[This is a review of the Orphan Black season three premiere. There may be SPOILERS.]
Orphan Black‘s star Tatiana Maslany isn’t slacking off as the show returns for its third season. Within this season premiere alone Maslany not only plays Sarah, Helena, Cosima, Allison, Rachel and new clone Crystal, she also has to portray versions of Sarah, Allison and Cosima as they exist in Helena’s mind, before then playing Sarah and Allison in (inexpert) disguise as Rachel and Sarah, respectively – wobbling between the two characters’ personalities and accents with each emotional beat of the scene.
It’s a dizzying juggling act that’s most notable for how much it doesn’t stand out. As in previous seasons, it’s very easy to forget while watching Orphan Black that half of the main cast is played by the same person instead of five different actresses (who just happen to look exactly the same).
It’s also not an act that just any performer could pull off, which is why this season all eyes will be on Ari Millen – as he takes on the role of the four (and possibly more) Castor clones. Perhaps it’s just because there isn’t much to physically distinguish Mark, Miller, Seth and Rudy apart from hair styles (and a few additional details like Rudy’s scars and Seth’s mustache), but the Castor clones haven’t really evolved as distinctive personalities just yet. That might have something to do with the fact that Millen hasn’t had much of a chance to act opposite himself just yet.
Fans who were worried about the clone boys crowding in and drawing the focus away from Orphan Black‘s parsing of female experiences should rest assured that Sarah and her sisters still seem to be very much center stage. Poor Helena has been kidnapped again and spends the premiere inside a box with a talking scorpion – hardly an ideal environment for a mother-to-be. Meanwhile, Helena’s “sestras” are left to try and conceal the awkward detail of Rachel’s pencil incident from Topside cleaner Ferdinand, who has arrived to assess the situation at the Dyad Institute.
Perhaps the most drastic character growth in the premiere is Delphine, who steps into a leadership position with calm and no small amount of ruthlessness. Describing herself as the “new Rachel,” Delphine attempts to ease Ferdinand’s visit by torturing information out of the old Rachel, who has been left with brain damage and garbled speech after getting an unhealthy dose of lead in her frontal lobe. Delphine also breaks things off with Cosima, so as to better maintain her objectivity when it comes to the Leda clones.
Whether Delphine will eventually turn out to be just as bad as Rachel remains to be seen. The two characters share a certain knack for being cool and calculating, but Delphine doesn’t have Rachel’s bubbling undercurrent of insanity and she obviously still cares a great deal for Cosima. Of course, that could only serve to make her even more dangerous.
Amid all the murder and intrigue, Allison decides to run for school trustee against fellow suburbanite Marci. Like the Helena kidnapping, this feels like it could turn into a retread of a previously used plotline (Allison’s enmity with Aynsley), but there’s something about the clones at least attempting to continue with their normal lives that grounds the story and makes the stakes higher. Even after everything that’s happened, there’s still a lot left to lose.
“The Weight of This Combination” isn’t an explosive start to season three and is largely spent controlling the damage done in the season two finale, but it does an effective job at imparting the plot elements that will soon be coming into play. All four of the Castor clones, along with an additional Leda clone, were properly established, as was the new dynamic at the Dyad Institute and Sarah’s uneasy alliance with it.
This episode might be the mandatory paperwork that comes between storms of action, but the premiere had plenty of tense scenes to make up for the lack of major events. The interaction between Sarah (as Rachel) and the dangerously observant Ferdinand (as an assassination threatens to play out at Allison’s home) is particularly gripping – even if the somewhat silly sexual encounter between Ferdinand and Sarah turns the conclusion of this drama into a choked-off whimper instead of a bang.
Orphan Black returns to BBC America next Saturday at 9/8c.
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