Orphan Black: 5x03 Beneath Her Heart.
Alison: Who are we really?
Cosima: Yeah, that’s the existential question, isn’t it?
Beneath Her Heart works because beyond being an episode that finally has Alison make decisions for herself and move firmly and decisively into a direction she chooses, rather than following someone else’s lead, it also serves as a meta comment on what her role has been in Orphan Black in general.
There are so many barbs against her here, so many small, hurtful comments intended to make her smaller than she is. Rachel’s messenger doesn’t hesitate to tell her that her life is meaningless compared to Cosima’s importance as a scientist and Sarah’s and Helena’s fertility, and while she is herself constantly questioning herself, and has been ever since Beth first contacted her, the one area of her life that used to be her domain is slipping away slowly as well. After being revealed as a drug addict recently, she has lost control over the community fair that she helped to build, and as much energy and love she has put into this sphere, the people were quick to turn their backs on her.
Orphan Black has always navigated through this questions – what it means for the identity of the clones that they are what they are, both in terms of them as individuals and them as a sisterhood, and more than that, what it means to be caught up in this conspiracy and to have to fight for autonomy. These are big questions, but almost everyone apart from Alison has an identity that seems to lend itself to the struggle. Beth, the ghost haunting them all, was a cop, the woman who started it all. Cosima is a scientist working on her own biology. Helena was raised to be a weapon against her own, and Rachel was raised within the very corporate system that birthed her. Even Sarah – a grifter – fits fairly neatly into the specific set of skills required to navigate this life that she never chose.
Alison, on the other hand, has changed plenty in terms of who she is, but never quite in what she does. She still mainly identifies herself as a mother of two children and a homemaker, someone who tries to make sense of NEolution, Dyad and being a clone from the context of being those things. And the world she has been thrown into doesn’t forgive this very easily, and keeps mocking her for her choices, while at the same time taking the agency away from her to reflect on why she ever made those choices, and how they may fit into who she was, as a person, before all of this. Which is an interesting question as well, if we keep in mind that Donnie has been her monitor for as long as she has known him – the entire thing that her adult identity is shaped around has always been profoundly tainted by Dyad, and even if Donnie is now on her side – the fact that he was once so intimately involved with the conspiracy that was taking her agency away from her cannot be too easily forgiven.
The other thing that comes up here is more intimate, and it’s about Alison’s grief for her best friend Aynsley. She let her die because she thought she was her monitor, a person who had betrayed her all her life, but it turned out to be Donnie. The show has never directly addressed this fact – it has talked about Alison’s guilt through her addiction but never really about Donnie’s culpability in what happened. Now, as Alison struggles with Neolution reaching for her, and Rachel literally threatening her existence by putting the police and Maddie Anger on her, she goes back to that primary question of who she is. These flashbacks to the Hendrixes and the Norrises sharing their life in this quaint suburb are heartbreaking, considering what happens later, because in spite of the artifice and the horribleness of the power struggles we’ve seen Alison – everything that makes this community run – their relationship is genuine, heartfelt and powerful. It’s a true friendship between four people, and particularly between Aynsley and Alison, best friends, supportive of each other.
These memories go back to when all of the mystery started. Alison had already been contacted by Beth, who tried to convince her of the seriousness of the conspiracy, but Alison was reluctant to put her normalcy in danger. In the end, Cosima rings the doorbell to convince Alison that this whole thing is bigger than could be explained by coincidence – except Alison, very likely because she is overwhelmed by all of this in any case, has just tried mushrooms the first time, and Cosima’s whole thing is entirely too much for her in that situation. So she closes the door in her face, but the doubts are simmering, and they go deep – right to the core of her existence – straight away. She reflects on the fact that she is a mother and a homemaker, while these women who look exactly like her are cops and molecular biologists.
Alison: Aynsley, do you think this is all there is for us? Bailey Downs?
Aynsley: If you really feel like there’s another purpose for you, you should trust that.
I think the thing here is that this question goes much deeper than the fact that Alison is a clone, or that Neolution is creating this web around her. It’s a profound question about choices and purpose, and if anything, being a clone has just facilitated the process, because it’s harder not to ask that question when there are so many women with such diverse lives but the exact same genetic make up.
Beyond that, it’s also about who Alison WANTS to be, rather than who she has always been forced by circumstances to be. She keeps manipulating herself to not to confront this, by choosing a life with Donnie in Bailey Downs, by drinking and taking drugs, but the question is still brewing and weighing heavily on her.
Towards the end, she comes to the realisation that her sisters, whom she loves so much in spite of all the trouble she causes, have given her a sisterhood that goes far beyond the petty issues dominating the Church Fair in Bailey Downs. It has given her the ability to change the course of history and to take back control, and to save her own family. She finally comes face to face with Rachel Duncan – whom she still hasn’t met in person – and drops Aldous Leekie’s head on her table, forcing an end to Maddie’s investigation. She reminds Rachel of the fact that she has been in this fight longer than Sarah has – that she was Beth’s first, the core and heart of this sisterhood.
And then, later, after absolving her family of most of the threats hanging over them, she tells Donnie that she needs to go away for a bit, so she can figure out who she truly is. It’s a glorious moment, and one that Aynsley would have proudly supported.
HOW IS DONNIE HENDRIX STILL ALIVE.
Favourite comic scene this season so far – Felix closing the curtains on Alison’s speech, and then slowly dragging drugged Donnie out of sight.
Alison’s conversation with Rachel was a good reminder that she DOES have basic firearm safety, because Beth put a lot of effort into training her and making her capable for this fight. I think all of this comes to fruition in this episode – like Alison finally realises that she has these tools at her disposal and finally finds the courage to use them.