Catching up on the Family Dysfunction of “Orphan Black”

Posted on May 20, 2016

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Because of the one-two red carpet punch of the Met Gala and Cannes, we got behind on our Orphan Black viewing, which is why we haven’t had a review up for a couple of weeks. We got several messages from people who were concerned that we’d lost interest in the show or weren’t happy about this season. On the contrary; we think season 4 has been something of a well-rendered course correction for the show. It’s better than it was through most of last season. But we’ve gotta say, especially when you get behind on your viewing and need to catch up, Orphan Black is a very difficult show to write about sometimes.

On the one hand, you’ve got a very consistently rendered theme of “What makes a family?” That’s great. You’ve also got the amazing Tatiana Maslany, who still manages to knock our socks off with her ability to differentiate so many characters and make them all seem incredibly distinct. Also great. But it gets a little repetitive week in and week out to write things like “The theme is ‘What makes a family?’ and also, Tat is totally awesome.” You don’t want to be a boring old repetitive reviewer, so one must look for other things to say about the show from week to week (or work them in while complaining about how hard it is to work them in — ancient blogger trick). The problem?


To be honest, we never really have. During last night’s episode, with all the high drama going on and the allegiances formed and broken left and right, we truly could not tell you why people were doing what they were doing or what the possible effects of their actions and decisions may be. This is not because the show is badly written (at least we don’t think it is) and it’s not because we can’t handle convoluted sci-fi plots (we spent years reviewing such confusing shows as Lost, Doctor Who and Fringe). It’s just way too much information (some of it highly technical) thrown at the viewer week in and week out for any non-science geek to make sense of. We tend to take the “just sit back and let it wash over you” approach to a show like this, but that doesn’t always make for the best reviews.


Okay, so:

Kendall was killed by Evie Cho and that creepy-ass cop. That’s bad. But we have no idea what the game plan is here. They want to destroy the Leda clones because something-something perfecting the human genome something. They all but forced Beth to jump in front of that train because she knew too much. That’s bad too. But then they leave Cosima alive because … what? We don’t get it. She’s a witness to a murder. She knows exactly who did it. She’s even got a connection (through Sarah) with a sympathetic law enforcement officer who knows most of the Leda clones’ back story. Why would they leave her alive? What possible sense does that make? And while we’re at it, why would two scientists keep ALL of their data on one drive with no backup? Seriously? Is it us?

Looking over the above paragraph, it sounds like we’re mad at the show, but we’re really not. Granted, there’s not a lot of clarity in the scripting and there’s every chance that this season will end with some major plot holes, but we would argue that it almost doesn’t matter, because there are very good reasons to watch Orphan Black – and the plotting isn’t really one of them.

More and more this season, it becomes clear that the show is less about body horror or agency or science rum amok. It’s really about one large, sprawling and highly dysfunctional family who routinely come into contact with outsiders who attempt to disrupt their family unit – and usually wind up getting killed or maimed for it. It’s not about the adventure as much as it’s about the relationships. And a show in its 4th season is particularly well suited to spend time examining and disrupting those relationships in order to say things about the characters.

And when we say “family,” we mean it in both the genetic sense and the emotional sense, because the show does very good work exploring the boundaries of both. Susan Duncan is a toxic adoptive mother to Rachel and is currently in an almost-but-not-really incestuous relationship with Ira. Helena and Sarah have an intense bond that overrides their enormous differences. Alison is feeling the old longing for biological children, which is something she thought she had put to bed. The HILARIOUS Krystal is both a little bit dangerous and a little bit lost, and we can attribute part of that to her lack of connection with her genetic sisters, just as we can attribute MK’s distrust and possible mental illness to her isolation from the rest of the sestras. Kendall and Siobhan are biological mother and daughter, as are Sarah and Kira, but we can see just how damaged the relationship was between the former two and just how much danger the latter two are in with regard to the health of their own relationship. In the meantime, you have Felix finding his long-lost bio sister (and we don’t care what the tests say, we still think there’s something seriously shady about her), which almost automatically causes problems in his relationship with his adopted sister. Granted, Sarah’s not at her best this season. Betraying Siobhan by more or less taking her mother away from her, ignoring the emotional needs of her daughter, and taking Felix for granted. It’s to the credit of the writers and Tat’s performing skills that Sarah never comes across like a jerk or a bitch; just a woman with a LOT on her plate and not enough time to tend to her relationships. Of course, this being Orphan Black, there’s a very good chance that her lack of regard for her various family members is going to seriously bite her in the ass.

Because that’s the other thing that the show makes clear: Family, regardless of how it’s composed and whether its members share DNA, is the main source of strength for people. As long as it sticks to these themes, we’re pretty okay with our complete lack of understanding when it comes to the plot.

But if any of you want to, y’know, explain it to us, that would be great.


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