Orphan Black: “Variation Under Nature”

Okay, I’m definitely falling for this show.

As the third episode, “Variation Under Nature,” opened with Cosima, Sarah, and Allison talking together, I found myself watching each clone very, very closely for any hint that they are played by the same woman. All I found were more delightful details: the costuming, the dialogue, Allison’s stiff ballerina posture, the way she strode anxiously toward her daughter on the stairs while anxiously, anxiously pulling her white cable knit sweater down over her gun (she anxiously bought) – every detail pointed decisively to the character, making them more real.

At Allison’s house in the suburbs, Allison paces anxiously while Cosima asks Sarah about her past and her childhood as an orphan in foster care.  Allison is uninterested in Sarah’s past and wants to talk about Beth, suggesting that Sarah pushed her in front of the train. Sarah reacts, saying she didn’t want to be Beth, she just got stuck. She asks how they are all related. Cosima tries to gently tell her, but Allison interrupts, asking for the briefcase (from the German twin). Sarah closes up, saying she won’t give them the briefcase until she gets answers. Fine! Allison blurts the answer. “We’re clones. We’re someone’s experiment and they’re killing us off.”

At that moment, Allison’s daughter walks downstairs and asks who the other women are. Allison shoos Jemma back to bed. Cosima apologizes for not being able to tell Sarah what was up a little softer.

Meanwhile, Felix is in the car on the curb, waiting for Sarah. An uppity suburban woman taps on the window and tells him that this is a neighborhood watch area. Fee is annoyed and decides to venture out to find Sarah. He sneaks past a window as Cosima is explaining something about clones to Sarah. Allison notices him and corners him in the yard with her gun. Sarah realizes something is up, and runs out between Allison and Felix. She gets Allison to lower her gun and then punches her in the jaw, telling her never to threaten her brother again. Sarah wants to get her stuff and leave, but Cosima stops her, and hands her the pink phone. She asks for the briefcase in exchange for answers, and tells Sarah that the briefcase is a matter of life and death.

At Felix’s apartment, Fee and Sarah try to come to grips with the idea that Sarah is a clone, since human cloning is both illegal and impossible. Sarah tries to say that it’s not important and irrelevant to her, but Felix points out that Beth and the German are dead, there are at least eight clones, and “dreadlocked science geek Sarah” says the blood samples are a matter of life and death – Sarah can’t ignore it. Sarah wants to ignore it and just get the 75k and go on the run.

As she prepares her makeup as “Beth,” she questions if she’s going insane. She heads to the police department to look for Art and asks him about the money. He repeats that she won’t get it until she’s reinstated. Just then, the Captain says he has “bad news” and she’s back on the force – and on a case. Unfortunately, Sarah is pretty terrible at being Beth, and to make matters worse, the case they’re assigned to is the shoddily buried corpse of Katja Obinger, whose finger prints are close enough to flag a match as Sarah’s, since she has a criminal background. Art notices that “Beth” didn’t load her guns. He tells her to work this case at a desk since she’s clearly not ready, and says if she asks about the money one more time he’s going to shred it.

Sarah meets Cosima at a bar. The bartender assumes they’re twins. “Would you believe we’re clones?” asks Sarah. The bartender laughs. Cosima asks for the briefcase. Sarah replies by asking her own questions. She wants answers, and she also wonders whether she should be worried about Katja Obinger’s respiratory disorder and wants to know who shot her in the head. Cosima says the answers are in the briefcase. Well, at least about the cough. Cosima tells Sarah that Katja contacted Beth several months ago, saying that the European clones were being hunted. Cosima says they still need to figure out who the Original was; who created the clones and who is killing them off. Cosima says they need Sarah to stay in Beth’s shoes so she can help find out who is killing them. Step one, she needs to get Katja’s prints out of the system. Sarah hands over the case and asks one last question: If they’re identical, does Cosima get that little patch of dry skin between her eyes? Cosima laughs and tells Sarah to keep her sense of humor; Beth couldn’t, and it drove her to the edge.

At the station, Art and Sarah discuss the case. As Sarah leaves to call about fingerprints, Art gets a voice scrambled call with a thick accent which says that their “Jane Doe,” whom we know as Katja, was “Just one of few, unfit for family,” and tips the squad off to the location of her death. Art leaves to visit the location, leaving Sarah in the office.

Sarah gets an IT guy to help her reset her password and tell her how to get fingerprint results. She successfully deletes the match to herself from the results. Meanwhile, Art and his stand-in partner look over the area from the phone call. They find glass from a car window, a prop of logs where the shooter could have set up a rifle, and motorcycle treads from a possible get-away vehicle. Finally, they find a disembodied Barbie head with bright red hair, like the Jane Doe – and, the viewer notes, this head belongs to the doll with the cigarette burns in Katja’s apartment.


Sarah and Art are supposed to go to the shooting range the next day, but Sarah doesn’t know how to shoot a gun. She calls Allison to teach her, and offers Felix up as a sitter.
At Beth’s house, Sarah reaffirms to Felix her desire to rob Allison blind and make off with Kira. Just then, Paul arrives, yells at “Beth” and initiates sex before leaving just as Sarah is starting to want him. Felix teases her for how much she clearly likes the, ahem, perks of being Beth, and Sarah continues to insist upon the original plan. Allison teaches Sarah how to shoot, as Beth taught her. She reveals to Sarah that the clones had a fund set up to buy information – 75,000 dollars of Allison’s money. The “oh, crap” is heavily visible on Sarah’s face as recognition sets in. Allison asks if Sarah can get the money from Beth’s account. She nods silently. Allison heads into her house where her children greet her: “We’re crossdressers, mommy!” Felix walks out of the house with a drink and a saunter saying that his work is done.

The shooting range trip goes fairly well, and Art talks to “Beth” about what he found at the site. The professional hit doesn’t line up with the driver of the Jane Doe, who panicked and hid the body. Art says she’s going to like what he’s about to show her, and pulls out the photo of the doll’s head. Sarah must recognize it from the remnants in Katja’s room.  She gets a call which informs her a vehicle has been found that might match the getaway motorcycle. They head to the apartment, which is open and has motorcycle gloves laying on the bed. Sarah finds a bible which is marked at this verse which says “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” and bookmarked with the identification information of Katja Obinger.

The verse is scrawled on the wall as well. Sarah pockets the identification, and then sees a gunman at the window. She knocks Art to the ground but he is hit anyways. It’s not fatal, and he tells her he’s fine and that she should go after the shooter. Sarah chases the hooded figure to a sort of junkyard, and is attacked by the person, who says, “Goodbye, Elizabeth Childs,” before raising a knife to kill her. Sarah shouts, “I’m not Beth!” which causes the person to cast off her hood, revealing herself as another clone. The assassin clone reacts with confusion, giving time for Sarah to stab her with some pipe. The assassin stumbles and pulls out a gun, but then tells Sarah, “Not yet, not Beth,” and runs off.

Art arrives to assist Sarah. Later on, Art apologizes for making her go after the shooter, but Sarah, trying to be Beth, insists that it’s fine and she would have anyway. Art gives her the 75,000 dollars.

That night, Sarah and Felix arrive at Ms. S’s house to collect Kira. Felix asks if she’s sure about this. She says yes, but as she walks up, she sees Kira and Ms. S through the window, reading a story and playing. Sarah returns to the car. She tells Felix that Ms. S is right – what kind of mom snatches her own daughter? And what kind of person would steal Allison’s money? Sarah seems determined to get Kira back, but to do it properly this time.

The final scene of this episode is the killer pulling the length of pipe from her abdomen. Her back is covered in scars, and she moves in a strangely animalistic way. Who is this person? Why does she want to kill the clones?

I was talking to a friend about Orphan Black, and she mentioned how on Dollhouse a similar persona-change was attempted, but didn’t work as well. I love Eliza Dushku, but she couldn’t display the mastery which Maslany evinces in this episode, where she moves from Cosima to Sarah to Allison to Sarah-as-Beth to the animal-like clone-assassin revealed at the end of the episode. While on occasion the show must rely on brushing away certain difficulties (the fact that Sarah picked up Beth’s accent so quickly and believably, and Allison picked up Sarah’s likewise), it still remains utterly vivid in feeling. Hints of caricature are visible without becoming truly reductive – while Allison is a perfectionist soccer mom, for example, she doesn’t fall so far into that stereotype as to be an uninteresting character.

The third episode of Orphan Black, “Variation Under Nature,” tests not only Maslany’s acting in an expanding cast of clones, but in-world tests Sarah’s acting abilities as Beth. “Beth” is back on the police force, plunging Sarah into a world she is ill-prepared to inhabit. The title refers to the fact that the clones all share the same nature, yet have become the unique people they are via differences in nurture. The first several episodes of a show tend to introduce the viewer to a narrow slice of the world, and then expand from there. The last few episodes of Orphan Black are doing an excellent job of pacing the big revelations so that the show does not feel rushed, and Sarah’s journey feels strangely natural despite its bizarreness. “Variation Under Nature” stretches Sarah’s blending capabilities, but also tests her convictions as regards her daughter, her relation to the clones, and her role in the larger picture. Her development in this episode is rapid yet feels organic, largely thanks to the presence of Felix, who knows her likely better than she knows herself.

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