Shootings Happen: 'Orphan Black'

Along the lines of Dark Angel meets Alias, BBC America's Orphan Black asks how memory matters, how perception shapes experience, and whether and how and to whom a shooting might happen.

Orphan Black

Airtime: Saturdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Dylan Bruce, Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: BBCA
Creator: John Fawcett, Graeme Manson
Air date: 2013-03-30

A Toronto detective named Art (Kevin Hanchard) is trying to soothe his partner. Beth (Tatiana Maslany) has shot someone accidentally while on duty, and now she's facing questions and procedures. He sits beside her outside a department shrink's office, and offers this: "I know this thing's got you all twisted up, but try to forgive yourself." She looks at him, and his gaze is steady. "Shootings happen," he says, "to whoever's there with a gun."

Beth looks briefly surprised at this assessment, as you may be too. It makes sense that a cop sees it this way, that a shooting "happens" to the shooter rather than to the victim, for instance. You can see how this kind of thinking helps officers maintain their sense of order in the universe, their trust in themselves and each other. But still, you can't help but worry.

You'll probably worry some more as you watch Orphan Black, premiering this weekend as part of BBCA's "Supernatural Block." For even as Beth hears Art, she's not precisely listening to him, because she's got something else on her mind, namely, that she's not actually "all twisted up" about this, anyway, because this shooting did not actually happen to her, in turn because she's not actually Beth, but only someone who looks just like her.

Sarah doesn't intend to take on Beth's identity at the series' start. She just happens to be standing on a subway platform when she sees Beth kill herself, but not before they pass one another and pause dramatically to notice their mutual mirror imaging, Cliff and Chris Paul style. Horrified when Beth steps off the platform in front of a train, Sarah -- punky and pissed off and on the run from a bad boyfriend -- nevertheless has the wherewithal to pick up the dead woman's bag and check her wallet and credit cards, rummaging through the dead girl's apartment, where she finds couture clothes and keys to a Jaguar. "What the hell?" she asks her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), "Did I have a twin sister?"

Felix thinks twice about this, reminding her that it's every orphan's dream to discover his origins, find a secret relative or unknown riches. Sarah's got another dream, a child named Kira (Skyler Wexler) whom she's had to leave behind while living with the cocaine dealer Vic (Michael Mando). Now that she's made her break, she hopes to be the good mom she never had. The possibility that she also has -- or never had - a sister raises all kinds of questions concerning what it means to be her, as well as that nagging desire for order in the universe. It's fair to say that assuming the dead woman's identity and passing off the body as hers (with Felix providing a tearful identification at the morgue) isn't the most effective means to that end.

It's clear from the first episode of Orphan Black that order is the last thing Sarah's going to be finding here, as Beth's life and death turn increasingly complicated. No matter how many videos she watches in order to mimic Beth's appearance and affect, no matter how perfectly the British Sarah matches Beth's Canadian accent, the fundamental problem remains: she doesn't have Beth's memories, she can't describe the shooting, and she can't know how her bank account came to be so suddenly flush.

The interview with the therapist reveals only that Sarah will have to sort out a way to pretend to remember but also forget, to perform and find a way to resolve Beth's trauma -- at least until she can skip town altogether, and take on a new identity somewhere else. The department doctor (Elizabeth Saunders) suggests that the therapeutic process involves imposing order. "Try to separate mistake from results," she instructs. "You need to talk to me about that moment, about seeing 'cell phone' and reacting 'gun.'' As for the dead woman who looks so like her that even her boyfriend accepts the imposter. "What did you do to your hair?" he wonders, and when she says she cut it, he barely pauses before he says, "But it's longer."

Paul's willingness to suspend his disbelief makes him something of an ideal viewer here. If you know that Sarah and Beth are part of a cloning experiment going wrong, what's left to be sorted is how this experiment -- the mistake and the results -- has produced a number of copies and reflections, identities different and the same. For now, Sarah can't know how many or where they may be -- though the different accents and hairstyles bode well for Maslany's adventures in multiple roles, something along the lines of Dark Angel meets Alias. But Sarah can ask, as the series does, how memory matters, how perception shapes experience, whether and how and to whom a shooting might happen.


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