Warning: Details of Season 3 are discussed below.
This former go-it-alone grifter has come a long way from Season One. But the BBC’s clone thriller has always percolated the idea that sisterhood is powerful (especially if all of them are played by Maslany).
To call “Orphan Black” female-centric is an understatement. It’s not a one-woman show, but it’s close. Even if you were put off, as some were, by the increasingly contrived reveals late last season, there’s simply nothing else like it on TV — nor could there have been before the technology that allows the Canadian actress to appear seamlessly alongside herself as clones Sarah, Cosima, Alison and Rachel (as well as less-central Beth, Katja, Jennifer, transgender clone Tony, and more to come).
Maslany may be the delivery vehicle, but the ideas explored within the central premise — a top-secret program created an as-yet-unknown number of clones, who are rebelling against the company’s efforts to bring them in hand — are far-reaching and topical, exploring themes of gender and agency and reproductive rights. “We’re property,” they discover after scientist Cosima finds a proprietary DNA tag in their genome. It’s not a subtle metaphor for the still-prevalent male perspective on women’s bodies and autonomy, but it’s an effective one.
This season sees the expansion of a late-last-season bombshell: there are male clones, too. The Castor project was revealed to be a military version of the Dyad Institute’s female clone project; the males were versions of Mark Rollins (Ari Millen), a gun-toting fundamentalist henchman we’d met earlier in the season at the Prolethian farm.
On its surface, this is kind of a disappointing development. “Clone Club,” as the women jokingly call it, is a female thing — and it is a thing of beauty. But not to worry. The Castor clones (brilliantly played, to be fair, by Millen) are a far cry from the Dyad ones: They’re simple or psycho or just good at taking orders; they’re sexual predators and murderers. They are not a glowing commentary on manhood.
As co-creator Graeme Manson put it in a recent interview, “If you want to explore feminist themes, you have to challenge those themes. And if there’s one way to highlight our feminist themes, it would be to throw a misogynist into the mix.”
In that interview, he also addressed the theory that all of the show’s straight male characters are one-dimensional by design. (In other words, they bear a strong resemblance to the tertiary female characters at the heart of so many mainstream shows).
“It’s actually the unintended consequence of putting females front and center and square in all of your lead roles. And then what happens to your supporting characters? They become the usual female supporting casts, and they perform those roles. That’s largely it. We like the fact that it’s bent on its ear, but really it’s a function of storytelling.”
He can downplay this as unintended, but stark differences are drawn every episode between female and male approaches to conflict and relationships, with Sarah’s gay brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) being the notable exception. My favorite example from Season 3: the testing program used by the military to ascertain the competency of a clone. The Castor clones are asked a series of if-x-then-y logic questions, which they answer as straightforwardly as possible. When captive clone Helena is questioned, though, not so much:
Soldier: All mangoes are golden. Nothing golden is cheap. Conclusion: All mangoes are cheap. Is that a sound conclusion?
Helena: Where are these mangoes? I would like to see these mangoes.
Time and again, the clones triumph over boring, standard-thinking male characters by being able to look at things differently. Not least, this is achieved when they strategize by relying on each other’s strengths: Sarah’s wiliness, Cosima’s scientific genius, Alison’s (slightly sociopathic) determination, Helena’s tendency to want to “gut [bad guys] like a fish.”
While we’re on the subject of Helena, over the course of the series I’ve found myself repeatedly reminded of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” There are similarities to the anti-heroine of that series, but major differences too. My favorite: Unlike Stieg Larsson’s creation, this vengeful Ukrainian isn’t sexualized for anyone’s entertainment. She is unpredictable, feral, loyal — and constantly hungry. What she’s not is a sex object.
The series makes a practice of undermining any stereotypes that might creep up on its female characters. I’ve noticed that even applies to Kira (Skyler Wexler), Sarah’s young daughter. It’s true she seems to get kidnapped every other episode, but she’s also a savvy little kid who seems highly capable of helping herself get rescued. She’s not a damsel in distress any more than her mother, or any of her mother’s “sisters.”
Delphine, too, looks like she’ll be forcing some reassessments of her character in Season 3. Back from Frankfurt, the French biologist isn’t exactly the doting partner Cosima (and we) remember, though she still appears to be playing on the female clones’ team. “I am the new you,” she whispers to a hospital bed-ridden Rachel, and yikes.
Finally, I must confess to being a very late adopter. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve binge-watched the first two seasons (you can too, for free!), and I am so excited to be up to date — and free to Google questions like, “How do they make Tatiana Maslany four people?” without fear of spoilers. This clip breaks down one of the series’ best-ever group scenes. Damn, girl(s).