“It’s hard to tell who’s who these days.’
These words are spoken by a character in “The Weight of This Combination,” Orphan Black’s Season Three premiere, but it’s not hard to imagine some variation on this notion being voiced by some of the show’s more casual fans. Naturally, a series involving one actress playing multiple clones is bound to result in no shortage of convoluted, confusing storylines. What was a great novelty in Orphan Black’s first year, however, got perhaps a bit too pretzel-like in its sophomore outing, with characters switching sides at an almost dizzying frequency.
Certainly, if the show’s labyrinth-esque plotting was not immediately apparent, the premiere episode’s extended “recap” portion does a great job of illustrating this. In many ways, it ends up feeling like the hilariously complex “Previously On…” segments that play before each Children’s Hospital episode.
Right away, the show is determined to throw Tatiana Maslany right into the thick of it. As a heavily pregnant Helena lounges in the sun, her “sisters” (as well as Felix and Kira) all gather around her for what seems like some kind of idealistic, Norman Rockwell-influenced barbecue. It’s a sequence that’s reminiscent of the “clone dance party” from last season’s finale, in that all of the Maslany characters appear together in several distinct shots. Whereas that sequence felt like ill-conceived fan service, however, this one at least is actually designed to be a bit cheesy, as it turns out this is all a dream and Helena is actually locked in a crate with a scorpion.
Meanwhile, we find the rest of the clones trying to move on with their lives in the wake of last season’s events. Sarah is living outside the city with Felix and Kira, Cosima is slowly recovering from her brush with death and Alison is attempting to get back in the community’s good graces after her rehab stint (though Donnie’s abrupt decision to quit his job does somewhat through a wrench in this).
Of course, things have become much more complicated after the reveal that the Castor/boy clones are now at play. As played by Ari Millen, these clones are not given the kind of immediate defining features that helped instantly differentiate Maslany’s clones—one’s in a military outfit, one has facial hair and one has a noticeable scar and a Tintin haircut. And while Millen certainly manages to hit the proper “creep” level in his brief scenes, it remains to be seen whether his various characters will be given much more depth beyond the blatant villainy. Then again, unlike the Maslany clones, the Castor clones were all raised together, so it’s not horribly surprising that they would all follow each other’s examples.
These new clones are only the tip of the iceberg though. After Dyad captures one-half of a murderous clone tag-team (the Tintin/scar one), Sarah learns that Helena is missing. She goes to Siobhan, who reveals that she sold out Helena to the Castor military in exchange for Kira’s safety. Sarah is understandably furious, though it is a relief to know that we will (for now) no longer have to worry about Kira being kidnapped, which has provided the basic gist of Sarah’s motivations for the better part of two seasons.
According to Delphine, who has inexplicably been promoted to Rachel’s position at Dyad, a sleazy Topside employee named Ferdinand has come to speak with Rachel and might be able to help them find Helena. Since Rachel is currently immobilized (due to being stabbed in the eye by Sarah last episode), Delphine hatches a plan to have Sarah dress as Rachel, while convincing Alison to take on Sarah’s guise for an interrogation.
And so we get the old Orphan Black gem—different clones pretending to be one another. What helps this from feeling old hat is, aside from Sarah briefing mimicking Rachel’s clipped, cold delivery at the start, the scene is played much more for suspense than general comedy. This quickly escalates to horror when the malevolent Ferdinand dons a pair of latex gloves and begins all but sexually assaulting Allison-as-Sarah in the interrogation room.
After releasing Allison/Sarah, Sarah/Rachel retires with Ferdinand to Rachel’s penthouse where she quickly learns that Ferdinand and Rachel share a sexual history—specifically, of the kinky S&M variety. More shocking, Sarah learns that an operation has just been put into place by Ferdinand to eliminate all the other clones. We swiftly cut to the Hendrix residence where an imposing hitman prepares to attack an unwitting Alison.
It’s in this scene, moreso than even the interrogation/dress-up set piece, that Tatiana Maslany really shines and demonstrates why she’s still one of the best performers in a very crowded TV landscape. Unable to hold it together after hearing this news, Sarah rushes to the bathroom where she attempts to tearfully call Alison in a panic. The moment Ferdinand walks in, however, she quickly works to reconstruct Rachel’s icy façade.
Luckily, Delphine storms in and scolds Ferdinand for his behavior. In response, Ferdinand calls off the hit. Unfortunately, if there wasn’t enough to worry about, the companion of the murderous Castor clone ends up breaking his “brother” out of containment.
As with most Orphan Black episodes, there’s a lot to discuss—sometimes to the detriment of the actual pacing. The first half of the episode presents an almost non-stop barrage of names and exposition that, if you haven’t thoroughly tracked the Orphan Black wiki recently, might be difficult to follow. It’s only in the show’s latter portion that it really locks onto the type of thrilling set pieces that make the show great.
Roughly a year ago, co-creator Graeme Manson revealed that they originally planned for the show to have a three-season run, but that there have been many changes to the series since then, so it may end up going on for longer. It’s not hard to imagine why someone would want to set a cap. There are only so many twists and turns one can implement in a story like this before it either turns stall or the mythology becomes too unwieldy. And though the introduction of the Castor clones provided a nice shakeup, other elements (transgender clone Tony, the ever-oscillating loyalty of Sarah’s former love interest Paul, etc.) felt half-heartedly improvised.
At this point, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the appeal of Orphan Black lies in its storytelling or merely as a vehicle for Maslany to perform amazing acting feats. Either way, “The Weight of This Combination” is a fun, if problematic entry that nevertheless helps set the stage for new threats as well as new complications.