Some season premieres are satisfied with a “Previously on…” recap to get the audience caught up, but Orphan Black‘s season 4 opener, “The Collapse of Nature”, goes right back to the start and then beyond with a prequel episode all about the clone we never really got to know: Beth Childs. Series lead Tatiana Maslany gets a fresh opportunity to show off her chameleonic acting talents as she introduces audiences not only to the frayed nerves and chemical dependency of Beth, but also to the paranoid, mask-wearing Leda clone M.K. While much of this episode’s focus is on Beth and her fall from grace, its long-term function is seemingly to allow audiences to meet a character who will come to play a larger role in the coming season.
Of course, that’s not the only reason that “The Collapse of Nature” is such an interesting episode. For starters, its past setting allows for a reunion with various characters who have been killed off over of the course of the series – including Paul (Dylan Bruce), Aldous Leekie, and even (very briefly) Margaret Chen. It also allows Orphan Black to play around with the crime procedural formula, as Beth investigates the murder of a Neolutionist whose cheek was cut off before his body was dumped. This investigation takes her into the underbelly of the biohacker community, where science fiction meets real-life surgeries that already exist (magnetic finger implants, for example).
Though the episode doesn’t follow Beth’s storyline all the way up to her untimely demise, it does make it pretty clear just how she got there. In addition to being trapped in an utterly miserable relationship with Paul (and correctly believing that he was spying on her), the cop was also dealing with the stress of her legacy as a clone, and had taken to crushing up and snorting “helpers” (courtesy of Allison) in order to get through her day – which, in turn, was tanking her career. Maslany excels in the role, playing Beth as flawed yet compelling enough to make it all the more sad that the character didn’t survive.
In terms of characters who have survived (touch wood), “The Collapse of Nature” also puts Art (Kevin Hanchard) back in the spotlight as we see him growing ever more concerned and frustrated with his partner – a friction that culminates in them becoming extremely close after Beth has a blowout with Paul. Whatever hold Beth has on Art proves to be absolute when he helps her fudge the details of what is, as far as he knows, the murder of a random civilian. Seeing the events play out on screen will certainly make it interesting to rewatch Orphan Black‘s pilot episode, with all of Art and Sarah’s interactions reframed.
Allison and Cosima make brief appearances in the episode as well, demonstrating the dynamic that they had with Beth, and there’s even a cameo by Felix (Jordan Gavaris), whose youthful exuberance lands him in the police station where Beth works. Moments like these make the premiere feel like it was designed as a bit of a treat episode for fans – albeit a treat episode laced with drug addiction, murder, and depression.
Really, the season 4 opener was probably the perfect time for a flashback episode like this, since there are no outstanding cliffhangers in the air that would have made it frustrating for the audience to wait another week for the next installment in the modern storyline. It’s an effective way to introduce M.K. and to establish her as having been around since the very start of Sarah’s journey of discovery (while also explaining why none of the other clones know she exists), and the final scene jumps back into the modern plot just in time to give this season its new momentum. As a fascinating trip back in time, a refresher course on Neolution, and a new character introduction, “The Collapse of Nature” is a welcome return to what Orphan Black does best.
Orphan Black returns to BBC America next Thursday @10/9c with “Transgressive Border Crossing”.