Farewell, Orphan Black: a series that managed to be everything all at once

The Toronto-shot show shifted from sci-fi thriller to police procedural to queer love story to suburban farce – and that's what made it electric and wonderful


ORPHAN BLACK SERIES FINALE at the Royal Cinema (608 College), Saturday (August 12) at 9 pm, finale screens at 10:15 pm. $15. universe.com. Episode broadcasts at 10 pm on Space on the same night.


Saturday night (August 12), Orphan Black will air its final episode. After five seasons and 50 hours of television, the twisting, genre-bending tale of the Leda clones – every last one of them played by Tatiana Maslany in the breakout performance of the goddamn decade – will come to a close.

I don’t really care how it all wraps up. But I’ll miss the hell out of the show, and I’m sure a lot of other people will too. As a thriller it was kind of a mess, spending the last couple of years chasing its own tail. But as a hangout show, it was a delight.

The key to good television is that you’re drawn in by the premise and you fall in love with the characters, and I can think of few shows that prove this as well as Orphan Black. What started out as a murky conspiracy thriller with a nifty gimmick has expanded into something unquantifiable – a big, shaggy narrative mess that still feels, from moment to moment, like something electric and wonderful.

You can watch the Canadian series fully aware of its structural flaws while still marvelling at the way its parts click together, week after week. It shifts through tones and genres at every commercial break: It’s a police procedural! No, it’s hard SF! No, it’s a tender queer love story! No, it’s a creepy redemption story about a Ukrainian assassin trying to reject her murderous past! No, it’s a suburban farce about a married couple with corpses buried in their garage!

Yes, Orphan Black is all of those things, and sometimes all at once. That’s the beauty of it. The show’s jittery, slippery pacing isn’t a bug, it’s a feature – the result of the showrunners’ miraculous discovery, somewhere early in the first season, that Tatiana Maslany has chemistry with literally everyone, including herself. (After four seasons, she won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2016.)

Pair her shifty London hustler Sarah Manning with surly cop Art (Kevin Hanchard), and you’ve got a gritty cop show. Or pair Sarah with her foster brother Felix Dawkins (Jordan Gavaris) for a sibling rivalry comedy about two people who couldn’t be more different, and couldn’t be more devoted to one another.

Pair her chill Berkeley scientist Cosima Niehaus with Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu), a frosty executive at the nefarious Dyad Institute, and you’ve got a delicate romantic drama about a woman who isn’t sure she can trust her new lover.

Pair her uptight soccer mom Alison Hendrix with doofus husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun), and you’ve got a comedy about a woman desperately trying to have a normal life, even when she’s anything but normal.

Pair her chilly, self-aware clone Rachel Duncan with enigmatic hunk Paul Dierden (Dylan Bruce), and you’ve got a story about a woman who has everything but can’t feel anything.

It’s all good. But if you want something great, pair her religious zealot, clone-murdering maniac Helena with Sarah, and you’ve got a redemption drama that shifts from horror to comedy to real sibling love over the course of the entire show. Oh, and later you can pair Helena with Donnie for a streak of mismatched buddy comedy that’s become my favourite thing about the show.

Once you understand that anything is possible, you can delight in the moments where the clones’ worlds collide – to watch Sarah try to impersonate Cosima, say, or to see Alison and Donnie try to community theatre their way through a drug deal (or vice versa). The master plot? Who cares? It’s just some people in boardrooms making cryptic speeches.

Wouldn’t you rather be watching the other, weirder show – the one about ordinary people learning it’s not just okay to be different, but also empowering? Orphan Black has a huge LGBTQ following, and I think this key theme has a lot to do with it there’s also the fact that the show gives its queer characters just as much depth and complexity as the straight ones, if not more so.

Creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have spoken often of how the series began with just a cryptic image: a woman at a train station sees her exact double step off the platform into a speeding train, and impulsively decides to take on the dead woman’s identity. When they started writing Orphan Black, they didn’t even know what the title meant it just sounded enigmatic and intriguing, and that was enough. When the time finally came to explain it, it made very little sense: Sarah, we’re told, came to her foster mother Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy) as “an orphan in the black.” But even that turned out to be a half-truth, since the conspiracy at the show’s core ultimately looped back to include Mrs. S’s own mom.

Whatever. I don’t care about the origins of the Ledas, and I never have. The whole point is that they exist in the here and now, dozens of women grown from the same genome three decades earlier who’ve all learned of one another’s existence in a short window of time. They’ve bonded, or they haven’t, according to their own individual personalities. Manson and Fawcett seem firmly on the “nurture” side of the personality debate, and this season they’ve given the key clones their own flashback episodes, the better for us to understand how they became the people they are – and maybe to pad out the final movements of the plot.

Right, the plot. This final season introduced Stephen McHattie as the last Big Bad, an allegedly ancient geneticist named P.T. Westmorland who has his own secret science island a short helicopter ride from Toronto. (Everything in the world of Orphan Black is a short ride from Toronto. It’s best not to ask too many questions.)

The Westmorland arc hasn’t worked out terribly well, and it’s brought back a few supporting characters from earlier seasons that we didn’t necessarily need to see again. (Despite some fine work from Ari Millen as a line of male clones, the Castor arc of season three never made that much sense, so it’s annoying to see it brought back this year to be stitched into the larger mythology.)

Still, it got us to the end, which looks to be a scaled-down story of the Leda sisters banding together to save Helena, who’s been abducted and forced to deliver her twins in a creepier-than-usual wing of the Dyad complex. And if that’s what Orphan Black wants to do for its finale, I’m fine with that because ultimately, it gives me what I want: Sarah and Helena together again, facing impossible odds and saving each other anyway, with their sisters helping from the sidelines.

For all the weird science, Orphan Black turned out to be a show about family. And this family has earned its happy ending.

movies@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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