Sunday, April 17, 2016

Orphan Black: The Collapse of Nature

I'm clinging to the return of Orphan Black like a tired swimmer to a life raft. There has been some truly dour crap on my television lately, and even though there's still the lingering image of what happened to Delphine in last season's finale to grapple with, I a) am still holding out hope she's still alive, b) do not hate Shay, and c) am here first and foremost for Tatiana Maslany as the assortment of Leda clones. Seriously, she's like a balm to my soul.
I spoiled myself by watching the first four minutes of this episode back when it was released as a "sneak preview", and the subsequent wait has been excruciating. But we're here now, at the start of season four of Orphan Black, and I'm so happy.

As the clip revealed, this episode is a forty-five minute prequel that details the events of Beth's life that eventually led to her taking that fateful step in front of a moving train. Prequels can be great when they're done properly, not only in how they shed new light on past events, but by building a sense of excitement in the viewer based on their foreknowledge of what's on the horizon.
It's not about what will happen so much as exploring why things happened, as well as capitalizing on that narrative sense of inevitability. Just for once, the viewer is in the position of knowing much more than the characters, and in this case, it's dread and enlightenment that's instilled in the viewer: dread in knowing that Beth will eventually commit suicide, and enlightenment in discovering exactly what led her to that decision.
And on top of all that, we also get a few fresh faces introduced amidst the familiar ones; new characters that will no doubt make reappearances in the present-day storyline. In all, it's a pretty genius way to kick-start the season.
We open with a brand new clone called Myka (or MK) who is eventually revealed as the instigator of pretty much everything that's happened to the Leda clones. She's the reason Beth found out she was a clone, who in turn was told of Alison and Cosima's existence, and consequently their self-awareness. She's the one who sowed the seeds of paranoia in Beth's head, which led to her suicide and Sarah's induction to the clone club. There's every chance she was involved in the mysterious Helsinki incident (her comment "they think I'm dead" suggests as much), and it wouldn't surprise me if the code-words shared by the clones ("just one, I'm a few, no family too; who am I?") were her invention too. This is Patient Zero stuff right here.
She has a tendency to wear a sheep mask, which is simultaneously spooky, impractical, and loaded with symbolism (Dolly the sheep, anyone?) and at the start of this episode has tracked down a couple burying a corpse in the forest and phoned in the details to Beth. This entire subplot is largely designed to introduce us to a new plot-strand that'll no doubt be developed this season, as well as linking in with the bizarre mouth-worm that Doctor Nealon nearly killed Delphine with last season. 
Basically, the Neolutionists are inserting these creepy worms into their followers' cheeks – and then removing them again, with fatal results. So far their purpose is unknown, but the sight of them throws Beth through such a loop that after spotting them surgically remove the entire cheek from one of their victims, she's in just the right state of mind to accidentally shoot Maggie Chen.
But more than plot setup for the rest of the season, this episode is a study of Beth in the final days (or weeks) of her life, with Maggie's death as the catalyst. It can't have been long after this that she committed suicide, as when Sarah takes over Beth's identity has to deal with the police hearing almost immediately afterwards. (Though I suspect getting confirmation of Paul spying on her via the surveillance equipment is what gave Beth the final push).
Here she's obviously suspicious of Paul, wrung out at work, struggling to hide her double-life, embracing a substance abuse problem, and (perhaps most pertinently) having a deep identity crisis. Her interactions with Paul in particular are of a woman desperate to be seen and heard as an individual, with issues such as her infertility and sense of responsibility in protecting the others constantly gnawing at her.
So it's fascinating to know that in the wake of Beth's death, the remaining clones manage to forge a deep and lasting kinship that very much revolves around Sarah. Here the trio of Beth/Cosima/Alison interact on what seem to be strictly business terms, and that seems to be because Beth hates the idea of being a clone. Obviously none of them initially like the fact they're clones, but Beth fundamentally treats the others as people to look after and a problem to solve rather than sisters that can be relied upon.  
The only time she really seems at peace is when she falls asleep at MK's dive, and tragically we know that it was only temporary reprieve.

I found myself wondering if Beth is Tatiana Maslany's "purest" character in terms of her performance. The other clones all have accents, unique hairstyles and other affectations (Sarah's swagger, Alison's posture, Cosima's hand gestures) but Beth was just ... Beth. Tired and afraid, but without any distinctive features – which was perhaps a deliberate choice to demonstrate how inconsequential she felt.
Yet Beth had an assurance about her, and she was good at her job, striking up a rapport with the pregnant young woman at the club and winning enough of her trust that she calls to tell Beth where her boyfriend has gone.
And it was interesting to see not only the differences but the similarities between Beth and Sarah. Here Beth used the term "freaky Leekies" to describe Professor Leekie's followers, something I'm pretty sure Sarah coined back in season one, and there was also each woman's manipulation of poor hapless Raj, taking advantage of his crush on her to get what they want. It'll be interesting to watch season one with all this new information in mind, as it certainly gives Sarah's "theft" of Beth's life a new context.
As for the plot, it's interesting seeing a prequel that airs after certain retcons took place in season three. For instance, Paul in season one was a soldier that had served in Afghanistan and blackmailed by Dyad into becoming Beth's monitor. Season three reimagined him as a military spy pretending to be blackmailed by Dyad but really just keeping an eye on one of the Leda clones, with full awareness as to who and what Beth really is.
Although nothing in season one was technically contradicted by that retcon, the performance Dylan Bruce gave when he learned that Sarah was Beth's "sister" was as someone completely flummoxed and disturbed by events, and therefore not really a spy for the military who would have been aware there were clones of Beth out there. 
Paul was never a character that really gelled with the other characters or the overarching story (I think there's one in every show), and so it was best he met his end in season three – but I read an amusing comment at The AV Club that pointed out this was Dylan Bruce's best performance because he finally knew just what the hell his character was thinking.
A retcon that worked a little better was Art's feelings for Beth. This revelation was dropped on us in season three with no build-up or logic, and like Dylan Bruce, there was no indication in Kevin Hanchard's performance throughout season one that he was harbouring any romantic feelings for Beth. But what went down in this episode: that he and Beth spent a night together after she sought him out for comfort, actually feels like something that could have realistically happened and then not spoken of again between the two of them. It gives an extra dimension to why he was so willing to implicate himself in the Maggie Chen cover-up, as well as his animosity with Paul. Basically: nice save writers!
Finally, there's a retcon of a retcon. Well, more like the retcon of a revelation. In the first season it was initially assumed that Beth accidentally shot Maggie Cho, only for Cosima to realize the woman was working for the Prolethians, leading to her belief that Beth deliberately murdered her in order to protect the sisters. Now the writers have retracted that (again without fully contradicting themselves, since Cosima had only assumed it was a deliberate shooting) and definitively staged it as an accident.
Whew, this is complicated. It would be nice to learn more about Maggie (even though I hope we're done with the religious fanatics as the show's villains) as it seems likely she was deliberately shadowing Beth down that alley. And I suppose Beth never found out who she truly was?
That said, the aftermath played out exactly like we'd been told, with Art placing the cell-phone in Maggie's hand and instructing Beth to state she'd mistaken the woman for Xan Yip.
And of course, the Continuity Cavalcade! Professor Leekie, Paul, Angie, Ramone, Olivier, Astrid, Raj, Janis, the Lieutenant – and naturally, Felix finds a way to squeeze in a little cameo too. It was amazing they managed to round up so much of the original cast, not to mention little contextual lines that put everything into a specific time and place – such as the pink cell-phones, Beth borrowing surveillance equipment, Alison getting her gun, and Leekie and Olivier mentioning the need for a new monitor for Beth considering her failing relationship with Paul.
Evie... nickname for Eve? That name bodes well...
Among all these old faces, the new ones tend to pop out. Most interesting is Evie Cho who is present when Beth introduces herself to Leekie (and how chilling that he knew all along exactly who she was and what she wanted) and is told: "one of my subjects exhumed one of yours." Oh yeah, she'll definitely be back.
And so too will Detective Duko, the bearded guy who apparently works at the police station, and the duo of Frank/Roxie who were first seen burying the corpse in the woods. Apparently they're all Neolutionists, and they're everywhere. Yeesh, no wonder Beth ended up so paranoid.
Miscellaneous Observations:
A phone call begins and ends this episode, the first to Beth and the last to Sarah, both from MK. And you have to admire the way they staged the first call; letting the audience wonder which clone it was, and then having MK say: "don't trust anyone next to you" right before Paul sits up beside Beth.
"You're not scared enough." Terrifying line. But it's not terror Beth feels, but despair. It eventually leads her to that train station, and there's a tragic poetry in Sarah's face being the last one that she sees.
This also explains some of Alison's behaviour when we first meet her, for now we know she was not only nervy, but had been Beth's enabler, sending her happy pills and drug-free urine from her daughter (in a pretty blue bottle, no less).
As tragic as watching Beth was, knowing what eventually happens to her, it was almost funny watching Leekie, knowing he'll be taken out by Donnie in a freak shooting accident. Does make me feel sad to realize we lost Matt Frewer though. He was excellent, and did some great work here with his reaction to Beth's appearance.
Did we know Art had a daughter? That feels like new information.
In all, this was an excellent start to a new season. I know I've said it before, but I'm so happy Orphan Black is back, especially given the toxic wasteland that my other shows and their respective fandoms have become. (Hell, even The Musketeers is filling up with wank and season three hasn't even started yet!)

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