Orphan Black: Transgressive Border Crossing

Posted on April 22, 2016

 

A show embarking on its fourth season risks two poor creative decisions: it can go off in some wild and untested direction, pulling a series of stunts to get the audience’s attention, or it can attempt to keep giving the audience what it thinks it wants, to ever-diminishing returns — until it’s forced to pull a series of stunts to keep the audience’s directions. Rare is the show entering its fourth season that can manage the trick of feeling both like a comfy old chair and like something fresh and new, with plenty of story to tell. So far, that’s exactly where Orphan Black is, in terms of direction.

There’s a nice sense of confidence settling into the show. All of the relationships – and in many ways, this is a show all about unlikely relationships between people of differing backgrounds – are so well established, now. There’s been enough story in the previous 3 seasons that all of the relationships have been tested in some way and all of the characters forced into uneasy alliances with each other. In the fourth season, virtually every character involved with any of the sestras is part of a large and well-established family. The creative team behind the show knows this and smartly takes its time letting us just watch them all say “Hi” to each other again, even as it pushes them forward and weaves more story around them. It’s just fun watching Donnie and Helena pose as husband and wife, or Allison and Felix talk to each other like good friends who’ve shared some stuff, or Cosima and Siobhan bonding over shared fears and pain. There are so many people wandering in and out of the story (half of them played by Tatiana Maslany) that there’s great value in just watching them play off each other so well. What we find impressive here is how the show is mining these characters for fresh takes that feel real.

Felix is the one character doesn’t feel like part of a family anymore, a sentiment that makes perfect sense when he notes that Sarah is related to everyone, and has met her birth mother, her twin sister and her progenitor, along with having a daughter and befriending a whole rainbow of clone sestras. It makes perfect sense that Felix would feel adrift from all that, after having grown up with her as foster siblings. There’s a reason the word “orphan” is in the show’s title. Everyone’s looking for a family they don’t have or never knew. In season four, most of the clone sestras have found that family. It’s the one honorary sestra who’s feeling the most like an orphan. It’s not easy to introduce believable friction between characters that have close bonds, but this perfectly arises from their backgrounds and opens up a lot of story possibilities. With all the enemies and intrigue surrounding the clones, and Felix’s occasional lack of judgment, we wonder if he won’t get caught up on the wrong side soon.

Oh, and just as an aside, don’t you think the news of Helena’s twins opens up the question of whether Kira was one of a set and we just don’t know it yet?

In other “fresh takes on old characters” news, we continue to enjoy the show bouncing back and forth in time, letting Beth’s last case unfold as well as the tragic unraveling of her life. It didn’t seem necessary last week for the show to take us right up to the moment of her death, but it looks like that’s exactly where all this is leading. We can’t say we mind because the mysteries being set up are fairly interesting. What was the deal with the blonde wig? Whose blood did she have all over her? What happened to the pregnant girl?

One thing the show never stopped doing well and continues into this season is the way it finesses pure body horror for a basic cable audience. Not just the maggot-bots climbing around inside everyone’s cheeks – although that’s horrifying enough – but the way the show deftly depicts scenes of violation, such as the that weird neolution couple holding Sarah down in the laundromat while forcing a hand inside her screaming mouth. The show has always depicted the coldness and horror of these violations very well.

Not that we have the slightest idea what the hell is going on. There is something kind of interesting and satisfying about the show revisiting its old haunts, like the Neolution club, after so many of the characters most identified with those places are dead, like Dr. Leakey and the guy with the tail. It reminds us quite a bit of 4th and 5th-season LOST, after so many characters had died and the remaining ones were constantly revisiting the most important locations from the show’s past seasons. No, we couldn’t tell you what’s going on, but isn’t it kind of fun and comforting to revisit the places and people we all recognize? Isn’t it better to be intrigued by and confused about this show? Isn’t that kind of the point?

 

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