Well, that’s a bit more like it.
While I remain a bit indifferent to most of Orphan Black’s various plot strands this season, “Newer Elements of Our Defense” does go a long way towards wringing a favorable amount of genuine suspense and pulpy excitement from the show’s somewhat stilted narrative. Not that the hour does much to fix the season’s more macro issues, but it’s definitely a welcome relief.
It helps that this time around each clone’s plotline is given a bit of propulsion. For Sarah, this involves evading the Proletheans and dragging a heavily wounded Mark to safety. For Helena, this means devising a means of escape from the militia base. For Alison and her husband, it’s dealing with a sudden threat to their budding drug-dealing empire. Oh, and there’s Cosima, whose primary concern is figuring out how to rebound after the fallout with Delphine. So, yeah, not much there yet.
Certainly, the most entertaining segment of the hour by far is the Alison storyline, mostly because it continues to take cues from the more charming aspects of Weeds and Breaking Bad (indeed, Donnie even name checks Breaking Bad this time around). As in those shows, the couple ends up suddenly facing off against a bigger threat then their suburbanite skills can handle. In this case, the threat arrives in the form of an intimidating thug who appears at their doorstep and warns them that they are hawking stolen merchandise. As it turns out, Ramon wasn’t trying to sell off his business before leaving for college but, instead, was attempting to pass his problem off to someone else before getting the hell out of Dodge.
The two arrange a late-night meeting with the thug’s mysterious benefactor and Alison discovers, to her delight, that the drugpin in question is her high school sweetheart, Jason. The two exchange pleasantries and even participate in a bit of noticeable flirting. Eventually, however, it becomes apparent that Justin’s charming attitude may be disguising a much darker persona.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t find a good portion of this entertaining. That’s not to say the storyline is any less derivative, silly or generally disengaged from the show’s major arc. In fairness, we do get Alison phoning Cosima to express her concern for Sarah but that hardly counts as a fix. In any case, it all comes down to execution and it’s due primarily to the likability of Maslany and Kristian Brunn’s Donnie that the plotline does not coming across as an embarrassing knock-off.
The same can’t entirely be said for the Helena storyline. Despite occasional bursts of playful idiosyncrasy, Helena has always been a character who, due largely to her unorthodox behavior, remains the least relatable and “fun” of the main clones. Certainly, she was the Big Bad of Season One for a reason. This year, the creative team seems determined to explore her interior life via the ongoing conversation she has with the scorpion/God figure. And while a decent enough premise, this hasn’t stopped Helena’s subplots from feeling alienating, dour and just generally hard to watch. This week marks the first time where Helena seems allowed to take matters into her own hands and while this turn doesn’t erase the problems with this set-up, it does go a ways to shake up the routine. At the very least, this episode makes us remember that, despite her general strangeness, Helena is enormously smart and resourceful when she wants to be, as evidenced by some of her creative escape plans.
Of course, this all gets derailed when she stumbles upon the horrifying image of a Castor clone who has had the top portion of his scalp removed for experimental purposes. The suffering clone begs her for mercy and Helena grants him it by digging a scalpel right through his exposed brain. It’s certainly memorable but, like most traumatic events that have happened in this base, does not exactly make me want to keep returning back here, lest I get unpleasant flashbacks to the interminable Theon Greyjoy torture scenes from Game of Thrones’s third season.
Meanwhile, Sarah—a developed character in her own right—risks being wasted as a tool for the writers’ obsession with conspiracy and complex plotting. Don’t get me wrong, Sarah has always been the vehicle for which the show’s various mysteries were investigated and solved, but it seems as though her role over the past two seasons has been to simply react to developments and twists as they fly at her. Whatever moments of emotional resonance the character is afforded appears to come more from Maslany’s performance than the actual writing.
This week, Sarah essentially finds herself in an episode of 24 wherein she must escape the bad guys, exchange medical service for intel and be double-crossed before the hour is up. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing since, at its best, these mini-vignettes in 24 could lead to compelling TV. Because Mark is very much incapacitated for most of the episode, however, there’s not a whole lot of interaction at play. That’s not to say the writers don’t get in a few nice comedic bits. For example, upon taking Sarah through how to extract a bullet from his leg, Mark says of an instrument, “stick it in fast, it will hurt less.” To which the ever cheeky Sarah responds, “you must be one hell of a first date.” Their trek eventually leads them to unearth the grave of Abel Johanssen, the deceased baby of Henrik and Bonnie who may contain the original Castor genome. Before Sarah and Mark can celebrate their discovery, the two are attacked by Rudy, leading Mark to reassert his authority and offer to return to the base as an ally of the militia. I guess this means more confusing subplots involving characters and their questionable loyalties. Oh joy.
The major non-clone related storyline concerns Gracie’s return to the Proletheans. Unfortunately, her prodigal daughter-esque comeback is quickly undone when she ends up having a miscarriage. Her mother scolds her and claims that such a tragedy is God’s punishment for running away in the first place. All in all, it seems mostly designed as a means of boomeranging Gracie back to the other side. Because, again, oscillating loyalties.
Overall, “Newer Elements of Our Defense” offers a nice respite from the duller, more confounding installments of weeks’ past. I can’t say I’m entirely confident enough in the show’s direction to state whether or not this improvement marks a significant shift, or merely a temporary boost in quality, but I will keep watching and hoping.