Can Orphan Black escape its tangled morality?
If the series has lost its moral center, it's a stroke of genius to use Alison — the show's resident soccer mom — to find it
Five seasons in, BBC America's Orphan Black has had so many reshuffles that it's tough to keep track of anything — up to and including what good and evil mean at this point. The flip side of Simon Frontenac's brutal question to Alison — what is your value? — is the one posed by Alison's minister: What are your values?
It's a question several characters on the show are asking as this remarkable series starts to wrap up. "Sarah, I have lost my line right now," says Art, the clone's cop ally, as he and his corrupt Neolutionist partner dig up the corpses buried in the Hendrixes' suburban garage. He's not alone: Whatever moral clarity there used to be on Orphan Black has gone foggy after so many cycles of mergers and alliances and betrayals, particularly since the clones have racked up a hefty body count of their own. Doing the right thing has never been harder because it's far from clear what the right thing is. Studying Kira? Running with Kira? Saving Cosima? Abandoning Cosima?
If Orphan Black has lost its line, it's a stroke of genius to use Alison — the show's resident soccer mom — to find it. "Beneath Her Heart" amounts to a suburban variant on Crime and Punishment, an overdue meditation on guilt, complicity, and atonement.
We needed Alison's agony over Aynsley; Aynsley's death was horrifying, and it's a sign of how good the series aspires to be that it's willing to pause and examine the clones' catastrophic choices. This break in the action is highly unusual: Orphan Black's creators see the show's breakneck speed as constitutive and have spent years resisting this kind of introspection, so it's a big deal when it happens. Here's co-creator John Fawcett explaining the show's relation to speed to me back in 2015:
The pace of it was always very important to us. It's very, very hard to sustain, it's very hard to write for. And you have to fight every instinct to slow it down. We love our characters, and a lot of us, a lot of the time we want to go like, 'hey, can we just do a couple of scenes where it's just not about the plot? It's only about the characters, it's about having fun with Alison and Donny or watching Helena eat while she does something else, and it's not about a plotline.' But inevitably, that's what it is, and what keeps us charged up is that A-story pushing quickly ... the hardest thing about the show is writing it with that kind of momentum.
His partner Graeme Manson said much the same:
I'm serious, sometimes we want Sarah to have more rest, some downtime, let's have some drama, and then, when we slow her down, it seems like the engine starts to fall out of the show because we're used to this pace.
They were right about this back in 2015, but five seasons in, the show's insistence on pace and plot has backfired slightly. The number of plot twists has muddied the stakes. We needed an episode like "Beneath Her Heart" to revisit the show's cascade of gun-to-the-head choices and examine their consequences. We particularly needed Alison to be the lens through which to do it. If the other clones are getting more and more foggy, Alison has been on an upward trajectory. To borrow a term from Scientology, she's been going clear.
Back when the show started, it was obvious that Sarah Manning et al were good and the corporations trying to control them were bad. Five years and dozens of restructured alliances in, none of that is self-evident. Kira remains the main index of "Good" on the show, and she's likely to get more important as the series wraps up. But onetime Big Bads like Susan Duncan have become oddly sympathetic, and (from the other side of things) it's been a long time since Clone Club killed only in self-defense. Donnie killed Dr. Leekie by accident, but Alison let Aynsley die in cold blood, Helena stabbed a doctor through the cheek out of paranoia, and she and Mrs. S have conducted deliberated, premeditated revenge killings.
Now that the evil Neolutionist factions have merged and seem willing to work with the clones, no one knows quite what doing the right thing means, including us viewers. Rachel's offer to Sarah seems terribly sinister precisely because it requires so little: only occasional noninvasive meetings with Kira to study her. Back in season one, that would have been unacceptable. The clones struggled to keep their bodies and DNA private — to effectively own themselves. But they've spent years playing Let's Make a Deal with various evil conglomerates, and at this point, when people like Felix's half-sister Adele are volunteering their genetic profiles to corporate databases while allies like MK and Kendall die pointless deaths, well ... would it really kill them to let Rachel clip Kira's fingernails?
Sarah thinks it would. That's psychologically smart, but not because Sarah's right: The show might be showing us how living in a constant state of emergency creates an ambient paranoia that infects the clones' every interaction (and ours). Sarah's suspicion of Felix's biological half-sister Adele was as understandable as it was unseemly; so was Delphine's suspicion of Shay, and Helena's of the doctor. The clones are losing their grip, and who can blame them?
But the flip side of that is that the plotting has itself gone murky. It wasn't especially clear to me, for example, why Sarah recently decided to make a run for it with Kira yet again, particularly since that meant never seeing S or Felix or the other clones again. Orphan Black has a gift for packing its unceasing action with deep character work, so it's baffling when a clone's motivations go haywire.
Another puzzling case is Rachel, the show's most corporate clone, who was raised "self-aware." At this point in the spinning carousel of treaties and alliances, she's gone from being evil to okay, to evil again, to some kind of true believer in the theories of Westmorland, the 170-year-old creator who's apparently behind the clones as well as the shadow corporations seeking to control them. Tatiana Maslany is an undisputed genius, but not even she has succeeded at making Rachel's ethical switches over the space of just a few episodes clear.
To quickly review: For at least part of last season, Rachel — who in the past had kidnapped Kira, destroyed her bone marrow, and sentenced Sarah to an oophorectomy — seemed reformed. Either the brain damage the pencil-stabbing produced or her experience convalescing seemed to generate an inkling of solidarity with her fellow clones. Rachel weaponized her sometime villainy to bring down Evie Cho, the woman behind the Brightborn experiments and horrible bot implants (who made the mistake of belittling Rachel's role). It seemed like a neat use of her former self.
But it turns out the American Psycho version of Rachel never left. By the end of season four, Rachel has stabbed her "mother" and creator, usurped her role, and promised to restart the clone program with the stipulation that they be treated like lab rats (ethical considerations be damned). She shot at and stabbed Sarah Manning. She assented to her younger clone Charlotte's death in the name of science. Her "father" and "mother" (the Duncans) have disowned and disavowed her, and so has her "brother" from the Castor program, Ira.
Fine; Rachel's betrayal was an astonishing return to form. But now, two episodes into the fifth season, Rachel appears to have transitioned yet again — from the BDSM-loving corporate shark we've always understood her to be to a tantric true believer in the teachings of P.T. Westmorland. She injects Cosima with a treatment for her disease (against our every expectation) because Westmorland says so. She appears to have become a charismatic leader at Revival.
We're not privy to the particulars of this New Rachel, which is disorienting partly because whatever transformation these new behaviors index is … less than complete. Rachel might be done beating Ferdinand in bed, but parts of her old self remain. Her penchant for manipulating people through leverage, for instance, is as strong as ever — it's at her instigation that Simon asks Alison to consider her "value," and he means that in Topside's sinister, corporate terms.
Plot-wise, then, I'm at sea. I don't get Rachel. I don't understand what moral map she's using, since it doesn't seem to be simple self-interest. Nor do I understand the extent to which Westmorland's Revival intersects with Topside, Brightborn, Dyad, Leda, Castor, Neolutionists or, indeed, Proletheans. If Westmorland has converted Rachel so thoroughly that even her sexual appetites have changed, that seems to suggest that Revival differs somehow from these evil organizations. If he's the guy behind all those organizations, on the other hand, then I don't understand why she's changed.
What I do understand is that it's evil and cruel to consider people in terms of their "value" in the way Rachel invites Alison to think of herself. It's evil to link people value to their fertility, as Simon does. It's evil to arrange for corrupt police to plant evidence in your sister clone's garage, as Art's partner Maddy had planned to do.
But the episode forces us to ask less comfortable questions too: Is it evil to ask Art to cover up the murders that took place in that garage? Particularly since Rachel — who is either evil or a cult leader now — agrees to do so?
I don't know! But it's brilliant to make this — the episode in which Alison and Rachel finally go head to head — the occasion for Alison to confront the ethical blizzard the show has become. She's dealing with karma on an epic scale (cf. Donny's drink), and the bodies she's buried are coming back up. In fact, Alison's storyline — which has always tended toward campy frivolity — is functioning now as the show's moral system. It's where the clones' ethical transgressions won't be shrugged off or buried. The skeletons are coming out of the closet and a reckoning, or at least an acknowledgment, is needed.
We might not understand Sarah or Helena or Rachel's thinking right now; they're blinded by blinded by paranoia and ambition, respectively. Alison's guilt, in contrast, makes perfect sense. In "Beneath Her Heart," Alison finally sees Aynsley's death for what it was: not the death of a monitor but the death of a friend and mother. We needed that corrective; before she died, we only ever really saw Aynsley through the veil of Alison's suspicion. She seemed like a backstabbing, intrusive presence, a monitor in spirit and in fact. "Beneath Her Heart" corrects that impression and reckons with the painful discovery that Aynsley was no such thing.
"I feel like I've been rattling around in my skin for some time, and I think I finally bumped loose," Alison tells Donnie. It feels like the show's perspective bumped loose too — from the paranoia through which every clone's desperate choices are made to something resembling guilt, atonement, and maybe, at some distant point, absolution.
If the show is using Alison to interrogate its own ethics, I'm not sure it's quite succeeded. That confrontation between Alison and Rachel wasn't exactly ... high-minded. 'But the takeaway is twofold: For one thing, Alison showed Rachel she's to be taken seriously and satisfied her need to confess. For another, Alison realizes that her "value" (which Simon asks her to assess) can't be determined by others or limited to the toxic system Rachel uses, which confuses value with leverage.
Still: There's some heavy ethical reckoning ahead for Alison and for the show. I trust it can pull it off, and I'm interested by the vaguely theological turn Alison's journey has made possible as she returns to basic questions about right and wrong. For all that this episode featured a convent, that scene of Alison and Donny sadly singing "Ain't no mountain high enough" for each other, instead of an audience, was one of Orphan Black's most poignantly monastic moments.