Orphan Black season 1 episode 3 review: Variation Under Nature
Orphan Black builds on its impressive start with an episode that truly showcases the talent of lead Tatiana Maslany...
This review contains spoilers.
1.3 Variation Under Nature
Last week’s episodes showed that Orphan Black had the potential to be an interesting, contemporary take on cloning. Although very little was given away in terms of where and what these clones were, and more importantly, why they were being killed, the opening two-parter was a skilfully balanced story of a street smart woman fighting to break away from her past set against a background of mystery and intrigue. It was a strong start, and therefore there was a natural fear that once the season had started proper there would be a decline in quality. It was therefore a relief to see that Variation under Nature resolves some small issues, adds some pace into the story and could not be considered 'filler' as some shows are so often accused so early in their run.
Even this early on, it’s easy to see that show garners most of its strength from Tatiana Maslany’s performances. The opening ten minutes is a showcase of an actor portraying multiple characters and underlines why she has won numerous awards for her work in the series. Playing three different characters who each inhibit their own personalities and nuanced ticks without resulting to overt idiosyncrasies is impressive, more so when considering the show is only just three episodes in. This quality improves the believability of the show’s cloning context and adds an interesting discussion on the nature versus nurture debate, which I hope will be one of many themes Orphan Black goes on to exploit. What do I mean by this? The clones may be genetically the same, but does their history and environment fundamentally change who they are or are they genetically programmed so that they fundamentally act the same. Themes and material that in the hands of a good actor, as Maslany has proven, can be mined for some truly dramatic, and humorous, purposes.
In the introduction, I mention that this episode fixes some issues from last week, perhaps the most substantial development is in Jordan Gavaris’ portrayal of Felix. In the opening episodes, he appeared to be overtly stereotyped, a little uncomfortable and out of place compared with the overall tone. However, this week he appeared much more confident, and used the stereotypes in a way that was both in keeping with the tone and genuinely humorous. As his relationship with Sarah crosses all of her ‘sub’ plots, in many ways he is key in grounding the story to provide an overall consistency that adds valuable perspective, especially when the clone plot elements come into play.
It is those disparate elements that highlight the most impressive aspect of this episode. Even though the central theme is supported by several other stories, Sarah as Beth, Sarah trying to get her daughter back, Sarah working with the other clones, Sarah trying to work out what’s going on, each sub-plot is distinct yet retains cohesion to the overall story. This is in part down to Malsany’s acting in that not only is Sarah an interesting character in her own right, but also the writing is sufficiently strong that each aspect of the plot is well paced and unique. The challenge will be for the show to retain this balance as undoubtedly additional elements will be added to the mix.
Whilst the balancing of the individual story elements is skilfully done, there is a danger that the cost of ensuring that there is a cohesive centre may mean that some plotting risks contrivance. The fact that Sarah would be investigating the discovery of the body she, herself buried is jarring, but just about gets away with it because rather than being an awkward plot point, the body’s discovery is necessary for the story to move on. The fact that Soccer Mum Sarah has been taught to shoot, and can then teach Detective Sarah to shoot so that her real identify doesn’t get discovered arguably crosses that line. For the moment it’s more distracting than irritating, but remains Orphan Black's weakest area.
The danger with shows that end with ‘come-back-next-week’ reveals is that the entire episode has been built around that one element. This wasn’t the case with Variation Under Nature, the questions that it asked felt like a natural extension of where the episode was headed, rather than the reason for it and was a strong ending for a quality episode.
Orphan Black continues to have an impressive start; the hope remains that it can continue.
Orphan Black is available on iTunes, here.
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