There are shows that take an episode to hook you. Others take a whole season, or several. Then there’s Orphan Black, which, for my money, has one of the all-time great first scenes in a television pilot—a sequence that’s impossible to resist being drawn in by.
We open on a young woman named Sarah waking up on a train alone. We learn she’s returning home after being away for a while, and hasn’t spoken to her daughter since she left. When Sarah steps off the platform, she bumps into a woman who looks exactly like her. They lock eyes—this mystery woman is crying for some reason—and seconds later, she jumps onto the tracks and kills herself. Shocked, but also realizing an opportunity to escape her own problems, Sarah grabs the dead woman’s belongings (whose name was Beth) and begins assuming her identity. How could anyone not want to see where this story was going after that?
Within the first few episodes, Sarah learns she’s a clone (even if viewers guessed it sooner). She meets her genetic doubles and tries to understand the various groups that want to hurt them. Like Sarah and her foster brother Felix, all of the other clones are orphans, and each one came to discover the truth about their existence through different circumstances. Early episodes focus on three primary clones—Sarah, Allison, and Cosima, but several more are quickly revealed, including Sarah’s twin sister, Helena. The show’s first season is close to perfect—a new gold standard for what sci-fi should aspire to, and much of that is due to Orphan Black’s star, Tatiana Maslany, who deserves every bit of praise handed to her (including her Best Actress Emmy). From the very beginning, she breathes life into each of these characters and makes them all feel like fully-realized people. By the end of Season one, the show became a critical hit, and a loyal fandom known as “Clone Club” was born.
Season two expanded the world of the show, but didn’t necessarily take it in more interesting directions. The mythology got muddled and became somewhat distracting from the otherwise excellent elements. It’s understandable that Orphan Black went off the rails a little bit during the middle of its run. Writing a show about clones and conspiracies can get confusing, and with someone as gifted as Maslany—the sheer amount of creative possibilities must have been overwhelming. Watching Season one, it’s easy to think Maslany could play 100 different characters (and she undoubtedly could). But Orphan Black only aired ten episodes every year; it had the regular constraints of a television budget, rather than say, a serialized comic, where an artist doesn’t have the same restrictions. Even if there were a thousand clones in this story (and we find out the exact number is 278 in the series finale), we couldn’t possibly have the time or resources to meet that many of them. It was always essential that Orphan Black reign itself in, and made viewers invest in the five core women: Sarah, Allison, Cosima, Helena, and Rachel. No matter where the story meandered, they were at the center, guiding the show, and at times anchoring it in place.
The fourth season was a back-to-basics approach that leaned into more of the sci-fi stuff the fans loved, and revealed long-awaited backstories for some of the clones (Beth, finally!) while still giving Maslany new challenges (the Icelandic clone MK, and some new dimensions for everyone’s favorite manicurist, Krystal). Sometimes when a show gets too lost in the weeds of its own mythology, it over-corrects itself. Orphan Black didn’t erase its plotlines that were less popular, but simplified them. The half-dozen or so Castors (male clones who were revealed at the end of Season two; not the series’ best arc) were ultimately whittled down to one, and the myriad shady entities that loomed large for seasons prior finally came into the foreground. Heading into Season five, the show felt reinvigorated, and viewers had a solid sense of what the endgame was going to look like.
In its final season, Oprhan Black regained all of the magic it had at its start. These last ten episodes have functioned as a farewell to the entire series, and it’s been both satisfying and heartbreaking to say goodbye. Without question, giving each clone her own spotlight episode was exactly what we needed to see before this show came to an end. Orphan Black had never really used this format before (even Beth’s story was spread out over multiple episodes). There’s a natural desire for a final season to brings things full circle, and the flashbacks were arguably one of the strongest parts of season five. Right up until the end, there were still new things to discover about these characters, and the unique structure made the whole season feel like one long swan song. Spending a final hour with Allison in her suburban life leading up to her meeting Cosima dovetailed nicely to her identity crisis in present day. Helena’s flashbacks to the convent reminded us how she was taught from a young age that she was “the original,” and reiterated the guilt she felt for betraying and killing so many of her sestras. Seeing corporate clone Rachel’s life at the Dyad Institute in her episode this season was particularly effective in making her more sympathetic. Like so many of the other characters, Rachel had no family, but unlike the others, she was raised knowing she was a clone, and therefore always saw herself as special. All of these close-up character moments were gifts for long-time fans, but they also made Orphan Black a more complete show.
Orphan Black’s series finale is an elegant hybrid of the two tones the show always went for: a gritty clone thriller with bad-ass female characters, and a touching, funny story about female friendship and family. Sarah kills the series’ biggest bad, the man responsible for creating the Leda clones, and races to to help Helena deliver her twins, but the violence is intercut with flashbacks to Sarah and her foster mother, Mrs. S, outside Planned Parenthood discussing whether or not she should have an abortion.
Orphan Black put its clones through quite a lot over five seasons. They were hunted, monitored, and experimented on. None of these women ever had true autonomy—they were literally someone else’s property. Even Sarah’s daughter, Kira (who was frequently used as a plot device, given her age and vulnerability) was seen as an object. In season five, it became clear that the final Big Bad wanted to use her to start cloning again, thus controlling another generation of women. When Kira gets rescued, she asks Rachel, “Who hurt you?” Rachel replies, “All of them.” She could have just as easily said, “Men.” The final season was clearly designed to tackle the patriarchy head-on; and while many of the characters’ enemies were male (some were female), the show was always talking about women’s bodies and the ways society attempts to control them. Orphan Black did what all-great works of science fiction should: it held a mirror to the real world. The finale is focused on all the right things: the show remembers where it started and knows exactly what it wants to say at the end.
This series finale also does a fantastic job of showing us what life looks like for these women when they don’t have to run anymore. When the dust settles, Sarah turns to her sisters and says, “There’s no one left to fight, and I’m still a shit mom.” Each of them now has to figure out who they are now that they’re free, and as Sarah reminds us, “freedom looks different to everyone.” In the end, we’re left with enough stasis and hopeful promise without putting too neat a bow on everything. Sarah may not know what to do next, but she’s grown enough as a person to know she shouldn’t run anymore. Helena, too, will have help raising her twins from so many people who care about her. Allison and Donnie are still completely Allison and Donnie. Rachel shows some redemption but chooses to take a different path. And Cosima and her girlfriend Delphine embark on a global journey to inoculate the remaining Leda clones. It’s a great story to leave up to viewers’ imaginations, but it also feels like a doorway for the show to continue in another form someday.
Orphan Black has consistently been interested in many things: identity, nurture vs. nature, sisterhood, and the family you choose. These ideas have long been embedded into the show and they coalesced beautifully at the end of the run. This galaxy of women has come a long way, and they still have a long road ahead—but they’ll survive because they have each other. As Helena puts it, their story is “an embroidery with many beginnings and no end. Her speech recalls that first image of Sarah stepping off the train and meeting Beth, bringing the entire five-year journey full circle.
Orphan Black was a masterful piece of filmmaking. Just look at the beloved dance party from the season two finale, or the dinner scene from the end of season three. My favorite moments from the show had little to do with its twists, and a whole lot with watching these women interact. Finally, I will miss how progressive and unabashedly feminist this show was. People will remember Orphan Black in the years to come first and foremost for Maslany, but the show leaves behind a legacy even more important than its brilliant star. Oprhan Black may be over, but Clone Club will live on.