“Certain Agony of the Battlefield” marks Orphan Black’s attempt at going for the emotional jugular. It’s certainly a well-needed dose of raw humanity, particular after several weeks of frustrating mythology exposition. What’s surprising is how effectively this shift worked given that it involved the Castor base, a storyline I had long since abandoned hope for and had generally grown to dread. Such a turnaround is reassuring proof that, even in its weaker moments, the show still has the ability to defy expectations.
As the story opens, Sarah discovers that she has become part of the Castor militia experiments. Virginia, the Castor leader/mother figure, has arranged it so that Sarah is being pumped full of Rudy’s blood. While not exactly sex, the exchange does still carry super creepy, incestuous undertones. As a result of the operation, Sarah begins having hallucinations of both her daughter and the long-dead Beth Childs, whose identity she stole in the series’ first episode.
Sensing that something is amiss, Paul and Mark end up coordinating with Cosima who has been analyzing Gracie’s condition after her collapse last episode. As it turns out, the Castor clones are carrying a harmful protein that causes ovarian atrophy in any woman they have sexual contact with. Thus, the clones’ documenting their sexual history was all part of an ongoing experiment. Horrified that Virginia would be complicit in the sterilization of women, Paul takes over the base and calls in for Virginia’s arrest.
Virginia explains that the experiments were all in service of finding a way of isolating the protein and developing it into a new breed of biochemical weapon. Realizing that his superiors might be the ones behind these plans, Paul tries to lead Sarah to an escape route before the cavalry arrives.
This plotline ultimately culminates in Paul sacrificing his life to foil Virginia’s plans. After fighting off one of the Castor clones, he receives a lethal stab in the stomach. With his last dying breaths, he plants himself right next to the Johanssen baby skeleton and, while Virginia and Rudy mock his pithy attempts at stopping the inevitable, unveils a live grenade. The subsequent explosion destroys Virginia’s research and (hopefully) leaves both her and Rudy mortally wounded, or at least scarred.
Paul’s death marks the first time a major Orphan Black characters has bitten the dust. And while the sequence is orchestrated to send him off in the most heroic way possible, one does wish it could have happened to a character the audience had more of an emotional attachment with. In many ways, a dramatic death is the best thing actor Dylan Bruce could ask for, given the way in which his character was pushed to the side and left underdeveloped for long stretches these past two years. Mostly, Paul served as the major victim of the creative team’s insistence on shoehorning in major conspiracy elements. As a result, Paul’s loyalties became a relentless game of ping-pong. Removing him from the equation entirely both gives the character a final, definite purpose and removes one of the show’s more glaring loose threads.
Augmenting Paul’s demise are Sarah’s hallucinations, which put her in contact with Beth Childs. Because Beth’s suicide marked the catalyst of the whole series, Sarah never really got the chance to interact with her beyond viewing old home movies in an attempt to mimic her speech and mannerisms. In this way, the hallucination device affords Maslany a great opportunity to again work her magic. In a single scene, the actress captures Beth’s regret and pain over her life’s direction, which ostensibly serves as a reflection of Sarah’s own unconscious guilt. Between this and Paul’s sacrifice, it’s as if Orphan Black is intentionally elevating its quality by reaching back to elements of its first season that everyone initially loved.
Such heavy storylines clash somewhat awkwardly against the episodes other subplots—most notably, the Alison/Donnie plotline. Normally, the two’s antics would be a nice respite from the convolution of the main story. Given that the Sarah material is relatively compelling this week, however, cutting between scenes of Sarah’s hallucinations and Alison and Donnie throwing money in the air as they dance in their underwear effectively underlines how schizophrenic the show has become. Sure, the couple’s continuing descent into the drug trade is still amusing (this week, they look into buying a soap store from Alison’s mother as a front for their illicit business), but this is the kind of material that was more needed in last week’s subpar entry, rather than this week’s stronger one.
Likewise, Cosima’s romantic woes get more complicated when Delphine reappears in her life. We also get the reveal that it is Delphine who is monitoring Cosima’s new relationship. I assume this is going somewhere but, in any case, I do wish the creative team would hurry up and get there already.
The only sequence that effectively complements the main storyline is a scene where Felix finds his way into Rachel’s Dyad room and begins viciously interrogating the one-eyed, brain-damaged clone about Sarah’s location. Because Felix primarily exists as comedic relief, it’s rare to see him get as emotionally unhinged as he does in this scene, which finds him verbally harassing Rachel, pulling her around in her wheelchair and painting a blue eye on her bandage patch. The scene is effective in how it plays upon the audience’s sense of conflicting empathy. We recognize and understand Felix’s determination to get intel about his sister but, at the same time, seeing him torment a helpless woman who begs him to stop humiliating her also works to align us with Rachel’s perspective.
“Certain Agony of the Battlefield” is far from a return to Orphan Black’s glory days, but it does go a long way in reminding me why I fell in love with the show in the first place. More importantly, with Paul dead, the militia base compromised and Sarah being reunited with Helena at the end, the show’s creative team appears to be collapsing or even outright disregarding many of the Season Three elements that I felt were weighing it down. One can only hope that Paul’s sacrificial explosion served as a metaphorical cleaning of the slate for the season’s latter half.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.