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Orphan Black – “Variable And Full Of Perturbation” Review

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Orphan Black is a series that often takes us to unexpected and surprising places. The narrative twists and turns may not always work perfectly, but the show has always managed to overcome any kind of narrative hiccup, be it plot contrivances or questionable characterizations. The characters and performances are just so strong and engaging that any situation they are thrown into is somehow tolerable and enjoyable regardless of how extreme or over the top they may be. The writers have created such a successful and fully realized world that they have the freedom to take some pretty major risks. With “Variable And Full Of Perturbation” the writers definitely push the concept of the show to a new extreme (the introduction of a trans clone) and embark on a potentially game-changing direction (Cosima’s possible demise). These developments certainly challenge the status quo in significant ways. Whether or not they are to be beneficial or detrimental to the series in the long run is unclear, but the episode itself did suffer from a drawn out story and the introduction of an uninteresting and underdeveloped complication.

While the idea of Tony, a trans man clone, is a fascinating one, and one that follows the series’ interest in exploring the themes of nature/nurture, gender, sexuality, genetics, etc. it is not totally successful. For the first time in Orphan Black history, Tatiana Maslany could not disappear into a new clone identity. While Maslany is an actress of unquestionable talent, the portrayal is disappointingly unconvincing. Granted, the depiction of a woman to male transgendered person is a challenging role to tackle and one that requires not only a nuanced performance (which we know Maslany is capable of) but also technical/physical alterations, which are definitely lacking. I feel like the needed preparation is just not there. The physical appearance of Tony is not distinctive enough, he basically looks like Sarah with chin pubes, his voice is fine, but in her effort to deepen her voice Maslany goes into a weird sounding accent, and she isn’t doing much in terms of physicality to portray his gender, or even separate identity. The fact that Tony is a trans male, meaning that he was born a woman (Antoinette) and has gone through stages of physical alterations, hormone therapy, and is himself in a way, performing gender can only be an advantage for Maslany’s performance. We don’t know how long ago Tony transitioned, but he, like Maslany, was not born a man and in some way is adopting a new persona, the idea that he might not be yet be fully comfortable in his identity, in his way of being, or is gradually getting comfortable with it, is something that could definitely inform and aid in Maslany’s portrayal, but none of that is felt. Tony reads like an underdeveloped caricature as opposed to an actual person. Consequently it is incredibly difficult to take the character seriously in any given scene, all we see is Tatiana Maslany in a goatee.

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In terms of story, Tony’s introduction is questionable and contrived. The episode draws out the reasons why he has suddenly appeared into the picture and the eventual reveal, his message to Beth, is just not compelling: even more Paul shadiness, and backstory. Haven’t we gotten over him already? It wouldn’t be so irritating if the episode didn’t spend so much time on this. I always welcome the appearance of Felix in any kind of extended presence in an episode, but his scenes with Tony ultimately fall flat. This all feels very contrived and inserted to present an even more challenging clone identity for Maslany to play (it’s like the writers held a meeting to come up for outrageous clone iterations, “Wouldn’t it be cool if one of them was a dude?”), and possible replacement for the rapidly deteriorating Cosima. Because this is not all we are going to see of Tony, right? It feels like the writers are really trying to push things, they invested a lot of time into the Felix/Tony scenes and put an effort to show the impact Tony had on Felix after he leaves. It doesn’t feel like a one-off appearance. Like Felix said, “Lucky for you, we mean to keep you away from all of this, for now.” I suspect Tony will be making a comeback in the show’s third season.

As for Cosima, her debilitating health has been the crux of her arc for the season. Though the series has been telegraphing something horrible happening to her, that final scene at the lab is quite effective. Her sickness has been often been employed to inform the actions of other characters and the way the narrative unfolds (up until last week in which she finally took a stand and asserted herself against Delphine, Cosima had been quite a passive character this season), however the moment is emotionally gripping and we care for Cosima. And, I have to say that the scene in which she informs Scotty that she is “324b21” is so touching and wonderful and more emotionally engaging than anything she has gotten to do with Delphine throughout the entire season. While Cosima’s deteriorating health and grim future is a horrible thing for the characters to go through, it is dramatically compelling and raises the stakes drastically. Also, it is a much-needed dramatic moment in an episode that is so narratively dull. All arrows seem to be pointing to her death, and though many would be upset with the idea of Cosima passing on, if the writers commit to the very real threat of danger in the Orphan Black universe, it will not only raise the stakes but inform character motivations in interesting ways. As much as I enjoy Cosima when she is at her best, and the writers gave her a couple of moments of great levity in this episode, her death would make sense in the ruthless world of the show. If she survives this latest trauma and the story develops to Sarah allowing the Dyad to harvest Kira’s bone marrow, it would feel like a cop-out and something I don’t see the writers (who like to take risks and push things to extremes, who just killed off a major opposing player and introduced a potentially controversial transgender character) doing.

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“Variable And Full Of Perturbation” takes a more deliberate approach to the narrative than the usual episode of Orphan Black. While the introduction of Tony poses interesting possibilities, the execution of the character and the storyline in which he is involved in are substandard. The storyline unfolds in a tedious pace; there is a lot of unnecessary stalling and drawing out of revelations that are just not that groundbreaking. The hour builds up to a tragic and emotional ending, but does not do much to keep us engaged and entertained before then.

What did you think?

 

Final Thoughts

  • I did love everything the writers did with Alison and Donnie. It was a great mix of comedy and drama, as is often the Alison material. Finally these two are in a place in their relationship where they can speak truthfully and we can see the love they share and really do feel for each other. More of these two would have been great and would have broken up some of the more tiresome moments of the episode.
  • Introducing a trans clone is certainly risky and invites controversy to the series, not only from trans-phobic people, but also from those who take offense of the portrayal of transgender characters by straight, obviously non-transgender actors. Also, the suggestion that it is nurture, the way you are raised, that influences a person into making a decision to change their gender, as opposed to an innate sense of identity, is potentially dicey. The show has gotten some flack for the portrayal of Cosima as a gay woman, as it suggests that there might not be a genetic factor in the sexual orientation of a person, but instead perhaps a choice or something that is influenced by one’s environment, which goes against what many argue in the defense of LGBT people. Though the series has never tackled these controversies in explicit or overt ways (maybe with Cosima, but I don’t recall there ever being a conversation that addressed these issues head on) it has utilized them as thematic ideas that are often explored. I think that the series offers an interesting view of such topics and opens up a deeply compelling and fascinating discussion and does so with very delicate hands.
  • “Girl fights are mean.”
  • “Holy Tilda Swinton!”
  • I miss Helena, nice to have her mentioned and be reminded that Kira kind of loves her.
  • “Everybody hates my mother.” I bet. Can we please meet Alison’s mother? She must be awesome.
  • No Michelle Forbes, boo.
Rating
7.5
Pros
  • Great Alison Stuff
  • Gripping Ending
  • No Paul
Cons
  • Weak Character Introduction
  • No Michelle Forbes
  • No Helena
  • Dull Storyline

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