With its series four finale due on Friday, Hannah Dunleavy hails the return to form of Orphan Black, the most feminist drama on telly. CONTAINS SPOILERS for the first nine episodes of series four.
It’s easy, when watching the ongoing adventures of Clone Club, to become distracted by the sheer wonder that is Tatiana Maslany – and more on that on that later. Obviously. But one of Orphan Black’s other great strengths is the rest of the cast, toiling away, despite the fact they are never going to be the first name anyone mentions when talking about the series.
It’s this deep bench that’s enabled the formula to be tweaked slightly in series four, leading to a marked improvement on last year’s offering and, of course, giving hope there’s still more clone-y goodness to come.
I’m not saying series three was all bad, but it had started to fall into a pattern. Characters were developing, yet they still occupied the same roles. Felix, for example, was getting dangerously close to becoming a witty sidekick – a total waste of Jordan Gavaris.
But hooray for series four’s strategy of has giving him his own shit to do – in the form of his biological and mostly drunk sister Adele – which is a believable reaction to recent events and is, more importantly, an excellent catalyst for some proper drama between him and Sarah.
If you thought that’d leave a Felix-sized comedy hole, you’d be wrong, because in steps Kristian Bruun, and suddenly Donnie Hendrix is some kind of LOL machine. No really.
“If you’re dealing with those murky questions surrounding the creation of life, you’re going to crash into the issue of who should have access to a woman’s body, and whether they meant it or not, Orphan Black continues to put women’s issues centre stage.”
Orphan Black had also grown reliant on the idea that no matter how well you know someone, they may still be working with the other side. The constant shifting allegiances of Siobhán ‘S’ Sadler and Paul had started to make me a bit woozy, so it’s pleasing to have S finally placed so categorically behind the sestras. Not least because it frees the terrific Maria Doyle Kennedy up to do some better stuff. Like hook a guy up to a car battery. Natch.
And gone too are the soft drinks machine baddies, where one is removed, only to reveal another perched above it, ready to fall down into the free space. These last nine episodes have had a broad church of potential menace. Old foes like Rachel and Ferdinand circle the group, until the latter was rather spectacularly subdued by Veera ‘MK’ Suominen, while Duko was dealt with by S.
Then there’s creator Susan Duncan, whose real motives are not entirely clear. Plus Delphine’s been Skyping in to Rachel’s eyeball for purposes still unknown. And finally, there’s the ostensibly most pressing threat of all – Evie Cho, who for all her Kendall-killing*, hasn’t really felt like the ‘big bad’ this series.
*Nice work Alison Steadman; she died like a champion.
All of which means there’s been space for something else much more dramatically interesting; the threat from within. Cosima’s desperation to find a cure, Sarah’s penchant for self-destructive behaviour, Alison’s conflicted loyalties and MK’s paranoia have all sat like timebombs waiting to explode. Meanwhile another timebomb grows inside Helena: the question of who is going to look after those children.
Of course, this gives Maslany dozens of opportunities to shine. But seriously, more of that later. It also fits in to a wider feminist theme, so seamlessly woven throughout Orphan Black. The show’s creators have said they didn’t set out to make it that way, but the truth is, if you’re dealing with those murky questions surrounding the creation of life, you’re going to crash into the issue of who should have access to a woman’s body.
Whether they meant it or not, Orphan Black continues to put women’s issues centre stage. They’ve covered abortion, miscarriage, date rape, enforced pregnancy, illegal egg harvesting, womb hijacking, unauthorised experimentation, infertility, a compulsory oophorectomy and deliberate infection with STDs. And at every step there is someone trying to justify the intrusion, invoking a greater good they believe overrides a woman’s right to just be left the fuck alone.
But the female characters aren’t victims. Rachel’s even come back from a pencil in the brain. Yes, they get help from men, like Art, Scott and Dizzy. But they still call the shots. They are not being saved, because they do not need to be saved.
Alison Hendrix has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. She has a core of steel. The person most likely to cure Cosima is Cosima. Helena is lethal. S is lethal. Crystal is near-as dammit lethal. And Sarah? Well she’d bloody well ‘ave a go.
“Tatiana Maslany not only nails every single performance of the increasingly frayed clones, she does it without ever once calling on a shared facial expression, posture or gesture.”
These women are not starting on a back foot, they are more than equal to the task. And all of this is wrapped up in an action drama, which also happens to be one of the funniest series on TV. That’s some nice work everyone.
First among equals, of course, is Maslany, who continues to give it absolutely everything, be she required to be on a bender, in musical theatre, learning to walk again, witnessing an execution or delivering perhaps the funniest lines spoken on TV this year: “Little science babies, forgive me. I did not know to feed you liquid nitrogens.”
She does horror, she does drama, she does comedy, she does action. If we ever do start cloning people, I reckon she’d be a good place to start.
Season four finds us in a pretty dark place and Maslany not only nails every single performance of the increasingly frayed clones, she does it without ever once calling on a shared facial expression, posture or gesture.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay her is that, four series in, I still find myself watching a scene in which two characters who rarely interact get to do so and I’m struck by how nice it must be, for example, that a Mark-faced boy gets a scene with the woman who plays Rachel.
Roll on Friday.
Orphan Black is available on Netflix.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.