This week, on Orphan Black: Sarah’s desperate, Cosima’s torn, and Alison’s a star!
Orphan Black is back, and before diving into an analysis of the season premiere, it feels right to take a moment to enjoy that statement. This series exploded onto genre fans’ radar last year, putting together a fantastic first season that embraced its heightened world while grounding itself with relatable, recognizable characters and one hell of a central performance from Tatiana Maslany. It was one of this reviewer’s picks for the best TV shows of the first half of 2013, it stood out as having one of the best episodes of all of 2013, and at the end of the year, the SoS writers collectively voted it the #15 TV series of 2013, among incredibly heavy competition. Orphan Black season one was fresh, exciting, and perhaps most importantly, it was fun. Thankfully, if this premiere is any indication, we’re in for more of the same in season two.
“Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” throws viewers immediately back into the world of Orphan Black. Sarah’s on the run, Kira’s missing, Alison has made her deal with the devil, and Cosima is processing her seeming death sentence. Wisely, writer and co-creator Graeme Manson eases the audience in with some action; there’s a lot to remember, but when we see Sarah frantically running through the rain, the layers of intrigue drop away. Sarah needs to escape her would-be captors and regroup, a difficult but straightforward task. From there, the episode adds elements with each returned character, most notably comedy with Felix and romance with Cosima.
The outlier in this is Alison, who while still this critic’s favorite Clone and still engaging as ever, is somewhat lost this week. Her scene with Felix is a blast and she is able to push the plot forward through Ramon, her gun guy (she has a gun guy, who is also apparently her florist), but delightful as it may be to see Alison walk the boards (and hear Maslany sing), the snippets we get of her theatre troupe feel out of place, shoe-horned in as fan service rather than tied directly to any of the major arcs. These scenes, and their reminder of Alison’s decision to allow her friend to strangle to death, will likely be folded into the larger narratives soon, but here they’re extra comedic padding in an episode already filled to the brim with Felix-based laughs.
We also spend a significant chunk of time with Rachel, who is already living up to her few scenes-worth of potential from the season one finale. Tying her definitively to Leekie and his organization is an appreciated move. With Kira missing and everyone’s favorite religious zealots popping back up, the last thing the show needs is additional layers of obfuscating bureaucracy. This leads to our first Clone-swap of the season, with Sarah playing Cosima, and it’s clear Sarah’s off her game. Her Beth was far more convincing; Sarah has too much on her mind to be able to fully embody the laid-back Cosima and, fantastic as her coat may be, that much red looks bizarre and wrong on Sarah.
Maslany continues her excellent work with this premiere, playing well off of herself, but particularly shining in her scenes with Jordan Gavaris (Fe). Rachel already feels fairly developed and the main trio of the first season (Sarah, Alison, Cosima) are as distinct and engaging as ever. The big surprise this week is the return of Helena, who was not quite dead when we last saw her. Returning to the religious well is a bit of a disappointment, but Helena was a blast in season one and contrasting the irrational Helena with the hyper-rational Rachel should be fun.
Another promising touch is the increased role for Matthew Bennett as Rachel and Leekie’s muscle. Season one suffered significantly from a lack of interesting and threatening villains, but Bennett already feels like more of a danger than Tail Guy. There’s a sameness to the look of most of the peripheral characters on the show that could make it difficult for some to keep track of who’s with whom, but for now, the writers seem to be on the right track. With Sarah bringing Art into the loop, the only significant character from season one whose status remains a mystery is Mrs. S. The brief Kira scene has a disturbing child endangerment tone to it and Mrs. S is not the type to go down easily, so it’s hard not to be concerned. Hopefully we’ll check in with her soon, though given the many plates already spinning, it’s hard to see where she’d fit in, before Sarah comes crashing to the rescue, that is.
With its twisting plots and engaging performances, it’s easy to overlook one of the major aspects of Orphan Black’s continuing success- it’s fun. It’s entertaining, pure and simple. At some point, this became somewhat of a bad word in TV. Shows couldn’t just be fun, they needed to be intense, brooding, and very serious if they wanted to be considered capital-A Art. This series is all of those things, at times, but it also drips with humor and energy, its pacing and action helped along this week by director John Fawcett’s employment of a new, choppy visual approach. It remains to be seen if this stylistic flair will become a new staple for the show or if next week will see a return to the more straightforward approach of season one, but either way this premiere does a fantastic job of welcoming back viewers, brushing them up on the various elements of the world, and kicking off the season in style. Orphan Black is back and if it can continue to deliver as well as this premiere does, we’re in for another fantastic ride.