Warning: Due to the nature of this series, it is impossible to discuss certain aspects of the show without revealing spoilers. As a result, this review will contain spoilers for the first two seasons of Orphan Black. You have been warned.
When I first heard about Orphan Black, I didn’t really know what to make of it. It was just a show I saw people on Tumblr raving about, with GIF sets of the various characters played by Tatiana Maslany and quotes appearing on my dashboard. When I finally looked up what the BBC Sci-fi series was about, I found it a little more interesting and complex than I imagined. Because of that, I decided to view the series, watching the two seasons of the show that have aired. What I found is one of the best genre shows on TV right now, with an incredible leading performance and a complex story.
The series begins with con artist Sarah Manning (Maslany) returning to Toronto to try and reclaim her daughter from her former foster mother. While at a train station, Sarah witnesses a woman committing suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. The woman, Beth Childs (also played by Maslany), looks exactly like Sarah. Sarah steals Beth’s purse and decides to briefly assume her identity in order to take all her money and start a new life with her foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris), and her daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler).
Unfortunately, this plan does not go easily. In the first two episodes, Sarah learns that Beth is a police detective under indictment for shooting a civilian, leading to complications to get the money and flee. At the same time, a German woman named Katja (also Maslany) appears in Sarah’s car, only to get shot in the head. At the end of the second episode and explained in the beginning of the third episode, Sarah learns exactly what kind of conspiracy she’s involved in.
She meets two other women who look exactly like her: the neurotic soccer mom Alison Hendrix (again, Maslany) and the snarky PH.D student Cosima Niehaus (Maslany. Noticing a trend?). It’s then that Sarah learns why there are so many women who look like her: they’re clones. Sarah, Beth, Alison, Cosima, Katja, and many other women around the world were all part of a cloning experiment in the 1980s, only now they’re all being killed off one by one. The series follows the main trio of Sarah, Alison, and Cosima as they meet other clones, including the Ukrainian assassin Helena and the cold businesswoman Rachel, and try to figure out who really can help them and who is out to end them. While this is going on, they have to deal with the troubles in their personal lives, especially when the conspiracies involve those they are close to.
Of course, not all of these plots work or are as interesting as the others. The Proletheans were pretty weak in the first season, and the lack of any real hierarchy or order with them makes their ultimate goals hard to figure out. Dyad is also interesting for the fact that they provide the main thrust for the show, but at times it’s still difficult to figure out the true extent of what they are doing and if there’s really a goal with them. In each of these main threads exist characters who work for the story and some that don’t, so it also becomes a bit of a balancing act in terms of who is worth following and who can hold the audience’s interest.
The clones do remain the most fascinating part of the series mainly because of what they represent. As someone who was given a flyer by his church about how cloning was sinful when he was in elementary school, I understand how some people see cloning as being against God’s design. However, while the religious side of the argument exists in the show, Orphan Black is more interested in studying what it means to create women with science and to study them for years.
A lot of the horror and unpleasant aspects of the show’s story come from the way the characters are treated. In the first season finale, Cosima discovers that the clones’ DNA has a patent on them, so even though the clones are independent, conscious, and intelligent, they are still considered physical property. We learn that scientists come into their bedrooms and experiment on them while they are sleeping, even placing “monitors” in their lives to continue to keep tabs on them.
It’s in the second season that the emphasis on the clones’ ability to reproduce is made more prominent. Sarah is the only one to have a child, something that Alison, a mother to two adopted children, seems perturbed by. We learn in the second season that the clones were made infertile, with Sarah and Helena being the only fertile ones due to their birth mother leaving. This is something that drives Rachel mad, but also shows a science fiction way of how society treats women.
The clones on Orphan Black, and women in general, are looked at as experiments; things that will have expected reactions. They are expected to be property of a company and to just accept it blindly when they learn the truth. They are judged heavily for their ability to reproduce, and the ones who can’t feel like lesser people because of it. The second season has scenes of egg donation, artificial insemination, even an attempted oophorectomy (removal of an ovary), all of which are played as really invasive and lacking the woman’s consent. The gist is that these people (mostly men) have the ability to do so, and feel it’s their right to do so, whether it be for science or for religious purposes.
Orphan Black had me really hooked after watching the twenty episodes of the two season. There was some stuff I didn’t like and thought the show was weaker for having, such as the show’s really poor attempt to introduce a transgender clone and the continued appearance of Big Dick Paul long beyond the point where he can be interesting. Regardless of those weaknesses, this is a show with a fantastic actress playing several great characters and a story filled with social commentary and sci-fi intrigue. It’s something I really needed to geek out about, and I am glad for it.