Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Not yet watching Orphan Black? Here’s your chance to get caught up before the season finale on Saturday. BBC America will be recapping the entire 10-episode season in a pre-finale marathon, starting at 11 a.m. Central. It might be a bit much to digest in one sitting, so I recommend jumping in around episode 6 or 7, when the storylines start to converge and the major series questions are being answered, one by one—only to raise new ones. BBC announced earlier this month that the Canadian-made sci-fi clone drama has been renewed for another 10 episodes, to air in 2014. We introduced borg.com readers to the pilot earlier this year.
And why aren’t you watching? It’s only the smartest and most gripping show on TV right now, not to mention boasting the hardest working star, possibly, in television history. At last count, Tatiana Maslany (Sarah, Beth, Allison, Cosima, Helena, Katja, and at least two others yet to be revealed) has acted beside herself in eight (eight!) roles as clones trying to sort out their past, present, and future. Maslany’s brilliant performances are bolstered by top-notch dialogue that clearly distinguishes every character, along with makeup, wardrobe, movement, and supporting cast that keep all the clones (or “Orphans” in fan parlance) utterly impossible to confuse—and easy to forget they’re all Maslany.
But if you’re just tuning in, here’s a Who’s Who of the Orphan Black Clones & Co.:
Sarah Manning: Our main protagonist, and the one doing the heavy plot lifting. A streetwise smalltime crook and con artist on the run from her drug-dealing ex-boyfriend, Sarah finds her life turned upside down when she witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks just like her. Hoping for a new start, she snatches the woman’s purse—and her identity. But Sarah’s problems begin to look minor compared to what she encounters as her doppelganger, Beth.
Beth Childs: The one Orphan we never actually meet, NYC detective Beth Childs launches the series with her dramatic suicide-by-train. Most of the early episodes focus on Beth’s life, as Sarah winds her way into her home, her job, and her bed. Sarah learns that Beth has been suspended for an officer-involved shooting, and that her partner is currently tracking a serial killer, but it soon becomes clear that these events are connected, and inextricably linked to Sarah’s own story. The serial killer also happens to look just like Sarah/Beth—and so do her victims.
Alison Hendrix: Uptight suburban soccer mom determined to protect her “perfect” life and family—while footing the bill for the “Clone Club’s” investigative efforts, and hiding her own share of secrets (proficiency with glue gun and firearms, anyone?). Alison’s disintegrating world provides a hysterical Desperate Housewives comic counterpoint to the tense drama and suspense of the science fiction storyline.
Cosima Niehaus: The long distance ally, Cosima is an evolutionary biology PhD student in Minneapolis, who communicates with the others via Skype, and provides much of the scientific know-how for the clones’ investigation. As she helps her sister clones navigate life as experimental subjects, Cosima examines their DNA, cautions them to look out for “monitors” keeping tabs on their experiment, and traces the clones’ origins to a fringe science called Neolution.
Helena: The “Angry Angel” killing off the clones in the first few episodes, blond-locked Helena was raised by religious fanatics in a Ukrainian convent, where her handlers convinced her she was the original and commanded her to eliminate the impure copies. Her resolve wavers when she confronts Sarah and claims to feel a special connection—some pull none of the others shared. Fans of freaky badass chicks like River Tam (Firefly) will love scary, troubled, beautiful Helena.
Felix: Sarah’s foster brother, hustler and artist. Felix (Jordan Gavaris) keeps Sarah grounded, goes where no other characters can (infiltrating the Neolutionist club scene, identifying “Sarah’s” body at the morgue, tending bar at a suburban barbecue, etc.), and in the process becomes an unexpected, uncomfortable, and hilarious confidant to Allison. The chemistry between Gavaris and Maslany is never better than in their scenes as Felix and Allison.
Detective Art Bell: Beth’s partner and lead investigator on the Helena murders. As Art (Kevin Hanchard) delves into his former partner’s secrets, the entire clone conspiracy begins to slowly come to light. There’s an innate trustworthiness to Art, and he seems poised to become a strong ally for the Orphans.
Mrs. S: Siobhan (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is Felix and Sarah’s foster mother, and currently has custody of Sarah’s daughter Kira. Mrs. S. knows as much as anybody (which is to say hardly anything) about Sarah’s past, but she is an important link and reveals that she actually smuggled the young Sarah to the U.S. from England to keep her hidden from an unknown threat.
Paul: Beth’s live-in boyfriend with a black ops military past. At first Paul (Dylan Bruce) is unaware that his fiancee has died and been replaced by a clone, but eventually Sarah’s erratic performance falters, and Paul realizes he’s been played. But Paul has secrets of his own—he’s also Beth’s Monitor, paid to observe her and administer secret medical tests. When he discovers “Beth” is really Sarah, his loyalties are tested.
Dr. Aldous Leekie: Founder of the “Neolution,” or self-directed evolution, movement, Leekie (Matt Frewer) is a traveling lecturer promoting physical enhancements like bionic eyes, transplanted limbs and tails, and other genetic modifications. His link to the Orphans is not yet completely clear, but it’s obvious he’s at the heart of everything.
Delphine: Cosima’s sexy, French-born Monitor-slash-lover. Even while Cosima thinks she’s being savvy and cautious around the woman she suspects of working for the scientific conspiracy controlling their lives, Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) still manages to betray her. But along the way, she introduces Cosima to the Neolution movement, including founder Dr. Leekie, and manipulative though she is, Delphine brings Cosima closer to the scientific truth about the Orphans.
Not feeling up to speed yet? Check out the bonus content on BBC America’s Orphan Black site, including episode guides, blog, and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
No show is without its faults, of course, and Orphan Black relies a little too much on convenient encounters and infodumps. But it’s forgivable, given the otherwise stellar performances and sparkling writing, and the sheer volume of information each episode must convey. I was surprised to see so many of the series questions answered as quickly as they were, but it can only mean the writers have many more surprises (and, we hope, Orphans!) planned for Season Two. I guess we can wait for 2014—Maslany needs to rest up for all the work she’ll have to do.