S1: Grifter Sarah Manning happens to meet a woman who looks exactly like her in a train station, right before the woman commits suicide. Naturally, Sarah uses the opportunity to take her identify and steal all her stuff. But while pretending to be the now-deceased Beth Childs in order to access her bank account, Sarah finds herself thrust deeper into Beth’s life than she imagined. But there’s a reason Beth killed herself. There’s a reason why the two of them look so alike. And Sarah’s walked right into a dangerous trap.
S2: Sarah now knows who she and her look-alikes are–but so does a powerful organization. The Dyad Institute runs a program studying the look-alikes, the clones, but up until Sarah stumbled into Beth’s life, she’d remained off their radar. Now that Dyad knows about her and her daughter, it’ll fight to get their hands on them.
S3: Sarah forms a tenuous compromise with the Dyad Institute, but her family is threatened by another set of clones–her brothers, given to the military while she and her sisters were given to a research institute. The male clones are suffering from a disease, and they believe Sarah and her sisters are the key to their cure. They–and their military allies–will do near anything to save themselves and each other.
S4: As several factions fight over the fate of the cloning program, Sarah and her sisters are caught in the crossfire. Following in the footsteps of Beth’s last investigation before she died, Sarah has to keep herself and her sisters alive–which means finding a cure for the disease affecting them, even as her enemies want to misuse the same information that she needs.
Series: 4 seasons. The 5th and final season is upcoming.
I’ve Watched: All of season 4.
I’ve been loving Orphan Black pretty consistently since its premiere, and this season is not an exception. That’s especially impressive, given that the plot ties into events that happened before the beginning of the series, employing flashbacks to bring us into those moments. Flashbacks comes with a lot of potential pitfalls–we already know what’s going to happen, so there’s a limit to how much the story can surprise us–but Orphan Black uses that to its advantage.
Nearly all of the first episode of the season is composed of flashbacks, and I’ve never seen another series pull that off so well. Orphan Black zeroes in on a character who dies in the beginning of the pilot, executing it in a way that’s riveting.
Throughout the rest of the series, we’ve only known Beth through secondhand information, picking up bits and pieces from the people in her life and whatever evidence she’d left behind. Now, we get to witness her experiences in those last days, watch the cage slowly closing in around her. The deep personal aspect of the story drives the episode, and knowing what’s coming charges every scene with a sense of tragedy.
The most powerful moment arrives as Beth is nearly alone, confiding in a mystery character with no connections to anyone we know about. This is a window into a secret world. No one else will ever understand the full depth of everything that was weighing on her in that moment. That knowledge is lost to our protagonists. And getting to see those secret moments now, four seasons after her death, makes it clear how much of her experiences were erased from the narrative. How much she took with her to her grave, how much knowledge she had that the remaining protagonists are only now putting together.
There’s something satisfying about how the show works to make Beth matter, to make her character seem real, even though she’s been dead for the entire series. It doesn’t take her for granted. That’s most impressive for Beth, but this is something Orphan Black does for all of the sisters. Despite its fast pace, it makes time to expand on their experiences.
Sarah is always moving to where the action is, constantly driven by the danger to herself, her sisters, and her daughter. Whatever happens, she’s at the lead, taking risks and pushing forward. And yet there’s always new conflicts for her character, especially now that she’s stretched so thin. She has her foster brother, Felix, and her foster mother. She has her daughter. She has a slew of sisters–three of whom she’s personally close with, and an unknown number of acquaintances or strangers whose future she’s nonetheless responsible for.
And if that isn’t enough, the memory of Beth is always there, the sister who was responsible for all of them before her. The woman she only saw for a second in life and came to know in death. The person whose life she stole, who she’ll never be able to apologize to.
With all these new ties pulling at her, with the responsibility for so many people on her shoulders, it makes sense that the most personally challenging moments for her come when Felix finds his biological sister. Felix’s motivations are understandable, as both his foster sister and mom find more of their biological relatives. Sarah ends up focusing on the immediate, life-threatening concerns facing her sisters, and he’s always relegated to supporting their needs.
But Sarah’s character flaws shine through in the difficulty she has accepting Felix’s sister. As much as Sarah’s grown, moments like this serve as a reminder that she was a total, self-focused wreck not that long ago. This responsibility thing is new for her.
Then there’s Cosima, who’s only getting sicker while she researches a cure for herself and her sisters. Who’s reeling from the uncertainty of whether her girlfriend is alive or dead. Orphan Black keeps both Cosima and the audience in suspense as to Delphine’s fate for a long time. I’d been spoiled already about her survival, because there were plenty of posts at the time about how a queer woman finally got to live. (A fair reason for jubilation, considering not just the 100’s recent fumble, but an entire history of fumbles.) But it surprised me how long the season took to confirm it–they didn’t have to put their audience through that.
There’s a lot of complexity and character work in Orphan Black, something that’s remained consistent for all four seasons. It’s great. I probably won’t be able to watch season five as it comes out, but I will absolutely see it, sooner or later.
Also: I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to pull out objects you’ve been stabbed with, instead leaving that to a trained medical professional.
“My sister has a robot maggot in her face. You tell me what the solid plan is.”