The first season of Orphan Black was impossible to explain as it was airing, largely because “It’s a show about clones who are all played by one actress” didn’t properly capture the vast talent of that one actress. These days, Tatiana Maslany’s magical abilities are simply known and Orphan Black is hard to explain for a different reason. The heart of the show has always been the (Leda) clones and their relationships with each other, and the plot-driver has always been the insidious, shadowy organization behind their conception. But season three pulled back so many curtains it was impossible to keep track of the bad guys and the way they intersected with each other. Was it the Dyad Institute? Or a rogue infiltration of Neolutionists in the Dyad Institute? Or a Christian cult? Or the United States government? Or some random scientists who were a little too into hard science fiction?
I watched every episode of season three twice, and I still couldn’t tell you whodunit. And that’s before you factor in the Castor clones.
Orphan Black‘s fourth season premiered last night with the strongest episode since season one. It took a huge step back from the sprawling mythology the show unleashed over the last two years and refocused on the thing that made it so special when it began. In fact, it took us back to the beginning, before Sarah rolled into town and watched Beth fling herself in front of a train.
“The Collapse of Nature” follows Beth in the days leading up to her suicide, as the web of deceit she’s been living inside spirals out of her control. At home, things have fallen apart with Paul because she’s discovered — through the help of a new hacker clone named M.K. — that he’s her handler. At work, she’s following “anonymous” leads (also from M.K.) to dead Neolutionists, and tracing that trail back to Freaky Leekie himself. She’s high. She’s drunk. And while Alison and Cosima are a part of her life, they’re less like sestras and more like chess pieces she’s moving around to get the funds to get the science to get to the bottom of her identity. Beth’s obstinance, opportunism, and emotional messiness are reminiscent of early days Sarah, but she’s a calculating detective first and most of all.
Neolution was presented as a kind of mad science open-source body-modding clique in season one, but Beth discovers the people in charge are so dedicated to the science that they’re testing on humans without regard for human life. She follows a mangled body buried in the forest to a group of test subjects who opted for cheek implants only to find themselves at the end of a scalpel (and then in a grave) a couple of months later when the implants mutated into a growing, squirming, maggot-y things. When the experiment goes wrong, the Neolutionists terminate the body hosting the experiment. And the Leda clones are their greatest scientific undertaking.
The decision to recalibrate with Beth was a good one not only because managing the mythology is crucial to any sci-fi story’s success, but also because it seems like a promise to center the stories once again on female experience. Orphan Black flipped the traditional TV model on its head when it debuted. It was a TV show with a core cast of female characters whose husbands and boyfriends and male co-workers were accessories: orbiting the Leda clones, advancing their storylines, revealing deeper insight into their personalities, doing all the things female characters have been called upon to do since TV’s inception, and never enjoying storylines centered on themselves. You can see it in the blocking (Donnie always standing behind Alison, Paul always framed in the background); you can see it in the sex scenes (women always on top, always seeking their own pleasure over the pleasure of their male partners); you can see it in the words spoken by men versus words spoken by women, and in their time on screen. The themes of toxic masculinity the show explored with the Castor Clones certainly fit with Orphan Black‘s feminist ethos, but it muddled the exceptional experience of watching a showsolely inhabited to the very edges by fully-realized female characters.
“The Collapse of Nature” returns to that original, unparallelled formula. It ends before Beth commits suicide, leaving her asleep on M.K.’s couch, the first time she reaches out to a clone as more than an asset. It also ends in the present. M.K. is still alive, still wearing her masks, still tracking the other clones. She calls Sarah, who is asleep in her cabin in Iceland, and tells her the Neolutionists are coming for her; she’s got to run.
With a tamable big bad, a clone with a new skill set, a purposeful focus on the core cast of women whose lives the audience are deeply invested in, and the singular Tatiana Maslany at the helm, Orphan Black‘s fourth season could return the show to its original glory. Welcome (again) to the trip!