With the arrival of Continuum and the seismic shocks of Fringe still being felt around the sci-fi world, it can comfortably be said that this is a golden age for female protagonists in television sci-fi. Orphan Black instantly separates itself from the pack by presenting a female protagonist who is not an altruistic character, just the opposite. Sarah, played by the sizzling Tatiana Maslany, is a street punk bouncing from one con to the next. She is not above robbery or assault to get what she needs. Viewers’ first introduction to Sarah is when she steals a copious amount of coke from her abusive drug dealing boyfriend and convinces her Gay foster brother to sell it for her, not exactly the stuff of heroes and legends.
The story is fraught with a delicious Hitchcock-on-speed sense of dramatic irony, as viewers know that Sarah is a clone but she is stumbling through the story without any clue as to the truth. Sarah first encounters a clone when she comes across her doppelganger on a train platform. Sarah’s clone leaves her bag on the platform and steps in front of a train. This scene was particularly well done and as the opener for the series, it quickly drew the attention of the viewer. Sarah’s clone takes off her expensive pumps, slowly peels her fashionable jacket off, neatly folds it, places it on her luggage and steps in front of the train. The sense of quiet desperation combined with dignified femininity offsets a scene of horrific violence and if this is the way the show will handle shocking acts of violence, we are in for a heart stopping, but classy ride.
Being the con artist she is, Sarah quickly takes on her double’s life in order to drain her bank account. This is where Sarah is drawn into a web of conspiracy that will leave her and audiences confused, shocked, and breathless. The show respects its audience’s ability to process information quickly and never devolves into expository filler. Sarah is our eyes and ears and we must process the conspiracy of her double’s life at the same breakneck pace as her.
Make no mistake; Sarah is not a good person. She is a broken criminal and a user. Yet, somehow the writers make the viewer care for Sarah. She is further humanized by her motivations to make things right with the young daughter she abandoned. As Sarah is forced to live her double’s life, she learns that her clone was a cop involved with the questionable shooting of an innocent. In order for her true nature not to be revealed, Sarah seduces and sleeps with her double’s boyfriend, Paul, played by Dylan Bruce, essentially committing an act of female on male rape without batting an eyelash. Sarah thinks quickly on her feet.
When she is brought in for questioning regarding the shooting her clone committed, Sarah quickly excuses herself to the restroom where she chugs down hand soap in order to conveniently and convincingly get sick during her questioning. Sarah does what it takes and is not above harming herself or others to get what she wants. The show’s creators keep things grounded and her character sympathetic by having her sole motivation being a reunion with the daughter she regrets abandoning. The show does not shy away from the immorality of the characters involved, but humanizes Sarah just enough so we, somehow, care.
Maslany certainly has her work cut out for her as she will have many other versions of Sarah to play in the weeks ahead. This episode, she also plays the suicide victim and a German girl who seems to hold some answers to the cloning riddle. Maslany, so far, is a chameleon giving each character vocal quirks and differentiated body language, an impressive performance in a clearly demanding role.
Rounding out the cast is the refreshing Jordan Gavaris as Felix. It’s long overdue that an LBGT character is presented in a darker tone. Too many times the Gay character seems to exist on higher planes of morality and wisdom than his or her straight counterparts. Felix is part flamboyant queen and part streetwise survivor. He is equal parts confidante and partner in crime for Sarah and keeps her connected to the scum and crooks she needs to survive. He is a drug dealing con man of morality as equally questionable as his foster sister. His loyalty to Sarah is not in question as he identifies Sarah’s dead clone as Sarah, helping her in her con to get the clone’s cash. This unwittingly gets Felix involved in the conspiracy. Gavaris vamps it up and provides welcome comic relief in an otherwise deadly serious story.
The cloning story is not an original concept, but finding the right formula of character and mystery will keep this show vital. How many Sarah’s are there, who created the clones and why was Sarah’s clone drawn to suicide? Each answer leads to more questions as creators John Fawcett and Graham Mason have the unique opportunity to introduce other versions of Sarah to keep the viewers guessing and to keep the show completely unpredictable.
This is smart sci-fi centered on some challenging characters that bend the edges of morality. I look forward to seeing where it goes next.
Respecting the viewer’s intelligence
Playing with the morality of the protagonist
Sarah’s penchant for really, really short skirts and shorter shorts.
Both Paul, the clone’s boyfriend and Art, a cop suspicious of Sarah, are pretty generic and wooden.
Sarah’s drug dealing ex.
Post train suicides