In honor of Orphan Black returning on April 18th, here is a pop culture essay I wrote on the show last semester. You have just enough time to binge watch the first two seasons — and you absolutely should.
Versions Of Ourselves
Orphan Black made its presence known with its premier on March 30th, 2013 on the BBC with an explosive opening scene. Sarah Manning stands on a train platform. She’s grungy, dark, pissed — clearly down on her luck. About 25 feet down the platform stands another young woman in a tailored gray skirt and jacket. She appears to be crying. Sarah notices her, and seems intrigued by her behavior. The finely dressed woman gingerly sets her coat and purse down. She steps out of her heels with the slightest wobble. Sarah begins walking towards her with an inquisitive, careful glint in her eye. She takes the remaining steps to close the distance between them, and when they come face-to-face Sarah finds herself looking at none other than…herself. All she can manage to say is “Wha-“ before the woman jumps in front of the oncoming train. With only a moment to feel shocked and disturbed, Sarah backs up, picks up the woman’s left-behind purse and runs away.
Orphan Black is filmed in Ontario, Canada and is, luckily for anyone who hasn’t yet buckled in for this crazy ride of a show, only two seasons in. It’s a one-hour long drama that flashes by in a series of intense, exciting, and often befuddling scenes that take the time to explain themselves throughout instead of building up the confusion. If there is a single word that could be used to describe this show, it would be captivating.
The true power of this show lies both in its exceptionally executed story line of a clone experiment gone very wrong — and its lead actress who plays not one, not two, not even three, but ten different versions of herself throughout the series thus far. Tatiana Maslany, a 29-year-old Canada-native, has previously only played a series of small roles – perhaps most notably a forgettable supporting role in the Channing Tatum/Rachel McAdams flick “The Vow” in 2012.
Orphan Black is without a doubt her breakout role. In fact, ‘breakout’ does not hold nearly enough clout for what Maslany has managed to do on this show. She plays Sarah Manning first and foremost, who grew up bouncing between foster homes and has a grit and tenacity that is hard to mimic. The most important thing in the world to her is her daughter. There is no father present. However, there is Felix, who’s played by Jordan Gavaris, also a Canadian (I found myself in a new love affair with Canadian talent after beginning this show). Felix is an incredibly endearing best friend with more chutzpa than any comic relief character on television right now. At first his character seemed somewhat like the clichéd ‘gay best friend’ but slowly he has become much more than that with his unwavering involvement and support for Sarah when she realizes how many other versions of herself are running around both within a few miles and across oceans.
Tatiana Maslany is able to play an uptight soccer mom (whom most fans quickly dub their favorite due to her unexpected and unfiltered mouth, as well as the public’s love for a known archetype forced into a new mold), a psychotic Russian murderer (who definitely stirs up a ton of trouble), and a DNA biology scientist (who certainly comes in handy) among others. And who was that woman who jumped in front of the train in the opening scene? You’ll have to watch to find out.
The cliffhanger in the above paragraph is exactly the way each commercial break leaves the audience. I could not be happier that I was able to binge watch this show on my own terms, because otherwise I think it may have been impossible to wait an entire week for each new episode. The pacing of Orphan Black is one of the greatest feats of the show. There is never a moment of boredom, but there isn’t any exhaustion from the whirlwind of keeping characters straight or piled up action scenes. Incredibly, it’s hard to remember that one woman is playing most of the main characters. In scenes where two or three or four of them are in conversation with each other, nothing feels out of whack. Only when you pass the scene, take a breath, and notice other human beings who don’t sort of resemble Maslany, do you remember that what this show is accomplishing is truly a new art. And though there have been actors who’ve done this in the past — like Toni Colette’s split personalities in The United States of Tara, Maslany often impersonates her different characters in the most astounding way. Maslany can be playing Sarah, pretending to be Allison, and we can tell that it’s Sarah pretending to be Allison. The writing in the show, and the way Maslany translates it, all beg to answer the question: if they share the same DNA, they must have something in common that is more than physical — do we all contain a million facets of ourselves? The fact that she walked away from the Golden Globes with only a single nomination and no statue is a travesty.
The show switches seamlessly from the back-stories of one genetic clone to another. We become attached to each of these clones, and feel for them as they try to figure out why they exist, and more importantly, why they are slowly being killed off – and by whom? Nothing is as it seems, as expected with a show that has only a single face leading the troops.
While our own current history is being written, the debate about cloning, stem-cell research and most significantly, nature vs. nurture, is certainly at the top of the list. What is right? Where do we draw the line? Television today loves to explore identity, changing identity, and surprising audiences with the sudden lack of identity. The debate of cloning clearly poses the question of what identity means for the individual and for our society. Orphan Black is current, smart and makes us question what we would do if we suddenly found out we had clones running around. What would we do? The idea that these women with the same genetic makeup turned out so drastically different – and yet, they still can work together so well — means the nature vs. nurture debate will hopefully continue to play out on screen.
The questioning the show invokes in its audience is one of the key elements a story in a television show should have. Orphan Black always has us wondering. How many more clones are out there? Who created them? Who is trying to destroy them? What will they have to leave behind if they want to escape? Meanwhile, we’re laughing, feeling the growing love between the clones and the supporting characters, and deliciously hanging in sheer suspense. It is tough to compare this show to any other on television today – as it isn’t exactly sci-fi, but it isn’t a realistic thriller/drama. It has the family heart and thrilling heaviness of Breaking Bad, but the weird ‘what’s going on’ vibe of Lost. It’s also a female-driven (Maslany-driven) show that reminds me of Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife mixed with Sydney Bristow from Alias. A show that seems to create it’s own genre is more than welcome in my book. This is a new art being formed in an old medium – and whether that’s going to change the medium or if now there can be different kinds of arts within the same medium, we will find out.
Season two ended on a note with an entirely new direction for Orphan Black, and one that audience members have been waiting patiently, but not irritably for. The writers certainly have their work cut out for them to continue answering big questions about the clones, and what’s in store for them. But just as the debate over clones is not very close to a solution in our current society, nor will the writers wrap up these kick-ass clones with a bow anytime soon. We hope.