“Endless Forms Most Beautiful”
June 1st, 2013
When I attended the Television Critics’ Association Winter Press Tour in January, BBC America presented a panel for Orphan Black, a new drama series originating from Canada (where it airs on Space). It was an interesting panel to attend, because none of the critics in the room had no opportunity to watch it: while we were shown a quick trailer to help give us context, most of the questions were actually asking for more information as opposed to specific responses to the series. What we saw looked interesting, and the panel was enjoyable, but it was an exploratory exercise in a space where greater context is necessary to achieve any real insight.
Reading back over the transcript of that panel, and revisiting this fun interview Will Harris did with the three stars in attendance, I couldn’t help but smile. In retrospect, there are plenty of hints there about the show Orphan Black would become: a fearless, balls to the wall science fiction pleasure that’s smart as hell. Co-creator Graeme Manson was asked about the possibility of flashbacks, to which he responded “Yeah, actually, none at all. We really, really like a story that’s like a runaway train that keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you not sure whether the story is going to take a hard left or a hard right.” Tatiana Maslany was asked about the challenge of playing multiple roles, and explained “Yeah, it’s a challenge, the different arcs. You know, there’s so many arcs to it. So it’s a bit of a mind — I keep wanting to say the wrong word.”
The wrong word is the right word in this case: Orphan Black is a mindfuck, and ends its first season with another segment in the runaway train first season, one that becomes four climaxes in one by the time it reaches its conclusion.
Helena’s story is the only one that ends in “Endless Forms Most Beautiful.” One could argue that it ends with the bullet that kills her, her twin sister ending her life, but for her it probably ends with her murdering her “birth mother” as retribution for giving her over to the people who would torture her for much of her life. In its focus on how each clone—despite starting with the same genetic material—became so different through nurture rather than nature, Helena was the greatest victim of the cruelty of humanity, and she saw Amelia’s decision to give her to the church as the root cause of her suffering. She gets to close the loop in that part of her story, gaining revenge just before losing her life as her killer instinct becomes too much of a liability for even her twin sister, Sarah.
Helena doesn’t get the most noble of endings, what with the killing and the evil and all that jazz, but she does get to prove Dr. Leekie wrong. He suggested to Paul that Helena was feral, and there was no way she could ever fool someone into believing she was one of the other clones. However, compared to her rather surface-level attempt to emulate Beth earlier in the season, Helena reveals her ability to at least briefly fool Amelia; it’s still not perfect, mind you, but it shows how focused she is on gaining revenge from the moment she realizes who Amelia is and what that means for her past. Sarah always wanted to meet her birth mother because it would help her answer questions about who she was, questions that evolved from “Where do I come from?” to “What the fuck is going on?” as she learned of her fellow clones’ existence. By comparison, Helena wanted to meet her birth mother because it would answer a single question, which is why anyone would subject her to the life she’s been forced to live. Whereas Sarah found Mrs. S, and something approaching stability (albeit stability that still left Sarah as something of a deadbeat mother in her own right), Helena found only pain, and so it makes sense that she would respond differently to Amelia’s return, and craft an ending which gives her the relief she desires before her death.
This doesn’t mean that the Neolutionists don’t represent a larger threat, of course, and Sarah and Alison both end the episode in positions that affirm this. Sarah, who remains the show’s central character, gets the big season-ending cliffhanger as Kira is abducted in response to Sarah’s rejection of the terms presented to all of the clones in the episode. Alison, however, agrees to the terms to try to move on with her life without realizing that her husband Donny really has been her monitor all along—as I had suspected ever since that ominous phone call with the burning documents—despite Alison having allowed her neighbor—who she thought was her monitor—to strangle herself in her garbage disposal as her own form of retribution. All three of these clones kill characters who they believe have threatened them or pose a threat to them in the episode, but the difference for Alison is that she actually let an innocent woman die, attaining only a false sense of security. It’s a fittingly complicated end for the character, which I’d mark as my favorite clone (although I don’t think the show would work as well without Sarah at its core), and sets up one of the more interesting S2 dynamics.
This leaves Cosima, of course, who ends the season dealing with internal rather than external conflict. Cosima’s been a frustrating character if only because the show has had to run a lot of exposition through her. She was our window into the science, and then our window into neolution, and her sudden inability to realize her monitor was using her sexual desire against her felt out of character with the person we’d seen in earlier episodes. It’s necessary to give Leekie the information about the clones’ self-awareness, yes, but it puts Cosima into a difficult position where she suddenly takes in new flaws that we don’t really have any context for. That said, I thought the show did a nice job of pivoting out of that with Cosima contracting the German’s illness, an ironic and tragic result based on her attempts to unlock their biological code and discover—among other things—the solution to the medical condition she can now call her own.
It’s an effective finale, although one that doesn’t necessary reveal a lot of new information. We learn that the clones are patented, and while that’s a dark and compelling development it doesn’t exactly alter the stakes for the series (as their control over the clones is powerful with or without the law on their side). Similarly, we learn that there’s another clone who’s running the legal side of dealing with the clones’ self-awareness, but we surely expect that there’s more clones out there given the way the show’s premise has been set up. The idea that Mrs. S was potentially Sarah’s monitor all this time—having been involved with experiments back in the UK that might have been a part of neolutionism—is interesting, but we don’t get a clear answer and that jives with the somewhat vague nature of Sarah’s back story. Whereas some shows would leave any big revelations for a season finale, Orphan Black really did have the feel of a runaway train, and so we’ve had big reveals at various points throughout the season. Rather than trying to top them, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” gives each character a pivot point in their own arcs, all tied together with some minor reveals about their future which create a lot of room for the show to grow and evolve (although a détente could be necessary early in the season to provide any sort of stability before we switch trains between seasons).
That was one of my big questions as the season progressed, which is where you go in a second season when everything escalates so quickly. Certainly, Helena’s death provides a clear “endpoint” for the S1 arc, and the way no other storylines are outright resolved creates the sense that rather than a coherent unit this was really the “First Act” of a larger story. It’s a good model for a cable series with ten-episode orders, and one that became more sustainable the longer the show proved it was capable of sustaining this pacing while maintaining a coherent storyline.
My other question has been regarding the show’s setting. The show doesn’t necessarily hide that it’s filmed in Toronto, and references to Scarborough and Ontario license plates and Canadian money all confirm that this is ostensibly set in the Toronto area. However, to my recollection they’ve never actually said it’s set in Canada, not have they prominently featured any explicitly Torontonian landmarks (with only a few partial glimpses of the CN Tower, for example, which is an iconic part of the city’s skyline). As a result, while the show might not be hiding its Canadianness, it also isn’t calling attention to it, leaving those who don’t immediately read it as a Canadian city to potentially imagine it as sort of 51st American state instead.
I like some of what the placelessness is doing in terms of extending the show’s abstract take on identity to its geography, but then you have Cosima very clearly being placed in Minnesota. I don’t know if the show would gain that much from outright saying it’s set in Toronto, but I’m nonetheless curious why they felt they couldn’t acknowledge the Toronto setting. If they have an explanation that involves how they consider the setting to be a cloned version of Toronto that was separated from the real Toronto at birth, I’d be more inclined to give them a pass on it.
Overall, it’s been a really strong freshman season that was perhaps most remarkable for its confidence. Not everything the show tried worked—the Cosima arc being the weakest link, in my view—but nearly everything evolved and expanded in interesting ways. Paul started off the season a bit of a dead end, but evolved into a nice piece of the puzzle. Felix started off the season as a foil for Sarah, but became a great foil for Alison in later episodes and stared to fit more cohesively into the overall ecosystem. And that they managed to make these small changes while dramatically and consistently unveiling new parts of the show’s mythology makes this a really compelling origin story for a set of diverse protagonists that all happen to be played by the same actress.
Maslany is the big star of the series, and very much deserves the Emmy push that BBC America is giving her. As I noted on Tumblr, this is a futile effort on their part, a smart choice from a branding perspective but unlikely to overcome the many obstacles (science fiction as a genre, the show’s low ratings, the Canadianness, etc.). However, as I also noted on Tumblr, nomination or no nomination it’s a great opportunity to celebrate a tremendous performance. And if you could guarantee that every Emmy voter would watch the entire season, or watch tonight’s finale and then read Todd VanDerWerff’s great “Random Roles” interview at the A.V. Club highlighting her approach to playing the different characters, I believe any voter in their right mind would put her on their ballot. Given that this won’t happen, though, the best we can do is say that in a season of television that was well-executed across the board and deserves a significant amount of praise, Maslany’s work still manages to elevate her performance above the rest, a buzzworthy pop culture feat that will hopefully translate into more attention for the series before season two premieres next year.
- I haven’t been following along week-to-week, since I’ve been behind for a while and just caught up for the finale, but what I’ve read of Caroline Framke’s coverage at The A.V. Club has been very good.
- Maslany’s two opportunities for nominations on this side of the border are within the context of either jury-based systems like the Critics’ Choice awards—where she was nominated—or the TCA Awards, where the voting body might be more likely to have seen the series. It’s still unlikely in the latter case, honestly, but she’s certainly got her supporters. In Canada, meanwhile, she will surely be the frontrunner for the Canadian Screen Award.