“Orphan Black” Is Back (And Back On Top Of Its Game)

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!

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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1224 articles for us.

43 Comments

  1. It’s back and Netflix UK is giving us weekly episodes YAY.

    Also I LOVED to see Beth’s relationship with Cosima and Allison. My heart was breaking at that part, because I never realised they were this close. I don’t agree with you on this one Heather, they do feel like sestras to me !

    The ONE thing that bothered me is that for the FIRST TIME ever I had trouble seeing Beth, I was mostly seeing Sarah at the beginning. And then I realised that it’s because she was playing Beth for half of season 1, so that’s how I got to know her as. I could only see Sarah playing Beth and not Beth herself. But by the end it got better.

    Also I love that we’ve gone back to AWFUL PAUL. I know season 3 kinda redeemed him (or was supposed to) but going back to Beth we see how awful he was. YAY MISANDRY.

    • The fact that Paul gets to continue to be a series regular, despite being DEAD, and Delphine does not, absolutely ENRAGES me. If Delphine is actually dead, we better as hell get some flashbacks with her, too.

      Also, someone over at the AV Club noted that this the best acting Dylan Bruce has done yet, probably because it’s the only episode in which Dylan Bruce actually knew Paul’s thoughts and motivations. I still think that next to Tatiana he resembles a block of wood, but oh well. My issue with Paul was always much more that Dylan Bruce is a TERRIBLE actor, and less about how awful the character is.

    • Yes, he is awful, but alas, he’s also portrayed as palpably anguished and conflicted, in keeping with the redemption storyline. That bothered me. It felt like they were reworking season one Paul.

      I definitely was warmed by Beth’s interaction with the sestras! Heather’s interpretation surprised me.

  2. Yeah I LOVED this episode! So tight and so good and Beth was amazing! I’ve been wanting to see her for so long and it makes me need to rewatch some season one episodes right away. It really showed how off Sarah’s attempts at being Beth were. No wonder Art was so suspicious!

    Also was really happy to see Cosima’s previous girlfriend from before she moved since we had only seen her in the comic to this point. It was great casting and she looked perfect.

  3. I really enjoyed this episode (though like Chloe I also had trouble seeing Beth instead of Sarah, and I think her explanation for why that was makes a lot of sense).

    But am I the only one who found it to be wholly unnecessary? Did it really tell us anything we didn’t already know? Alison and Cosima have told Sarah about their relationship with Beth; Art has told Sarah about his relationship with Beth; Paul has told Sarah about his relationship with Beth; we already knew about the drugs, the suicide, the Maggie Chen shooting, and Beth’s disciplinary hearing. The only thing this episode really added was M.K., and I think she could have been introduced very differently, maybe in a episode where she was at the centre, rather than just spinning on Sarah’s periphery.

    Also, while I appreciate the show trying to slim down it’s cast of Big Bads (Neolution! Dyad! Topside! Prolethians! The military! Castor clones! Rachel’s parents!) of all the various organizations out to kill or control the Leda clones, is Neolution REALLY the one they want to go with? Maybe we’ll learn more about Neolution to make it seem more evil, but personally, the harm presented by Dyad and Topside seemed more dangerous somehow.

    Anyway, those are my concerns, but overall I’m SO GLAD this show is back, and I’m really looking forward to learning more about M.K., and to see how the show moves forward from here on out.

    • Regarding the Big Bads I agree Dyad and Topside seemed more dangerous UNTIL we found out that Neolutionists control both of them with moles everywhere. I think that makes Neolution far more dangerous. But I also really love the body mod sci-fi stuff so…

    • “MK” (intentional quotation marks around her name are intentional) was introduced in part of a comic series centred around the core five clones released in between seasons two and three (her first appearance is in the Rachel issue), then she becomes a featured character in a second series specifically about the Helsinki operation (mentioned in early S3) mostly between S3 and now (the fifth issue hasn’t been released yet). I recommend going to Comixology and looking them up (look for Orphan Black and Orphan Black: Helsinki).

    • I have to really agree with you Allison, as much as I loved the episode- it didn’t really take us anywhere in the plot or tell us anything new. I actually read it as a (happily welcomed) retcon to introduce MK.

      Which makes me feel like MK is going to be important.

      But hey, no Castor clones and minimal male presence! This is why I come to Orphan Black in the first place, so I won’t complain :)

    • It’s bringing context to MK coming in with new knowledge and filling in some of earlier suspicions the clones had about Beth knowing more than she told the others, Maggy being neolution (it came up briefly I think in season 1), and the creepy maggot thing that was in the last episode. Plus, the last episode had Sarah saying she wished she knew Beth, hallucinating about Beth. It would have been weird to then go back to ignoring Beth. I thought that it was great.

  4. I’m really excited about MK and to see where that goes, more of what her role was finding Beth and in bringing the clones together. Also I loved her hair.

    It did feel like a bit of a slow start, but I think that’s okay, and I think when the season’s over and I watch it all again, I’ll appreciate it more. Even when some of the storylines didn’t grab me as much (Castor), I have tried-and-tested faith in the writers’ ability to bring it all back, to pay it off. I’ve now re-watched the entire series a half-dozen times and it’s the kind of show that stands up to multiple re-watchings.

    Ugh, I just love this show so damn much. I spent way too much time before the premiere last night watching cast panels and interviews and they all seem like such smart, delightful people.

    • Same! Every year I watch each episode two or three times because it’s so much to take in in one sitting; and every year I marathon watch the series from the beginning to prepare for the new season and I still love it!

  5. I have to agree, although I did loved badass Delphine, season 3 was making water all over the place. I’ve always thought that the problem was that the showrunners decided, no idea why, to downplayed a little the sestras and add too many things to see which one would sticked up. Clearly that didn’t work.

    Loved this episode because it’s a return to season 1, by far one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on TV. And OMG that dinner scene was mind-blowing, just for that I would give Tatiana Maslany every freaking award around.

  6. I’ve always been intrigued by Beth’s character, so I’m ecstatic that we finally got to see her fully-fleshed in her glorious tough-lady mess of a life. It’s too bad that they probably won’t continue with the flashbacks, but damn, Beth might be my favourite clone.

  7. Brace yourselves for lots of feelings.

    I think recalibrating with Beth is a really, really good choice for the writers. I think it’s necessary since we started this whole story off with this bedrock character that we never meet–as far as we knew, she had the answers and she took them to the grave. And as someone with depression/anxiety, I think this is a really raw look at mental illness. I’m a huge fan of how on and off Beth’s character is from scene to scene–how she is when she’s on duty (even unofficially) and off duty. We see how she hides parts of herself in certain situations only to unleash them in private moments. Her inconsistencies and volatility make sense. She’s a character whose sense of self has been totally shattered, blindly thrown into a leadership position to protect HER CLONES?!1?, and no part of her life is untouched by this new knowledge. Whether in her home, her personal life, her work life, she doesn’t get a break from it.

    We saw with Sarah how messy Beth’s life was, but from the perspective of someone who was unwatched, who was curious but not entirely invested, who had their own plan, and who still felt like she had the power to walk away. And I think we accepted even from that outsider’s perspective why Beth chose to commit suicide.

    Now we learn that Beth was in way deeper than anyone (besides MK, who has the unique advantage of being “dead”) knew. Except that she was in love with hollow monitor Paul, she still cared about her job and her partner, she still had to lie and keep secrets to keep the people she cared about safe, and she was playing offensive and defensive against these big secretive corporations. She was a very feeling person. And she was dealing with substance abuse (or hiding her substance abuse). She wasn’t living. She was barely coping. She was the Atlas of Leda, burdened with the task of helping her sisters.

    And then the Maggie Chen shooting happened.

    At this point in Beth’s plot, she doesn’t even KNOW about Maggie’s connection. Or the Prolethians!! I forgot about the Prolethians until JUST NOW. So my first question is, does she find out about them before her death? She’s probably guessed that Maggie is a Neolutionist already. Does she die focusing on the Neolution/DYAD problem? Does she connect them or figure out who is in charge? How much does MK know about the personnel in these institutions and their allegiances?

    Sidenote: I can totally see MK as a pioneer role for an aromantic/asexual protagonist. But I’m already wary and hope they don’t totally mess up her representation. Because I feel like they’re piling a lot of difficult-to-respectfully-portray traits on her. But I guess if anyone can do it, it’s Tatiana Maslany.

    Other side note: I can easily see Delphine being Cosima’s Girl In The Refrigerator this season. And I don’t want to be more angrysad about Delphine’s death (despite that I genuinely think it was handled with a lot more care than Lexa’s in the 100—as in with any care at all).

    • Brilliant thoughts, Cameron! I don’t think Delphine is dead, ultimately, but I do agree with you that it was handled with WAY MORE care then Lexa’s death. I’ve been talking about this basically nonstop for the last few weeks, but: Orphan Black killed Paul several episodes before Delphine, and he was her straight parallel in every way, since day one. They introduced a queer fan-favorite to play Cosima’s love interest and gave it emotional and physical story beats over the course of many episodes, to try to make sure no quantity or quality representation was lost. (In fact, Cosima was really the only one with a resonant romantic storyline last season.) And they let Delphine “die” on her own terms, being a hero. Same as Paul. It was the climax of both of their redemption arcs. So, I do think it was handled with great care a knowledge of the cultural ramifications. Still, though. I don’t think she’s dead.

      • I’m still not recovered from Lexa’s death tbh. And the writing choices since then have been pretty terrible as well. I stopped watching, but my tumblr is like, 50% 100/OrphanBlack, 50% memes. Steven motherfucking King is throwing shade. My heart was warmed by the fan reaction to Lexa’s death: critiques, charitable giving, and the straight up creation of their own character/FTWD crossover AU to keep the Clexa ship afloat.

        Totally agree with you on Delphine’s death. She’d been built up as a very strong, capable character placed in increasingly perilous positions by playing triple agent. I also think she’s alive, but if she did die, it wouldn’t be totally unbelievable. Maybe she’s with Marion somewhere (which brings up, how did Neolution get Charlotte?) recovering and giving herself and her hair a break from all the heat she was under for 100% of S3.

      • I saw a YouTube video recently of the Orphan Black cast/crew at a Comic-Con and they eluded to the fact that if Delphine is dead, she’s Orphan Black dead. I took that to mean that if season 4 holds more flashbacks, we’ll be seeing Delphine in those. Not as great as having her as a regular but still getting the representation.

      • I haven’t read the comics, so I have no idea how she’s written. Could be I’m just thirsty for representation.

        Generally though, I think it’s about time for a positive portrayal of asexual people in lieu of yet another character who’s written as hindered or tortured by lack of physical or romantic relationships/Needs To Get Laid.

        In the show, there’s not enough information yet to confirm or deny her sexuality–no allusions to past romances or relationships (which we got out of Sarah and Beth in S1E1). Maybe because we’ve only seen her for probably 5 minutes total, or because she’s spent most of that 5 minutes actively trying to survive while staying under the radars of 3+ morally bankrupt institutions. But man, wouldn’t it be nice if asexuality were actually WRITTEN INTO a character who isn’t also written as totally unrelatable or antiseptic or unnatural or an asshole. She’s a warm character who is trying to do the right thing and I’m really hopeful to see how she’s developed.

        I hope that made sense. I tend to ramble and lose my train of thought.

        • MK is portrayed in the episode as not having great people skills. I don’t think having a loner would be great ace representation. It may end up looking like she isn’t interested in having a partner because she isn’t capable of the social aspect.

          • I respectfully disagree. Whether or not she’s capable of the social aspect doesn’t inform her sexuality. Even as a loner character, she is warm and seeks connection. You can see that when she reaches out to Beth. I think it would be great to have an ace character who experiences a full range of emotions, especially empathy. It seems like the Speculatively Asexual Characters that I’ve run into are written as totally impersonal, uncompassionate, unemotional, and self-obsessed. And male. And white. I especially think of Sheldon Cooper and Sherlock from the BBC (two shows I admittedly did not watch for long).

        • MK appears to be written/portrayed as neuroatypical and possibly on the spectrum (skittish about eye contact, stating very exact measurements when unnecessary). I feel as though purposely making her asexual/aromantic (as opposed to leaving her sexual/romantic orientation unaddressed) would actually be stereotypical. As a lesbian, I can absolutely understand the thirst for representation, but also understand that stereotyped representation may not be doing anyone any favors.

  8. This was excellent. I saved it for tonight (and I needed it, after attempting the new season of Kimmy Schmidt & then cringing myself to death & noping on out at episode 3.)

    I just need to know… are there any other Tanis listeners who perked up at MK? I’d be okay with that crossover.

      • Minor spoiler alert:

        The writers for Kimmy Schmidt responded in a very defensive manner to criticism they received about their handling of racial issues. Episode 3 was by far the worst in this regard (it’s essentially about how culture appropriation and disrespectful portrayals of Asian people are fine and SJWs are mean). It does get better after that episode, and I thought some of it was great, but unfortunatly they really doubled down on the parts of the show that were offensive in season 1.

  9. I really liked this episode! I wasn’t really a fan of season 3, so this was a nice reset. (If you’re like me and would prefer it never happened, google OBspec. For reals.)

    Buuut I’m withholding judgement on season 4 until I see a little more. This episode was like your girlfriend or boyfriend bringing you flowers after a fight. Nice gesture, but don’t let it be the last time!

  10. In the Writer’s/Production Room:

    Hubris:
    When you just plow ahead with your storylines, because you’re so great and know better than anyone else, and are deaf to every and all kinds of criticism and you’re just great, and guess what? You just know better. You do, cause you’re you.
    Fans are just crazy anyways, what do they know about storytelling and shit? Taking risks, being brave,ya know? Re.Vo.Lu.Tio.Nary. That’s you.
    You make a ton and your production company and network, they KNOW where it’s at,amIright, and that’s not the fans, bitches.

    Examples: Once Upon A Time, The 100

    Humility:
    You work like a devil.
    You love your little show, you love everyone in it.You love the grand scheme of things, and the little things.
    You love your characters, and your guest stars, you love a good set, the lighting, the look of things,every little thing that goes onto every shelf in every room, but most of all, damn, most of all, you love the story.
    You love how it twists and turns, and you love how you take the viewers for a RIDE!
    Sometimes, you love throwing in some extra detail that just keeps making the story even more delicious.
    It makes you happy, and it makes the fans happy.
    And those fans aren’t crazy aficionados, because no one is in love with your show quiet like you are yourself.
    Sometimes, though, those other lovers of your characters, your kids and family, they might have an objection to make and you listen.
    You might take a step back.
    You might take two steps back and rewatch from their point of view and think, “Ok,are they right?” and then, maybe, “Ok,this has gotten kind of out of hand.”
    And, then, then, if you’re really, really humble,if you really, really love your show,a lot, you sit back down, and realizing you’ve lost your audience on that Wild Ride, you circle back, and you stop the car, and you start over.
    At the very start.
    To pick them back up.
    To invite them back in.

    Example: Orphan Black
    Honorable Mention: Person of Interest

  11. Something I’m really enjoying about this season is how well it works with the first season, this episode could be a prequel and it would still make perfect sense. (or as much sense as this show ever makes.) In season one we saw the hole that beth left in the form of sara fro a brief moment trying and so desperately failing. She may not have treated them like sisters, but she was the ringleader and they needed her. It’s very clever of the show to show us the hole now being filled, it really shows how well they have planned out everything, even the past. I thought the most interesting thing was how much alison trusted beth. We saw her anger and grief with sara, but we never before saw what she was missing. Without beth alison has to be the mother of the group, the one looking out for everyone, and she never asked for that, but the part of her that has always wanted to be a mother, couldn’t say no. To see her being guided by beth, it’s easy to see why she trusted her more than she trusted sara. I’m looking foreword to this season, it looks like it’s going to be a great one.

  12. We were so stoked to have the Castor clones gone. It’s just such a relief for the Leda clones to be back in control of the screen.

    And I cannot wait for Siobhan Sadler to bring her bad ass back in to our lives. I love her. I want to be her.

    I enjoyed the story from Beth’s POV. It reminded me of why we got drawn in.

    I know everyone’s up in arms about Delphine, and I agree, she didn’t have to die, she could have just moved away, but TBH I’m not that fussed about her being gone. Her betrayal of Cosima finished her for me.

    OMG and that Leakey!!! Thank god Donnie finished him off! That face alone makes me want to shoot him by accident in a car, never mind the words it says!

    Can’t wait for the rest of this season.

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