Orphan Black: 210 “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert.
In his analysis of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass Hugh Haughton writes: “[in] sending his Alice through the mirror, Carroll offers a commentary on one of the founding dreams of Western philosophy – that philosophy (and art) can, in Hamlet’s words, ‘hold, as ‘twere, a mirror up to nature’.” In the second season finale of Orphan Black, which invokes Carrollean imagery, writer and co-creator Graeme Manson aspires similarly. The episode is structured around mirrors, and reflective surfaces, that at once telegraph the episode’s dominant theme, and bring the series full circle.
By adopting a Carrollean point-of-view, Manson is able to experiment with, and denature, the characters’ perception of their reality, in the process unifying the series’ exploration of personal identity. Sarah Manning’s surrender to the Dyad Institute is comparable to Alice’s voyage into Looking-Glass Land. The episode brings to the forefront the adult content of Carroll’s text. Violence, and violent intent, are explicit in the narrative, but also nostalgia for times past.
The turbulence of Alice’s experiences (along shifting landscapes) is stylistically expressed in the narrative via juxtaposition. In the present, Sarah undergoes a rigorous medical examination by Dyad staff. A faceless doctor relentlessly interrogates her about her sexual history. The sequence depicts Sarah at her most vulnerable, as she is pressured to admit she had an abortion (and most likely a teenage pregnancy). The sequence recalls and expands on the character’s troubled adolescence, compared to the more responsible woman now. In doing so, Manson contracts the passage of time. This is highlighted by the use of juxtaposition (thus the scenes set in the past can be interpreted as Sarah’s memories, rather than an act of omniscient direction).
Sarah is subsequently handcuffed, and led into an interrogation room. The establishing shot of the scene frames Sarah through the looking-glass: we perceive her from the other side of a two-way mirror, the camera isolating the audience from the character. The shot conveys Sarah from multiple angles simultaneously: she is also being recorded live on video monitors, from cameras differently positioned within the room. The camera then cuts to the inside the room, as Sarah is introduced to Doctor Nealon. Nealon presents Sarah with a contract. With her consent, the Dyad Institute could harvest her ova, for the purposes of progeny. This creates a parallel between the Dyad Institute and Henrik Johanssen, both interested in the propagation of life from one of the twins.
The overall impression of the setting, with its minatory use of colour, might be described as Kafkaesque. Manson combines, therefore, a Carrollean point-of-view with the thematics of Franz Kafka’s literature. Sarah is impotent and helpless before a callous bureaucratic system that has invaded her privacy, and seeks to profit from and exploit her. The setting is nightmarish, as Manson conveys the potential heartlessness of humanity against its own ilk.
Sarah signs the contract, demanding to see her daughter. The camera next frames Sarah on the reverse side of a two-way mirror, facing the camera, as she observes Kira. Her powerlessness is reinforced by the presence of a video monitor behind her that displays live footage of Kira (whilst allowing the audience to simultaneously experience the character’s perceptions as long as the mirror is off-screen). This plot device cleverly lends itself to a deeper experimentation with the manipulation of time and perspective via technology. This maintains the relevance of Orphan Black’s universe with regards to our technologically-oriented present.
The image almost seems to taunt Sarah. The cinematography casts Sarah in a ghastly, unattractive light. Her countenance looks lugubrious, as if she were drained of her vitality. The camera cuts inside Kira’s room, as Rachel approaches Kira. Rachel’s dialogue revisits the opening episode of the season: she and Sarah have not interacted since. Rachel steps up to the mirror. The camera cuts to a reverse-shot from Sarah’s perspective. Sarah is reflected in the mirror, positioned to the right, looking left; and vice versa for Rachel, whose vindictive gaze penetrates the glass.
Haughton has observed that in Through the Looking-Glass, “Alice does not look at or see herself in the mirror”. Instead, the mirror functions like a camera taking a photograph, as Carroll signifies the commencement of the dream. Alice is not duplicated (as she casts no reflection), but nonetheless experiences a multiplicity of form. Likewise, Orphan Black has presented its heroine with variations of herself. In this case, the glass separating Sarah and Rachel represents the boundary between the waking and nightmare worlds: Sarah, of course, is aligned with the dreaming Alice.
A more benign, and poignant, use of mirror imagery manifests later in the narrative, as Sarah and Cosima lie in Felix’s bed together at sunrise. The scene recalls early in the first season when Sarah and Cosima perceived one another reflected in the mirror of the bar. Manson comments on how the characters have changed since.
Cosima shows Sarah her tattoo: “this spiral, this is the golden ratio, and it’s a mathematical pattern that just repeats itself in nature, in flower petals, and honeybees [in] the stars of the galaxy, and in every molecule of our DNA.” Cosima alludes to the work of Adolf Zeising, a German psychologist and mathematician who held the golden ratio to be a universal law of nature. She is audibly awed by the profundity of the concept, which interconnects the entire human race. By alluding to Zeising, Manson emphasises the sororal love between the clones that unites them.
This love extends to Helena, who is formally introduced to Cosima and Alison. Cosima, touchingly, compliments Helena: “You’re very beautiful.” Helena’s arc has been one of redemption, and the finale recalls the crystallising event in her arc: her romance with Jesse, the memory lingering with her. Her introduction to her sisters is framed interestingly. The shot initially forms a triangular formation: Helena and Cosima opposite each other, with Alison in the background. The shot focuses on Helena and Cosima, before Felix walks into the continuous shot. The triangle falls apart, but the layout of the shot visually indicates Helena’s acceptance into the group.
Isolated from the other clones, Rachel’s story has incorporated instead her complicated relationship with Duncan. Undeniably, Rachel still harbours feelings for her father. Rachel arranges for Duncan to view one of her home videos: Duncan reading H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds to the younger Rachel. (The obvious parallel is Duncan reading The Island of Doctor Moreau to Kira: he fosters on Kira, therefore, as a surrogate for his lost daughter.) He recalls the day fondly. The narrative explicates Rachel’s obsession with the past: she apparently cannot recollect her childhood. The video tapes are a substitute for memory.
There’s a melancholy tone to their scene together, as Duncan commits suicide, poisoning his tea. He dies with the knowledge of the synthetic sequences, so as to preclude the Dyad Institute from successively resurrecting the cloning project.
When Rachel has conveyed her vulnerable side, in her interactions with her father, she has emerged as a more engaging personality. Otherwise, she’s mostly been a bitch, which leaves the audience cold. This latter characterisation negatively affects the shock of Duncan’s demise: it feels more like a trivial afterthought than a critical turning-point in Rachel’s arc. Rachel’s transition feels jarring, which distracts from the lyricism that Manson intends.
It would be remiss not to discuss the major revelations of the narrative – and there are tantalising. Sarah finds an ally in Marion Bowles. Marion works for Topside, a company (or “cabal”) that steers the Dyad Institute with other multinationals: “Securing monopolies on a future that embraces genetic engineering, synthetic biology”, a future that Marion “passionately [believes] is inevitable.”
Considering the series’ previous references to Wells’ literature, Marion’s belief would seem to be influenced by the author’s most iconic text: The Time Machine, which depicts the future evolution of the human race along technological lines. Like Wells’ protagonist, Marion thinks “of the Advancement of Mankind”. Marion is the adoptive mother of Charlotte, the lone survivor of the Dyad Institute’s failed attempts to replicate Project LEDA. For an unexplained reason, Charlotte’s leg is in a brace (the result of an accident, or the experiment?).
Marion reveals that Project LEDA was never discontinued. It was divided into two factions, the second operated by the military. Project Castor, named after the son of Leda, twin brother of Pollux, appropriately produced male clones, of which Mark is one. One question is whether the male clones are separated from the females by one chromosome, or if they are an entirely different strain of DNA.
Overall Verdict: 9.5/10
The second season of Orphan Black concludes marvellously. There are still many mysteries as yet unresolved (e.g. Siobhan’s knowledge of Project Castor, Delphine’s background), but these only amplify the viewer’s anticipation for a third season.