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Orphan Black: “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”

Illustration for article titled iOrphan Black/i: “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”
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Well, you can’t say they didn’t go for it. There’s much to say and only so much time to say it, so let’s break it down the only way that I can even imagine making sense of this tornado of a finale: clone by clone.

Let’s start with Alison, who takes a startling turn tonight that I suspect might bump her down a few pegs in everyone’s favorite clones ranking. She gets a visit from none other than Dr. Leekie, who makes a tempting offer: if she lets them regularly perform “non-invasive” checkups on her, they’ll otherwise leave her and her family alone. They’ve even discharged her monitor! Just sign on the dotted line, dear. The whole thing is slimy and Alison knows it, but at this point, even she knows she can’t go on, second-guessing herself and everyone around her. No gun or pill or reassurance has helped the fact that she feels totally helpless, and in Alison Hendrix’s mind, helplessness is just about the worst cardinal sin. Not even Cosima and Sarah are surprised when Alison says she’s taking the deal. But I suspect they might be a tad taken aback if they knew she made her decision after watching Aynesley choke to death in a garbage disposal. You know, like you do.


Alison’s unraveling has been an unexpectedly rich source of comedy this season, so it somehow seems fitting that the conclusion to this arc is so jarringly dark. Like Donnie’s torture, Aynesley’s death is at first played through humor. “To hell with you and your Christmas angel,” she spits at Alison, stuffing the ridiculous felt thing down the garbage disposal with a wooden spoon. Then her scarf gets caught in the blades, and the scene changes on a dime. We’ve watched all season as Alison tried to protect herself as ferociously as possible. Despite Sarah’s warnings, she’s actively gone after everyone she thought might be trying to undermine her. But Aynesley refused to “admit” her involvement with Leekie, or more importantly, refused to let Alison be right for once in this whole mess. And so Alison did the worst thing she could imagine: she stood by, and she watched. Just like the monitors she's grown to hate so viscerally, she didn't - she couldn't - interfere.

It’s grotesque, it’s deplorable, and, as the gut-punch reveal that Donnie is her monitor confirms, it’s ultimately pointless. There’s plenty to debate here as to whether such a deeply twisted action was necessary, but as a setup for her character next season, I loved it. Alison’s decided to wash her hands of the whole thing and move on. She’s never been more comfortable, and she’s never been more helpless.

Meanwhile, Cosima joins her clone sisters in Toronto, for no other apparent reason beyond, “shit got messed up in Minnesota and I really need to see some extremely familiar faces.” Before she can even get to the curb, Dr. Leekie shows up with as specifically catered an offer as the one he gave Alison: a job at the Dyad institute and her entire genome sequence. Just sign the dotted line, dear. Cosima understandably hates Leekie, what with that whole thing where he sent a gorgeous French woman after her for intel, but the offer also comes seconds after she coughs blood into her hands. If Alison hates helplessness, Cosima hates not knowing the answer to a question. It’s probably why she was willing to give Delphine another chance at all; two brilliant minds are better than one, and she needs to crack this genome. I don’t know how scientifically or technically accurate the scenes of them converting her genome code were, but they still weren’t my favorites of the episode. Yes, they were largely utilitarian, since they needed to figure out the neolutionists’ motivations for offering the contracts by the end of the hour, but Cosima’s been used as an exposition device so many times this season that it was disappointing to see her back in this position for the finale. Here’s hoping she gets some more to do in the second season (or at least doesn’t die a Moulin Rouge-y death, because as a lover of all things Cosima, I would RIOT).

In the end, though, it all comes back to Sarah. It’s sometimes easy to forget that she’s the main character, since Alison and Cosima have gotten more screentime and depth, but we started this journey with Sarah and it’s only fitting that this season ends with her. There are some nice nods to the pilot, between the return of a newly sober Vic and Art reminding us that Sarah reacted to Beth’s suicide in a pretty appalling way. We even get Sarah planning to whisk Kira away like she was back then, but the contrast is startling. The Sarah of the pilot was a cocky kid who wanted to take away Kira as her right; the Sarah of the finale is a grimly determined woman who just wants her to be safe, no matter what the cost. I realized when looking back at the season that Sarah’s been so swept up in the mechanics of the plot that I sometimes forgot how much she’s changed since we met her. She’s taken on so much responsibility, almost none of it by choice, and it’s fundamentally and permanently altered her perception of the world. But one thing that hasn’t changed is how Sarah never, ever wants people to know if she’s scared. Indulging in fear is a luxury she’s never been able to afford, so why bother? So when she cracks, or allows someone to see just beneath the surface of her unflappable cool, it’s a moment worth stopping for.


Tonight, there are two pivotal scenes that reveal Sarah’s vulnerabilities, and Maslany knocks both of them out of the park. The first happens as Art, reeling from the death of his partner and her apparent league of doppelgangers, interrogates Sarah at the police station. He plays back the recording she made on her phone before going to meet Helena for the first time, the one where her voice cracks as she says he’s the only one she trusts to “figure the whole thing out.”  He promises – promises – to protect Kira if she cooperates. Tired, worn down, and completely desperate, Sarah trembles as she begs him to keep what she’s about to say a secret. It’s a powerful moment of weakness for a perpetually steely character, and it’s played with just the right amount of restraint. It’s realistic that Art hasn’t gotten to the right conclusion yet (who would jump to this conclusion, really?), but let’s hope Sarah telling him “there’s a reason why we all look exactly the same” gets him there faster for season two so he and Deangelis can stop spinning their wheels.

The second scene happens as Sarah has her final confrontation with Helena. Helena was looking downright cuddly there for a couple weeks, but now she’s enraged that Amelia separated them at birth, sent her to the church, and ultimately, proved that Helena is no immaculate miracle. She’s a lab experiment, everything she was taught to hate. And so Helena, to use a technical term, goes batshit. She stabs Amelia and drags her to an abandoned warehouse (a lot of those in Toronto, eh?), leaving a trail of blood for her “sistre” to follow. As Sarah watches her birth mother die (with, it must be said, a pretty cheesy exhaling sound effect), we see something in Sarah break. Then she looks up to see Helena standing over them with a blowtorch, glowing neon pink. It’s a stunning shot, made all the more chilling by Helena’s blank stare. Any progress she’s made has disappeared alongside any sympathy Sarah started to feel. In retrospect, there was only one way this scene was going to play out, but that didn’t stop me from actually literally jolting out of my seat as Sarah pulled the trigger. Sarah’s pointed that gun at Helena so many times this season that it was only a matter of time before it stuck. But I appreciate that we got enough time with Helena to understand her pain, her motivation, and her confusing love for Sarah and Jello. Even if Sarah won’t, I’m going to miss her. (Now imagine me saying that after the second episode!)


I had very few expectations when I started watching Orphan Black. I hadn’t heard any spoilers, and only knew one of the regular actors (Maria Doyle Kennedy, thanks to a dark period when The Tudors was my everything). All I heard was "woman takes another's identity," and I shrugged and said, "sure, why not?" It's a fairly tired premise, as are clones. But as has been well-documented, Orphan Black has made shrugging at it impossible. It’s a goddamn force of nature (or nurture – the canonical science is still fuzzy on that).

I freely acknowledge that I've been hard on Orphan Black, but there's a good reason for that: the show can take it. Much has been said about the pilot's confidence, but there's been less discussion on how its tenacity continued throughout the season's many, many interlacing story arcs. Even when Orphan Black stumbled or went in a dubious direction, it did so with refreshing fearlessness. It undoubtedly helped that creators Fawcett and Mason have been ironing out the details of the series for years, and that Tatiana Maslany has slipped into every new character they've thrown at her with almost unnerving ease.


But from where I'm standing, the reason why Orphan Black has been so successful is not its world-building (though it has been impressive), but its commitment to building the characters. It would have been easy to let the series' dizzying pace swallow up motivations and personalities. In fact, it still wouldn't have been a terrible show if it had done so, as I pointed out when the villains started off ringing disappointingly flat. But both the writers’ and Maslany’s commitment to distinguishing each clone from the other elevated the show. Sarah could have been your basic surly runaway, Alison the typically shrill nightmare wife, Helena the psychotic serial killer, Cosima the quirky lesbian sidekick. Without the writers paying each careful attention or Maslany's astounding ability to give each clone layered personalities and demeanors, they would have been nothing more than their archetypes. Really, Orphan Black could have just been a palate-cleanser after Doctor Who, a campy diversion that would have been a perfectly acceptable way to spend an hour on the weekend. Instead, Orphan Black has emerged as a remarkably self-assured thriller of a drama that dares you to look away, and smirks when you can't. Luckily, I have no intention of looking away any time soon.

Episode: A-

Season: A-

Stray observations:

  • I didn’t do the math for my season grade – just went with my gut. There were specific episodes I definitely liked more than others, but as a cohesive whole, this season was great.
  • Just re-read this review and realized I left out Maslany’s newest character, which seems ridiculous. Rachel Duncan is not the Original as I and many of you in the comments speculated, but a clone raised by the neolutionists. I look forward to her cold brand of villainy (which just happens to be my favorite brand), and in the meantime, will attempt to get over my jealousy of her perfect bob.
  • Helena impersonating Sarah was well-played for tension, but it was a little sloppy how the wig looked worse the second the reveal happened, and how her scars were suddenly so much more visible.
  • Love how Alison’s suburban surroundings have been used as setpieces throughout the season: the woodshop in the garage, the glue gun, and now the garbage disposal.
  • Mrs. S. “isn’t what she says she is.” Discuss.
  • There was barely time to get through everything as it is, so I’ll just say here that Jordan Gavaris’ work as Felix has been progressively great this season. Loved his edge of protectiveness for Cosima when he meets Delphine. If he can get a plotline outside of the clones next season, I’m all for it. (But stop telling professionals they need to get laid, dude! C’mon.)
  • We also find out what Paul was up to in Afghanistan and…nope, just checked. I still don’t care. Sorry, BDP!
  • So how is everyone doing? Hanging in there? I only ask because when my screen smashed to black at the end of this finale, I personally was what one might call “a wreck.” But I had a blast covering this show, and discovering it alongside all of you. Thanks for reading, commenting, nitpicking, and discussing. I truly appreciated all of it. See you next season.
  • "We make our own decisions, but I wouldn’t trust anybody.”
  • Felix, seeing Delphine: “Oh, okay. I get it now.”

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