Orphan Black Season 2 Review: Clone Club Gets Even Crazier

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With raised stakes, surprise twists, and even more clones, BBC America’s cult sci-fi thriller serves up a season that’s truly one of a kind.

Orphan Black is easily one of the most ambitious shows on TV. Weaving together clone conspiracy theories, mile-a-minute action, and tender characterization is no easy task, and yet the majority of the season has delivered nothing but excellence. It’s only natural for a show this tightly constructed to waver from time to time—which it did, thanks to an abundance of unnecessary characters—but I have to say that overall this a very impressive sophomore year.

One of the things that made season 2 significant was its decision to go darker, and really embrace its larger themes. Oprhan Black has always had a slick way of starting some interesting conversations about human cloning and the right to individuality, but never before has it been so forthright about its messages. This time around, we were privy to a discussion of women’s bodies, and how society—particularly men—views their usefulness. Whether it was through the Prolethian’s sinister plot to harvest Helena’s eggs, or Sarah’s heartbreaking interrogation by Dyad doctors in the finale, this show packed quite the political punch.

Still, the real genius is that none of these profound statements ever took away from the characters’ conflicts or the exciting narrative. If you thought Orphan Black was going to slow things down to give us an after-school special, then you clearly don’t know this show very well. Its subversive nature allows it to both feature intense action sequences, and tackle some serious social issues. Right out of the gate, the premiere episode saw Sarah breaking down the wall of a restaurant bathroom, impersonating her clone sister Cosima, and punching out pro-clone Rachel. Orphan Black is so more than just a complex sci-fi show, or a show with a heavyhanded agenda—it’s also tons of fun.

This fun usually comes in one of two forms: the aforementioned action sequences, and a welcomed dose of character humor. Despite the serious implications of the clones’ existence, there’s still plenty to laugh about. Alison, whose suburban dysfunction plays out like a brilliant black comedy, must deal with the fact that she watched her neighbor die, and that her husband is her monitor, all while starring in a ridiculous murder musical called Blood Ties—which, by the way, is a real thing. What follows is a pill-popping, booze -slinging downward spiral that temporarily lands her in rehab. Then, she bonds with her husband over the fact that he’s killed someone too. On another show, and with another actress, this would all be fodder for melodrama. Yet, Tatiana Maslany plays Alison like a tightly-wound clock, and her constant need to appear composed is endlessly entertaining.

Felix and Helena are two other characters that got to interact with their funny bones this season. Felix has always had a dry wit about him, and his bluntness has worked to lighten the mood. Though his character is slightly outside of the clones’ troubles, he never fails to cleverly insert himself into the situation. There’s a scene in which Sarah confronts her deadbeat ex Vick while Felix is in the room. Suddenly, Vick topples over, seemingly unconscious. “I may have spiked his tea” Felix says, without missing a beat. Of course you did, Felix. Of course you did.

Helena, meanwhile, got a chance to really let loose this season, which is saying something given how unhinged she already is. Her character’s feral nature is often used to incite fear in others, but there were a handful of scenes—most notably, the roadtrip in “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings”—that allowed her to show off her silly side. Whether it was eating ridiculous combinations of food, calling out to her new “boyfriend” (guest star Patrick J. Adams), or singing along to The Archie’s “Sugar Sugar” while on a road trip with Sarah, Helena never failed to surprise in hilarious ways.

The real treat that Orphan Black delivers, however, is anytime a clone plays another clone. It serves as a showcase of Maslany’s innumerable talents, as well as the number of strings the writers can pull simultaneously. The wonderfully orchestrated “Knowledge of Causes, And Secret Motions of Things” sees Sarah impersonating Alison during her rehab’s Family Day, all while the real Alison must work with Felix to dispose of Vick’s unconscious body. At the same time, officer Angie is hot on the clones’ trail, and Donnie is close to discovering his wife’s true secret. It might seem like a confusing amount of legwork for one episode to do, but this show pulls it off flawlessly.

Equally as engaging is anytime more than one of Maslany’s clone personas were in the same room together. We got a handful of interesting pairings and group scenes, especially the finale’s delightful clone dance party, but unfortunately most of the season saw the Clone Club in disparate states. This is a show about an unlikely friendship formed between genetic identicals, and so it was disheartening to see how much time these clone sisters spent apart. Though each clone has her own set of issues to deal with, they’re much stronger when they’re all together.

There were a few new characters introduced this season to varying degrees of success. We finally met Kira’s father Cal (Game of Thrones‘ Michiel Huisman), who’s past still remains shrouded in mystery. He’s likable enough to form a credible romantic relationship with Sarah, but I do hope we get to see more sides of him next season. Most of his time was spent taking care of Kira, which means most of his time was spent off-screen.

The most interesting new character was, of course, Rachel Duncan. Though she isn’t technically new—we initially got a glimpse of her in the season 1 finale—this is the first time we really get to know her, and boy is she fascinating. A self-aware clone brought up by adoptive parents, Rachel has never had a normal childhood. When we first meet her, she’s an icy corporate drone, but cracks in her steely facade begin to appear as we learn about the loss of her parents, and her reluctant dedication to the Dyad. What’s truly unsettling is how ruthless she’s forced to become; using Cosima’s ailment as a pawn and attempting to harvest one of Sarah’s ovaries out of personal spite. Though her eye was taken out in the finale, I have a feeling this isn’t the last we’ll see of Rachel Duncan. This is good news, because she makes quite the compelling villain.

There were other new clones introduced—including a brief, but effective appearance by the deceased Jennifer—the worst of which was Tony. Now, don’t get me wrong, on a show as progressive as Orphan Black, it’s very intriguing to see them introduce a transgender clone into the mix. But, as exciting as it was to see Maslany play a man, his character did nothing to enhance the plot or overall themes of the series. His one-off episode, “Variable And Full Of Perturbation,” was the weakest entry in the season, offering nothing in the way of narrative development. Also, watching Felix kiss someone who’s essentially a male version of his foster sister was incredibly creepy.

As I previously stated, it’s only natural for a show as ornate as Orphan Black to occasionally falter. Whenever it did this season, it was usually because characters of little import were given too much to do. The main plot of the season dealt with the glossy, scientific Dyad Institute, and the farm-raised, religious Prolethians, trying to harness the clones’ potential. What didn’t make sense, was why Mrs. S kept popping up in random places with some back-channel information, or why Paul kept taking orders from different people. These characters were only ever in a handful of scenes, so why are they such enigmas? Additionally, what is the significance of several of the men on the show—Paul, Cal, Mark—having all worked for the military? I’m sure it has something to do with the finale’s reveal of Project Castor, but to what capacity is still unclear.

My biggest issue with these suspicious characters, is that the series spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on them when it already has several fully-fleshed out characters to deal with (many of whom are played by Maslany). This season we got to see Sarah become an even more protective mother, Cosima stand up for herself and her biology, Allison fall to pieces and pick herself up again, and Helena finally take agency of her own life. With all these amazing progressions going on, everything else felt like a distraction.

Luckily, this was never enough to detract from all the good work laid down by creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett. By the time the finale had concluded, Oprhan Black still remained a highly original and highly engrossing show, with one of the most unique performances on TV. I hope that next season, this show can hone in on what makes it so great, and block out all the white noise. I have faith that it will. These writers are smart and, unlike the scientists at Dyad, they seem to learn from their mistakes. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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