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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Orphan Black: To Right the Wrongs of Many

And it's over. I've been on the Orphan Black rollercoaster since day one and now that it's come to an end I'm not sure how I feel. A little bereft, oddly nonchalant and mostly satisfied? That's a weird combination, but it's where I'm at.
Truth be told, this season wasn't hugely compelling, and many of the deaths felt more perfunctory than shocking (MK's especially, but even Mrs S's to a certain degree) and a lot of my attention was diverted by what was happening over on Game of Thrones and Still Star Crossed. To paraphrase Mary Crawley, I'm sad the show has ended – but not as sad as I thought I would be, and that makes me sad.
In my mind I imagined this finale differently: there would be an elaborate and ingenious subterfuge carried out by the seestras and their allies, with clones impersonating each other three levels deep and every skill-set being utilized in surprising ways and a couple dozen twists and "oh shit" moments – but the show opted for a more lowkey resolution. I can't really hold it against them.

So Westmoreland and Coady are dispatched within the first fifteen minutes, Helena gives birth to her babies in the boiler room of Neolution, and the rest of the episode is devoted to the ways in which our protagonists move forward into the future: Cosima travels the world to cure the other clones, Alison settles back into domesticity, Helena raises her twin boys, Rachel makes a quiet exit (and a peace offering) and Sarah grapples with her grief before finally deciding to "be still."  
The choice was made to focus on character over the ongoing "sci-fi conspiracy thriller" plotlines, and those characters were strong enough to pull it off. That's not to say that the story couldn't have been handled better. What grabbed my attention right from the start of the show was its premise: a young woman is thrown into inexplicable circumstances and struggles to understand what's going on with no clues, no resources – just her own street-smarts.
It was riveting to watch Sarah negotiate the surreal reality of impersonating an identical stranger: improvising her behaviour, sifting through evidence, adapting to each new face that came along, and largely flying by the seat of her pants the entire time. It's amazing to reflect that the word "clone" wasn't uttered until well into the first season, and that the idea of doppelgangers (now so deeply ingrained in our understanding of the show) was initially portrayed as something shocking and horrifying.
That potent storyline of being chucked headfirst into a bizarre situation and grappling to not only cope with it, but use it to your advantage is the reason why season one was such a success. Along with Sarah we were thrown in the deep end, caught up in a dizzying sense of "WTF is going on??" and it was amazing.
Inevitably, this feeling was lost in subsequent seasons. To the show's credit it was because it chose to answer many of the questions it raised, even as it did so in a somewhat lacklustre way. Helena's reign of terror was due to a religious nut we never got a fix on. Kira's miraculous healing abilities were traced back to a deformed science experiment on an island. The fundamental reason for the clones' existence came down to nothing more interesting than the ambitions of a greedy fraud. After the curtain was pulled back, the suspense and anticipation of the early episodes was lost.
That's not to mention all the things that were retconned (Maggie Chen's death, Paul's background) and all the characters that fell into obscurity: Dizzy, Shay, Mud and Cal spring to mind. A lot of what was treated as incredibly important when they were first introduced (Marion Bowles, Charlotte, the Castor clones, Brightbirth) seem kinda pointless in hindsight.
And yet things hung together. Had the show completely ignored its own plot and focused entirely on the characters (while insisting this was the plan all along) then they'd have been left with something akin to the LOST finale. I enjoyed that show while it lasted, but knowing that all of its storylines ultimately led nowhere meant I've never had any interest in rewatching it. Even if Orphan Black's plot was convoluted to the point of incomprehension at times, it did answer questions and provide narrative payoff.
Once you accept there was no gloriously complex overarching story with mind-shattering revelations, you can appreciate that this very feature helped work in the show's favour. Given that this was a story about women's bodily autonomy, the very banality of the male forces that controlled the clones' lives was a powerful statement in itself.
And so the espionage/thriller drama is wrapped up swiftly so that we have the time and space to say a proper goodbye to the clones. To be honest, the last minute introduction of Sarah's struggle to readapt to normal life felt like too much of a brand new conflict to process properly (did she ever go back to complete her high school exam?) but the sight of her surrounded by her sisters and brother, finally anchored and supported, was the perfect lasting image of the original clone club: Sarah, Cosima, Alison, Helena and Felix.  
If there's one glaring loose end, it's Cal. It's not that I was particularly attached to his character or that a cosy nuclear family would have necessarily been the right ending for Sarah, but his utter absence over the last two seasons has been bizarre. He's Kira's father! He was pretty enthusiastic about that role! He was around for two whole seasons! The actor had just been freed up from Game of Thrones! Yet we never get a single word of explanation for how or why he abruptly dropped off the planet.
His absence was particularly glaring this season when the question of where to safely stash Kira and Charlotte came up. Contacting Cal was seriously not even considered? Even in passing, his name should have come up as an option. Heck, I would have been satisfied with a one-sided phone conversation in which Sarah offers to meet him for a drink or something – especially since he was a pretty potent symbol of Sarah's ongoing journey to become "still."
It's the one thing that's really gonna bug me.
Miscellaneous Observations:
The poem that this season's episode titles were drawn from is aptly called Protest by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and fits in nicely with the themes and even the content of this season:
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many.
I trust you were in tears when Helena gave birth, a scene intercut with Siobhan talking Sarah through labour? Because I was also a little emotional that Helena's baby shower dream came true, not only with her seestras, but the extended team of allies: Felix, Art, Scott, Donnie, Hell Wizard, Adele, Charlotte and the assorted children. Even Colin!
But the waterworks really started when she named her babies – telling them they'll have the names of "real men": Arthur and Donnie. What really hits me is that her definition of "real men" has nothing to do with strength or power; these men were the ones who showed her true kindness and support.
I heard some people were disappointed that Helena had boys and not girls – personally I think it's a great way to signal the path to the future. Her children aren't going to be ... well, clones of Sarah and Helena.
There were a lot of unexpected interactions between certain characters at the baby shower, and I especially appreciated Delphine speaking to Sarah about Siobhan, and Art going to visit Helena and the babies. Speaking of Art, I was astonished at how much he had to do in this episode, and thank God he wasn't killed off. I was seriously worried about him for a few seconds.
I appreciated the shout-outs to Tony and Krystal, and of course the chance for Tatiana to play one last clone.
And so here we are. I feel I should end with something profound or enlightening: something about Tatiana Maslany's incredible talent, or underlying themes of sisterhood and autonomy, or the technical brilliance that brought this show to life – but ultimately, I'm deeply content with the final scenes bestowed upon each of our central clones, giving each a chance to simply get on with their lives, with music, or science, or child-rearing, or a picnic at Shite Beach.
I'm so grateful for this show for so many reasons, and it's been the highlight of my viewing year for the past half-decade. So many of my shows have ended between 2016-2017 (Penny DreadfulThe MusketeersSalemThe FallBroadchurchBlack Sails) but I'm going to miss Orphan Black most of all. Thank goodness it stuck the landing, which means it's only a matter of time before a rewarding re-watch.


  1. I loved the fact that Helena was naming the boys Arthur and Donnie, and I do agree that Cal's absence was odd. When Felix was waiting for "someone" to arrive at the baby shower, I honestly thought it would be him, not Rachel.
    Its not often though we get to wrap things up, and then see how the lives of our characters are going to pan out. So in that sense, I think its a good ending.

    ooh - I have a book rec for you, its similar (but not - as its modern) to Penny Dreadful. Called Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw about Dr Greta Helsing (the family dropped the Van!) where she is cares for the undead. Its wonderful (and I apologise if you've already reviewed it!)

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  2. When Felix was waiting for "someone" to arrive at the baby shower, I honestly thought it would be him, not Rachel.

    Me too! Rachel made more sense (and was more fitting) but wasn't just the absence of Cal but the complete lack of explanation as to where the heck he went. Not even a throwaway line explaining what had happened - instead they just expected us to forget he ever existed at all. It was just weird.

    I'll add Strange Practice to my reading list - but you have to add The Changeover by Margaret Mahy to yours!