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Why 'Orphan Black' actually needs more from Tatiana Maslany

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Steve Wilkie for BBC AMERICA

Orphan Black began its third season with a dream of a scene. The sisterhood of the traveling patents—the fantastic clone core of prim Alison, spunky Sarah, egghead Cosima, and cracked Helena—gathered for a baby shower to celebrate the latter’s pregnancy. It’s a child spawned from perverse Prolethean religio-science, but wanted by the endearingly demented assassin all the same. The camaraderie was family-tight warm, the banter colored with foreshadowing (“Oh yeah, I’m way better, thanks to science,” says sick-no-more Cosima, her emphasis a set-up for things to come), and Alison’s meticulously frosted cupcakes were impossibly divine.

Felix (Jordan Gavaris) was there, too, working a grill. Yes, this really was a dream—and a for a few minutes, a happy one, a sweet, strange, subversive tableau of family and feminist esprit de corps, brought to life by Tatiana Maslany’s imaginative performance(s) and clever filmmaking capable of remarkable verisimilitude. The charms of Orphan Black, distilled into yet another sensational set-piece. It wasn’t an audacious dance party—but then, this wasn’t a real party, anyway.

Helena’s psychic sugar rush intensified—those cupcakes were sinful—and then crashed. The music, a cover of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a poppy ode to happily-ever-afters, slurred and stopped like a carousel organ sapped of power. Helena woke up alone, locked in a box. With a scorpion. That talked to her! “No one said this was going to be easy, kiddo,” quipped the scorpion, the voice (provided by Maslany) croaky like a frog.

The bizarre bang-bang of scenes effectively drew us into Helena’s anxious mind and plight: She had been taken hostage by yet another wing of the show’s sprawling mythology, a secret military outfit interested in exploiting her. It also neatly (and intentionally?) illustrated the fraught place Orphan Black finds itself as it settles into the turbulent middle passage of its life as a prosperous franchise. The parable of the scorpion and the frog is an apt metaphor for the relationship between serialized sagas and their audience—especially during that protracted second act when momentum slows, and tangents are more frequently indulged as storytellers look to protect what they must preserve for their endgame. (Presuming they have one.) Here, in this space, fans grow antsy with sagas that tread water and sweat the suspicion that show lacks direction or master plan. Conversely, shows sweat the fear of the fans carrying them will lose patience and faith and then panic, flail, and bail.

But Orphan Black also has a scorpion-and-frog, no-one-said-this-would-be-easy relationship with the terrific talent who carries the show on her back. Every hit show asks a lot of its star; it’s the nature of the beast. But the complex nature of Orphan Black is even more demanding,. Maslany isn’t just the lead in the show; she plays all the best supporting characters, too. How to get the most out of Maslany without stinging her and sinking her? For me, the strategies for addressing that question have produced effects that have contributed to my dissatisfaction with the series. I’m not flailing and bailing—I’m in for the long haul—but I’m not enjoying the swim as much as I thought I would be when it hooked me.

Orphan Black debuted on BBC America in 2013 as a companion to Doctor Who and stole its buzz by the time it was over. That first season was as good as a first season can get. So many shows, even good ones, have to tinker and futz to discover how they can work. Creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson appeared to know exactly how they wanted to roll out their world—an origin story told as a journey of discovery, presented as a series of thrillers shaded with dark comedy—and they cast an actress and manufactured technology that could not only realize their vision but enhance it. Season 1 bonded the ladies of Project Leda with common connection and cause—Helena, a Prolethean-warped nemesis, would defy death and become an ally to Sarah, Cosima and Alison in season 2. It also cultivated an expectation that they would explore the remaining mysteries of their existence and fight the forces that sought to own and control them together—as a community, as family, as sisters.

The second season of Orphan Black certainly gave fans the story they were expecting (maybe too much of it), but not the storytelling. The clones may have been united in spirit, but the narrative kept them on separate islands of story, each one chasing or investigating—or running from—a different element of their shared concerns. They related more with other characters native to their island sthan each other. Season 1 did the same thing—but it made more sense then, when Orphan Black was a journey-into-mystery story about Sarah and co. discovering each other. It was similar in structure to the first season of Heroes, in which a batch of unspooling origin stories ultimately converge. One big difference between the two shows: Orphan Black had a much better season 1 finale. (Heroes also frustrated its fans in season 2 with a re-scattering/re-gathering structure. But back to Orphan Black…)

The season 2 storytelling strategy certainly eased the burden on Maslany, and good on them for looking out for the actress. The fragmentation created a narrative that was admirably complex, though it stressed many viewers by drowning us with twists, antagonists, backstory, organizations on top of organizations and conspiracies within conspiracies. In fact, the first two episodes of the show’s new season contain a few scenes that could be read as meta-metaphors for audience frustration and fan management. In episode 2, one clone is subjected to a stress test in which she’s nearly drowned, while another character undertakes a risky gambit that involves keeping a loyal customer base satisfied while manipulating them toward a self-serving end.

Season 3 continues to keep the sisters in occasionally overlapping story spheres. Phones keep them connected; plots keep them separated. Sarah is hunting for held-hostage Helena. Cosima is recuperating with help from Felix (Jordan Gavaris), while Alison remains in the suburbs, being burby.

Alison’s remove from the main of the clone drama used to be compelling and credible; of course there should be a clone who’d rather keep to her safe, ordered life than livin’ the Leda loca with the lab-rat pack. But the show strains to keep Alison’s portion of the saga lively with dark comedy and satire. It’s also why it’s modulated her character’s ambivalence about her sisters’ struggles. She helps out in a pinch, as she did in the premiere when she dropped everything to help Delphine and Sarah execute a dangerous scam to neutralize that slimy Cleaner from Topside, played by James Frain. (It was a another clones-to-be-clones undercover gag, a trick that’s starting to lose its charm.) Moves like these, in addition to being ridiculous, only highlight the problem of Alison’s irrelevance, rather than solving it, and I’d be itchy for her deletion from the saga if Maslany wasn’t such a riot in the role. Alison gets a hard-to-swallow storyline in season 3 that’ll test Maslany’s considerable powers. If she can sell it, she deserves all the Emmys.

Being conspicuously careful, selective, and uninspired about the amount and kind of multiple Maslany scenes Orphan showcases comes at a cost. If this was any other show, Orphan Black would be organizing around its richest or most entertaining relationships. Sarah and Felix, Alison and Donnie (Kristian Bruun), and Cosima and Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) have served the show well—and continue to do so, but with diminishing returns. The most interesting relationships on Orphan Black are the relationships between the clones. And the best possible version of the show, at this point in its life, is one in which the clones are working together to drive the story of each episode—or at least doing so more frequently than they do now. The more they can relate to each other and invest in each other—and in deeper ways than warning each other about threats or comparing notes on mythology intrigues—the more we’ll care about them, and the more the theme of sisterhood will land as a felt truth rather than a conceptual idea. Can Orphan Black satisfy that want without burning out its star? I hope so. And if it does, it’ll be the difference between “good enough” and “great.”

The good news about season 3 is that it introduces an exciting development that does a few things at once: The mystery of the Project Castor clones—bad, rebellious boys to bedevil our good, rebellious girls—provides compelling conflict, deepens the mythology, and produces more clones-relating-with-clones drama. (If anything, the Castor scenes prove anew how powerful that drama is.) The premiere concluded with a nightmare to mirror the dreamy scene that started it: the bloody reunion of two brothers, rabid-psycho Rudy, a.k.a. “Scarface,” and mustachioed, hoodied Seth, a clone on the fritz. (Project Castor’s litter seems to have yielded more than a few runts.)

The actor, Ari Millen, doesn’t get and might not ever get the same amount of screen time to develop each of his clones as Maslany has. But he does well with the time he gets, giving them distinguishing tics, a different type of menace, and the suggestion of an internal life. You get more of Rudy and Seth in the second episode, including a truly creepy opening sequence that reveals the depth of their bond and depravity. They are ruthless consumers of womankind, and they represent threats to our multiplicity of heroines in too many ways. Can the sisterhood survive a world of broken, predatory men? This is exactly the kind of thing I like best about Orphan Black: its ability to work its premise to produce layered, allegorical drama.

While the premiere didn’t blow me away, the first two episodes work together to accomplish the necessary chore of streamlining things. Slightly. Icing pro-clone Rachel was a good move. Episode 2 tables two more supporting characters. There are fewer mythological mysteries to track, for now. The narrative organizes around Sarah; she plays point on the clone club’s heroic quest to rescue Helena, while the Castor doppelgangers serving as threshold guardians and opportunities for revelation. The storytelling is leaner and meaner but not as immediately engrossing as it should be—maybe because it’s too reminiscent of the start of season 2, when Sarah was searching for her daughter, Kira, and Helena was held captive by the Proletheans.

But at least Helena’s captors are linked to the epicenter of the mythology this year. Episode 2 is kinky with transgression and sly, subversive humor which appeals to my pretentious arrested adolescent nature, and builds to some tough love choices that have real emotional impact. It also sees the season’s best new relationship exchange this piece of inspired dialogue. Scorpion: “Keep provoking them and we’ll never get any mangos.” Helena: “Silence, insect!”

If only Orphan Black could produce that kind of sting with the relationships that matter most. Wouldn’t that be dreamy?

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