There’s a moment in the finale when the characters get a chance to breathe. To take it all in and take stock of their lives and the circumstances that brought them to that one specific instance. For a show as high concept as Orphan Black, with its clones and genetic mutants and world wide conspiracies of eugenics, it’s remarkable how little the concept itself ultimately mattered. From its schlocky sci-fi framework these actors, led by the incomparable Tatiana Maslany, built something excruciatingly human.
Image: BBC America
And, as Helena notes, it all begins with her sister Sarah, “who stepped off a train and saw herself”.
That’s how the show began. Sarah, a British con artist, arrived in Toronto and saw a woman with her face jump in front of a train. She quickly learned that the dead woman was one of many, all with her face, and that they were “Ledas”, clones developed, and owned, by a nefarious eugenics movement known as Neolution. She and her “sisters” joined together to steal back their autonomy, break down the system, and have a few clone dance parties during their down time.
The best parts were when the clones interacted (or when they impersonated one another). Seeing nurture versus nature exposed and explored through the lens of a con artist, housewife, bioengineer and assassin made the concept far more entertaining.
Yet our heroine Sarah was always the weak link in the narrative chain of Orphan Black. She was lashed to a Neoloution conspiracy plot that might have been afforded the most time on air, but was normally the part fans (on Tumblr in particular) cared for the least. She stopped feeling like any kind of person (outside of the mannerisms Maslany gave her), and became simply a plot device constructed to root out the conspiracy. Yet the finale, once it neatly wraps up the conspiracy plot, settles into her character. She’s given room to breathe and we’re reminded that she’s more than a self-serving con artist drawn into the lives of these other characters. She is, very clearly, the mother of the group.
Which is why she’s the one who guides Helena through having the twins that it feels like she’s been pregnant with for years. The finale picks up where last week left off, Helena and Sarah are trapped in an abandoned lab with the architects of Neolution, who want to take Helena’s babies in those hopes that studying them can allow Neolution to unlock the secret of human longevity. The women, with an assist from their detective friend Art, have to dodge and murder Neolutionists while Helena delivers her baby. It all happens quickly. In the 40-minute episode maybe 20 minutes is devoted to the conspiracy. The other 20 are about saying goodbye.
And they’re about finally making Sarah a character again. As she delivers Helena’s fat little babies she flashes back to her own introduction to motherhood, arguing with her foster mum Mrs S (who we haven’t seen since she was killed two episodes earlier) over having an abortion, and then choosing to keep the baby (who ends up being her daughter Kira). Juxtaposing her own inauguration into motherhood with Helena’s ends up being a powerful moment, because it isn’t just about two women becoming biological mums. Its about Sarah finally donning the mantle Mrs S has worn since the pilot, and becoming the mother of the group.
It’s a fitting end to the character. In fact, everyone who survives to the finale gets a fitting end. Reformed villain Rachel is alone with nothing but a glass eye to show for her troubles, reformed villain Helena is a mother living in Donnie and Allison’s backyard, Allison has found peace in music and Donnie in work, and Cosima and Delphine are travelling the world healing clones and being stupidly in love. It borders on saccharine, and while it might seem too sweet and neat these characters and their familial relationships were what made Orphan Black such an engaging show.
It was never about the conspiracy.
That made this plot-heavy final season frustrating. Characters were thrust into a world that was half exploitation and half those really boring X-Files episodes. Things got graphic, bizarre and deeply convoluted. By the end of this season Sarah and her extended family had discovered that P.T. Westmorland, the founder of Neolution — the movement that thought up the experiment that would become the sister clones — was alive and living on an island like a better dressed Dr Moreau. Part of the season was focused on whether or not he was a mad scientist who had unlocked the secret of eternal youth.
It was a bold decision to focus so much of the final season on the mystery of Westmorland, particularly as he was just a misogynist conman who was revealed to be a hundred years younger than he claimed. It wasn’t some grand science fiction/fantasy scheme — it was a just a jerk with money and a vision of co-opting women’s bodies for his own purposes.
And that’s totally OK. I mean, co-opting women’s bodies for research into immortality for the wealthy is not OK. That’s very bad, but the show’s decision to make Westmorland an ultimately mundane (and a little boring) villain was fine, because as the end of the day no one tuned into this show for conspiracies and a deep dive into this one dude we’d never spent that much time before’s evil plan.
The audience was there week after week to watch the show explore, in intricate detail, the concept of nature versus nurture. Are we a product of our genetics or the world around us? Orphan Black posited, and arguably proved, that we are what our families and friends and environments make us. The best parts of the show were watching clones fail to impersonate each other well, despite the fact that, genetically, they were identical. If nature has that strong a hold, Orphan Black asked, how are these clones so different? And Orphan Black‘s answer was, essentially, that we rise up or we strike out because of the people around us — not because of any polynucleotides.
The experiment of how we develop when this one has money or that one has an overbearing mother or that one has a debilitating disease was always the most important — and most entertaining — aspect of Orphan Black. Some parts of us might be a constant (like all the clones having a crush of Delphine), but much of who we are is what we make of ourselves. The best science fiction of Orphan Black wasn’t the stuff that was way out there, it was the exploration of clones as people, not pawns in a conspiracy.
And the woman of Orphan Black (all played by one woman) made themselves into a family that could make you laugh with Parent Trap antics and cry with their communal grief. Sarah, Helena, Cosima and Allison might have been clones, but they chose to be sisters. And it was that, and not any convoluted conspiracy mystery, that made Orphan Black worth watching.