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Sci Fi Week: Orphan Black and Learning to Live With The Irresolvable Puzzle

One of the most important TV shows right now – Orphan Black – might turn out to be a hollow disappointment, but it still makes for essential viewing. David Larsen explains why.

Here is one of my favourite pop culture images from the last ten years. It has nothing and everything to do with Orphan Black, which is why I’m showing it to you. I have been obsessed with this show for two seasons now, and nothing and everything is still what I know about it.

planetary 26 cover

One of the key phrases for any Orphan Black conversation: “puzzle stories”. The man you see above is Elijah Snow, and when we first meet him, in the first issue of Warren Ellis’s great science fiction comics puzzle story masterpiece Planetary, he has no clue what’s about to happen to him. Soon he has several clues, though he doesn’t know they’re clues yet. He keeps having adventures – with secret conspiracies of superhumans, with ghosts, with giant ants – and as far as he knows, one-off adventures are all they are. But soon the clues are blizzarding down on him from every corner of the sky, and he realises he’s in the middle of something very large.

This is how long-form puzzle stories work: every instalment functions as a more or less complete story, while feeding a growing sense of large-scale incompletion. The more you see of the big picture, the more you realise it mostly consists of holes. Every revelation is a new source of mystery. Until you reach the ending. The image above is the cover of the penultimate issue of Planetary, and it makes the claim all puzzle stories should be able to make as they wrap up: here is the final piece. It’s a really, really good one.

Orphan Black is the great puzzle story now in progress on TV, which is to say it currently exists in the uncertainty shadow I like to call the Lost shroud. Though we could also call it the Battlestar Galactica haze of gloom, I suppose. Hate to tell you if you didn’t know, but the Cylons? They never really had a plan. Neither did Lost showrunner Damon Lindeloff.

Having lived through the anticipation and the frustration of both those shows, I have evolved a high degree of resistance to science-fiction puzzle series. Because in science fiction, so many more possibilities are on the table, and the more intricate the puzzle, the more dizzying the sense of scope. For this to make sense, the things we haven’t seen yet must be amazing. It’s so tempting to gain audience share by ramping up the scale of that implicit promise. I’m sure the Lost writers honestly believed they’d figure out a way to deliver on it.

What does it tell you that when I reach for an example of a puzzle series that actually lives up to its promises, I’m forced to go outside TV and point to Planetary? TV shows, I’m guessing because of the financial and time pressures involved in keeping them on the air, seem especially prone to creating larger and larger resolve-all-these-narrative-fragments-into-a-pleasing-whole problems for themselves: offer the moon, then go into eclipse.

It seems quite plausible to me at this early stage that Orphan Black‘s proliferating spaghetti bowl of story strands will never ultimately add up to anything coherent, and that in maybe five years we’ll all be nodding our heads and saying, “Yeah, those show-runners? They had no real idea they were going.” 

I want to be very clear about this. Because the thing that most interests me, watching myself watching the show, is that I’m aware of the ways in which it may turn out to be a hollow exercise in deferred narrative gratification, and I don’t care.

I mean I care; but also, I really, really don’t care. When we have that conversation about the show-runners and how they did or didn’t con us, it will be all of us having the conversation: by which I mean everyone who takes long-form TV seriously and wants to watch the good new stuff, whatever that turns out to mean in any given year. Orphan Black, believe me, is the good new stuff. It’s only going to get more viral. It’s one of the important shows of our current moment.

Two reasons why. Well, two reasons which encompass lots of reasons, because one of them is “broad spectrum competence in the service of a high-gloss high-energy trash-pop aesthetic”. Here are the first three minutes of S1E1. (The subtitles don’t turn off, and they’re a pain, but the clip is 70% wordless).

So there’s the hook for you: a woman called Sarah Manning sees her exact double commit suicide, and makes a snap decision to step into her shoes. (Literally.) In and of itself, I call this a pretty good hook, though it’s nothing compared to the justly famed opening moments of Lost, or even the tacky-but-gleefully-horror-literate opening vampire kill of Buffy, a show which had nowhere near such a strong sense of itself in its first season as Orphan Black does.

But look at how well that opening scene is put together. The rush of white noise as the train races away from you and the camera pans up and out, enveloping you even as it opens out to a wider view. A rhythmic beat phases in as we cut to a panning close-up, following the lead of Sarah’s earbud, but also following the line of her jacket’s zip.

Its frame-filling vertical curve and horizontal bars are a visual echo of the railway tracks and their sleepers. Just in that detail you get a hint of the show’s sensibility: it keeps finding interesting ways to look good and to feel cohesive. It presents itself as a coherent whole, which is not trivial in a show that’s constantly asking you to extend it the benefit of the doubt on the question of whether or not it’s ultimately going to make sense.

The mood music as Sarah steps out onto the platform is pulsing, rhythmic electronica, with a very slow tempo – a slightly dream-like feel. If you read much about the show you’re going to see repeated commentary on how very, very good the use of music is (especially the inspired matching of songs to action beats). Notice the high electronic squeal and the slightly accelerating beat as Sarah hangs up the phone and catches her first glimpse of her double; notice how dreamy and vague the soundscape remains right up to the point where the double steps in front of the train. Notice the upwards-scaling surge that cuts out right on the close-up of the double’s shoes, jacket and bag, and the hard beat that cuts in the next second as Sarah switches from wondering whether she’s actually awake to seeing an opportunity and grabbing it.

There’s nothing subtle about this; it’s pure pop. It works. Then that brief change to the security camera’s POV as Sarah closes in on the abandoned gear: the sudden dose of grainy black-and-white is visually interesting, and it encodes “she’s taking a risk, she could be noticed”, and it sets up the importance of this security footage many episodes down the road. All in less than three seconds. Cut to opening titles. 

The point is that this is a very well made show. Its aesthetic is specific, and you can get quite granular in your analysis and not run out of things to admire: at the level of individual editing choices, shot framing choices, music cue choices, it inspires confidence. You can get away with a lot if you can convey that subliminal sense that we know what we’re doing.

Here’s what they’re doing. In fairly short order Sarah meets another double. And then two more. In episode three we get the Big Reveal, which you already know about if you’ve seen any advertising or commentary on the series whatsoever; if not, suffice to say that fans of the show sometimes refer to it as Game of Clones.

After twenty episodes, I still don’t know why the clones were made, or who’s trying to kill them, or how many of them there are, or who the ultimate minds behind the clone conspiracy are, or how many counter-conspiracies there are, or how long this sentence would be if I could list every unresolved question the showrunners plan to raise before they start in on the real answers. Non-real answers turn up fairly often; I could manage to get frustrated with the way powerful-seeming figures keep emerging from the shadows – “Ah! The evil mastermind!” – and dominating the story for two, three, six episodes, and then dying and being replaced by new ones, with a net zero gain in terms of my certainty as to what might be going on. But see above: the show never stops being fun to watch.

And then there’s my second reason for not caring (although I do care) whether the story makes sense in the end, and the second key phrase for any Orphan Black conversation, the one I’ve been holding off on because it’s so damn obvious to initiates and so very non-catchy to anyone else: “Tatiana Maslany.” Canadian actress; astonishingly versatile; the biggest single case-closed, let’s-stop-pretending evidence that the Emmy system, which has twice failed even to nominate her for Best Actress in a Dramatic Role, is broken; the reason for watching.

She’s the most exciting new acting talent since Jennifer Lawrence, and she’s in the role of her life. Possibly also the role that will bedevil her for the rest of her career, because any time I see her in anything whatsoever from now til doomsday, my first thought is going to be “…what on earth is a Sarah Manning clone doing in this story?”

Clone Club 

By role I mean roles, obviously. The biggest of the many reasons the show never stops being worth watching, despite moments when it seems as though the story has vanished down a rabbit hole and never plans to come up, is that every new rabbit hole offers Maslany something new to do. She plays all the clones. Her voice acting is good, though not impeccable – at 0:55 in the clip above, where she’s talking on the phone, her working class British accent sounds distinctly Australian to me – but the secret of the show’s fascination is that she doesn’t just act with her voice. Every single clone has her own distinct body language.

You don’t realise until you see someone pull this off just how limited most actors are, or how much of someone’s identity is bound up in the minutiae of their physical habits. As I was looking around online for useful clips to run with this story, I came across a youtube link to an interview with Maslany in which, apparently, she answers the question, who’s the better kisser: Paul or Delphine? I stared at it in confusion for a moment. Not to give away where these relationships do or don’t go, but yeah, Sarah kisses a character called Paul at least once in season one, and another one of the clones kisses a character called Delphine. And you’d compare those kisses how, exactly…? I swear to God, I had to do a double-take to remember that it was Maslany kissing both of them.

The obvious point of comparison here is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, in which Eliza Dushku – and a handful of others – get to play blank slate characters who get given new identities in every episode. I like Dushku well enough – she was one of the best things about Buffy – but it’s a night and day contrast. Maslany can do this thing, Dushku can’t. And the contrast extends to the writing. I still can’t get my head around the fact that Whedon, The Man Who Writes Strong Women And Gives Them Great Lines, created one of the creepiest objectify-your-hot-woman-star-at-every-turn shows of the last few years, or that it was so relentlessly dumb. But everything he got wrong, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, Orphan Black‘s showrunners, get right.

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