Friday, November 13, 2015

Orphan Black

I still owe a post on the movie Tomorrowland, but I’ve just spent the last three days watching all three seasons of the BBC America show Orphan Black and I was so blown away by it and its star Tatiana Maslany that I had to write about it.

For some of you reading this I’m very late to the party because it has been airing since 2013.  For the others, though, I’d love to say, “Just take my word for it and watch it” and let you go in knowing as little as possible so that you could get the full effect of it.  Unfortunately, that would both make for a very short post and also likely cause some people to shy away from it.

Picture the following scenario: it’s late at night on an empty train platform.  You’ve just finished a phone call and notice one other person in the distance, their back to you.  Out of curiosity you walk towards them and notice they are acting oddly.  They take off their expensive shoes and jacket then finally turn towards you.  This person has your face.  As you stand in stunned disbelief this person calmly steps in front of a moving train, killing themselves.

That is how the pilot episode opens.  If that isn’t enough to make you want to find out what is going on then by the end of the pilot I think most people will want more.  I’m going to describe the basics of that first episode to give you an idea of what you will be getting into when you watch the show.  Just in case you’d prefer to go in knowing as little as possible I’ve marked the pilot description so you can skip over it if you want to.


The person making the phone call is Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), a grifter and petty criminal who has just left her drug dealer boyfriend and come back to town.  The fact that he has serious anger management issues means that she probably shouldn’t have stolen cocaine from him when she left, but she’s hoping to sell it to get the cash to reclaim her daughter and leave town with her.  The event I described above then happens, but after a few seconds she realizes this woman left her purse there, too, so Sarah grabs it and hightails out of there.

She goes to the loft of her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris).  He is the person she was on the phone with.  She tells him what happened and he’s more freaked out than she is.  She says she is going to go to this woman’s apartment to try to find out more, but Felix figures she just wants to steal more than what was already in the woman’s purse.  Sarah leaves the cocaine with him in order to sell it.  She wants to take Felix with her when she leaves with her daughter. 

The suicidal woman was named Beth Childs (Maslany again) and she lived in an upscale neighborhood.  When Sarah gets to the apartment it is thankfully empty.  Beth’s boyfriend Paul has left a note that he’s out of town and will be back on the weekend.  Sarah pokes around and finds that Beth has a bank account with 75,000 dollars in it.  This would be a huge score.  All she would have to do is impersonate this woman, go to the bank, and withdraw the money.  It would be far more than she would get for the coke.

She watches home videos of Beth, gets her voice down, colors her hair to be the same, and goes into the bank.  She finds out that Beth just opened this account a couple of weeks prior and deposited all the money at once.  The problem is banks don’t have that much cash on hand, so it has to be special ordered.  She will have to come back the next day when it is ready.

Disappointed, she heads back to Beth’s apartment but when she gets there a cop pulls up.  She figures she’s been caught, but the man seems to know her somehow.  He’s Detective Art Bell (Kevin Hanchard).  He pretty much forces her into his car and he keeps asking her if she’s ready.  As she gets to the police station she finally gets enough context to realize that Beth Childs, the woman she is impersonating, is a cop and Art’s partner.  Talk about the last thing a petty criminal wants to get mixed up in.  Making things much worse is the fact that what she’s supposed to be ready for is a police inquest into Beth’s shooting of an unarmed civilian.  She is already late for it.

I won’t spoil how she gets by this, but I will say that Art is pissed at her and also kind of nervous.  There seems to be something a little off about what may have happened during the shooting and maybe it didn’t go down like Art and Beth said it did.  Is he a dirty cop?  Is Beth?  Sarah is finding out that Beth Childs’ suicide was probably a result of far more than just all the pills Sarah found in Beth’s apartment.

Do things get easier from there?  Not on your life.  Sarah goes back to Beth’s apartment with plans to go back to the bank the next morning.  Suddenly she hears the door open and it’s Beth’s boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce), home early because he says he wants to be there to support her after her inquest.  She may have been able to fool a bank exec, and possibly even her work partner, but how the hell can she keep up the charade with someone who knows Beth intimately?

I won’t spoil this, either, but she does get out of the apartment the next morning and drives to the bank.  Unbeknownst to her, Art tails her.  While at the bank getting the money, the exec asks her if she’d also like the contents of her safe deposit box.  She says yes, but all she finds in it are three birth certificates, including one for a German woman.  She takes them anyway and leaves.  Art continues to follow her and at one stop he breaks into her car, finds the cash, and takes it.

While all this has been going on, Sarah’s boyfriend, the drug dealer with anger issues, has shown up at Felix’s loft demanding to know where Sarah and the coke are.  That first night when Sarah found out about Beth’s bank account she convinced Felix to go down and identify Beth’s body as Sarah instead.  In essence, she is using this opportunity to fake her own death to get Felix to stop looking for her.  This woman is the ultimate survivor.

The drug dealer won’t drop it until he finally goes down to the morgue himself and sees “Sarah” there.  Then he’s inconsolable, figuring she killed herself because of him.  He keeps coming around to Felix (who is still hiding the coke) and to finally get rid of him Felix agrees to a committal service for “Sarah”.  The real Sarah watches in the distance, but then is horrified to see her daughter showing up with the woman who has been taking care of her – Sarah and Felix’s foster mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy).  Sarah didn’t want her daughter to think she was dead for real.

Think things are complicated?  Just wait.  The next scene shows Sarah going back to Beth’s car.  Before she can drive off a woman opens the back door and jumps in.  She addresses her as Beth and seems very panicked.  She tells Sarah that she saw Art break into her car and that he suspects something.  Oh yeah, two other important things: she has a German accent…..and Sarah’s face.

This woman, Katja Obinger (Maslany again), is the same woman whose birth certificate was in Beth’s safe deposit box.  She keeps asking “Beth” questions about whether things are ready and are they safe.  While Sarah was able to mostly shrug off seeing one woman who looks like her (must be a long lost twin, Sarah’s a foster child, after all), seeing a second one seriously freaks her out. 

Katja quickly figures out that this isn’t Beth she’s talking to, and asks who she is.  Before Sarah can respond a sniper bullet comes through the windshield and kills Katja.  It takes Sarah only a second to react and dive out of the way on the front seat as another bullet passes through right where her head just was.  She is able to get the car in gear and get out of there as a few more bullets hit the car. 

As she is driving away she suddenly hears a phone in the back seat ringing.  It’s Katja’s but it has the same casing as one Sarah found in Beth’s purse.  Beth had two phones and Sarah has been ignoring both, including increasingly frantic text messages on the one that has the same casing as Katja’s.  Sarah ignores Katja’s, but then Beth’s phone right beside her starts ringing instead.  After some hesitation she picks up the phone and answers it.  Cue end credits for the pilot episode.

As you can see, the pilot raises a ton of questions.  How do these women have her face?  Why did Beth kill herself?  Is Art a dirty cop?  Was Beth?  What really happened during the shooting the cops are being investigated for?  Where did the money in Beth’s account come from?  Is it connected?  Why did Art steal the money out of the car?  What is with the birth certificates in the safe deposit box?  Did Beth’s boyfriend have other reasons for returning unexpectedly?  Will Sarah be able to get her daughter back?  Who was shooting at Katja and Sarah?  What is Sarah going to do with a dead body in her back seat?  And finally, who has been calling on the phone?  Is it the person who just tried to kill her?


One of the great things about this show is that unlike some others that raise questions in the pilot then spend years not answering them *cough* Lost *cough* Orphan Black addresses every single one of them by the end of the first season – most of them in the first few episodes.  The writers, instead of being lazy, actually had a plan for the show and knew where they were going when they shot the pilot.

The second great thing about Orphan Black is lead actress Tatiana Maslany.  I was blown away by what she brought to this show.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that I feel that it could not work without her.  She doesn’t just appear as various women who all have the same face but with different clothes and hair.  No, she inhabits these roles.  She becomes these characters, each of them three dimensional and distinct from each of the others.  They have different accents, different speaking cadences, different body language, etc.  It didn’t take long for me to almost completely forget that it was the same person in each of these roles.  I would sometimes catch myself realizing that the two (or sometimes even more) characters interacting with each other in a scene were all the same actress.

Here are five of the major characters in the show:

From left to right they are: Sarah Manning, a grifter and survivor, originally from London, pulled into a situation beyond anything she imagined; Alison Hendrix, an uptight Canadian suburban soccer mom with a penchant for handguns and alcohol; Cosima Niehaus, a bohemian American scientist with a sunny disposition; Rachel Duncan, an icy cold corporate power player, also from London, but much higher class than Sarah; and Helena, a psychotic Ukrainian killer.  All of them are played by Tatiana Maslany.  In the image I used at the top of this post it’s also only Maslany who appears in it.

This show must be both a dream come true and a nightmare for her.  She gets to play all these fully formed female characters, any one of which is somewhat uncommon on television, but she has to slip into and out of these characters all the time as the shooting schedule calls for it.  And it gets even more impressive.  As you might imagine, at different times these characters impersonate each other.  When Maslany does it, though, she doesn’t just play the other character because that wouldn’t be realistic.  No, she plays the character as the one that is doing the masquerade sees that other character.  It’s subtle, but it’s there and it’s damn impressive.

So far the Emmys have snubbed Tatiana Maslany.  She did finally get a nomination for Best Actress in a Drama in the most recent ceremony – three years into Orphan Black’s run – but she didn’t win.  However, she has won two consecutive Critics Choice Awards for her performances.

As for the show itself, it has ten episodes in a season and it has aired three seasons so far.  The fourth is scheduled to air next spring.  I will definitely be watching.  Orphan Black has a great combination of suspense, drama, comedy, and a little action.  It has strong female characters, but without taking the shortcut of simply emasculating the male characters.  It has a couple of characters who are gay, but it doesn’t focus on that unlike some other shows *cough* Glee *cough*.  On Orphan Black they are not “gay characters”, but characters who simply happen to be gay.  There are no Very Special Episodes addressing it.

Do yourself a favor and seek out this show.  While you could just start watching it when season 4 starts I definitely feel you should watch the whole thing from the beginning.  As I am writing this I am getting the urge to go back and watch season one again, even though I just watched it three days ago.

If you like edge of your seat entertainment, interesting characters, mysteries, humor mixed in with the drama, strong women without the men being emasculated to achieve it, an extremely talented lead actress, and a show that keeps growing instead of stringing you along then I cannot recommend Orphan Black enough. 

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you’re still on the fence, check out this short clip from early in Season 1:


  1. I'm so glad you discovered this show Chip. Like you I think I binge watched the first 2 seasons before live watching the 3rd season earlier this year. How has this show not received more attention. It really is one of the best series on television these days.

    1. Thanks. I agree.

      On a different topic: I've been checking your site to see if you had a post on the new Supergirl TV show, but I hadn't seen one yet. I know you were looking forward to it. What do you think of it?