Last week the acclaimed Canadian TV series Orphan Black concluded its five-season run with an episode that, mercifully, stuck the landing. Honestly, I’m not sure what I would have done if it hadn’t. Clever, thought-provoking, and frequently convoluted, the sci-fi-lite thriller about human clones and biotech conspiracy was a massively entertaining show. But for all its strength, it also had more than a little of that Abrams/Lost vibe, the deeper you went—a worrying little gut-twinge about where this all was headed. Would it take a spacetime-altering donkey wheel to set things straight? A they-were-dead-all-along eleventh-hour reveal?
No. Mercifully, no. The finale, which aired last Saturday on BBC America, brought the series to a satisfying conclusion, gave its characters a proper send-off, and left fans of the show with little left to do than proselytize gushingly on the internet. Which is what I intend to do now, by the way. So for those looking for a new show to binge, may I humbly recommend to you Orphan Black, and offer this series-primer as your first formal introduction.
Orphan Black centers on protagonist Sarah Manning, an eyeshadowed con-artist and inveterate brooder played by Tatiana Maslany. After witnessing the suicide of a woman who looks eerily like her, Sarah attempts to assume her identity in hopes of clearing out this woman’s bank account. The decision, however, has repercussions she doesn’t intend. Plot happens, and Sarah discovers that she and who-knows-how-many other women identical to her belong to a covert cloning program titled “Project Leda.” Backed by the powerful Dyad Institute, a biotech company that quietly aspires to guide humankind down its next phase of evolution, Leda harvests the clones’ biological data on the sly, all while ensuring its subjects’ continued ignorance through a system of monitors that implicates even those closest to the clones. Friends. Neighbors. Spouses. As Sarah and a handful of her “sisters”—collectively, the “Clone Club”—begin to unravel Dyad’s secrets, they find themselves competing not just against the interests of industry but against those of transhumanist ideologues and religious fundamentalists, all of them advancing their own answers to an inherently political question: Who gets to be called human?
The story, which goes in hard for big-picture questions like that one, is sturdy enough on its own, a little gimmicky at times but otherwise tightly plotted and satisfyingly knotty. But it’s Maslany who deserves the lion’s share of praise in any write-up about the show; without her, Orphan Black would have been “just all right.” Thanks to the magic of post-production and, apparently, tennis balls, Maslany convincingly plays opposite herself as Sarah, four other principals, and a whole smear of tertiary clones. A tall order for any one actor, the range demonstrated by Maslany is especially impressive because the show’s clones differ considerably from one another. Anointed “goddess of war” by her foster brother, British-born Sarah Manning finds her opposite in San Fran-native Cosima Niehaus, a friendly, pot-smoking evolutionary biologist. And both clones are worlds apart from the homicidally inclined Ukranian clone Helena, who is in turn worlds apart (or, you know what, maybe not) from Alison Hendrix, soccer mom extraordinaire and cutthroat participant in the mannered hunger games of white suburbia.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall circa 2012. Maslany, who (finally) received an Emmy for best actress in a dramatic series in 2016, must have had one hell of an audition.
This diversity among the clones serves a further purpose, too—that is, beyond merely showcasing Maslany’s top-flight talent. Tapping into a theme at the heart of Orphan Black, the clones’ differences exist in an uneasy tension with their shared DNA. In other words, the show urges us to read Sarah and her sisters as similar, not identical. Personality, intelligence, interests, even gender and sexuality are, in the world of Orphan Black, never biological givens; they emerge through the grinding of mortar against pestle, of bodily raw material against individual circumstance/context. It’s nature v. nurture, as one character remarks (somewhat ham-fistedly) in the fifth season. Or rather nature and nurture. For while the binary feels a bit stretched in a show whose main characters exist thanks to a laboratory’s intervention, its implications still stand. For instance:
Genetics is not destiny.
The meatstuff of the body is incommensurate with the person.
Modest claims perhaps, and modestly advanced. But, then, confronted with antagonists like Dyad, which understands DNA deterministically, which sees in the body an evolutionary dead end, and which treats Sarah and her sisters as genetic resources to be exploited, such claims constitute ideological ground-zero for the Clone Club’s resistance.
More to the point, these claims speak to us today. In our present scientific moment, when human cloning seems more probability than possibility and Cas9 proteins promise to crack open the body like a line of computer code to be selectively edited and improved—when science, in short, apparently stands at the brink of mastering the body—assertions of human’s fundamental irreducibility carry with them a radicalness that’s easy to overlook. Like any good sci-fi tale, then, Orphan Black is finally far less interested in predicting what might be, than it is in describing what exists now.
Orphan Black is available for streaming on providers like iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.