Part of the fun of Orphan Black has been watching as the Leda clones gradually uncover the mysteries surrounding why, how, by whom, etc. they were created. Ever since Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) first saw Beth (Maslany), we’ve been taken on an almost non-stop ride into the heart of these mysteries. But now that we’re finally in the middle of all that action, able to glean answers from Dyad personnel or from Ethan Duncan’s research notes, do we want to be there, or do we want the show to leave behind the mystery and give its characters a break?
For me, it’s telling that some of my favorite parts of “The Weight of This Combination” were the moments where the characters were just allowed to be – where there weren’t any Dyad problems, clone concerns, or death threats. Starting the episode in Helena’s (Maslany) fantasy sequence, however, where everything was lovely and there were no worries whatsoever was the perfect way to remind the audience of why that world can’t happen: it simply doesn’t exist on the show, no matter how much we may want it to.
While it would be nice if everyone could have some kind of happy ending, that’s not possible, not only because this is a TV show where a lack of forward-moving plot is a death knell but because both Topside and Castor are coming after the Leda clones.
This would obviously be too much to deal with in one episode, so the Orphan Black writers make the right decision to focus more on the threat posed by Topside this week than that of the Castor clones. Even though Castor has Helena hostage in a box, Topside is the more immediate threat, starting with the arrival of a cleaner named Ferdinand (James Frain) who is there to make sure everything at Dyad is running smoothly.
Unfortunately, after last season’s finale, Dyad is running anything but smoothly. Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) is large and in charge, fulfilling most of Rachel Duncan’s (Maslany) job functions, but to really trick Ferdinand, she must enlist both Sarah and Alison Hendrix’s (Maslany) help. Because Rachel is recovering from getting the pencil removed from her eye, Sarah has to pretend to be Rachel while Delphine puts Alison in place as Sarah, just in case Ferdinand asks to see her. While it might have made more sense to get Sarah to be Sarah and Alison to be Rachel, it would have deprived us one of the greatest things about Orphan Black: seeing Tatiana Maslany’s acting ability.
Now that the show is in season three, it’s no secret that Maslany is the best part of every episode, playing on average four different characters. These characters may all have the same face, but they’re distinct, fully-fleshed out human beings. While it’s amazing to see her juggle the clones, it’s even more amazing to see her juggle the clones as they pretend to be other clones. It would be easy to overdo it – for instance, closing Sarah off emotionally when she’s pretending to be Rachel – but Maslany manages to layer her performances, in this instance keeping the core of Sarah and Alison intact while giving each one’s impression of Rachel and Sarah, respectively.
In this way, they manage to convince Ferdinand that everything is fine with Dyad and more importantly, with Rachel. But throughout most of this sequence, I was confused and more than a little worried for Sarah and Delphine. The episode obviously wanted to build suspense by calling attention to the fact that Ferdinand could figure out something was amiss at any time. It was so convincing on that front that I kept thinking Ferdinand had actually figured out what was wrong and that he would reveal that fact during his later meeting with Sarah-pretending-to-be-Rachel.
But ultimately, this was a frustrating red herring because it was Alison that I needed to be worried about. Throughout the episode, several people made references to something called “Helsinki,” which turned out to be Rachel and Ferdinand’s contingency plan of eliminating the Leda clones except for Cosima Niehaus (Maslany), who could be scientifically useful until her illness killed her. After Dyad took care of Sarah – who Ferdinand thinks is still a hostage – Alison would be the only loose end, and initiating “Helsinki” meant sending a hitman to chloroform her and her entire family before setting the house on fire.
Luckily, “Helsinki” gets called off before any of that can happen when Delphine blackmails Ferdinand by threatening to expose his involvement with the plan to Topside, who wouldn’t be happy with their clone-investments dying. It was of course better than Sarah’s plan, which was to strangle him to death with his own belt in what would look like a BDSM scene gone wrong.
This is not the only violence-filled scene in “The Weight of This Combination.” In fact, there was enough violence that I was trying to remember if this was normal for Orphan Black or if it is going to be a new focus of the season due in part to the Castor clones’ military upbringing and proclivity towards violence. It could well be a new plot point considering all of the violence – except perhaps one of the Castor clone’s attack on Mrs. S in an attempt to recover Ethan Duncan’s research – seemed particularly gratuitous and morally gray at best, and this would give the show a chance to meditate on the issues inherent in violent behavior as a solution to problems.
First, Ferdinand groped Alison-pretending-to-be-Sarah, which wasn’t violent per se but still was very clearly sexual assault. Then, Delphine more or less tortures Rachel by pressing her thumb against her damaged eye in an attempt to unravel the mystery of “Helsinki.” While Rachel may have been positioned as a villain last season, that doesn’t make the violence justified or the scene any easier to watch. And finally, Sarah nearly strangles Ferdinand, an act that is so entangled with sexuality – at least to Ferdinand – that it could make the scene offensive to the BDSM community, especially given many reviewers’ reactions. This isn’t even all of the violence, only the bulk of it, considering Sarah-pretending-to-be-Rachel slaps Alison-pretending-to-be-Sarah and a Dyad guard gets shot in the head onscreen.
As long as the uptick in violence is addressed at some point in the season, I can handle its presence, but at this point, it looks more unnecessary than not and threatens to undermine how much I care about both Delphine and Sarah.
Regarding Delphine, this may well be the show’s intent. As part of taking over Rachel’s duties, it looks like Delphine also wants to take on some of Rachel’s personality. Certainly, she’s more emotionally closed-off than we’ve ever seen her, but it’s clear that this is partially an act when she breaks up with Cosima. She claims it’s an attempt to put all the clones’ welfare on an equal playing field, but the scene leaves both Cosima and Delphine sobbing. I hope this is used to define Delphine’s character outside her relationship with Cosima and look forward to watching her ride the line of morality, if that’s where the show is going this season.
Like many Orphan Black episodes before it, “The Weight of This Combination” throws itself whole-heartedly into exploring the show’s mysteries, keeping the tension high, and never giving the audience a chance to breath. That makes the show exciting but also means it can easily fall apart because all of the plot machinations are so convoluted that it’s hard to remember them from week to week. This is always a danger in mythology-heavy shows as the problems faced by Heroes, The X-Files, even Lost remind us.
Orphan Black is for the most part able to side-step mythology concerns, not least because its seasons are only ten episodes long, but with the introduction of the Castor project and even more clones, some fear the show is getting too big for its britches. When so much of an episode is given over to making sure the plot logically follows what came before, it leaves out character interaction and relationships, which should be driving the show.
“The Weight of This Combination” never makes the fatal mistake of forgetting about the characters entirely, but the first episode of a new season should provide its audience with some sense of where the season is headed. The episode manages to do that by setting up the Castor clones as the main antagonists, but it’s harder to see where all of the Leda clones fit into the master plan.
Since it’s so hard to condense the plot of Orphan Black into a coherent whole, this section is where I’ll talk about important clone stuff that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else.
Alison and Donnie are having money troubles, especially since Donnie just quit his job. She also wants to run for school trustee, which is a plot I’m looking forward to but seems at odds with everything else happening in the show.
Cosima no longer needs an oxygen line to breathe, and along with Scott, she will start deciphering Ethan Duncan’s research in future episodes.
Rachel lost her eye, but she may or may not have brain damage. She struggled to speak when she first woke up from surgery, but the scene wasn’t long enough to be conclusive.
Helena was locked in a box for two days with only an imaginary scorpion to keep her company. While it’s good she’s out now, she’s in the hands of the Castor clones, which is obviously bad.
Tatiana Maslany even voiced the scorpion because of course she did.
“Oy, Oy, Rachel.” – Alison’s best impression of Sarah.
Throughout the episode, characters refer to the Castor clones as the “male clones,” but it makes more sense to call them the Castor clones, especially since we met male Leda clone Tony Sawicki last season, so that’s what I’m going to call them in my reviews.