Orphan Black Review: “Formalized, Complex and Costly”

(Episode 3.03)

TV Reviews Orphan Black
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<i>Orphan Black</i> Review: &#8220;Formalized, Complex and Costly&#8221;

For a show that only releases 10 episodes per season, Orphan Black can be remarkably good at killing time. Indeed, the main thrust of “Formalized, Complex and Costly” appears to be fleshing out the info established in the previous episode. Certainly, when a show casts as wide of a story net as Orphan Black it’s frequently the characters that are trying to catch up with the audience. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a show where each episode represents an incremental progression of various plotlines (Game of Thrones does this masterfully). However, considering Orphan Black’s actual storylines tend to fall into the “spotty” realm, this can make the experience, frankly, a tad dull.

The episode begins promisingly enough with a fun scene in which Sarah and Felix brainstorm about what to do with the body of Seth, the euthanized Castor clone. Things get all the more awkward when Detective Bell picks that exact moment to come visit and finds Seth shoved into a bathtub. “Can’t you just look the other way?” a nervous Felix asks. “It’s a dead body, not a bag of weed,” a blunt Bell responds. Eventually, they decide to give the body to Cosima and her lab partner Scott, who Felix teasingly refers to as “Scooter” (a Muppets reference is the quickest way to my heart). The two promptly begin analyzing the clone’s features, including the neurological ailment that resulted in its death.

Bell, as it turns out, was seeking out Sarah because he has information on the whereabouts of escaped Prolethean/Castor clone, Mark. On their road trip to the location, the subject of Beth Childs comes up for the first time in a long while. Again, given all the twists and convolutions that the show has stacked up over the past two years, it’s hard to believe that it was once simply about a petty criminal attempting to embody the life of her police officer doppelganger, while trying to figure out why she has so many doppelgangers.

It’s during this time that we’re given a bit more depth into both Beth’s and Bell’s character. Beth apparently attempted to contact Bell shortly before her suicide. The likely reason—the two had, against all professional and personal logic, hooked up the night before, thus giving a whole other layer to Bell’s already tenuous relationship with Sarah and her clones. It’s hard to tell whether this bit of background will hold up in viewing past episodes or if it’s merely a retcon designed to flesh out Bell, who has been a fairly flat character for much of the series. Either way, it’s a nice character beat that’s very much needed in a show bombarded in plot.

Meanwhile, we also bear witness to the lovers-on-the-run lifestyle of Mark and his runaway pregnant bride Gracie Johanssen. Even at the height of the Prolethean storyline last season, these characters were never the most enticing element of that plotline and, despite some great work from both actors, there’s just not a lot of engaging material here. After consummating his marriage, Mark admits to Gracie that he was sent by the militia that raised him to infiltrate the Prolethean ranks, but he now wants to abandon them to start a new life with her. This, however, necessitates that he bring them something of substance to get them off his back for good. This leads to Gracie traveling to the farm of her father’s nefarious associate, Wilbur Finch, in an attempt to secure some samples Henrik left him. It also leads to the best moment in this particular subplot when, after Finch demands payment for the samples, the normally timid Gracie steps up her game. “Proletheans make fearsome enemies,” she warns. “Do you want me to disturb my mother’s grave for your thirty pieces of silver?”

While this is going on, Alison and Donnie Hendrix continue to go Walter White by offering neighborhood housewives various “mother’s little helpers” under the guise of selling fancy, hand-crafted soap. What’s more, they offer a discount to those who “consider” listening to Alison’s stance against Marci’s rezoning policy. This finally leads to Alison and Marci moving past their passive aggressive stage and going straight into an aggressive one (albeit, with friendly smiles still plastered on their faces). While I continue to enjoy this little oasis away from all the more serious plotlines at play here, it’s still just that. An oasis. An island of a storyline divorced from everything else around it. It’s like something the writers return to whenever they become bored with their own mythology building. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the show didn’t already feel so loosey goosey as is.

In any case, the main storyline ends with Sarah inadvertently crossing paths with Gracie. The girl eventually reveals that Mark has returned to Finch’s farm to retrieve the samples by more forceful means (indeed, we later discover that Mark’s interrogation techniques ended up inducing a heart attack in the old man). Sarah makes her way to the farm, but not before learning from Cosima that, based on the deceased Seth’s DNA samples, the Castor clones are the Leda clones’ biological brothers. It’s a notion I had always assumed based on the nature of those cloning experiments. It’s a conclusion I also assumed the Leda clones realized as well, but this seems to legitimately take Sarah and Cosima by shock. In a subsequent showdown, Sarah tries to relate this intel to Mark, but he refuses to believe her.

We then arrive at the episode’s cliffhanger moment. Throughout “Formalized, Complex and Costly,” Henrik Johansson’s widow Bonnie has been trailing her daughter. Prior to this scene, she’d even seemed to succeed in convincing Gracie into giving Mark away. She arrives at the Finch farm armed with an assault rifle and appears to execute Mark out in the cornfields with Sarah watching in horror (we never see a body, so TV law states he may very well be alive).

While a good curveball in theory, Bonnie’s reintroduction into the fold gives me cause for concern. The great part of Helena burning down the Prolethean headquarters in the previous season was that I felt as though the creative team had decided to tap out of that particular plotline. However, it looks like Bonnie is merely picking up where her husband left off. Between her, the Castor clone militia, the still questionable Tophead institution and Rachel (who we see recovering in one scene), we’re reaching Spider-Man 3 levels of villain overload. And though it’s likely that these threats will converge later in the season, right now it’s all but setting the show up for plotting and pacing issues down the line.

Whereas the first two Orphan Black installments had their issues, there was at least a sense that the creative team was attempting to streamline certain elements of the show. “Formalized, Complex and Costly” effectively throws a major wrench in that plan. By all means, it’s still a perfectly fine episode, but one whose quality is a bit diluted by the developing cracks in its foundation.