After too long away, Orphan Black returned to our screens last night and treated us to an extended look into one of most unexplored and yet most important characters. 'The Collapse of Nature' gave us a whole episode dedicated to Beth Childs, the clone who started it all and another fantastic showcasing of star Tatiana Maslany's immense talent.
(Spoilers for 'The Collapse of Nature' to follow)
By the end of last year's season, Orphan Black tied knots in several of its own-going threads, seeing the downfall of Project Castor and the discovery of the clones' genetic source. Season 3 proved divisive among some fans, especially due to the introduction of the Castor clones and the expanding threads of the mythology. The story almost reached a little too far at times but still managed to maintain a consistent level of quality and intelligence that still put it heads and shoulders above most other shows. By the finale, most of the season's stories were brought to a head in a satisfying manner whilst also serving to shrink the story in many ways. The resolution of the battle with Project Castor, the rise and fall of the Proletheans and the uncovering of the original donor progressed organically from season to season, although the thread of the Neolutionists, a cult-like scientific movement promoting self-evolution through body-modification, was thought mostly lost along the way.
The Neolutionists originally appeared in the show's first year, heavily implied to be connected with the origin of the clones before they faded more or less into the background throughout much of the second and third seasons. They made a shocking resurgence in last year's finale, setting the stage for Season 4 and the latest struggle for the clones to face. After going bigger and bigger with each year, adding new conspirators and powers at play, a story can run the risk of becoming bloated and over-reaching. But by leaving the thread of the Neolutionists hanging behind all the other forces in the game, the show had a built-in way to narrow and tighten its focus without lessening the stakes. Season 4 wastes no time in re-establishing the Neolutionists' ties to the clones and the threat they face.
Despite stepping in front of a train in the series' very first scene, Beth Childs was the original driving force that set the whole series into motion. As well as gathering the first members of the “Clone Club” and beginning the uncovering of the conspiracy, Beth's death allowed Sarah Manning to step into this world and finish what Beth started. Sarah spent many of the first episodes impersonating Beth and we came to know her through the eyes of Sarah and the other characters, but really we as an audience never actually met or truly knew this vital character to the show's mythology.
This is why a flashback episode devoted solely to Beth's final days is such a perfect choice for the season opener. I'm not usually a fan of flashbacks, especially full episodes, but this one worked wonders to provide new context for the whole series and re-establish the show's return to the threads of Season 1. After this episode, so much of the first season can be seen through a wholly different perspective. Sarah's entire relationships with Paul and Art take on new depths and we know properly understand their reactions to Sarah's presence. This was all information we'd maybe heard before, but to actually see it unfold added a new sense of tragic poignancy to Sarah's time as Beth. That time had a huge impact on Sarah as a character, responsible for most of her growth as the protector of her family and this episode shines a different light on that evolution.
Sarah's life came together when she discovered her extended “family”, inspiring her to take responsibility and allow herself to become emotionally involved, but Beth's discoveries had the opposite reaction. The episode doesn't have all that much time to tell Beth's story and yet somehow it manages to tell us all we need, thanks to a stand-out performance from Maslany (I say that a lot. She's fantastic.) She's taking drugs, losing her grip at work, becoming more and more paranoid. These are typical and familiar reactions to conspiracy stories, but the most heart-rending moment is when Beth tries to coax a reaction out of Paul, who she is convinced (correctly) is spying on her. As she begs him to “see me”, it's quietly and devastating clear how she's been broken by discovering her identity as a clone. She's just another face, an experiment to be monitored. Her relationship, what we see of it at least, with Alison and Cosima is equally telling; she cares for them but is still distant, detached in comparison to the intense bond that Sarah later forges with her sisters. Where Sarah found an identity, Beth lost hers.
These two characters and their journeys have always been connected, so is this a peek at how Sarah's life could have turned out or a foreshadowing of how it could still go so horribly wrong?