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As Scene on TV: "Orphan Black"

Orphan Black: “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” – Sarah at the Diner

There are several typical television tropes used to build tension: the ticking clock, ominous dialog, and of course, the actors’ performances.  Additionally, some non-diegetic cues can convey to the audience the tension of a scene: editing style and score can set the tone as much as the actual story beats.

And sometimes, a real television masterwork can throw those tropes out the window and build tension with a much more minimal style.

Orphan Black protagonist Sarah had a Hell of a season 1.  The troubled former-foster-child-turned-murder-target discovered that she was a clone, and that a major corporation wanted to strike a deal with her for ownership of her genetic information.  Sarah turned down the deal, only to come home to find her house ransacked, and her foster mother and daughter missing.  Season 2 picked up almost immediately thereafter.

NOTE:  In this blog, I will only be discussing the scene up to the 2:38 mark.  Everything afterward falls after a time skip, and is part of a separate scene, which is missing context in this clip.

From the time Sarah enters the diner, any hint about the rising tension in the scene is in the mind of the viewer.  We have muffled, slow-paced diegetic music for our score.  There are no tense verbal exchanges, no cuts to clocks to emphasize the dwindling time, not even an ominous onlooker.  Even the waiter, who assures her that “first one’s on the house” is nothing if not amicable.

After her first frantic voice mail message, even Sarah’s bearing becomes more relaxed.  Throughout the scene, the camera lingers on the small details: Sarah scrolling through her contact list, Sarah unfolding and examining a crumbled photograph, Sarah wiping water from her face.  The scene drags, without a major plot point occurring until she gets her call from Rachel over two minutes into the scene.  The scene seems to break every rule of storytelling: they’re not conserving detail.  They’re drawing the scene out, making a scene that’s almost boring on its own.

Except, the audience enters the scene sharing Sarah’s sense of panic.  We know her family is missing.  We know the stakes, and we’re anxious for reassurance.  The tension is all internal, and by letting the scene meander through Sarah’s fruitless phone calls and tea orders, the audience creates the tension themselves.  This glacial scene is more nail-biting than a typical fast-paced roller coaster.  

The payoff comes with Rachel’s phone call, and although we’re still denied catharsis (she does nothing but confirm what we already suspect), but man, is it a relief to have a sense of direction.  This is how you do a thriller right.

Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [].