show that once excelled at subverting expectations and keeping the audience on its toes, many of the twists and turns in “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” now come with a definite “been-there-done-that” feel. Moreover, I fear many of the non-Tatiana Maslany characters are beginning to feel less like actual characters and more like pawns to set plot into motion.
After the capture of Kira at the conclusion of last week’s episode, a frightened Sarah decides to voluntarily surrender herself to Dyad experimentation. Their plan, it seems, is to remove one of her ovaries in an attempt to crack the key to clone reproduction. As the Dyad scientists examine Sarah, Rachel attempts to once again coax the secret of the synthetic sequences from Ethan. Rather than tell her, however, he discreetly consumes a deadly poison. As he dies, Ethan expresses great sorrow that things had to end this way as a tearful Rachel can only watch helplessly while her father figure slips away.
Meanwhile, a deathly sick Cosima appears to be coordinating some kind of escape plan via lab associate Josh, She then gets Kira to sketch a strange drawing involving a few stick figures and a fire hydrant. When Rachel is eventually rolled into surgery for her ovary removal, Josh signals to Kira’s drawing, which has been placed near the operating table. When Rachel eventually clears out the room to have one final talk with Sarah, our hero realizes that the sketch refers to a homemade contraption that Josh has placed within her reach. With an unsuspecting Rachel in front of her, Sarah activates the device and it fires a sharpened pencil directly into Rachel’s eye.
As much as Orphan Black has lost a bit of its surprise element over the course of 19 episodes, this sequence is about as effective a jaw-dropping moment as you can expect. Whether Rachel is truly down for good, or will appear next season with an eye patch accessory is uncertain.
From here, Sarah takes Kira and escapes the Dyad Institution. It must be said, for being the Big Bad Organization, Dyad is almost insultingly easy to enter and exit. Once Rachel is dispatched, there’s basically no one around to even stop the two from leaving. It really makes me hope that the next season will move away from Dyad as the big evil, since—with the exception of some of Rachel’s actions—it never really presented itself as being more of a threatening presence than, say, Helena was last season.
Mother and daughter then return to Felix’s apartment and find themselves in the company of Helena, Alison and Cosima. Perhaps the biggest knock against this season has been the scattering of the clones and how this separation has prevented the kind of humorous interactions that made the first season so enjoyable. As if making up for lost time, this pivotal scene finds all five clones coming together in one room for the first time. They promptly proceed to bond through …a dance party?
Yep—Cosima turns on some electronic music and each of the clones (along with Felix) begin getting their respective freaks on. While some may embrace the following scene’s inherent silliness, it just fell utterly flat for me. As a bit of technical wizardry—it’s incorporating nearly all of the Maslany clones in a single shot— the scene is a marvel; as a story beat, it feels horrifically awkward and out-of-place. Indeed, not even the amusing image of Felix grinding on Alison can entirely save it.
What’s much more effective is the following scene wherein Sarah and a fading Cosima have a heart-to-heart in bed. In a reflection of an earlier scene from the season, Sarah reiterates that she “can’t do this” without Cosima’s help. Cosima then responds with an excellent summary of Sarah’s characters. ”You’re the wild type, Sarah,” she says. “You propagate against all odds. You’re restless. You survive.” It’s a beautifully written moment that nevertheless makes the audiences brace themselves for what looks to be Cosima’s upcoming demise. It’s only through a vision of Delphine that Cosima finds the strength to wake up the next morning and read Kira some stories. Luckily, Kira brings her Ethan’s copy of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which—as confirmed in a pervious episode—is filled with Ethan’s sketches and notes and could very well lead to Cosima’s cure.
Of course, it also wouldn’t be an Orphan Black finale without one last twist.
For much of the episode, the keyword “Castor” has been tossed back and forth among the characters. It’s not until Sarah visits Marian that we truly understand its significance. Not only does Marian have a young version of the clones under her care, but she also reveals that “Castor” was the brother experiment to Project Leda. Whereas “Project Leda” had involved the female clones, “Project Castor” involved male cloning. Luckily, the clones are not Tatiana Maslany made up to look like a man; rather, they are clones of Mark, the eerie former Prolethean hitman who took off with Gracie last episode (and is shown marrying her in a church during the conclusion of this episode).
Since we’ve only seen actor Ari Millen’s performance as Mark, it’s hard to determine whether he’s an actor that will bring the kind of dynamic power to his various clones the way Maslany has. What’s more, it’s a bit hard to tell how to take this latest reveal—does this mean the Mark clones will be a threat? I certainly hope so, since the show has all but run out of good adversarial forces for Sarah to battle against. In any case, it’s a nice final button for what has been somewhat of a thin finale.
And that brings us to the end of Orphan Black’s sophomore season. There were the highs (the Sarah/Helena bathroom scene in episode four) and the lows (Tony…just, Tony). Despite somewhat petering out at the end, however, the show looks to be switching gears for its third season, which makes me hopeful that the writers will have new places to take the characters. Until then, see you next year Clone Club!
Tatiana Maslany’s Emmy Moment of the Week:
•The Sarah-Cosima scene may be one of the finale’s smaller moments, but its quiet intensity perfectly demonstrates what the show does best. Genre shows are only as good as the characters they choose to hinge their themes on and Maslany’s soulful performance here really highlights how Orphan Black often prioritizes its main character over its mythology. Watching these two characters connect on such an emotional level, you almost forget that this is a sci-fi show involving clones with one actress playing both roles.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.