Everyone with good taste says they love Orphan Black. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people had good taste?
Fittingly, a fantasy sequence set to the sunny Beach Boys ditty “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” opens Season 3 of TV’s most underappreciated, underwatched drama, a nearly inexplicable brain whisk of a series in which a group of women who discover they are clones find their lives in danger. The opening is escapist fantasy, in which the core group of Tatiana Maslany’s clone creations are living their happiest lives, an ideal world we’d all like to temporarily belong to; perhaps in this one more people watch this quietly ambitious show.
But, as is the wont of Orphan Black, the tone shifts abruptly as a dreaming Helena, the assassin with a heart of gold, is jolted back to her cruel, disturbing reality: she has been kidnapped and kept in a box. It’s in this harsh reality we live in, too, where the BBC America drama is television’s best-kept secret. But just as the darker thrill ride elements of Orphan Black are its most addicting, so is the giddiness of knowing that, as you're watching it, you're one of the elite clued in to a series that is utterly original and spellbinding.
Clone Club, obsessive as it is, is an exclusive one.
Historically, even those enamored by Orphan Black find it impossible to explain what the hell is going on. It is, perhaps, TV’s most complicated series—not that that should scare anyone off.
The DNA double helix of a plot, the tangled web of character relationships, and a Russian nesting doll of secret organizations, double agents, and covert scheming comprise a rat’s nest of storylines to unscramble. But that rat’s nest becomes the viewer’s surprisingly hospitable home. It’s an often gross and unsettling home, but it’s that discomfort that provides the show’s unique, unexpected pleasure.
Orphan Black has the creative gall of a Game of Thrones in terms of the plot and characters (if not the production value), but it always feels like a tight, compact show. It’s like a blockbuster living in the body of an indie. For as many characters as there are and the breakneck speed at which more secrets are introduced—but not necessarily unveiled—this expansive series never loses a sense of intimacy, owed to Maslany’s performance(s) and the strange scientific warmth of the writing.
It’s a sci-fi show for people who hate sci-fi. It’s also a sci-fi show for people obsessed with sci-fi.
It’s a damned good show. But it’s not perfect. The number and depths of the pits of peril the characters fall into, and then miraculously climb back out from expeditiously, are approaching daytime soap levels of near-lunacy. And, for all the credit it gives to the intelligence of its audience to follow a scholarly and labyrinthine plot, it can be too clever for its own good.
When we pick up in Saturday’s premiere, it’s just been discovered by vagabond heroine, clone Sarah, that she and her “sisters” from Project LEDA are not the only clones that were created. There is a male group, too, called Project Castor (all played by Ari Millen). Project Castor, unlike the women of Project LEDA, were raised “aware,” meaning they always knew they were clones. More, they were apparently raised with, at this juncture, ambiguous militia-like training that makes them adversaries to the LEDA girls—but why, we’re still not sure.
“What are they after?” Sarah asks after being introduced to Castor clone Rudy, a face-off scene between Maslany and Millen that recalls The Dark Knight’s jailhouse interrogation with the Joker, for all of Millen’s matter-of-fact carnality.
Of course, “What are they after?” is the question that’s been at the center of this series all along.
What makes Orphan Black so addicting is its adherence to the chase. Its characters are chasing the truth and answers, chasing survival. We’re running with them and it can be exhausting, for with every resolution we get as an audience another game-changing twist propels us into the next episode. In a way, we’re never, then, truly satisfied as viewers —but it’s the chase for satisfaction that keeps us invested, even if we’re so confused we occasionally lose our way.
It helps that few shows can juggle tone with as much impressive dexterity. To wit, housewife clone Allison and her husband Donnie settle more into their roles as clowns this season, providing copious comedic relief. It’s needed, too.
Orphan Black is dark and twisted in a way that’s not exploitative or psychologically pornographic, and therefore lingers with you longer and more intensely than many of TV’s more intentionally moody or aggressively disturbing dramas. When Helena is kidnapped and tortured in a coffin-sized box—hell, anything Helena does—your own skin crawls. And when Sarah is forced to pretend to be dastardly clone Rachel opposite Allison pretending to be Sarah, it’s almost farcical in premise, but deeply unnerving both in its execution and in the reveal that the scene sets up: Rachel was on the cusp of having all the clones assassinated.
Like Scandal, each episode ends with a twist, making binging it not just a priority but a necessity—and the wait for a new episode cruel torture. It also shares a matter-of-fact handling of sexuality and feminism that would not only make Shonda Rhimes proud, but is downright revolutionary in the sci-fi universe.
In its third season, Orphan Black is both falling victim to its complexity and is all the stronger for it. The introduction of the Castor clones electrifies the series with new mystery, but it’s not as if there wasn’t already exhaustive mystery to explore.
Still, few shows are able to find the nuance of empathy the way this one does. When Allison is self-destructive at the expense of the other clones, you understand her reasons. Beloved bisexual biologist clone Cosima breaks your heart as often as she infuriates you. Helena is an endearing monster you both want to banish from your waking nightmares and also cradle to sleep at night.
And then there’s the Project Castor clones, who are absolutely portrayed as adversaries to Sarah and the LEDA girls you’ve been crusading with for two seasons, but who were also borne from the same unjust circumstances.
That’s the beauty of Orphan Black. You never know who you’re supposed to trust. You never know who you’re supposed to like. You often don’t even know what the hell is going on. But there’s a certainty in the steady hands of Tatiana Maslany, who hasn’t faltered yet in what is unequivocally the most challenging and most impressive performance on television. She tackles each character and storyline with such conviction and reckless abandon that you follow blindly, so eager to be on board that you don’t even bother to buckle up.
The premiere, ending, as so many episodes of Orphan Black do, with another clone reveal—as a change of pace, this time it’s Millen as another Castor clone—hints that this ride could get bumpier than we’ve experienced thus far. But few series inspire and earn such faith that, in the end, a little whiplash will be worth the ride.