Season 3, Episode 4, “Newer Elements of Our Defense”
Written by Russ Cochrane
Directed by Chris Grismer
Airs Saturdays at 9pm (ET) on BBC America
Four episodes in, Orphan Black season three is struggling. Sarah at last has a tangible foe in the form of the Castor clones, but these characters are either unexplored or, in the case of Mark, given completely new personalities. Mark’s swaggering military commander in “Newer Elements of Our Defense” bears no resemblance to the barely verbal Mark of season two and while some of this bravado may have been purely for Rudy’s benefit, the writers’ attempts to link Sarah’s new ally to the awkward cult member who brought food to an imprisoned Gracie have been strained at best.
More frustrating are the cliffhangers manufactured in these two episodes. Bonnie’s shoddy handling of Mark reeks of contrivance—why not kill Mark when given the chance, if you’re about to order others to do so?—but even less suspenseful is episode four’s final scene, which implies a sticky end for Sarah at the hands of Mark and Rudy. Orphan Black may have been happy to kill off clones in season one, but they’re long past this stage. Cosima has battled her way back from a death sentence and Helena keeps surviving violent capture; Sarah’s not going anywhere. Rather than energizing the series with a nod to its B-movie roots, these cliffhangers aggravate because the writers are unwilling to commit to them. Mark’s death at the hands of Bonnie was a shock. The next episode’s disappointing and immediate backpedaling from this is a sign that the audience should not trust the show to make bold moves.
While Sarah is attempting to find Helena, Helena is getting into hijinks on the base. Her scorpion is the season’s best addition, by a long shot, and this continues throughout these two episodes. The scorpion gives Helena someone to talk to and lets the audience in on her thought process, and their exchanges occasionally add much needed levity to Helena’s dour corner of the show. Knowing that she is trying to escape allows Helena to be an active, engaged character even while she’s in chains. Her being able to gnaw a bone into a successful key may be utterly ridiculous, but it’s the kind of ridiculous the show does well and since Helena doesn’t actually get out of the base, it’s easy to overlook.
This is not the case with Alison’s adventures in drug dealing. It’s great to have Donnie unemployed and able to spend all his time with Alison, but pushing Alison and Donnie off into a completely separate, non-Clone Club storyline is a bizarre choice for the series, particularly when its most effective arcs have always been those that incorporate multiple Maslanys. With several Castors running around and both Mark and Paul essentially getting character rewrites, there are more than enough new people to get to know without throwing Marcy and the rest of Alison’s circle into the mix. It’s very hard to care which school Alison’s children will end up in when there are Proletheans and Castors running around killing and kidnapping people, and when the most grounded subplot is the one with a clone researching miracle cures via stem cells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, the show has a relatability problem.
Fortunately while Cosima has little to do in episode four, her scenes in episode three are among the season’s most memorable. Scott proves his mettle, at least somewhat, when he helps Cosima perform an impromptu autopsy on Seth. A day like that would send most people running for the hills, but Scott continues to be a warm and encouraging presence for Cosima. With any luck, there’s more action in Scott’s future, as the hands-on scenes in “Formalized, Complex, and Costly” are much more interesting than his material earlier this season or in “Newer Elements of Our Defense”. Cosima’s detour to Frankensteinland may be limited to episode three, but her night out at the bar with Felix in episode four is long overdue. The pair’s relaxed rapport is wonderful and it’s great to spend some time with Felix when neither he nor his apartment are under threat.
As for everyone else, Mrs. S and Delphine are surprisingly absent, Art is still upset about Beth and his buddies’ penchant for getting him into messes, and Rachel is slowly recovering, though to what extent remains to be seen. Gracie can’t seem to escape her crazy mom and in her first real bit of luck, she loses the baby her crazy father impregnated her with. It’s hard to root too fully for those crazy kids Mark and Gracie to make it work, given the circumstances, but whatever Gracie does next almost has to be an improvement on what she’s been subjected to thus far. Her defiance at her captors/parents last season was satisfying and though it’s depressingly logical for her to fall back into an abusive relationship with her mother, the Prolethean cult was one of the weakest elements of season two and it threatens to be so again in season three. Fingers crossed that she’ll leave their new house and not look back.
Despite a few fun scenes, season three of Orphan Black sees its characters as isolated as they’ve been all series. These episodes commit even more fully to Sarah’s journey towards Helena, Cosima’s separate work towards a cure, and Alison’s even more separate entry into the world of drug dealing. It’s hard to see what the writers are building towards and how the various storylines will unite later in the season, if they will at all, and as the season nears the midpoint, that’s disheartening. The writers of Orphan Black can craft tightly constructed, compelling stories; they’ve done so many times before. Hopefully the seemingly unconnected threads of the main characters will come together, and soon, so that the season can get back on track.