Spy vs. Spy vs. Body Horror Science: Orphan Black, “Human Raw Material”

One of my favorite aspects of Orphan Black, a show that incorporates as many different genres as distinct clones, are the spy parts: Leda clones investigating their origins, often with disguises and/or Clone Swaps, uncovering layers of conspiracy. But while this may come more naturally to Sarah (as a con artist), or Beth (even hot-mess detectives have the right instincts), or Helena (growing up in a cult makes you resourceful), not everyone is cut out to be a proper spy. That’s what we learned in this week’s episode, the centerpiece of which was the most hilarious take on Spy vs. Spy: Donnie and Krystal skulking their way around BrightBorn under laughably shallow secret identities and, of course, trying to outwit each other.

Spoilers for Orphan Black 4×05 “Human Raw Material.”

Whoa, we’ve hit the halfway point for season 4! I think this season has had the slowest start of all of them, but I’m glad that plotlines are starting to crystallize—here, with Cosima discovering the true horrors behind Neolution’s latest cover, the “miracle baby” organization of BrightBorn. Also, Susan Duncan is gearing up to be a fearsome villain, though her impact is overshadowed by lots of lingering questions (like where is Delphine?!). And while the show’s most unhinged clones, Helena and M.K., were nowhere to be seen this week, their absence allowed for a tighter focus on the lighter members of the Clone Club. Though that comedy got cut through quite swiftly with the utterly horrifying mutated babies coming out of BrightBorn’s carriers.

To that end, BBC America has revealed the inspiration for season 4’s episode titles! They were all taken from (or inspired by) science scholar Donna Haraway’s 1991 book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, specifically the essay “The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology.” The Tumblr fan I pointed to in my 4×01 review also claims this particular episode title came from the 2002 paper “Abundant Raw Material for Cis-Regulatory Evolution in Humans“… which mentions in its abstract genetic mutations. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

Orphan Black 4x05 "Human Raw Material"

Clone Count: 5

The smallest meeting of the Clone Club yet: Sarah takes a backseat after several episodes trying to figure out what’s up with the worm in her cheek. I guess now that they’re scared of setting off its self-destruct—and now that M.K. has run off—she’s taking a breather. Which doesn’t mean she’s passive; increasingly on-edge at the safe house, she lashes out at Felix, mostly by going after Adele. When she does try to get Alison to go spy for her, she’s shocked to hear that Alison has more important things to do than chase down another Neolution lead. And then, when Alison and Donnie work with Cosima to set up the sting instead, Sarah doesn’t even hear about it until things are underway.

It’s almost a comedy of errors to see Cosima (undercover as “Ava”) and dear, dumb Krystal descend upon BrightBorn on the same day (shocker) that Susan Duncan and Ira decide to check out how smoothly things are running. Add in another Castor clone, and you would really be channeling the Shakespeare play that is Orphan Black‘s spiritual successor.

Orphan Black 4x05 "Human Raw Material"

Innate Human Truths

Can there just be a spy movie about “Ronnie” and “Kristine,” do-gooder healers and kindred spirits? (Seriously, who picks fake names that are one letter or syllable off from your real ones?) Krystal even looks like a bond girl in her bandage dress and fur coat, paired with the ditzy “I’m late for my own pregnancy!” spiel. I’m not sure which is funnier, Krystal becoming a one-woman crusader against Neolution, or Donnie trying to keep her distracted while fighting his own boggled reaction to meeting a new Leda clone. The fact that Krystal didn’t comment on his atrocious massage had me wondering if she were trying to seduce BrightBorn employee Ronnie into getting more information. But, as seems to be the case with Krystal, she’s got the spirit but is still pretty shallow: It turns out that she’s going after Neolution because of an article from a shopping tabloid about eyelid teeth. (Unless that were a ruse? Hard to tell.) But the girl is scrappy: It’s not surprising that since her first introduction this season had her endorphin-shouting with her trainer, that she would use those skills on Donnie. The A.V. Club put it best: Chekhov’s judo chop.

We do get one juicy piece of information, however: “The blonde French doctor” saved Krystal from Dyad’s clutches when she was being held prisoner disguised as Rachel to help Rachel escape. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Delphine is alive, but… is she alive?! Please let this mean she’s coming back.

Orphan Black 4x05 "Human Raw Material"

Evie Cho doesn’t do the most standup job, either, but with her it’s less funny: She thinks she’s savvily caught Sarah Manning spying on BrightBorn… but no, that’s Cosima… and no, that’s Krystal. I want to know more about Evie’s past—like, if she really did have SCID and get it cured by Dyad, and if that scar on her cheek came from a worm—but so far she’s not shaping up to be the most competent villain, letting Susan walk all over her.

You know who makes a great spy? Cosima, learning her persona’s tricky last name in a heartbeat and only doing the slightest double-take upon Susan Duncan sitting down next to her. I think I was more terrified for her than she was in that moment; but then again, Cosima was in her element, asking Susan all the probing questions about germline editing* and whether BrightBorn owns any embryos that don’t get implanted. But Susan doesn’t blow her cover, probably because she treats it as the rare opportunity to observe her subject out in the wild while saying creepy things about “the innate human drive to know the truth about ourselves.”

The moment where Cosima ducks into the linen closet right as Krystal races out of her massage was excellent; and you’ve got to admire Cosima’s resourcefulness for shrugging on some scrubs. Unfortunately, that just lands her in one bad situation after another…

*It looks as if everyone who recaps the show for various outlets had to look this one up—in short, it means genetically modifying the next generation of humans.

Orphan Black 4x05 "Human Raw Material"

Human Raw Material

So, BrightBorn is paying (and sort of imprisoning) carriers to bring genetically-modified babies to term… but several of those babies are being born with disturbing mutations, like the poor baby Cosima helps deliver, with a caved-in face and webbing. The dispassionate way that the BrightBorn doctors just carry the baby out of the room—presumably to be disposed of, like an experiment gone awry—is so chilling that I don’t blame Cosima for getting caught with her mask down by Susan. Their conversation, as compared to the veiled interaction between Susan and “Ava” just a few scenes earlier, is striking in how much gets laid on the table: “Nobody gives permission,” Susan calmly says in response to Cosima’s disgust. “I created you as the beautiful baseline to unlock the mysteries of the human genome.” But without Kendall Malone and the ability to continue Project Leda, Neolution is forced to rely on the more brutal methods of inserting maggots in cheeks and engineering babies that may or may not come out disfigured. Having Kendall’s genes would also allow them to manufacture a cure for Cosima, for Charlotte, for any other innocents.

So, will Cosima give up Kendall to save herself? I’ll be curious to see how she presents this offer to her sisters in the next few episodes, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Delphine reappeared as a bargaining chip…

Orphan Black 4x05 "Human Raw Material"

Welcome to the Family

Pent up at home, Sarah manages to get in some mom time with Kira, though that leads to an unsettling reveal: Kira can feel all of the clones’ emotions: Cosima’s sadness, Helena’s loneliness, Rachel’s anger (“she’s the angriest”), even some of the clones she hasn’t met… as for what she feels coming from Sarah, she can’t (or won’t) articulate it.

Unfortunately, the Kira moments are only a small part of Sarah’s focus. When she discovers that Adele found Felix through GeneConnexion—which is owned by Neolution, along with BrightBorn and other companies—she becomes even more convinced that Adele is part of Neolution’s scheme. But when she does her own home DNA testing with Scott’s help, she discovers that Felix and Adele are actually biological siblings… which is almost worse than the alternative.

It’s especially interesting that Adele has been more brought into the Clone Club fold than Krystal has. No one suggests validating Krystal’s conspiracy theories, probably because she’s a bit of a loose cannon. And while we don’t know how much Felix has told Adele, he does bring her to the safe house for the most awkward family dinner, and he glibly talks about Sarah’s cheek implant with Adele right there not blinking an eye.

Speaking of family… Apparently Susan and Ira aren’t just pseudo mother-and-son, they’re lovers. Quite a squicky scene—not because I’m against May-December romances that swap gender roles, but because she’s his creator. Seems like some weird issues about consent and free will could be at play.

Orphan Black 4x05 "Human Raw Material"

Other Thoughts

  • “I don’t know, Sarah things? Skulk around, look miserable, con people.” Alison, proving my point about Sarah being an effective spy.
  • I love how Cosima made a point to take out her nose ring but didn’t change her hair. She’s easily the clone with the most striking hairstyle, but I guess she wasn’t willing to sacrifice her dreads for one trip to BrightBorn. Also, Donnie gaysplaining how not to look like a lesbian was amazing… especially because she was playing Thomas’ surrogate, so it wouldn’t matter anyway. Cosima: “I’m just gonna let that one slide.” She is so patient with her sorta-brother-in-law.
  • “Bitch!” “Bitch.” Always amusing.
  • Easter egg: Scott reading Peepshow from Rabbit Hole Comics. Not sure if there’s a deeper meaning, as I haven’t read that series.
  • It might have been my TV reception, but this episode’s score sounded all broken and scratchy in parts… but it worked well with the emotional disjointedness of the characters.
  • I was surprised by how directly the Neolution plant/cop threatened Art to stay away from the Hendrixes, since that triple homicide—not to mention their drug dealing—could come to a head very soon.
  • Looks like momentum will pick up; according to co-creator John Fawcett, 4×05 kicks off a three-episode arc. “What doesn’t happen next episode is more of the question,” he told EW. So, Delphine doesn’t come back, or Helena doesn’t wind up in trouble, or…?

Natalie Zutter‘s spy name is Natasha Zettrini. Lock wits with her on Twitter!

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