TV Episode Review: “Orphan Black” “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried” (02.10, 2014))

After a messy and increasingly dull middle portion of its second season, Orphan Black finally regained its footing for its penultimate episode and this finale, but it also left us in an odd place for the future.

Dyad and the Proletheans appear to be threats no longer (or at least severely diminished threats–each has lost its leader, apparently, though it seems a little weird to think that Rachel is dead from that.), but instead we’ve got the military and its project CASTOR. While there would be no reason to care about this parallel project initially, we are then shown that Mrs. S and Paul apparently gave them Helena in order to get Marian Bowles on their side to get Sarah, Cosima, and Kira out. Cosima is extremely sick, but she also has the key for Duncan’s synthetic sequences, in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

The episode begins with an interesting non-chronological sequence (something this show rarely does) showing Sarah fighting with Mrs. S and eventually admitting that she knows Mrs. S always has Kira’s best interests at heart while Felix falls apart with guilt in the foreground and then Sarah’s eventual surrender to Dyad. He didn’t have time to realize it wasn’t Sarah, so his guilt is clearly misplaced, but he of course cannot forgive himself for not realizing that it wasn’t Sarah. Jordan Gavaris plays this scene wonderfully, making the typically lighthearted Felix absolutely heartbreaking for a moment.

Meanwhile, Delphine does what she can to help Cosima as she’s being removed from her post, leaving Cosima and Scott trying to get Sarah and Kira out of Dyad from within while Mrs. S and Felix try from without. For all that this series has been a paranoid thriller, we get some real attempted teamwork in this finale, and nobody even needed Helena’s unpredictable violence to bail them out this time.

Ethan Duncan’s suicide was one of the most effective scenes in Orphan Black‘s history, marred only a little by the difficulty I had in believing that Dyad/Rachel would allow him to use his own teabags. Not only was it a powerful moment for Duncan, committing suicide rather than allowing the experiment to continue and apparently also in recognition of what has happened to the woman who was once his daughter, but Rachel’s screaming, “You can’t leave me again!” is a powerful reminder that, for all the coldness in Rachel, she has had a horrible, pain-filled life with no family. She doesn’t remember having loving parents even though she did, perhaps because she needed to bury that memory to hide all the scar tissue that her upbringing in Dyad would have put over it.

Overall, I feel like the second season of Orphan Black was much like the first–it was far from perfect, but it was generally good and sometimes brilliant. And, even in its worst moments, Tatiana Maslany could carry the show. I’m not sure about the future, but two seasons of being good is enough to buy some benefit of the doubt.

Notes

  • It was so obvious what was coming when Kira asked Cosima to read her a story that I actually laughed.
  • I wonder if it was an intentional pun to mention Felix by the first syllable just after Cosima was talking about “The Golden Ratio,” which is also called phi, which is pronounced the same in Greek or in the US even though it is pronounced with a long i sound in much of the world. (It’s also a number often used in pseudoscience and given undeserved significance.)
  • I hope I’m not the only one who didn’t remember that Helena had not met Cosima and/or Alison yet.
  • When I saw US military showing up, I thought, “Hey, Mr. Big Dick!” Felix, the gift that keeps on giving.
  • Until we saw them trading Helena, I just kept thinking of the finale of the brilliant Jekyll, a bit of silly nonsense tacked on to the end of what was otherwise one of my all-time favorite television experiences. (If you haven’t watched Jekyll, watch it now. It’s on Netflix instant. It’s amazing. You will have a better, richer life for it.) And then thinking about it, I realized that there are actually more than passing similarities between that show and this one, which may explain some of why I get frustrated with this show. Jekyll had a very different format that made its focus easier and had an in-his-prime Steven Moffat writing, so it had advantages, but it also did much of what Orphan Black does much better.
  • I’m confused about the Nitrogen. I have no idea what that meant.
  • Does any of Felix’s music actually make sense together? I know I have weirdly eclectic musical tastes (I wrote a football article once where the sections were named for songs on my iPod. The songs were by Oasis, Dido, Amanda Palmer, Elton John, and Alice Cooper. I don’t think a lot of people can turn on their iPod right now and find those artists.), but even I think the range of his music seems a little extreme. However, the idea that he listens to vinyl is so perfectly Felix.
  • Also be sure to check out the Polar Bears Watch TV take–the last one of the season!

TV Episode Review: “Orphan Black” “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done” (02.09, 2014)

Bad things happen to the people caught in the crossfire of the clones’ battles with Dyad and the Proletheans. This episode was really the first time we had much of an opportunity to see the effect of the experiments on those other characters, other than Felix–specifically, Gracie, Donnie, and Delphine.

Gracie

Gracie has been caught in an odd situation–she grew up in a bizarre religious cult, watching as her crazy father won a power struggle with a Luddite faction to take control of the cult. He apparently made every woman in the cult have children via artificial insemination with himself as the father. He brought in an unpredictable, violent woman whom he saw as a “miracle” who defied science and set about making her his special project, and the project of the entire cult.

Gracie saw Helena as a rival and an abomination. She saw her as her father’s new favorite and–being a clone–something against her god’s rule. Perhaps fearing that her father had lost his way or simply feeling something like sibling rivalry, she hated Helena and worked to rid herself of Helena’s presence. And then, when she turned against Helena, her father reacted with the same violent control fetish that had consumed him elsewhere. Maybe Gracie thought she was immune before, but after Helena’s arrival, she definitely knew that she could be her father’s victim.

But then, when Helena returned, Gracie was still forced into part of the Helena program, impregnated with Helena’s eggs that had been fertilized by her father. Helena was blissfully unaware of what was happening and the only weapon Gracie still had against her father, and so they suddenly became allies.

Gracie has been an interesting character and well-played by Zoe de Grand Maison. She’s been caught between her fear of her father and her disapproval of what he’s done and caught between fear of Helena and recognition that she is a fellow victim. This episode brought her into sharp relief, and it was a welcome development.

Donnie

Donnie was always a bumbler. At first, he seemed to be a clumsy monitor. Then, it turned out that he was a clueless dupe.

However, now that he has accidentally killed Dr. Leekie, he has found a reserve of toughness and confidence that was never there before. And in the process he has discovered a wife where he may never have known that he had one. He turns away Vic and Angela surprisingly effectively (albeit with an assist from Alison on the former) and finds that Alison, for perhaps the first time ever, is actually attracted to him as a result.

Alison’s life was always mostly facade–it was a middle class suburbia cliche taken to an extreme with absolutely no sign of any personality. Donnie was a big part of that–fat, lazy, unhappy, but too dull-witted and lazy to do anything about it. His emergence as a more colorful and interesting husband (and even someone who was capable of not bumbling something has opened her up to herself.

Delphine

Delphine has always been caught between being a scientist interested in a complex genetic project and her feelings about Cosima–she has repeatedly been forced to serve one at the expense of the other, only to wind up feeling guilty about her choices ever after. I think it would be fair to say that she has tended toward allowing her feelings for Cosima to dominate. Now, though, she is placed in Leekie’s old position only to find herself an unwitting pawn to Rachel’s plans for Kira.

From Sarah’s perspective, Delphine now looks like a Dyad agent who helped perpetuate a terrible plan to steal her daughter. From Cosima’s, she looks like either a fool who fell for Rachel’s plan to use her to get Kira or a liar covering up the fact that she is actually a heartless Dyad agent, and it cannot be easy to tell which is the truth.

Meanwhile, Delphine has attempted to do what would be best not just for Cosima but for all the Dyad-opposed clones, only to have it reduce her trustworthiness in their eyes and help Rachel and Dyad in their quest for Kira. She is now where Donnie was when he first found out about the clones.

Overall, I think this was a stronger episode than the last couple have been. The stories have gotten more compelling and the action has moved forward better. I am not sure that Mark’s character development has made sense, but otherwise the storytelling has remained organic and it has worked.

Notes

  • “Lord and butter, Donnie!” Is that what she said? Did I mishear that? Because that’s weird.
  • Does Donnie actually know that there are 11 clones or was that bluffing Vic?
  • When Delphine first saw the computer, I thought, “Oh, come on, Rachel is far too careful to leave that where Delphine could see it.” I’m glad it turns out that it was Delphine who didn’t understand that, not the writers.
  • I was surprised by Mark–he seemed to be more sold on the plan than he was on Gracie. Honestly, his turning seems rather odd.
  • “I am not afraid of you.”
    “Neither am I.”
    One of you is lying. It’s not Helena. Does anything ever scare Helena? I’m not sure I would want to know about anything that could.
  • “Helena is a miracle, Mark. She defies the laws of science. It is a sign that I cannot ignore!” A sign that you need to be the father of all of these children from all of these women? I don’t think I follow that one. He’s certainly not the first religious leader to say something similar, though.
  • Helena’s looking back at the burning Prolethean home seemed rather out of character. Even the look on her face just didn’t seem like Helena–it looked like Sarah. It’s a small enough moment that it doesn’t matter much, but it was the first moment in this show’s history that Maslany seemed like a different clone than she was playing at the moment.
  • Donnie and Alison provided the comic relief in this episode, so Felix was pushed away from his usual comic moments.
  • Typical Maslany amazingness: That was clearly Rachel dressed as Sarah, and repeating the same establishing shot with Sarah herself immediately thereafter made it even clearer. She moves very differently and the inflections of her voice are completely different.
  • Our friend Polar Bears Watch TV has an excellent review this week, so check that out. Somehow, I forgot to talk about Rachel’s breakdown, but I will echo his sentiments. It was another great moment for Maslany. I get almost bored of saying that.

Movie Review: “Tim’s Vermeer” (Teller, USA 2013)

First, I will make my usual note about documentaries. My reviews of documentaries are necessarily incomplete, because documentaries should be judged not only by cinematic standards but also by journalistic ones. I am judging only the merits from a cinematic standpoint, not making any claim to be able to judge its journalistic merits. In this film’s case, I cannot imagine there being journalistic problems, since the film isn’t even making the claim that Vermeer painted using Jenison’s technique, let alone something more outlandish than that fairly reasonable if poorly evidenced claim.

“Tim is not a dressmaker, or a framer, or a carpenter, upholsterer, glazier, builder of virginals–which is a type of harpsichord–metalsmith, furniture maker, plasterer, tile layer, or a lens maker. But he’s not an artist, either! He used what he was–a technologist–to help him become all those things that he wasn’t.”

This quote is the heart of Tim’s Vermeer, the documentary debut of the typically-silent half of magic duo Penn & Teller. The film tells the story of Tim Jenison as he attempts to paint his own version of a painting of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer using an optical technological technique that would have been available (albeit unknown then or since) in Vermeer’s day.

Jenison is an inventor who has been deeply involved in video and graphic design, so he was not clearly out of his depth in looking at Vermeer’s paintings and seeing the photographic level of detail and agreeing with others who have speculated that Vermeer was using optical techniques such as the camera obscura to produce his works. When he discovered the technique that he thought would reproduce the effects that Vermeer captures, he worked on some test cases and spoke with other artists and experts, all of whom agreed that his ingenious technique produced something that Vermeer could have used that would achieve the results he achieved. However, Tim wanted to be able to convince more people, so he decided to paint his own version of Vermeer’s painting The Music Lesson to show that he could use his technique to paint a full room in full color and come at least close enough to matching Vermeer to show that it was possible that the Dutch painter used a similar technique. He would confine himself to only what was available to Vermeer–mixing his own paints and building his own lenses by 17th century standards so that he could show that he is not using a modern technological advantage.

What would seem to be a problem is that Jenison was not a painter. And he would have to build a copy of the room in Vermeer’s painting. And he may be wealthy and intelligent, but like Penn Jillette says above, he didn’t have the training for doing lots of what he needed to do.

The basic point of Tim’s Vermeer is not whether Vermeer used optics. It’s not even that Jenison was able to essentially reproduce The Music Lesson. The point is the promise of science and technology, as shown through Jenison. He can’t paint, but he still managed to paint The Music Lesson. He’s not an expert virginal builder, but he built one. He was able to do so many things that he “shouldn’t” be able to do because he has two things at his disposal: his own mind and technology.

His Emmy-winning 3-D optical technology, combined with the basic geometry of lenses, is what allows him to create a digital version of the room in the painting to find the dimensions of everything within it. He can build the legs for his virginal not because he’s an expert craftsman, but because he can get a lathe and then is smart enough to figure out how to make it longer when he needs to. He can build the legs for his chair “not out of any love of woodworking,” as he says, “but because you can’t buy them anymore.”

Throughout it all, Jenison maintains a kind of passive charisma that comes from his sheer simplicity that is extremely reminiscent of Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters. He is generally showing a flat affect, except when he is overcome with emotion upon completion of his painting. Even his jokes (playing “Smoke on the Water” on the cello and saying he painted an elephant in the music room) are delivered in such a deadpan that they almost don’t seem like jokes. And yet it is his simple matter-of-factness that makes him seem both interesting and trustworth as he goes about his work.

Teller makes an excellent choice in using his longtime partner Penn Jillette as a narrator. He is as animated as Jenison is not, and the bit of extra liveliness that he gives the proceedings is necessary for it not to become as laborious as the painting was for Jenison.

Similarly, Teller and editor Patrick Sheffield do an excellent job cutting the fat from a process that is very slow and involved but would probably be extraordinarily dull to watch. The entire film is under an hour and a half, and Jenison doesn’t begin his final work that takes him 130 days until halfway through. Jenison says at one point that sometimes the work is “like watching paint dry,” and it surely would be the same for viewership if the film didn’t move along so quickly.

All told, Tim’s Vermeer is an excellent and hopeful documentary. It may tell the story of one man’s odd obsession and the work it produced, but it is about far more than that, and that’s what makes this film special.