Given the inconsistency of Orphan Black season three, it was easy to fear last week’s moving installment would be a blip in an otherwise unremarkable season. Thankfully, “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” builds on the strengths of its predecessor, continuing its character-based approach and efforts to tie as many threads as possible into the central narrative of the season, Project Castor’s conflict with Sarah and the rest of Clone Club.
Paul has been a problem character for much of the run of Orphan Black. The creative team are clearly fond of the character, bringing him back time and again when he could have easily been written out, but few of his character pivots have worked. He was Beth’s boyfriend, then her uninformed monitor, then a soldier running from a dark past in Afghanistan, then an agent of Dyad, then an agent of Castor, and now a patriot, ready to bring down the misled Project Castor from within. The writers have shifted the character so frequently actor Dylan Bruce can’t really be blamed for the inconsistencies in performance. What Paul knows and what is, or has been, a ruse has changed on a seemingly weekly basis. It’s impressive, then, that this episode is able to reestablish such a strong connection between Paul and Sarah, as well as Paul and the audience.
Writer Aubrey Nealon wisely reincorporates Beth here, bringing the series full circle to even greater benefit than during last week’s affecting conversation between Sarah and Helena. Paul was by far the most successful as a character during season one, as he and Sarah maneuvered around each other, establishing a level of trust and commitment, so returning to this relationship makes sense and calls to mind the show’s more human past. Paul’s death may have little impact on the season as a whole—the exposition surrounding his scenes are much more significant than the explosion itself is likely to be—but giving him a memorable sendoff and paring down the cast is a much more effective use of the show’s limited resources. With Mark fully on Team Clone Club (he’s on the team, but not in the club; not even as a probationary member, ala Gracie), he can assume Paul’s role as Sarah’s man inside Castor. With a plot as convoluted as this season’s has been and far too many characters to follow, any streamlining is welcome, so while Paul’s death is an emotional moment for Sarah and fans alike, it was beyond time and the show’s acceptance of this, finally, is an encouraging sign.
The same could be said of the weakest corner of the show at the moment, the adventures of Hendrix Pharmaceuticals. Fortunately, while Alison and Donnie’s booming business as drug dealers is distracting to the point of frustration, this week the show gave fans the gift of Alison and Donnie enjoying their ill-gotten gains: making it rain, twerking against the wall, and genuinely celebrating as only they can (of course Donnie’s covered in glitter). It serves no point in the narrative and has no reason to be there, but it’s fun and in an episode this dour, a dose of fun goes a long way. The good will engendered by both this scene and Donnie’s later car-happy entrance does a lot to mitigate the damage this subplot has done the season, but without a clear tie into the larger narrative, and quick, even Donnie contemplating the tear-away properties of his underwear won’t be able to save this arc
Sarah’s imagined conversation with Beth is the emotional heart of this episode. Despite Beth’s lack of convenient character signifier—her exhaustion is matched by Sarah, given the situation—Tatiana Maslany continues her excellent work, clearly distinguishing between Sarah’s yearning and regret and Beth’s bitter resignation. Sarah appreciates the gift she’s been given in being able to communicate with some version of Beth, even if she is a mental construct, and she makes sure not to waste it. Director Helen Shaver’s use of imagery throughout the episode is lovely, the walls of the cave and light at the end of the tunnel symbolizing rebirth and renewal. Beth wasn’t the only clone brought back either, as Charlotte—or perhaps more accurately, young Clone-To-Be-Determined—appeared to Sarah as well, encouraging her to reach into her mind and find Beth. The scoring in the Beth and Sarah scene detracts from their conversation, but throughout the rest of the episode’s dream sequences, it’s beautiful. Evocative and clear, the score conveys Sarah’s altered state immediately, first reassuring her and then ushering her into her nightmare, waking her up so she can at least try to fight. Thankfully, the episode also gives viewers a glimpse of Kira safe and happy with her father, lest Sarah’s hallucinations be taken as an indicator of peril to come. Orphan Black has played the Kira card too frequently already and like their writing out of Paul, the inclusion of this scene seems to indicate they’re aware of this and won’t be going back to that well, at least for now.
Rachel is still struggling with her recovery, and with her guilt over killing her father, and a visit from Felix really doesn’t help. It’s great to have Rachel’s threatening of Felix, via Paul, touched upon in his final episode. Paul may be very much the hero in this episode, but he’s made plenty of questionable choices over the series and it’s nice that the show doesn’t brush this under the rug. Tying Rachel in to the cure makes sense, given her relationship with Prof. Duncan, but barring Cosima finding a magical cure for her, Rachel’s ability to contribute to the series moving forward seems limited. Hopefully the writers have a trick or two up their sleeve, because Felix’s rough treatment of Rachel (considering) brings out an interesting and rarely seen side of Felix and this is likely something that could be repeated with several members of Clone Club. As for the others, it’s lovely to see Cosima smile, but her new girlfriend is still suspiciously nonspecific and interested in Sarah, and Helena eats her scorpion! There are a few interpretations for that meaning, but this critic sees it as her swallowing her fears and choosing Sarah over herself. Helena’s arrival at the end of the episode is a wonderfully triumphant moment and one that hopefully signals another fabulous Helena and Sarah road trip soon to come.
There may still be rough edges and disconnected storylines, but “Certain Agony of the Battlefield” continues the previous episode’s character focus and layers new levels of visual and audio storytelling on top, teasing a fresh start for the season as well as Sarah. If Orphan Black can build on this episode’s momentum while maintaining its renewed focus on characterization, season three will have made an impressive mid-season turnaround