The BBC’s Orphan Black is that rare show that centers on a performance so good that the storyline could almost be incidental. Thankfully, Orphan Black doesn’t have that problem. It delivers on a premise that is intriguing, suspenseful and engrossing, all while spotlighting a brilliant lead performance.
The series is about a woman, Sarah Manning, who quickly becomes embroiled in a twisty plot involving Alison, a suburban, control freak; Cosima, a geeky scientist; Beth, a cop; Katja, an on-the-run German; and Helena, an insane loose cannon. However, these aren’t just other characters, all these women are clones. As each woman is introduced, the thread of connection between all of them becomes more and more mind-bending and exciting to watch.
As Sarah becomes aware of each individual woman, her own involvement also becomes more complicated, particularly as she is impersonating the much wealthier and recently dead Beth. By sheer coincidence, Sarah witnesses Beth’s suicide in a train station and makes the quick decision to grab her purse. Based on physical appearance, Sarah has a fairly easy time initially, but when Beth’s partner, Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard), unknowingly brings her into a case directly related to these strange coincidences, she must work harder to keep up her false identity.
Because Sarah’s own personal situation involves a young daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), whom she hasn’t seen in over a year, she uses also Beth’s resources – namely, her money – for her own purposes. That includes Beth’s boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce), who eventually also becomes an important part of the overarching mystery.
Through a series of mistaken identity phone calls, Sarah learns that Beth was involved in something dangerous that now involves her. She meets Alison, her polar opposite in personality, and Cosima, but that only leads to more questions than answers. It would be difficult, and ultimately pointless, as watching is much more enjoyable, to summarize all the twists and turns of the season. What is important to remember is that as each new bit of information is revealed to Sarah, the story becomes bigger and more complex.
In fact, Orphan Black sets out to tease these questions and answers throughout the season in ways that keep viewers riveted and desperate to learn more. The clones, their origins, and their current circumstances all play a role in unraveling the larger questions, but the series also weaves in the personal lives of these women. Alison’s family, Cosima’s fraught relationship with Delphine (Evelyne Brochu), and Sarah’s messy foster child past are all just as essential to the plot as the science behind cloning.
Sarah’s childhood is especially integral to the story, as it includes Felix (Jordan Gavaris), her foster brother and Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy), her former foster mother, who has also been taking care of Kira. The dynamic between Sarah and Felix is a highlight of the series, as he is part confidante, and part partner-in-crime. Their closeness leads to his direct involvement in the main story, all while providing some welcome comic relief. His interactions with Alison are particularly wonderful because of the stark differences between the two that eventually lead to an unexpected, but very sweet grudging friendship.
Cosima’s part in the larger story is particularly intriguing because she is a scientist, one who studies evolutionary developmental biology, making her the perfect person to understand and then translate much of the science that is at the heart of cloning. As she becomes romantically involved with fellow researcher, Delphine, she meets Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) of the Neolution movement. In blending science so deftly with more fantastical ideas, the series is able to make Dr. Leekie seem both credible and deceitful, yet the viewer is instantly on alert, as Frewer plays him straddling that line perfectly.
Any discussion of Orphan Black has to include Tatiana Maslany’s performance. She somehow manages to play each of the characters in such a way that it never feels like the same actress. It’s so wholly convincing that it’s almost completely unnoticeable. On top of playing these individual parts, Maslany also plays several characters as playing other characters. For example, in one episode Sarah impersonates Alison, and as the audience is familiar with both Sarah and Alison, it comes across exactly that way. Rather than Maslany – who obviously plays both roles – doing a perfectly in character version of Alison, it is Maslany as Sarah as Alison. There is one scene in which Sarah, Alison, and Cosima are all framed in the same shot and it feels like three different people, and not the magic of excellent acting and film technology.
Orphan Black offers an original premise that succeeds because of Maslany and her fellow actors. Cloning and its effects on the clones is the main plot of the series, but it works so well because of the characters that ground the material in real emotional struggle and higher stakes. Sarah as a mother, sister, and daughter are all roles that help to further the story beyond a science fiction cloning series. Her personal relationships, both with those she’s known for years and those she meets through her current circumstances, are the heart of the series. Orphan Black manages to bring both sides together to craft an original series with striking performances and strong storytelling.
The DVD release includes an interview with Maslany and a set tour from The Nerdist; “Send in the Clones”, a behind-the-scenes featurette; and character profiles. These are nice additions, but it would have been great to see some commentaries from Maslany and cast and crew.