Aaron Yap watches the first two seasons of sci-fi series Orphan Black, and hopes for just as many fast-paced, character-driven clone thrills from the lead roles in the third season.
When Orphan Black debuted on BBC America in 2013, it seemed to come out of nowhere. A bolt of fresh, femme-powered lightning into a television market still crowded by male anti-heroes. Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, the series brought female agency to the forefront, subverted gender norms, questioned the sticky ethics of genetic engineering and body commodification. All the while being an exciting, relentless, fast-paced cat-and-mouse thriller in its own right.
Best of all, it unearthed one of the most stunning breakthrough TV performances in years in relatively-unknown Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. And who knew she was Canadian? I certainly didn’t. I just assumed was British until well into the show.
Maslany made the challenge of portraying multiple clones look incredibly effortless. Wigs and digital assistance aside, Sarah, Alison, Cosima and Helena were all three-dimensional, multi-faceted characters. Maslany disarmed us. We stopped thinking of them as clones or the fact that were played by the same actor. They were sisters. This was essentially the show’s most uncanny special effect, helping to ground a conspiracy plot that grew exponentially murkier as it went along.
Season one crafted a nervy, tantalisingly paranoid drama around its “initial” protagonist – the rebellious Sarah Manning, troubled by the burgeoning self-awareness of her clone status. It led her to other clones, creepy “monitors”, a dodgy science organisation known as the Dyad Institute, and frizzy-haired religious wacko clone Helena – who’s on a mission to bump off all the clones. Season two dug deeper into Project Leda, the defunct ‘60s military experiment which first created the clones, and the extremist group Proletheans, who’re conducting their own nefarious bio-technological tinkerings.
The freshness and novelty of the first season slightly wore off as the show begun tripping up over its dense, twisty narrative and zippy pacing. However, the inspired, consistent work of the many Maslanies (except maybe for the underwritten transgender clone Tony) has kept it watchable.
Season two ended with a game-changing cliffhanger: the introduction of male, or as Sarah’s BFF Felix (Jordan Gavaris) likes to say, “boy” clones. In true frantic Orphan Black fashion, Season three’s opening episode doesn’t waste any time getting back into the game.
Within five minutes of ‘The Weight of This Combination’, we’re reminded of how gloriously unhinged the show can get. A campy baby shower sequence – that reinforces the warm sisterhood and seamless magic of the central clones – becomes a feverish fake-out. Locked in a wooden crate, pregnant Helena is disoriented from her kidnapping by boy-clone-creators Project Castor and now having chats with a talking scorpion. Near-dead Dyad exec Rachel Duncan is in hospital getting a pencil graphically yanked out of her eye. Welcome back, Clone Club!
While there’s a bit of boy clone stuff gaining momentum with Ari Millen – previously Mark from Season 2’s Proletheans – the meat of this episode deals with a Dyad security review. It is conducted by Ferdinand (ubiquitous that-guy James Frain), the ice-cool “cleaner” from shadowy fellas Top Side (if you’re confused by all these jargony code names, you’re not alone).
It builds a suspenseful caper sequence that’s classic Orphan Black – the clones-impersonating-clones routine. Not only do we have Sarah playing Rachel, showcasing her intuitive, street-smart knack for improvisation (and trying to hide her discomfort at wearing suits), there’s also soccer mom Alison playing Sarah – whose over-the-top attempts to mimic Sarah’s Brit-punk style (“oi oi!”) never fails to generate laughs.
Next up, ‘Transitory Sacrifices of Crisis’ dials things down a notch, making it one of those episodes that’s actually engrossing rather than just simply action-packed.
Millen gets more screentime to register a performance beyond ‘glowering menacingly’. He’s yet to match Maslany’s chameleonic versatility. I’m not sure if he ever will, given the show’s slyly misandrist handling of the male characters. But with the boy clone pairing of scarfaced Rudy and moustachioed Seth, there’s at least an interesting dynamic at play that humanises them – something that was noticeably missing in the first episode.
Seth, the weaker of the two, is “glitching” uncontrollably. To survive, he requires Leda scientist Ethan Duncan’s original, much sought-after genetic code, which is scribbled in a tattered copy of Island of Dr. Moreau tucked away at Felix’s never-a-dull-moment flat (how has no one moved away from that place after two seasons?).
More entertaining is the lightweight B-plot with Alison and her newly jobless hubbie Donnie (Kristian Bruun), that slowly veers into Weeds or Breaking Bad territory. What it has to do with anything that’s been going on is anyone’s guess right now. The fact that it feels like an enormous relief from scenes of Helena repeatedly tortured, Kira being placed in peril and still-boring-as-shit former monitor Paul (Dylan Bruce) administering syllogistic tests on the boy clones, probably speaks volumes about the elements the show could improve on. I’m actually finding myself looking forward to where Alison’s school trustee aspirations will take her more than Project Castor’s grand plans.
The foundation of Orphan Black has always been its characters. We fell in love with them, not those Leda/Castor guys. If the showrunners can find a way to funnel some of their creative energy towards that, even if it means a few more clone dancing sequences, then season three could potentially recapture the emotional essence of the show that was a little lost during the byzantine convolutions of the previous season
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