The Orphan Black series finale aired earlier this month, bringing an end to five seasons of nuanced storytelling, clone dance parties, and Tatiana Maslany’s considerable acting range.
For those who never got around to watching the show – what joy awaits you, as soon as you finish reading this piece. The story starts with con artist Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) witnessing the suicide of a woman who appears to be her doppelgänger.
She assumes the identity of the other woman – policewoman Beth Childs – and soon discovers why they look so similar. Sarah is a clone, the product of an illegal cloning experiment, and has ‘sister’ clones spread across the entire world.
And then, someone begins killing off clones.
Every season, just when the viewer thought that Sarah and her clone sisters had defeated their adversary, another layer was revealed – which meant ever more codenames for the viewer to remember. There was Neolution, the Dyad Institute, the Proletheans, Project Castor, and Topside.
Through the five seasons, the show’s central conflicts always revolved around advanced science, with a side of conspiracy theory thriller for good measure. Along with human cloning, plot points revolved around high-tech body modifications and evil scientists attempting to cheat death. Not to mention religious fanaticism, genetically enhanced super soldiers, and parallels with H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.
The science focus allowed the show to explore the ethical implications of human cloning, the ol’ nature vs. nurture debate, and how far human beings are willing to go in order to ‘improve’ the meat-based cages of our bodies.
But what made the show resonate with audiences was the more human side of these issues: identity.
Along with Sarah, a tough cookie who at the start of the show is stepping into her role as a mother, Tatiana Maslany played every clone in the show.
The core clone characters included Alison, a scrapbooking, suburban mother who struggled with addiction and at one point dabbled in dealing. Then there was Cosima, the PhD student and scientist whose relationship with Delphine Cormier (Évelyne Brochu) was the central romance on the show. And of course Helena, a clone raised in Ukraine; first in a convent where she was abused by nuns, and then by fundamentalists who trained her to be a killer.
Any one of these characters could have been a stereotype, but the show never let that happen. This was partly due to astute writing, and partly thanks to Maslany’s remarkable ability to make you believe you were watching different people on screen – not just one woman playing multiple roles.
She gave Sarah, Beth, Alison, Cosima, Helena (and others like Rachel, MK, Krystal and more) such distinct mannerisms and speech patterns that they each felt like real people.
It says something that Alison Hendrix, an uptight suburban housewife, fast became a fan favourite of the #CloneClub online, and not just because her husband Donnie took her last name when they married. In many ways she was one of Orphan Black’s richest and most interesting characters.
In short, Orphan Black had some of the best female characters on television, and certainly more of them in one place than any other show.
As well as breaking gender stereotypes, Orphan Black tried to include other types of diverse representation, which could have been limited considering the fact that one white woman played the majority of characters on the show. In one episode, the show introduced a transgender clone, Tony Sawicki. Another character, when they used the incorrect pronouns to refer to Tony, was set straight.
With Cosima, Delphine, and Sarah’s exuberantly and unapologetically flamboyant brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) as central characters, the show pushed back at the heteronormativity we see so often in sci-fi. More than this, the show gave the viewer gay characters who were defined in other ways, too.
In a season two episode Cosima says, “My sexuality's not the most interesting thing about me.” More than her sexual orientation, her character was defined by her compassion and her curiosity.
Orphan Black was a diverse, feminist, and LGBTIQIA+-positive show when it first aired in 2013. But in 2017, as the show came to a close, it somehow felt even more important.
Speaking to Think Progress, co-showrunner Graeme Manson said, “I think we’re all just proud that this premise allowed us to make a statement that there is strength in diversity… This is a biological fact. How can you refute it? How can you refute the diversity of nature?”
Thanks for five seasons, Orphan Black. All the Emmys for you.
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