Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 1 through 8 is “Ease for Idle Millionaires,” the fifth episode of the fifth (and final) season of BBC America’s Orphan Black.
Sobbing, Cosima lowers a gun, once aimed at a suffering person’s head, to spin around and stare her creator in the face. “You gave me life, and I know you can take that away,” the clone says, her face blotchy and furious. “[But] you can’t take away my humanity.”
This is the kind of moment that first made Orphan Black so special. It’s also the kind of moment that, as the series got lost in its own mythology, became unfortunately rare.
After a stellar first season and a half-great second season, Orphan Black rapidly lost track of its own plot and multiplying clones (all played with almost frightening dexterity by Tatiana Maslany). Its shadowy corporate villains splintered into seemingly countless factions; every time the show settled on one Big Bad, three more would emerge, like it was chopping the head off a Hydra only to have several more pop up in its place.
A new group of male clones — the “Castor” line, portrayed by Ari Millen — confused things even further, shifting Orphan Black’s focus away from its strong stories about women’s autonomy and toward a narrative centered on military hubris, or something like it. The growing web of complications just got too sticky to keep up with, and by the time season four rolled around, what was once an exhilarating ride had become downright exhausting.
But now, halfway through its last season, Orphan Black is wisely doing its damnedest to pare back a bit and untangle its incredibly knotted plot in time for its series finale. The show won’t ever quite be able to escape two and a half seasons’ worth of ever-complicating plot, but episodes like July 8’s “Ease for Idle Millionaires” prove that Orphan Black can still find a way to pause its grander schemes to tell the kinds of personal stories that first made the show so fascinating.
Season five is making a point of consolidating storylines, and it’s paying off
Orphan Black’s recent efforts to simplify its sprawling mythology are the smartest thing it’s done in season five, even if those efforts are about a season and a half late. Not only does watching the show feel less like an endless game of mental tag, but the show’s narrowed focus has allowed it to get back to the kind of intimate stories it’s always excelled at telling. It’s been able to return to its central cast of clones — Sarah, Cosima, Rachel, Alison, and Helena — and give them more space to be truly human again instead of moving parts of an overwhelming whole.
Just halfway in, Orphan Black’s final season has already weeded out the many, many threats that have been keeping its clones so busy for so long. The Prolethean fundamentalist cult faded out. The disparate branches of the scientific conglomerate “Neolution” came together to concentrate their efforts on using the clones for their own research and experimental designs. Steely housewife Alison and her husband Donnie, who’d been trapped in their own Weeds-esque spinoff of suburban crimes for at least a season, found their way back to the main story, eventually getting their own bruising moment in the spotlight in the season’s third episode, “Beneath Her Heart.” And with “Ease for Idle Millionaires” — directed by Helen Shaver, Orphan Black’s sole woman director — a few key plots reached their turning points.
Cosima, who’s both a clone and a gifted scientist, flashes back to the moment in season one when she found out that her genetic code is patented and that her DNA isn’t even her own, but her girlfriend Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) helped convince her that she still had individual traits no one could ever take away. Both this flashback to season one and the couple’s scenes in the present day in “Ease for Idle Millionaires” are key to understanding Cosima’s fragile mindset. (Plus, Maslany and Brochu’s chemistry is so tender that they’re hard to resist no matter what.) When Cosima finally breaks down toward the end of the episode, it’s because she’s staring down someone who was also an experiment, someone who also couldn’t control his fate — and won’t survive because of it.
When Cosima finally confronts her creator — the mustache-twirling, supernaturally old scientist P.T. Westmoreland — it’s for torturing the man he made into a monster with dubious experimental treatments. No matter how much Cosima loves and reveres what science can do, she spends the entirety of “Ease for Idle Millionaires” gaping in disgust at how it’s been used to turn people into lab rats without their consent, all in the name of discovery. When Cosima crouches down next to the tortured man, the monster to Westmoreland’s Dr. Frankenstein, she reaches out with a quivering hand to try to remind him that he’s both human and important — and then reels in horror when Westmoreland puts a bullet through his head, the better to move on with his life’s work. This science is so far removed from the humanity Cosima holds dear that she can hardly look it in the eye without shaking.
Finally, the clones finally discover what the Neolutionist Dyad Institute wants from Sarah’s daughter, Kira, who was miraculously born from a line of clones that was designed to be infertile. Much of Orphan Black has been devoted to people trying to figure out why Sarah was able to get pregnant and have Kira, and what makes Kira special. So it’s hardly surprising when Cosima discovers that the scientists who created the clones want to study not just Kira, but her eggs too.
It’s unclear as of now what Neolution Dyad’s end goal will be, but this calculated theft of Kira’s autonomy via its plan to commandeer her eggs eerily echoes the kinds of invasive experiments that scientists and cult members and “well-meaning” monitors alike have been performing on the clones since the series began. And for as awful as it is, this development also proves that Orphan Black is ready to get back to a theme it once excelled at exploring.
Orphan Black is at its best when it’s telling stories about women fighting for control of their own bodies
When I was recapping the first three seasons of Orphan Black at the A.V. Club, I tried to ban myself from using the word “agency” in every review. This proved almost impossible, but I couldn’t be too mad about it. To its credit, Orphan Black has never just been the story of a group of clones who got swept up in something bigger than themselves; instead, it’s the story of a group of clones — and specifically women — taking control of their own lives, their own narratives, their own miraculous beating hearts.
The show has always been a constant push and pull between women fighting to maintain their independence — whatever that means to each one of them — and the people (often men) who wouldn’t blink while stripping it away.
With the final season’s villains trying to procure Kira’s eggs, Orphan Black’s entire narrative comes full circle. The strongest and most terrifying parts of Orphan Black have often traded in body horror, as forces beyond the clones’ control have tried to use everything from their DNA to their ovaries for personal gain. By weaving Kira — the daughter Sarah has been trying to protect since day one — into this story, the show gets back to its roots, and emphasizes its original intent to make people really think about what it means to be a woman whose body is constantly under attack.