It's time to say goodbye to Sarah, Cosima, Helena, Allison, and Rachel, as BBC America's quietly groundbreaking sci-fi show Orphan Black will draw to a close this weekend after five seasons. The show was never afraid to push boundaries, and always felt criminally under-appreciated, yet universally acclaimed. Beloved by fans and praised for its progressive storylines, Orphan Black will likely end without great fanfare, but its impact on how women are portrayed on screen should not be overlooked.
While lots of TV shows on air right now (with one or two exceptions) dedicated little space to its female characters, #OrphanBlack's enormous cast of women made a splash in a way that stood apart from the "strong female characters" of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Orphan Black gave us flawed women, powerful women, struggling women, mothers, beauty queens, and CEOs. It showed that women could can embody every nuance and hardship of womanhood without playing into cliches of what female characters should look like. The central themes of sisterhood and feminism were explicit and unwavering, weaving those ideas into an intriguing dystopian narrative of conspiracy theories and scientific experimentation.
Tatiana Maslany & The Heart of 'Orphan Black'
It's impossible to talk about Orphan Black without talking about #TatianaMaslany, the show's driving force and the reason for its success. That moment of recognition at the train station which introduced us to wayward Brit Sarah Manning also introduced us to newcomer Maslany, whose showreel at the time included roles in small budget indies and improv theater. As the series has progressed, the clones' story got only more complex, introducing endless new characters such as Tony, Krystal, and M.K, who slot in alongside the core five — who are all played by Maslany. If you've ever watched the show, even for a series or two, it's easy to forget that when Cosima talks to Sarah about Rachel, it's essentially Tatiana taking to Tatiana about Tatiana.
While Maslany receives the bulk of the acclaim for the many women she embodies, she always makes note to thank the unseen clone Kathryn Alexandre, who has played opposite her in scenes since Season 1. Speaking to the Screen Actors Guild, Maslany praised her hard-working body double and friend, saying:
She's so amazing. She memorizes all of the lines, all of my blocking, all of her blocking, my mannerisms, my impulses; she, somehow, memorizes all of that and gives it back to me with a performance I can play off of."
Maslany has served as a producer since Season 3, a move which further demonstrates her commitment to and belief in the show. Along with continued acting classes while filming, 150-hour set days (I imagine), and endless, endless lines to learn, it's a wonder how Maslany has managed to be involved in anything else in the past five years — yet I imagine winning the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in 2016 made her efforts feel worthwhile.
A Solid Supporting Cast
I could gush for days about how wonderful Tatiana Maslany is, but Orphan Black wouldn't be the same without its stellar supporting cast. Sarah's adopted brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) was the fun, caring, free-spirited character the show looked to in its darkest moments, while Allison's adoring husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun) blossomed from deadbeat monitor to devoted clone-supporter as the series progressed. Both Art (Kevin Hanchard) and Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) also provided Sarah with the moral compass she struggled to find on her own, helping her grow into the backbone of support she became to her sisters.
The relationship between ambiguous scientist Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) and Cosima was one of the most positive and non-offensive examples of two women in love that I've seen on TV in recent years. The development of their relationship felt organic, and while never perfect, the love and respect they had for one other never wavered. Their storylines also did not revolve around each other; Delphine had her own demons to contest with while Cosima's search for a cure drove her narrative in a different direction. It meant that #Cophine's moments with, er, crazy science, were even more precious and appreciated among #LGBT viewers.
Finally, the show's villains were never cut-and-dry, keeping the Clone Club constantly on their toes, trying to figure out who was or wasn't cozying up to DYAD and Neolution. Paul (Dylan Bruce), the boys of Project CASTOR (Ari Millen), Gracie (Zoe De Grand Maison), and Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) might all be dead and buried, but their impact on the twists and turns cannot be overlooked. This is truly a testament to the strength of the writing and direction, which can't have been easy, given the logistics of filming the same person as multiple characters.
The Future is Female
While the show never explicitly pushed any kind of agenda, they didn't shy away from more controversial topics — with varying degrees of success. Season 2 introduced a transgender clone called Tony, who was met with little love from the community due to the careless handling of the character. Having said this, at least the show was willing to go there, even if it could have been far more impactful than it was. The series also struggled to introduce many people of color into the narrative, although it did include a variety of nationalities, ages, and socio-political backgrounds. The writers' room was also made up largely of men (until Season 5), and the show only ever had one female director in its five years on the air.
The show's final season has been more explicit about its feminism. We've seen Felix make a speech about the "galaxy of women" in his life, the phrase "the future is female" crop up regularly, and the show explore the conceit of all-powerful patriarchy via total creep bag P. T. Westmoreland. The bonds of sisterhood have grown even stronger too, with Neolution hardliner & complicated villain Rachel breaking rank to rescue Kira and help Mrs. S. The show is literally about taking ownership of your own body. For the last season it felt especially important to make a very explicit point, and Maslany agrees, telling the Nerdist:
“There’s been such a fire in all of our bellies to tell a story that means something and is actually saying something. Women deserve basic rights and ownership of our bodies, and the show has always been about that. Whether it was aware of it or not, it was always about that.”
The show deals with lots of crazy science, brought to life by science consultant and "real Cosima" Cosima Herter. Seeing smart women talk about real science is refreshing, and took the show beyond the garbled jargon spewed by other sci-fi dramas. It based its narrative in the real life scientific quandary of "If it can be done, should it be done?" and let women, not men, be at the heart of that debate.
As Orphan Black ends, other feminist dystopias take over in the form of shows like The Handmaid's Tale, which bleakly peers into a future where women have no autonomy whatsoever. Orphan Black, on the other hand, offered hope that sisterhood can prevail and win. It was fun, warm, and positive. It showed women in control of their destinies, mirroring the very real fight for ownership and acceptance. While it wasn't perfect, it was important, and I for one am sad to see it go.
Which clone will you miss the most? Let us know in the comments!