The second season of BBC America’s Orphan Black continues its breakneck pace of twists and turns, all the while showcasing the best performance on television. The series manages to bring together elements of humor and genuine emotion, alongside the larger drama driving the story; but what makes the show stand out is just how perfectly characterized the individual clones are, and how astoundingly they’re brought to life by Tatiana Maslany.
Right from the outset, season two addresses the two groups interested in the clones: season one’s Neolutionists and the newly introduced Proletheans. Their interests in the clones vary, but they’re equally single-minded and ruthless in their pursuits. The Dyad Institute, headed by the creepy, but charismatic Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer) plays a much larger role this season as Cosima and Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) are recruited to work there and gather more information on the clones and their origin, further complicating their relationship.
The second season focuses more heavily on Rachel and Helena, two characters who are extremes in opposite ways. Rachel, who works for the Dyad Institute, has a complicated relationship with the Neolutionists, yet is firmly entrenched in their bureaucracy and machinations. Helena, on the other hand, is decidedly on her own, for better or worse, and that makes her immediately memorable. She’s closer to a wild animal, ruled completely by her feelings in the moment, and only predictable in her unpredictability. But she also has an unwavering sense of loyalty to her fellow clones and her actions are most often fueled by that allegiance.
Helena’s complete devotion to her sisters is directly at odds with Rachel’s loyalty to the Institute. In addition, where Rachel is obsessively put together and polite, Helena is walking chaos. Helena’s also wholly concerned about keeping her sisters safe, through any means necessary. Her willingness to resort to violence and extreme retribution, combined with Rachel’s icy, controlled exterior makes them seem almost untouchable. What is most interesting about them is that the opposite is the truth. Helena and Rachel are the most fragile of the clones, precisely because they sit at the extremes. They’re opposite sides of the same coin; the dimension they’re given something rarely seen on television.
Apart from Rachel and Helena, Sarah, Alison, and Cosima are still dealing with the ramifications of last season. Sarah is more protective than ever of Kira (Skyler Wexler), especially now that she knows how atypical it is for a clone to reproduce; while Alison is dealing with an alcohol problem and her complicated marriage; and Cosima’s health continues to deteriorate. The show does an excellent job of keeping so many story points going simultaneously without feeling muddled or rushed.
In addition to the clones, Orphan Black also manages to do an excellent job with its supporting characters. Felix (Jordan Gavaris) continues to build his relationships with the clones, particularly Alison. Their surprising camaraderie and support for one another is a highlight of the series, and frequently serves as a way to lighten the series. Paul’s (Dylan Bruce) role continues to shift throughout the season, and his interactions with Rachel offer a major contrast to last season’s interactions with Sarah. Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is perhaps the most intriguing supporting character of the second season. Her mysterious past and her ties to the origins of the cloning project call her loyalties into question, yet she remains unequivocally tied to Sarah and Kira.
Even with such a large cast of characters, Orphan Black still managed to introduce yet another clone. Tony, a transgender man, is perhaps the season’s one misstep. He is introduced briefly, though memorably, but is gone quickly enough that his existence could’ve been saved for the third season, when there is the possibility to explore the character further. However, Tony is a perfect illustration of one of the show’s greatest strengths. The almost casual way in which sexuality and gender is presented on Orphan Black is groundbreaking. There’s rarely any backlash or identity crisis to deal with; rather, the characters are who they are, unapologetically, and their impact is immediately felt.
It’s impossible to discuss Orphan Black without praising Maslany’s unbelievable performance. She continues to amaze as all the clones, but perhaps her greatest skill is in knowing the characters so well. At the same time, she makes them enough—she plays clones impersonating clones. When Sarah pretends to be Alison, or Rachel pretends to be Sarah, or Sarah pretends to be Cosima, there’s no doubt that one character is pretending to be the other. It never feels as if Maslany just slips into another one of her characters, rather it’s obvious that one clone is trying—and failing or succeeding to varying degrees—to be another clone. It’s almost startling how easy it is to forget that Maslany is playing all these different roles; she disappears so completely.
Orphan Black continues to prove just how compelling a story centered on several strong female characters can be, particularly when it so readily explores sexual and gender identity alongside an intricate plot and complex characterizations. The second season goes deeper into the clone conspiracy and how far-reaching it really is, but it never gives all the answers, keeping the audience guessing and the story moving forward.
The DVD set contains several bonus features, including The Cloneversation with Wil Wheaton, several behind the scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, and promotional clips. The Cloneversation is a lot of fun because of how enthusiastic Wheaton and the cast are, particularly big fan Patton Oswalt. The featurettes offer some wonderful insight into the technical aspects of filming the clones together, including the 4-clone dance party, a highlight.