In many ways, Orphan Black is TV’s most subversively feminist show. Think of practically any other show in one of its many genres, and Orphan Black has gender-flipped the usual equation. The sneaky spouse who keeps prying into the protagonist’s secrets? On most shows, that would be a nosy wife, but here, it’s a husband whose desire to know more about what his wife is up to also marks him as a potential enemy. Or how about the generic hottie who’s there to work for the bad guys but questions those allegiances when faced with the protagonist? That’s a dude here, too. The skeptical cop poking around the edges of the protagonist’s story, the crazy ex, and the mysterious Big Bad? All guys. On other shows, any one of these parts would have been tossed to an actress who was given too little to do over the course of the show—but here, all of those parts go to men who are mere supporting players in the Tatiana Maslany extravaganza.
Yet even beyond the show’s blatant attempts to put women at the center of genres (science fiction, cop shows, medical mysteries, etc.) that have not always served them well, it has become a sneakily potent show thematically as well. Last season, main character Sarah (Maslany) not only learned that she and her fellow clones were part of a nefarious experiment, but she also discovered that the group responsible creating the clones believed it had legal ownership over them—and had even coded that into their DNA. This season, those ideas get ever deeper, as the show delves into questions of free will and what self-definition means for women whom both science and religion would love to control. Hell, the show even gets its Charlotte Perkins Gilman on and tells a story about how easy it is for a man to portray a woman as unstable if it’s the only way he can think of to control her.
Orphan Black’s neatest trick is that it ropes all of this into an action-packed sci-fi show filled with unlikely twists and turns, along with a fair share of jaw-dropping cliffhanger endings. Season two picks up immediately where season one left off—with Sarah learning that someone had taken her daughter, whose very existence is a scientific miracle, as Sarah’s fellow clones are unable to reproduce. The search for Sarah’s daughter takes up a fair amount of time in the season’s first four episodes, but the show also devotes plenty of time to the fallout from last season’s other cliffhangers, like soccer-mom clone Alison’s slow-building disintegration after allowing her friend to die or science geek clone Cosima’s potentially fatal illness. The best thing about these first four episodes is how they carefully dole out bits and pieces of all of these plots, so that even as the show is frequently juggling six or seven different stories, they almost always feel like a piece with everything else. The show even ropes in musical comedy (as Alison takes part in a stage production and Maslany proves she can sing and dance) and earnest emotional stories (as Sarah reconnects with an old mark she took for thousands, played by Michiel Huisman).
The effortlessly appealing Maslany and Jordan Gavaris are essential to the series’ versatility. Maslany’s performance—ably playing five or six different characters in any given episode—is already the stuff of TV legend, but it’s still stunning to watch just how handily she differentiates between all of her characters, even, say, a brand-new clone introduced entirely through old video footage who nonetheless feels distinct from the others introduced before. The sly trick here is that it’s possible to forget the same actress plays all of these characters, yet always having her face on screen makes it easier for the show to feel like a unified whole, even when storylines are heading in drastically different directions. Similarly, Gavaris, as Sarah’s foster brother Felix, is now such a vital part of so many clones’ storylines that he’s able to shoulder much of the program’s emotional weight in times when Maslany’s characters need to do some ass-kicking. The show’s other regulars are served well by the new season too, particularly Maria Doyle Kennedy’s Mrs. S, Sarah’s foster mother who’s at the center of many of the season’s most intriguing sequences.
Orphan Black’s greatest flaw has always been its elaborate mythology and backstory, which the program is generally good at parceling out in bits and pieces, but which occasionally threatens to take over the show wholesale. If the early parts of season two struggle in places, it’s with stories that concern the inner workings of the Dyad Group—a corporation that has been keeping track of the clones with “monitors” for years now—and a creepy religious cult that alternately wants to wipe the clones from the face of the Earth and use them to bring about some new age. The scenes with the cult, in particular, have the feeling of the stories when the Big Love gang would get mired in an adventure on the Hollis Green compound in Mexico for episodes at a time during that show’s run, and they lack the show’s deft touch at depicting the potential evils of unchecked science. (The evils of unchecked religion are mostly depicted by good ol’ boys with creepy attitudes toward women here—not that such men don’t exist, but the story never rises above cliché, and none of the actors possess Matt Frewer’s ability to flesh out the cheeky satire in the mad science side of things.)
Still, Orphan Black is better than almost any show on TV at feeling like it’s constantly building toward something, no matter how perilous and rickety its structure becomes. When the show is on target, it speeds forward with confidence and grace, its characters intelligently working their way out of corners just as fast as the writers can paint them into new ones. But the series’ secret strength is in the way it can be surprisingly heartfelt, too. This is, after all, the story of a bunch of women realizing that the lives they thought were their own might be considered otherwise by the United States Supreme Court. Self-determination has always been at the center of great characters, but it’s always been at the center of feminism too. By burying these ideas beneath a steady diet of action-packed adventure and crazy twists, Orphan Black finds the spoonful of sugar to make the political metaphor go down.