“Orphan Black” goes into its final season with nothing to prove.
After all, it followed up its rockiest storyline with the Castor clones with an excellent fourth season, it earned universal critical acclaim, and star Tatiana Maslany landed a well-deserved Emmy for her breakout role. That’s not too shabby for a show with a fierce but small viewership. Because of that, the series is free to do exactly what it wants and does so well: let the sestras lead.
With all the clone hijinks and amazing performances by Maslany, it’s sometimes forgotten that “Orphan Black” is one of the most feminist shows on TV, and not just because most of its main characters are female. From the beginning, the show broke down gender stereotypes and featured women in all of the powerful roles, letting them have complex identities independent of their relationship to men.
The central struggle, however, is about the clones’ fight for ownership of their bodies and their lives, defying the influence of man. Based on the first three episodes given to critics of review, this season that battle becomes more focused when we see the mysterious Victorian-era PT Westmorland enter the picture. He created the Leda clones and wants to find ways to help the rest of the humanity, which doesn’t sound so bad, except of course it involves tactics that are well, downright Victorian. As we’ve seen in previous seasons, Neolutionism and the Brightborn agency dealt with some crazy science that has no tolerance for imperfection, but will go through any lengths — and lives — to achieve that goal.
Ken Woroner/BBC AMERICA
Sarah Manning (Maslany) has been the one who’s been fighting for her sestras since the beginning, and this year she’ll be just as fierce when it comes to her daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), whose status as the only daughter born of a clone comes with extra perks and trouble. Kira inherited her independent spirit from her mother Sarah though, and this year she’s grown up enough to not be just a girl in peril but one who makes her own decisions about her body — choices that are not what Sarah would choose. Similarly, Helena (Maslany) will be keeping her unborn babies out of Westmorland’s clutches as long as she can.
This fight extends to one of agency and purpose. Two of the most conflicted clones, Alison and Rachel (Maslany both times), have reacted to the situations they’ve been placed in and struggle to find meaning within the context of their identities as clones. Naturally, Alison’s struggle will be the one that involves substance abuse and hilarious shenanigans.
Along those lines, we’re happy to report the that “Orphan Black” is as fun and funny as ever. Clones masquerading as other clones and multiple-clone scene choreography and commentary never gets old. Maslany’s ability to convey those layers simultaneously is its own master class in acting. The humor comes down to the characters’ quirky personalities, and newest Clone Club member Krystal (Maslany) is a new favorite because of her insanely high confidence and obsession with beauty. Also, the sharp writing can delineate each person through words alone. “Well, poop on a stoop,” is clearly an Alison expletive, and this is indicative of the level of goofy scenarios you can expect to that balance the danger.
This is where “Orphan Black” continues to surprise. The show creates real, life-and-death stakes, and just as we’re lulled into the complacency of the usual thriller formula — a chase, a close call, a getaway — brutal, shocking and violent acts can occur. Sometimes this is at the hands of our favorite clones, so brace yourselves to feel conflicted or horrified. These high stakes are also why it’s very possible one of the clones will perish this season.
These extreme measures bring home the seriousness of what the show is about, though. At the risk of sounding too American in regards to this Canadian co-production, “Orphan Black” is about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s why we love and root for the entire extended Clone Club family, not just the Ledas themselves.
Despite — or perhaps because of — its clone theme, the series has always been one of a kind. While it’s been bittersweet knowing that this is the end of the road for Sarah & co., its strong, individual vision has been a refreshing presence in this crowded TV landscape.
“Orphan Black” kicks off its final season on Saturday at 10 p.m. on BBC America.