Review: ORPHAN BLACK S1E06, VARIATIONS UNDER DOMESTICATION (Or, It's A Party At Alison's And Everyone's Invited Except Max Headroom)

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
Twice now fledgling scifi thriller Orphan Black has turned in what I'd consider a true misfire of an episode. And twice it has followed up that dog with an absolutely sterling example of what the show can do when firing on all cylinders. And given that the most recent fire was last week, well, let's say that the news of the second season pick up was greeted warmly here.

What does Orphan Black do so well this week? Well, pick something, really. This week's episode is simply a prime example of the creators having a good bit of efficient fun with the central role swapping conceit while also advancing the progress of a couple key characters and doing so via story and action rather than the non-stop exposition that ground last week to a halt.

The key this week is Alison, the suburban soccer mom finally given her chance to shine as her facade cracks and her carefully ordered world spins into chaos around her. Remember, if you will, that last week saw Sarah confirm that Beth was being monitored by Paul - that the dead clone's boyfriend was actually a plant, placed there to observe her every move by the forces ultimately responsible for creating the clones in the first place. That revelation planted the seed in Alison's head that she must have a monitor as well and that it's probably her husband. Cue the purchase of surveillance equipment. Cue good ol' hubby getting up at 4am for causes unknown. Cue the golf club to the head and husband tied to the chair in the basement being tormented with hot glue as Alison tries to work out what's going on. And, oh yes, the entire neighborhood is coming over for a pot luck lunch and they have no ice.

To put it simply, Alison's arc in this story is worlds ahead of anything else that has been done with the character so far. It taps into her inner fragility and fleshes her out in compelling - and often hysterical ways - purely through her behavior. She'd been a cartoon until this point - a crude sketch of suburban life - and now she's a full blooded person. Which is a handy trick to pull, particularly given that this episode isn't actually about her, not even the stuff that happens in her house.

Who's it about?

Well, there's Cosima, for one, who recognizes the arrival of someone who very well be a new monitor sent into her life for nefarious purposes but just can't stay away. Because she's French and Cosima seems rather attracted to that on a number of levels. And so she strikes up a relationship - no doubt reciting the old mantra about 'keeping your enemies closer' while doing so - and the two head off to a lecture delivered by 'neolutionist' revolutionary Dr Leekie, who believes the next stage of human evolution will be self directed. You know this matters a) because this is a show specifically about genetic experimentation, b) because Delphine (the attractive French one) is the one who suggest it, c) because he shows up again at the end of the episode, and, d) because Dr Leekie is played by Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer, and you know he didn't sign on to this as a one off. Have we just met the mastermind behind the entire cloning experiment? More than likely, yes.

But all of that is (supposedly) happening off in Minnesota (where the university grounds have a remarkable resemblance to the University of Toronto) while Alison's increasingly drunken meltdown is happening in always lovely Scarborough, Ontario. So what's all that about?

Ultimately that's all about Paul, who we now get to see as he really is. And what Paul really is is gifted in matters of well targeted violence, seemingly unhappy about not knowing what has happened to Beth and what his employers really want, and very, very efficient. As Vic's face and hand learn first (ahem) hand. Yeah, Vic. Still completely pointless in the show as anything other than a punching bag and punchline - often both simultaneously - but if they kept Vic around just so that Paul could show what he's got ... well, Paul delivers well enough that I just might be okay with that.

The tease for next week promises to drag us back down the rabbit hole - Beth's police cohorts figure largely, Max Headroom is still kicking around and we still don't know where Paul is going to land in this whole thing, really - so the real question is how they plan to build upon and advance this all but for the time being this was a good 'un. Yup.
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  • marll

    i have to disagree. this was the worst episode so far. it destroyed a really nice dark tone that was developing and plumped for an overlong farce instead. just when i was becoming really engaged with the series as a whole. hope next one goes back to the sci-fi darkness which it seemed to be doing pretty well until this episode. i don't think the series benefits much from the junkie/dealer ex-boyfriend and the gay sidekick either, but the lead actress is brilliant.

  • What I really love about episodes like this one is that they really allow Maslany the space to show off a bit. She's fantastic in these episodes that juggle so many parts. Completely agree with you about Vic, am about 50-50 on how they've been using Felix.

  • marll

    as i say, she is fab and does a great job of making each clone 'distinctive'.
    and it's a bit unfair to criticise afledgling show. overall i love it, it's just a bit uneven on tone sometimes.
    all power to anyone attempting a decent sci-fi show on tv : )

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