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WTF Moments: Orphan Black's Helena dances with a severed human tail, proving she's the best clone
In every series that depicts the adventures of a group of clones, there inevitably comes a point when one of the clones begins to stand out from the rest. One clone does something that is so bold and so crazy that you just sit there with your jaw on the floor, amazed that the clone (and the series) actually went where it just went.
Who am I kidding, there's really only one series that does this, and it is Orphan Black.
Season 1 of this very much missed series was going along just fine, and I was loving it. The writing was bold, and as the inaugural season progressed, I became more and more amazed by the work of Tatiana Maslany, the Emmy-winning actor who portrayed every clone. I loved following the intrigue and mystery of Sarah, Allison, Cosima, and the mysteriously murderous Helena. Allison and Cosima were early favorites, and I also felt right at home with our lead clone, Sarah. I didn't know what to make of Helena. None of the characters did, either.
Then came the seventh episode of the season, titled "Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner," and things ... evolved.
The super-shady organization known as "Neolution" played a big part in the first season (and would take on greater significance later), and one of the things that this group does is genetically alter their own bodies with pointless cosmetic additions like tails. The why of it doesn't really matter. Why not have a tail, I guess? All that matters is that Neolution flunky Olivier has one (a tail, that is), and he offers to show it to Sarah at some point in the episode, with a sly-smiley pride that makes you want to rip your own feet off.
Sarah brushes this off, but then Helena hits the scene. Does she want to see Olivier's tail? Sure, but she's not just going to look at it.
We barely have time to register that Helena is actually in the Neolution dance club where the scene is taking place (the show has duped us with a clone bait-and-switch, not for the first time, definitely not for the last time), before the Russian killer (still played by Maslany) is pulling Olivier's pants down and pulling out his useless tail. She then proceeds to chop the thing off.
Most characters (and shows) would leave it at that, but that's not the Helena way of life. Soon enough, we see her on the Neolution dance floor, groovin' with the tunes and really feeling the music. The whole time that she dances, she holds the bleeding, severed tail in her hands.
With this moment, an already outrageously daring show went full WTF. It also made Helena my favorite clone.
Choosing a favorite clone on this series is not easy. I've said it before, and I'll still be screaming it when Death finally scythes my spirit out of my human body: The work of Tatiana Maslany on this series is acting on a level that I never thought possible. It's not just that she is able to play scenes between three or four of the clones, all played by her, and make it work seamlessly, with very distinct personalities all around. It's also because of smaller moments, where one clone is pretending to be another one, and may not be great at it. It's probably the best acting that I've ever seen, and do not ask me to stop beating this drum because I will not. I'm gonna beat this drum and dance with this tail.
The nuances run rampant. Yes, digital effects played a big part in making it possible ... as did the completely unlauded work of Maslany's acting double, Kathryn Alexandre. It took an army to make a show featuring at least 11-plus main characters work when all of those characters are played by the same actor. All of the effects in the world wouldn't matter if the human element weren't there, and because of that, it all comes down to Maslany.
So I'll say again — since Maslany brings such incredible life to all of the clones, it's not easy to pick a favorite. Cosima is a dreadlocked scientist with a heart of gold, Allison is a perfectionist housewife who loves show tunes, and Sarah always has cons within cons. For a clone to stand out from that trio alone is quite something, and that's Helena for you. I may be in the minority (plenty of fans of this series have different favorites — Cosima and Allison are hugely popular, and I met someone once who would die for Beth), but ever since this WTF Moment I was firmly on Team Helena. When the show decided to give the hapless (and hilarious) Krystal a little more to do, the balance tipped a little ... but not really.
I was Team Helena then, and I still am.
I joined Team Helena not because she cut off this garbage human's tail. I joined because she proceeded to joyously dance with it. We'd come to learn that Helena's life is a sad one, and that it was not full of joyful moments. Yes, she's been hunting down other clones, but she's been brainwashed by fanatics. She has earned this joyful tail-dance.
The episode builds to this Helena-centric moment and features a different side of the character that we hadn't seen yet. Before this point, we'd only seen Helena in Terminator mode, a deadly obstacle that Sarah and company had to deal with. That changes earlier on in this episode, when instead of killing Sarah, Helena takes her to lunch; despite the brainwashing, Helena has become fascinated with her.
Their awkward meal is a highlight of the first season, and the fact that it's a two-character scene being played by one actor barely registers now. That's how much Maslany and Orphan Black spoiled us. We're not marveling at the artistry because we're laughing at the lunacy of the scene — included within it we see Helena, the deadly murderer, pounding down food like the kid in Dick Tracy.
"I dreamed that we were friends," Helena says while scarfing down red Jell-O. It's a highly prophetic line, because these two don't just become friends — they're actually twin sisters, and soon they start to embrace that. Soon they become "sestras" even, which is a whole other thing. The incredible bond between Sarah and Helena begins here, and Helena's bond with the rest of the Clone Club grows as a result. You don't expect (dare I say) cuteness from the deadly Helena ... but I'm sorry, she's downright adorable when she's wolfing the Jell-O.
Don't get too comfortable, though, because soon enough the episode has her cutting tails and dancing with them. The tail-dance sequence teaches the viewer some important things: The first is that you have no idea what Maslany is truly capable of, but you will find out. The second thing is that when Helena is on the screen, be prepared for absolutely anything.
The moment is built of pure WTF, no question. It is also the series saying "this is what we can do, this is what we're gonna do, this is very much where we're headed." If you think this is rough? Just wait. This moment changed a fun show that I enjoyed watching after Doctor Who into the must-watch show of the week, and it made Helena an unexpected gem in a sea of brilliance.
We learned a lot more about Helena's story as the series went on, and we saw her perform plenty more murderous acts that are far bloodier than this one. Those moments wouldn't have hit as hard if we hadn't already fallen in love with her, and that happened the second we saw her dance with the severed tail. That's what it was like for me, at least.
Whether or not anybody is watching doesn't matter ... Helena dances with that bloody thing because she feels like it. She's being brainwashed, manipulated, and tortured, so here's a moment of true freedom. Here's something that was not in the plan. She's breaking free of the controls that she's been placed under, and every slippery scumbag on this show should turn tail (literally) and run. Some of them don't, and some of them do. She catches almost all of them eventually.
Don't stop her now, she's having such a good time. She's having a ball.