Orphan Black 507: Writer Renée St. Cyr on Rachel’s shocking choice

Spoiler warning: Do not read this article until you have seen Orphan Black Episode 507, “Gag or Throttle.”

“Who hurt you?” —Kira
“All of them.” —Rachel

The day that Renée St. Cyr was asked to join the Orphan Black writers’ room, she was sure she was about to get fired.

“I was originally hired as a writer’s assistant for Season 4, and I was brought in for four weeks,” she explains. “And then on the third week, [co-showrunner] Graeme [Manson] asked me to stay behind one day, and he said it was to discuss my work performance. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m getting fired. They want me to go. This is so embarrassing.'”

Instead, Manson asked St. Cyr to stay on as a story coordinator for the remainder of the season. Then she was asked to become a writer for Season 5, eventually landing the opportunity to pen this week’s stellar episode, “Gag and Throttle,” in which Rachel (Tatiana Maslany) frees Kira (Skyler Wexler) from the clutches of Dyad after discovering P.T. Westmorland (Stephen McHattie) has been secretly surveilling her through her Neolution-implanted eye.

“I identified with the episode’s themes so deeply,” St. Cyr says. “And we had a lot of great females in the room who were very expressive about this aspect of internalized misogyny, and what it is to be a female in the workplace, and patriarchy.”

She adds that “Orphan Black can be a very difficult show to write, and I feel lucky that I got an episode that I felt I could relate to so fundamentally.”

St. Cyr joins us by phone from Vancouver to tell us about all the big moments in the episode—including the shocking moment when Rachel plucks out her own eye with the stem of a martini glass!

This is your first television writing credit. What was that experience like for you?
I was originally going to co-write Episode 507, but Graeme was quite busy showrunning and working on previous episodes, so we pushed forward with that episode in the room, and he kept checking in and liking the work we were doing, and then I moved on and wrote the outline, and then he just told me that the episode was mine. So it was a really interesting way to go about it because it felt very natural.

This was a pivotal episode for Rachel, with some very disturbing themes. What were some of the goals you discussed in the writers’ room?
At the very beginning of the season, like in the first week, we talked about this, we knew that we wanted Rachel to have this anointing from P.T. where she would feel really for the first time in her life that sense of being loved unconditionally. She’s finally been ordained—this thing that she felt that she always deserved and was entitled to receive, she finally received—and it was all worth it. Like all the subjugation, the humiliation, the struggles, she’s here and she should be. So taking that away, showing that she’s being surveilled, that she has less autonomy than she’s ever had was the thing that we knew would be a fantastic moment. And we didn’t know whether that would mean that Rachel would dig her heels in and commit further to the institution and perhaps become meaner, or if she would betray P.T.

And then as the conversation evolved, the idea of plucking out her own eye seemed to really come full circle—because she had already lost it, and now it was her own choice, and that was a real eff you. We were like, ‘Yeah!’ It’s a very Orphan Black end.

It’s interesting to learn that the writers weren’t sure what decision Rachel would make about freeing Kira and outing P.T. as a fraud, because I wasn’t sure either. You really kept me guessing.
That’s really cool to hear, because you have an episode when it’s all hinging on decisions she’s making, and part of the mystery was when does she make those decisions internally. Because when she first discovers the betrayal of P.T., she didn’t immediately go, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go screw this up for him now,’ you know, ‘I’m gonna take away his golden egg,’ or that kind of thing. She needed to go through her own process and get there herself. So that was part of watching her untangle and process these really deep-seated fears and emotions, so it would become plausible that she, in essence, did the right thing.

And how did you come up with her cutting her eye out—and with the broken stem of a martini glass, no less?
I think it was back in the summer, and I think I came up with the idea, but it’s such a collaborative process that I’m always wary of credit. But we knew that P.T. was kind of surveilling her and that was an original concept. It was his leash. And then we thought how horrendous that betrayal is, and the thing that we loved thematically is that he’s in her head, and he’s controlling her vision. He’s literally able to see what she sees, and if he wants to, he can moderate that, he can mess with it. And that is such an invasive feeling that when she feels this hatred and rage—to know that she has no privacy, to know that she’s dressed and he’s been able to see when she looks at herself in these most private moments in front of the mirror—it’s so intensely personal that it felt natural to just take that rage and go, ‘Get out of me. Get out of my head.’ And because she was drinking in the episode—and we’ve seen Rachel drinking these martinis before—she didn’t go up to her office to take her own eye out. She goes up there to send an email, and then he’s jarring her vision and it leads to this moment where she smashes this glass, and it kind of comes of the moment, rather than it being this more procedural thing.

I didn’t know it would be a martini glass. When I wrote it in an outline form, I just thought, ‘This feels natural.’ But we go through so many discussions, like ‘What object are we going to use?’ ‘Will it be a shovel?’ ‘Will it be another pencil?’ [Laughs.] You go through all the things, and for some reason it just kind of stuck.

There was a new musical cue under Rachel’s scenes in the last half of the episode that really added to the sense of foreboding and uncertainty for me. Was that the intention?
Absolutely. That was actually David Frazee, the director of the episode, who’s an incredible cinematographer, and such a deeply  emotional director. He really connects to the emotion and tension of a scene. I couldn’t have imagined a better director for this episode because of the way he connects to the story. He wasn’t about all this crazy action, he was trying to get inside Rachel’s head.

Basically, he had this idea before we even started shooting it. It was inspired by a film called Sicario that sort of had a similar soundtrack. He really felt that the scoring needed to have space, that it needed to be simple and have that weight to it. That was his idea. And I was like, ‘Absolutely,’ because it would be so unique to have a new scoring with her character that we’ve never had on Orphan Black, to really show that we’re in a really different world right now—which is in Rachel’s head.

So what will Rachel do now that she’s turned on P.T. Westmorland?
I would say that she’s in desperate need of allies. She’s betrayed Dyad and Neolution, and I would say she’s placed herself in the most vulnerable position she could. So that’s her current position, and her actions and who she becomes really come from having hit, in essence, rock bottom. It’s kind of a new Rachel here.

There was also a new Alison in this episode. What’s going on with her?
We see her in Episode 503, and she really goes through this beautiful thing where we tacked on her and Aynsley’s relationship, and how she was struggling when she first discovered that she was a clone. She looks at her life and she re-evaluates everything, like how real it is and why she made the decisions she made because now she’s meeting a scientist and a cop. She could have been any of these. And then she kind of feels really useless, because that’s how Dyad treats her. So in her going away, we wanted to capture the sense of rediscovery that people can have of themselves, that they can be anyone or anything and sinking into the endless possibilities.

It’s a little bit, I don’t want to say immature, but it was like me when I was 20 years old, me when I just wanted to say yes to everything because the world has these endless possibilities. We wanted to capture that enthusiasm of her really breaking down the fact that she was her mother’s child, and her really for herself wanting to dig deeper. So we’re having fun with exploring a side of Alison that can relate to these people who have these discoveries later in life, and it might come across as being a bit inauthentic, and she might be lying to herself about how she doesn’t need to tell Donnie what to do anymore. You know, the humour of who she wants to be compared to who she still kind of actually is. And it comes back to these ongoing themes in Orphan Black that relate to nurturing and nature, and then identity and choice.

It was great to see Scott (Josh Vokey) and Cosima have a moment together. Please tell me we’re going to be seeing more of them working together in the last episodes.
We’re definitely going to see more of them. Everyone’s kind of back together now—Cosima’s back from the Island, and Alison’s back in town—and there’s this desire to bring this Clone Club back to working together, and Scott is a big part of that. He’s been an ally fighting the good fight for so long with the team. I also loved that moment when we shot it; it was so beautiful. I immediately cried.

It was interesting to see Sarah tell Mrs S. to keep her cool when they were trying to get Kira back from Dyad. This is definitely not the Sarah from Season 1.
This has actually been a series-long goal with Sarah, which is about how she might be stepping into S’s shoes, really learning from S, learning to really think before she acts—because that is very S, and then Sarah goes off half cocked. And that’s the thrill of Sarah Manning, is seeing how she gets things done and she’s always a little crazy. Like she throws herself into these wild situations, but the way that Sarah does it, she lives from this visceral heart place, and she’s got this anger at her heels that keeps her going, so it was understandable as a character when we watched her do that. But seeing her when it really counts, when they’re really out of options, that she can see clearly when S can’t? It was seeing Sarah have that maturity that S has always been trying to teach her.

Is Kira safe now that she’s back with Sarah?
I can’t say much, but one thing I can say is what Rachel has done—the email that she sent off and how she’s betrayed P.T.—has thrown Neolution into temporary chaos, and it allows there to be some breathing room.

What can we expect from P.T. Westmorland in the final three episodes?
Losing Rachel in this way was a stupid thing on his part, because she was very loyal, and it’s putting him in a more desperate place, with his back up against the wall. And what we wanted to see was kind of who this character was without his Victorian airs. Who this man is when he’s not posturing as a more elegant eugenicist? We’ll dig deeper into his really quite grotesque and narcissistic psychology.

Getting your first writing credit on the last season of Orphan Black is pretty special. What will you remember about the experience?
I really want to give tribute to the very talented genius Tatiana Maslany for the way that she delves into the complexity of these characters. She’s so open to have discussions, so we’re getting as close to something true and relatable that will resonate with people as we can. She is incredibly generous with her talent with the other creatives on the show. And, obviously, to Graeme Manson for being this incredible writing mentor and for giving me that opportunity. And David Frazee was such a phenomenal director to work with. He’s endlessly passionate. I don’t know where he gets all his energy from. His face is always an inch away from the monitor, and there was zero power struggle between us, and I think that was a very unique experience because I don’t know how often that happens between directors and writers. He was looking to me for any note after every scene, and I felt that as a female in the television world that my voice was very much represented and heard and respected throughout the whole process. It was a really exciting experience.

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Space.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.