This week, on Orphan Black: Alison regains her dignity, Sarah has a guardian angel, and Mrs. S gets her groove back
Orphan Black has had a solid second season so far, bringing interesting new developments for most of the characters (and enough fun with Alison to make up for her somewhat lackluster arc). This week, things kick up a notch, with more action and suspense and serious legwork done to prop up the less successful corners of the show. A key element of what works here is the focus of the episode- unlike in previous weeks, “Governed as It Were by Chance” is very much the Sarah show. We spend memorable moments with the other clones, but Sarah is our throughline, digging into the mysteries of Mrs. S and pulling the audience along for the ride.
Alison wakes up, after her painful-looking faceplant last week, in rehab. This is a smart move by the writers, essentially putting her on hold for a while; Alison’s decision last year to stay in Stepford has limited the writers’ options for her and while it’s been fun watching her deal with her guilt over Aynsley and try desperately to regain some semblance of normalcy, her travails in community theater don’t have the narrative oomph of the other clones’ stories. Distancing Alison from her children hasn’t helped either- one of her defining traits in season one was her role as a suburban soccer mom. This year, we’ve barely seen her kids.
It’s a rare weak point for the season, which has prioritized the main relationships in the other main clones’ lives. The writers have doubled down on Delphine, Felix, Kira, Mrs. S, and Helena’s lack of a support network. We’ve even spent gotten a sense of Rachel’s monitor, while she remains mostly a mystery. If the show isn’t going to give us an honest, hard look at Donnie and the kids (Does Donnie care about them or are they just another part of his assignment? We should know by now), it makes sense to put Alison on ice until the writers have a good reason to pull her off the bench.
Cosima continues to deteriorate, but mostly functions this week as a sounding board for Sarah and Felix. There are several nice touches in their Skype chats, another reminder of Tatiana Maslany’s wonderful, very specific character work. We spend far more time, however, with Mrs. S, who we finally get to see in her natural environment, outside of her role as (grand)mother. We knew she was a badass. This week, we discover she must’ve been a wild child too. Her interactions with Benjamin (it’s great to see Julian Richings pop back up) and Carlton are very familiar- this is where Sarah’s particular blend of attitude and responsibility comes from. Maria Doyle Kennedy plays her scenes extremely well. It would be easy for this new Mrs. S to feel like a cheap imitation of Sarah. Instead it’s revelatory, answering questions viewers may not have realized they had about Sarah’s personality and upbringing.
Helena gets far more screen time than Alison or Cosima, and the Prolethean compound is far more successfully developed this week than it was in the previous two installments. We get a better sense of Gracie in her decision to smother Helena, and a nefarious cliffhanger with Henrik and his microscope, but neither of these is as important as Helena’s escape. Maslany is a campy delight as Helena, but the character isn’t interesting without agency. Until this week, she’s been purely a victim, unable to even move of her own free will. Did we need to go to a Sister Wife place with the Proletheans? It’s disappointing, to say the least. However, with her sprint out of the compound in her wedding dress (Art’s reaction is priceless) and her end-of-episode exchange with Sarah, Helena brings energy to the show once again, rather than bogging it down. The visual of Helena, bloodied and still in her wedding dress, is striking and her moment with Sarah is fantastic, with great work from Maslany twice over (more on that later). This scene is the week’s winner of the “How’d they do that?!?” award and there’s likely plenty more to come when we pick up with the two next week.
The core of the episode, however, is Sarah. From her scenes with Cal and Kira to Cosima to Felix to Helena, this episode thrives on her difficult decision making. Cal is right to wonder what the still shaken Sarah would do early in the episode. She’s lost her bearings and much like Helena, it’s satisfying to see her take control once again, even if her proactivity lands her in Rachel’s shower with the far from pleasant Daniel. It’s notable that Sarah is so tight-lipped with Cal. It’ll be a relief if he truly is separate from the Dyad Institute/Prolethean/Project LEDA conspiracies. Right now the show’s only non-clone injection of Everyman is Felix and try as he might, Fee can’t be everywhere at once. For a former mark, Cal is surprisingly confident in Sarah’s intent to return for Kira; hopefully this is a byproduct of the strength of the couple’s connection last week rather than an indicator of an ulterior motive.
Strong as the Sarah/Cal and Sarah/Felix scenes are though (it’s nice to see the siblings already back together), the highlight of the episode is Sarah’s interaction with Helena. This scene is helped by effective scoring (composer Trevor Yuile’s work gets better and better each week) and good direction, but unsurprisingly, its success comes down to Maslany’s performance(s). Sarah’s reaction is a wonderful bit of audience surrogacy, as viewers were asking themselves the same questions about her survival a couple weeks ago, and her shock, horror, and fear, combined with Helena’s blend of need, anger, and confusion, make for utterly compelling television. As it nears its halfway point, Orphan Black season two is taking risks, making its world more complex and interesting without over-complicating it, all the while keeping a firm grasp on the core strengths of the series. It’s been a fun four episodes- bring on episode five!