The sad implosion of Orphan Black

orphanblack_cast_season2_dwSPOILERS for the second season of Orphan Black

Speed and confidence defined Orphan Black’s first season. After a number of patronising and dull American genre serials, here was one from Canada that made smart and bracing science fiction look easy to pull off. Respecting our intelligence by not belabouring every plot development, it still wasn’t too hasty that the characters became moronic instruments of the narrative. Despite packing a lot of story into ten episodes, Orphan Black remained resolutely focused on Sarah, her family, and her clones.

The recently concluded second season lost that elegant balance, rushing chaotically into dead ends the characters had to contort themselves to reverse out of. Characters were sent off on tangents in service of a mythology that was never as plain as the writers believed. While the principals weren’t behaving outrageously out of character, they were no longer driving the plot. By the end of the finale, we were left with an improvisational season that ultimately didn’t further the story much at all.

Season one’s cliffhanger ending suggested that Kira’s abduction would be the narrative spine of the season, giving Sarah a high-stakes objective that would motivate her to confront Dyad and its mysteries to save her daughter. But creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, emboldened by the success of their breakneck plotting so far, decided surprises were more important than a satisfying and logical story.

So Sarah finds Kira at the end of the season 2 premiere, and she’d been taken by Mrs S rather than Dyad. The suspense that had just been established was rapidly neutralised. The twist could still have borne fruit if the rest of the season had an objective to replace it, but the story devolved into a hazy brew of clandestine deals and evasive manoeuvres. For Sarah to mostly be reacting to what was happening made sense for a first season where she was coming to terms with her new life. For the second to not feel aimless, she needed a mission that would give us a clear arc to invest in. Surprises would still be possible and welcome, but as organic developments rather than the primary narrative fuel.

Without any such linearity, it became difficult to keep track of who knew and wanted what, or even what we were supposed to know. When it’s hard to tell whether certain developments even matter, no wonder we feel adrift from a story we were recently invested in. Have Mrs S’s motives been revealed yet? Is she just protecting Kira, or do we know that she has other motives? Are we meant to think Paul’s a double agent, or does his overwhelming blandness mean we shouldn’t be expecting so much from him?

A lack of focus and direction in a serial inevitably produces inefficiencies. To steer clear of Dyad, Sarah takes Kira and Felix to the countryside to lay low with Cal (Michiel Huisman), who turns out to be Kira’s father. He and Sarah hook up again, and within minutes Felix heads back to the city, feeling rejected and superfluous. Weren’t they trying to stay out of danger? After escaping a Dyad hit, Sarah and Kira then return to the city themselves and she and Felix are pals again like nothing happened. The first season, having the simpler task of laying groundwork, never stooped to such blatant contrivance to generate and then resolve conflict.

Helena’s movements were even more erratic. Shortly after we learn Sarah didn’t succeed in killing her last season, she’s abducted by the Proletheans. She then escapes, tries to assassinate Rachel in the city, and goes on a road trip with Sarah before voluntarily returning to the Proletheans to pick up where that story left off (for some reason, Sarah never seems to care much where Helena has disappeared to despite them finally bonding as sisters). She then escapes and returns to the city. Again. Oh, and then she’s abducted (again) in the closing moments, this time by Project Castor.

This was plotting as jazz, but for a show with a mythology and mysteries to solve, that kind of freeform approach is difficult to pull off. Matthew Weiner could improvise a season of Mad Men and we wouldn’t notice. It might even be exhilarating. Vince Gilligan managed it with most Breaking Bad seasons by being rigorous and never losing sight of the characters. He and his writing staff feverishly debated each plot turn. Orphan Black took the same risk and fumbled the ball.

Certain season two stories were fundamentally flawed rather than poorly executed. The Prolethean arc was an attempt to give the religious perspective on cloning a more sustainable story than the extremist Tomas could provide, but it only amounted to a rough and boring duplicate of Dyad’s quest to produce clone offspring. Apart from their puritanical attitudes to women and discipline – which ties into the show’s themes regarding the use and abuse of women – the Prolethean story had nothing to contribute. They were just an obstacle to occupy Helena. The dynamic between Helena and Sarah is dark yet weirdly touching, so I can understand why they brought her back, but she needed a storyline that fully justified it.

One more grievance: the introduction of transgendered clone Tony was the first clone misstep. Given how vital each clone has been to the story so far, Manson and Fawcett should have recognised that a new one shouldn’t pop out of the woodwork for a stand-alone episode to further show off Tatiana Maslany’s versatility. Unless the clones are sewn into the fabric of the show, they’re a gimmick.

This determination to keep blindsiding us led to the horrible botching of the season’s final twist. I hate to be so unequivocal, but the male clone should have been Felix, not Mark. It feels so right that it’s hard to understand how it could possibly have been rejected. Our conception of the show would have been turned on its head. The new breadth of the cloning project would be personal for Sarah, tying into her roots as a foster child and transforming her relationship with her brother. They would have more in common, at the cost of him no longer being a beacon of the outside world for her to cling to. It represents how she can’t escape the influence of Dyad and Castor, that they will never stop invading her life. Orphan Black needs those raw stakes.

Felix would benefit too, getting more to do than provide moral support. The excellent Jordan Gavaris could undoubtedly pull off a range of performances at least in Maslany’s ballpark. At the very least it should have been Cal, raising unsettling and paranoid questions about whether manipulations by Project Castor led to his relationship with Sarah. And what would it mean for Kira’s parentage that a clone could only conceive a child with a different clone?

Instead, it’s Mark the Prolethean, which has virtually no impact. He’s a peripheral character with no meaningful connection to Sarah or any of the other clones. Manson and Fawcett rejected the Felix idea as too obvious. Maybe so, but that doesn’t inherently make it the wrong choice. The Breaking Bad finale was criticised for some predictable outcomes, but the show had been unpredictable enough in the past that it had earned the right to settle into delivering what felt emotionally right. Manson and Fawcett prefer to keep the audience on their toes at any cost rather than do what’s best for the story. They decided to make Mark a clone once they saw the actor’s performance. The most resonant solution was staring them in the face and they deliberately ignored it, waiting for a capable actor they could use to subvert our expectations.

Thank goodness for Maslany and Gavaris then, plus Kristian Bruun’s amusing performance after Donnie learns Alison’s secrets. (Alison’s stories are always fun black comedy diversions, and the success of her Dyad-free story with Donnie speaks volumes.) Maslany is still intensely brilliant in these roles even when the material lets her down. While she didn’t quite work out how to make Rachel’s agonised vindictiveness credible, that ludicrous pencil to the eyeball confirmed that the writers don’t consider her as substantial a character as the others anyway. Scenes like Helena and Sarah’s terrifying reunion and that breathtaking dancing composite in the finale – its credibility encapsulating the magnitude of Maslany’s achievement – more than make up for any shortcomings. Maria Doyle Kennedy, meanwhile, clearly has the skill to make Mrs S layered and conflicted, but when her allegiances are maddeningly obfuscated and she’s not allowed to drop that steely façade, there’s only so much she can do.

The rest of the cast are perfectly decent, but the choice of Andrew Gillies as Ethan Duncan is almost a death blow to the second half of the season. The character is vital and yet Gillies is atrociously stiff, unable to convey Duncan’s detachment without seeming completely unmoored from his fellow performers and the show itself. His performance is as excruciating as watching a non-actor in an ill-conceived cameo, only drawn out for episode after episode. His death in the finale was emotional and cathartic, but not the way it was meant to be.

Even with some merciful deck-clearing, Orphan Black now stands as a show reliable only in its performances, and 20 episodes is plenty of time to enjoy Tatiana Maslany’s excellent work. There’s little reason to persevere with a show with such warped priorities. At the end of season one, I was excited for what was shaping up to be a successor to Lost and Battlestar Galactica. Instead, we’ve been given Heroes season 2 with some terrific acting.

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