[Warning: This piece contains what could be considered to be spoilers.]
The recent Emmy nomination snub of Tatiana Maslany, the star of BBC America’s Orphan Black, has been almost immediately regarded as one of the most painful in recent memory. In the months since the show’s Season 1 finale, artists and critics alike have raved about this 27-year-old surprise breakout. Few actors, established or otherwise, could have pulled off the feat of acting virtuosity the show’s star accomplished so powerfully: playing seven different roles in the same show, characters that often share screen time. Sure, the clone thing may have been done before, but never in this way or to this extent; on more than one occasion, her characters—hailing thus far from Canada, the United States, Ukraine, and Germany—actually impersonate each other, meaning Maslany must often endeavor with Kirk Lazarushian magnitudes (“I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!”). Comedy aside, Kirk Lazarus is an apt comparison—Downey Jr., in Tropic Thunder, is himself parodying Daniel Day-Lewis, whose method acting is mirrored in Maslany’s own practice. What’s more, it turns out the actress is every bit as tenacious as her on-screen personae, undertaking an exhaustive regimen of promotional interviews and panels on the warpath to awards season. In the wake of her snub, just watch her acceptance speech from her Critic’s Choice Award win and try to keep your heart from melting:
But amid the award hullabaloo, it’s easy to overlook the show’s merits, which lie with its writing, itself a stunt of character differentiation. Without good writers, Maslany would have no acting feats to pull off in the first place. After Brit-punk Sarah Manning—the first clone introduced and the show’s core protagonist—witnesses a woman, who appears to be her identical twin, commit suicide, she begins to discover that she is one of a series of clones scattered all over the world, and part of a conspiracy to boot. Despite genetics, the clones have led different lives. From a writing standpoint, these characters need to be varied enough to generate interest, but still only as different shades of the same person. And the writers execute handily; for such a diverse bunch, these women feel surprisingly consistent. Each is crafty, intelligent, and tough—willing to fight when the need arises, but tinged nevertheless with a compassionate center. It’s always refreshing to see strong female characters in the male-dominated antihero era, but it’s even more refreshing to see them presented in a way that doesn’t call attention to that strength. In the manner of politically inclined shows like Borgen and Homeland, these women aren’t idealized, and, like their canonical male counterparts, their most endearing qualities often double as their vices. In some sense, this collection of characters is the most complex character study in television history. Instead of speculating, for instance, what Sarah would be like in a different life, we get to watch it play out firsthand. From a production standpoint, the show assists its audience in differentiating among its characters via motif. Helena, a feral, tortured zealot, is often presented with rack focusing tilt-shift, off-center shot compositions, and recurring minor key scoring. Cosima, a dread-locked doctoral student, is typically offset with patterned reds and oranges, visually reminiscent of the DNA double helix, befitting her course of study (Experimental Evolutionary Developmental Biology). Meanwhile, scenes that focus on Alison, a suburban housewife, are balanced in composition, featuring muted pastel tones and still camera.
However hackneyed a device, it is through the central conspiracy that the show instigates and explores its deep moral questions—with a broader scope than its conceit may initially imply. Though it probes the ethics of cloning, it doesn’t outright demonize it, even while holding its perpetrators accountable. Paying homage to the growing canon of clone narrative, the show first presents advocates of “Neolution”—the process of self-directed evolution that functions as the “justification” for human cloning—as sinister. But that slick veneer of scientific evil has chinks. Seemingly, some of those involved are conducting what they believe to be morality-oriented (or at least socially pragmatic) research, even if their methods may be questionable. The obvious pro-con discussion of cloning’s ethics is unavoidable. It could benefit the larger population, but at the potential cost of identity crises or other unforeseen problems among its subjects. The show, however, is most interested in examining the idea in terms of the human processes that shape it and result from it. Which personality types are drawn to this sort of study, and what are their motivations? What is the government’s role in this process, if any? Should private corporations be given license to conduct experiments outside of the government’s direct purview? As technology advances at an ever-quickening pace, old decision-making structures become increasingly obsolete, and this is as true of cloning as it is for plenty other emerging capabilities—whether political, economic, or technological—in modern society.
But for all its conspiracy, Orphan Black is a character drama, and its creators don’t let these ruminations usurp priority over the narrative. Through narrative decisions, though, they take implicit stands on a number of cultural hot topics. Principal among them is nature vs. nurture, exhibited most notably in Cosima’s sexual orientation. So far, she’s the only one of the bunch with a pronounced attraction to women (the others haven’t proven a definite disinterest in women, but appear heterosexual). If she’s technically the same person as her counterparts, this implies that circumstance, not nativism, is at work. And if there is observable nativism, it is only insofar as genetic predisposition. Even if homosexuality were to be considered a “choice,” why would Cosima choose this lifestyle for herself when her counterparts so clearly chose heterosexuality—meaning, by this logic, that she could too—amid a still less-than-ideal sociocultural climate? Whatever the rationale, the existence of this disparity asserts the equal significance of “nurture” in personality formation alongside “nature.”
These debates don’t end with era-defining scientific ones; the show’s creators are also interested in exploring fundamental ideas of identity and family. What exactly are these clones to each other? Do they count as family? In a sense, they know each other better than anyone else, but that is only based on what they already know of themselves, and, given the clear significance of “nurture,” even that is subject to review. So, when Sarah discovers that Helena is a psychologically troubled flagellant, her horror is not just theoretical—it’s personal. Unlike normal family dynamics, there’s no guesswork in the implications of each other’s actions; if one is capable of something, so are the others. In this way, the show elicits a deeper form of empathy from its characters and its audience.
Despite a sometimes action-heavy plot, the show reveals itself in its character moments. There’s an uncanny delight in watching these women exacerbate each other. Obstinacy and individuality are core traits to all, and while this knowledge helps guide attempts at predicting each other’s actions—a process made muddy by a lack of knowledge as to the others’ life experiences—they also know to suspect ulterior motives in even the most benign circumstances. Further complicating the landscape of trust and paranoia, Orphan Black doesn’t default to easy alliances (even if it gives the impression of doing exactly the opposite)—a feature that swells in significance when the notion of “monitors” comes into play, where anybody could be withholding their true identity for as of yet unknown purposes.
Like its medley of clones, Orphan Black is an amalgam of disparate influences. Simultaneously a conspiracy drama, speculative science fiction, and a quasi-entry into the budding “Slow TV” movement, it exists at the intersection of The X-Files, Lost, and Six Feet Under. Of course, its first season had some rough edges, but the same could be said of Seinfeld, The West Wing, The Simpsons, and Parks and Recreation. Its flaws are forgivable because the show refuses to push light fare—even in its playful moments, its weighty questions have complicated implications—and rather than default to plot action to distract, it uses these dilemmas to push into complex terrain. Tatiana Maslany deserved that Emmy, but maybe the slight can serve the greater good by incentivizing the show’s fans to broaden its exposure during the coming year. On that note: go watch it.Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison, WI.