Orphan Black season 1 episode 5 review: Conditions Of Existence

Orphan Black reaches its season 1 midpoint. Despite a few bumps along the way, it continues to provide fresh, pacy sci-fi drama...

This review contains spoilers.

1.5 Conditions of Existence

Conditions of Existence, marks the half-way point in Orphan Black’s first season. So far, the show has demonstrated that it has pace, strong acting and writing and wears its differences proudly. Which is why is some respects, Conditions of Existence is a slight disappointment to what has come before. This episode sees a focus on paranoia, scientific violation and betrayal. It yet again strikes the right balance between naturally developing the overall story whilst ensuring the audience’s impatience for answers doesn’t go unheeded. Unfortunately, at times the writers’ obvious need to add pace undermines the episode’s overall strengths, with cruder signposting and more reliance on contrivance than we have previously seen.

The real positive this week, and effectively negating my criticism from last week, (my annoyance that Sarah’s death had seemingly been forgotten) was the return of Michael Mando’s Vic, Sarah’s ex-boyfriend. His role in the opening two episodes was the catalyst for Sarah becoming Beth, but despite his significant impact on the story, he was not seen again. His return, and the frankly horrific situation we find him in (and its important to remember that this was as a direct consequence of Sarah’s actions) not only demonstrated that the writers had been biding their time, but that some thought had gone into the impact his reappearance would have. It was intelligently done, although if we had more time with Vic we might have better understanding of just why Sarah hated him so much as the threat he presents seems subdued. However, his parting words indicate that there’s more to come and it will certainly be interesting to see just how he will play into the overall clone plot.

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Speaking of which, the main plot point of Conditions of Existence primarily explores the way in which the clones are monitored and experimented upon. I spoke last week of levels of contrivance within the plotting which are noticeable, but to date remain of lesser significance when compared to the overall strengths of the story. When Sarah (as Beth) has a unsettling dream of being experimented upon and then fortuitously finds evidence of such experimentation, there is a risk such coincidences become more than annoyances and undermine the labours of what has been a well-developed and pacey plot. The fact that this discovery becomes the centre of the entire episode does little to subdue my concerns.

Moving past that, the reveal that the clones have been monitored by those closest to them lacks any real impact as Paul – Sarah’s (as Beth) on/off boyfriend is hardly an endearing character and Alison’s husband has had so little screen time to date that the marriage between them lacks both chemistry and history. Similarly, the reveal that there is a higher organisation behind the creation and monitoring of the clones has been signposted for some time. So when Cosima explains, somewhat laboriously to Sarah, the nature of the relationship between Paul and his boss, Olivier, it becomes a little clumsy and betrays some of the intelligent writing that has been a consistent theme of the series to date.

Talking of signposting, does anyone else think that Delphine, the French student that Cosima meets could possibly be a monitor? You know, because in an episode that is exploring the paranoia behind being monitored by those closest to them, could the writers have possibly realised that they haven’t introduced anyone close to Cosima?  I might be wrong, and in some ways I hope I am, but if true it would be disappointing in a show that has consistently resisted applying the obvious to its plots.  

Don’t get me wrong –  this is still a strong episode and rightly races along on the strengths of its convictions, but the writing dips in both notable quality and inventiveness, something I’m optimistic will be rectified in the episodes to come. Maslany’s acting remains a highlight, although this episode neither stretches nor is an exhibition of her ability to imbue her multiple characters with separate, nuanced personalities. Despite this, it is still good to watch her play the different roles so competently.

The season’s half-way point is an appropriate place to comment on the season arc to date, and despite this episode’s uncharacteristic weaknesses, Orphan Black still delivers on the promise of it strong opening. The clone plotting is developing at pace, and questions and plot points are both skilfully posed and quickly answered, thereby maintaining audience interest.

Despite the science fiction elements, the story remains focused on Sarah rather than the conspiracy or the mysterious organisations behind such conspiracies. This has grounded the show, given it depth and has provided characters that are both interesting and that we care for. It hasn’t yet veered into clichéd TV and remains fresh, wearing its differences proudly – and should be applauded for doing so.

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Orphan Black is available on iTunes, here.

Read Rob’s review of the previous episode, Effects Of External Conditions, here.

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