Editor’s Note: This is a Season One recap of Orphan Black, so there will be spoilers for the first season.
It’s time. You’re caught up on Game of Thrones (and if you aren’t, you should check out our latest recap). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 is coming to a close in the next two weeks (and we’ve got recaps for that too). You’re finally ready to commit to a new show. And with the second season of BBC America’s Orphan Black underway, what better time to take the plunge?
Orphan Black touches on controversial subject matter including genetic testing, nonconventional relationships, extremist religious groups, homicide, and drugs, which pretty much ensures that there’s never a dull moment. Also, with only a 10-episode season, the episodes are fast-paced and feel as though there’s never a wasted moment, unlike with other American television series that tend to drag out for a 24-episode stint and fill the gaps in plot with fluff episodes.
The show’s central themes are also a draw. Taking a stand on provocative topics like genetic testing or the risky subject of religion vs. science, Orphan Black goes there and makes you question which side is right and which side is wrong. From the Neolutionist movement, a group of body-modification enthusiasts that believe the ideal human is just an operation away, to the Proletheans, who believe that the human body is already ideal as it was crafted in God’s image, this show explores both sides of the spectrum in an intelligent but often cringe-worthy way. Each side is meant to be an exaggeration of the “ideal human” argument, which is most interesting because the idea of an ideal human being is inherently subjective. “Ideal” to one person will not be the same to the next, but Orphan Black toes the line between creationism and evolution beautifully and in the end, neither side is the actual hero. Instead, our heroes are meant to be those caught in the middle of the war, not those waging it.
Those characters are the real gem of the show, equally fantastic thanks both to writing and portrayal. The ensemble is full of talented, nuanced performances… and then there’s Tatiana Maslany. Tasked with playing six completely separate characters, all with different accents and mannerisms, Orphan Black is Tatiana’s playground and if you aren’t mesmerized by her talent then something is very wrong.
As a woman watching Orphan Black, I’m thrilled to see such vast representations of female characters portrayed in the show. I would agree that the show itself is a bit whitewashed and while there are chances for a more diverse cast, the logic behind Tatiana’s numerous character portrayals is sound and the focus of the show is really meant to be on Tatiana’s characters. Finally we’re seeing a range of strong, intelligent women who have different strengths and weaknesses, different skills, and aren’t forged out of the cookie-cutter “strong woman” stereotype. It’s refreshing to be able to watch these characters possess the same qualities and characteristics that real women do in the real world, but it’s sad that this is something that’s still a shock instead of a given.
Speaking of those characters, I am drawing a line in the sand right now: Alison Hendrix is the strongest of all of Tatiana’s characters. I’ll try not to spoil too much here but Alison is by far the most well-rounded character in all of Orphan Black. Cosima is extremely intelligent, Sarah is cunning and street-smart, Rachel is a great HBIC, and Helena is a deranged lunatic. While they all play their part, Alison is the one to watch. Subtle and familiar, Alison portrays a lifestyle rarely outfitted with any sort of real characterization. As an upper-middle class soccer mom, we’d expect Alison to be the most neutral, the most vanilla, the most useless of the group. On the contrary, Alison is the glue that holds the characters together. Alison, like any actual person, makes several terrible choices throughout the show, but it’s her depth, vulnerability, and loyalty that keep you coming back for more. Her more traditional motherly traits are excellent counterpoints to her toughness and survival instincts, and the fact that she’s well versed in firearm safety and usage is pretty badass. Really, how often do we get to see a mom embracing gun-use and doing so in an intelligent, practical, and safe manner? Alison’s a mom with an edge and by far the best of all Tatiana’s characters.
So now that you know the Why, let’s get started on the What. Orphan Black Season One Recap…Begin!
Set in modern day Toronto-esque city, Orphan Black follows the life of one Sarah Manning, a street-hardened British woman with an affinity for black leather and cursing. The show starts with Sarah eyeing a distraught woman on the subway platform. The woman slips out of her heels, folds her blazer, and turns to look directly at Sarah…with a face that is exactly like Sarah’s. Mystery Woman then walks directly in front on an oncoming subway train and Sarah, like any sensible person, steals the dead woman’s purse and seeks refuge in a nearby bar.
Joining Sarah in the bar is Felix, who clues us in about Sarah’s backstory: Sarah left her daughter Kira with their foster mother, Siobhan, and disappeared for nearly a year. Sarah informs Felix about the suicidal woman on the subway platform with the eerily exact Sarah face, named Elizabeth Childs and she decides to head to Beth’s apartment and steal anything valuable she can get her hands on.
Sarah’s snooping pays off at Beth’s place where Sarah finds a bank statement $75,000 in Beth’s name., which is more than enough money to set up Felix, Sarah, and Kira with a nice life somewhere far removed from her abusive ex-boyfriend Vic. Using street smarts, hair dye, and an aptitude for accents, Sarah adopts Beth’s life long enough to con the bank. There she also accesses Beth’s safety deposit box and finds birth certificates for several women including Alison Hendrix, Katja Obinger, and Beth herself.
Leaving the bank, Sarah is blindsided by Detective Art Bell whom believes Sarah to be Beth. Art drives Sarah to the police station where she is thrown to an Internal Affairs hearing regarding Beth’s involvement in a line of duty shooting that resulted in the fatality of civilian Margaret Chen. After skillfully managing to postpone the hearing, Sarah is confronted by Beth’s boyfriend Paul back at their apartment. With no other way to distract him, Sarah strips and tosses him on the counter for a quickie, successfully putting an end to his questions, for now.
At her false memorial service, Sarah meets Katja Obinger, a red-haired, German fashionista who, you guessed it, has the same exact features as Sarah. Amidst coughing up blood, a sickly Katja demands to see Beth’s “scientist friend”. Katja suspects Sarah isn’t who she says she is and gives her a riddle to prove her identity: “Just one. I’m a few. No family too. Who am I?” but before Katja can react to Sarah’s lack of knowledge, she’s immediately shot in the head by a sniper through Sarah’s windshield.
With a dead body in her backseat, Sarah answers Beth’s personal phone and speaks with a nameless woman who confirms that someone is killing the lookalikes. Sarah buries Katja in a shallow, unmarked grave off the side of a random road and heads back to Felix’s apartment where she pleads with Felix to tell Mrs. S that she’s not dead. They finally decide to check the whopping $75k Sarah stole and find that Art has taken it, leaving the case file for the Maggie Chen case in its place.
Sarah meets Art and convinces him that the money isn’t connected to the Maggie Chen case in any way. She proves to Art she won’t crack under pressure by recanting the statement she will give at the rescheduled Internal Affairs hearing, and Art divulges another valuable nugget of info. Apparently, Beth had been high on a combination of prescription pills, shot Maggie Chen, and called Art for help prior to calling in the shooting. She assures him that he won’t be brought into this investigation but he continues to hold her money ransom until she’s cleared.
After retrieving Katja’s briefcase, Sarah finds a mysterious x-ray and several blood and hair samples from Katja, a French woman named Danielle Fourner, and numerous other woman who all look exactly like Sarah. Right on time, Sarah receives another phone call from Nameless. Instead of pretending to be Beth, she answers as Sarah and is tested with the same riddle from before. When Sarah can’t answer, she’s promptly hung up on.
Thanks to the briefcase’s information, Sarah heads down to Suburbia and finds yet another doppelganger, this time in the form of soccer mom Alison Hendrix. The meeting wasn’t exactly seamless, but Alison arranges for Sarah to meet Cosima, a.k.a. Nameless, face to face.
Piecing together information from Alison and Cosima, Sarah realizes that these lookalikes aren’t actually twins, but are instead clones, and that she and seven other women all share the same genetic material. Cosima explains that Katja contacted Beth with concern that her genetic identicals were being hunted across Europe. She appeals to Sarah to stay a cop and use the resources at her disposal to protect the clones, as Beth did before committing suicide.
With Sarah back on the force, she finds that Art has discovered Katja’s body. She also overhears a phone call to Art where a distorted voice-changer produces a warped version of the earlier riddle, “She was just one of a few. Unfit for family. Horse glue.” Yikes.
Art and Beth follow a tip on Katja’s murderer to an apartment with renditions of Biblical verses written in red on the walls. Sarah pursues the murderer only to find herself face-to-face with another clone, this time with dyed blonde hair and a thick Eastern European accent (bringing the clone count to 9). Sarah stabs the blonde clone with a piece of rebar and steals her knife with a custom winged-fish handle.
Back as Beth, Sarah and Art get more intel on Blonde Clone, who has been profiled with severe early-childhood developmental issues and was raised by an extreme creationist religious group. Sarah receives a call from Blonde Clone, who gives her name as Helena and demands a meeting.
After more research, Sarah finds that Maggie Chen had a winged-fish branded on her skin and believes that Maggie Chen belonged to the same extremist group that raised Helena. Cosima confirms that Helena’s abusive childhood at the hands of this group has crafted a mindset where killing off her clones equates redemption in the eyes of God. Helena gives Sarah yet another call, demanding a meeting.
As Sarah heads to the meeting, Alison pretends to be Sarah at her meeting with Kira. However, Kira immediately calls Alison out about not actually being her mother and we get another sense that there is something special about Kira.
Sarah goes to meet Helena at Maggie Chen’s old apartment and finds out that Helena believes she’s the original from which every clone was created. Helena admits that Maggie Chen played a part in creating the clones, but “saw the light” and quickly changed sides to the creationist group that raised Helena. Sarah realizes that she has a strange connection with Helena, refuses to shoot her, and helps her escape Art’s detection. Helena, weakened by her stab wound, collapses on the street but is picked up by a mysterious man with a winged-fish ring and hoisted into the back of a creepy passenger van. Meanwhile, Sarah gets grilled by her superior at the police station about being in Maggie Chen’s apartment and promptly quits the force and her act as Beth.
Even though her act as Beth the Cop is over, Sarah is still living in Beth’s apartment. She runs into Paul strangely sneaking into their apartment, but the shock doesn’t last long, thanks to the segue of a tempting shower scene. While asleep, Sarah dreams she’s being experimented on in her own home. She wakes up, shakes off the nightmare, and heads to the bathroom where she promptly coughs up the same sort of medical wire we see depicted in Sarah’s nightmare.
Freaked, she sneaks out of the bathroom and calls Cosima who identifies the wire as an electrode from an EEG helmet that helps monitor brain activity. Cosima, Alison, Sarah and Felix come to the conclusion that the clones are being monitored and tested in their sleep, with actual observers or “Monitors” placed in each of their lives in order to help accumulate data. In a classic Who Watches the Watchman move, Sarah finds that Beth has also been keeping tabs on her Monitor, who just so happens to be Paul. At Paul’s place of work, Trexcon Consulting, Sarah makes a surprise visit to set up some surveillance equipment, but mistakenly tips off Paul’s suspicion that she may not be who she claims.
Meanwhile, Cosima is running tests on the clones’ blood and hair samples, including her own, to discover the cause of Katja’s illness. She enlists help from a gullible scientist-friend to help run tests for Cystic Fibrosis as well as something called the Barcode Gene, a set of genetic information used for species differentiation.
Again at Felix’s, Sarah and her foster brother listen to the surveillance equipment they have on Paul and hear a conversation between him and his boss Olivier. Paul doesn’t tell Olivier that he knows of Sarah’s trickery, but does send Sarah a picture of her with her daughter as proof.
Cosima, attempts to convince Sarah that Paul is in a “double blind” situation, which means that Paul is unaware of why he is monitoring her so he can’t skew any test results. The Paul-Sarah showdown commences and we get another bit of info about the clones when Paul confirms that Beth couldn’t have children. Pair that with Alison’s adopted children and the fact that Sarah is Kira’s biological mother becomes that much more interesting.
Alison has been monitoring her husband Donnie out of suspicion that he’s actually her Monitor. During a heated argument, Alison whacks him in the face with a golf club and knocks him out then proceeds to tie him up in her craft room for a little homemade interrogation.
Alison calls Sarah in a panic for help with the Donnie situation, but continues implementing some interesting torture techniques in her craft room (hot glue straight to the chest, anyone?) to try and pull information from Donnie. Sarah agrees to pretend to be Alison and continue the interrogation while Alison tends to the community potluck hosted at Alison’s house.
Cosima joins Delphine, a French woman she suspects of being her Monitor, at a “Neolutionism” lecture by Dr. Aldous Leekie. This lecture centers on the creation of an ideal human being and how evolutionary choices should be made in order to obtain perfection. Delphine clues us in that Leekie works at the Dyad Institute where he’s currently exploring all sorts of possibilities for evolutionary choices. (Hint, hint).
After Alison passes out from a combo of wine and prescription meds taken due to the stress of the situation, Sarah shifts gears and pretends to be Alison at the potluck where Felix, also at the party, believes he may have found Alison’s true Monitor in neighbor Aynsley. Sarah then returns to Beth’s apartment where she spills the beans about the entire clone situation to Paul.
Sarah tracks Paul to Olivier’s underground Neolutionist club on a hunch that Paul is selling her and the other clones out to his boss. We learn that Olivier is an avid Neolutionist and supposedly has enhanced his own body with a working tail. (Does this remind anyone else of Shallow Hal?) Meanwhile, back at headquarters, Art and the other detectives find out that Katja and Helena have identical DNA and call for another analysis of Katja’s fingerprints, which results in the surfacing of Sarah Manning’s criminal record and matching fingerprints.
Helena is back and still recovering from her massive stab wound with Thomas, the winged-fish ring guy from earlier. We learn that Thomas raised Helena as a member of the extremist group The Proletheans, and is the source of her childhood abuse. Thomas prompts Helena to find Sarah and use her to get closer to the other clones and Helena gives Sarah an ultimatum, demanding names of the other clones in exchange for Sarah’s safety.
At a dinner between Delphine and Cosima that Dr. Leekie crashes, Cosima calls him out on perfecting several cloning techniques at his work and hints that she believes he may be responsible for cloning more than just bacterial cells. (…HINT).
Back at the Neolutionist club, Sarah gallantly heads into the belly of the beast to find Paul. Helena shows up and tricks Olivier into leaving Paul’s side, where she proceeds to kick his ass and cut off his tail with her fish knife.
Sarah shows up at the police station posing as Beth once where she pretends to be unaware of Sarah Manning. In a rookie mistake, she leaves her fingerprints on a picture that Art uses to cross-examine with Sarah Manning’s/Katja’s fingerprints.
Delphine also pulls a classic move and furthers her flirtation with Cosima by sleeping with her, then sending Cosima out for snacks so she can raid the apartment for Cosima’s clone research. She calls Leekie to inform him of her findings, but keeps one key piece of the equation to herself: Sarah’s biological child Kira.
Sarah returns to Mrs. S’s house with Alison in tow and proceeds to give her the whole lowdown on the clones, including the murderous Helena. Siobhan, in turn, explains what the term Orphan Black really means: Undocumented children that were often used for medical experiments, and tells Sarah that she is technically an Orphan Black.
As Mrs. S and Sarah talk, Kira wakes up and heads for the front door as if pulled by some sort of unseen connection. She sees Helena outside and opens the door, choosing to run off with her. Kira pulls a sense of humanity from the tortured Helena and she allows Kira to return to Sarah. The sense of relief is short-lived as Kira walks directly into the street and is hit by a car.
Kira is whisked to the hospital, but has no internal bleeding, head trauma, or broken ribs that would normally result from being smashed into by a sedan. Cosima confirms that as the biological child of someone who has possibly been genetically modified, it’s possible that Kira, too, could be genetically modified.
Sarah decides to end Helena once and for all and calls the clone to set up a meeting. Helena attempts to escape Thomas, refusing to harm Sarah or Kira, but Thomas resorts to some of the atrocious techniques he used to subdue Helena as a child. (Be warned that the scenes of Helena’s abuse in this episode could be troubling for some viewers.)
Cosima digs further into the clones’ DNA and finds that a distinct strain of DNA in each sample works as a barcode to help identify each clone. She assures Sarah that she never told Leekie about the anomaly that is Kira’s biological birth from a clone, but that doesn’t stop Sarah from setting up a meeting with the doctor.
Leekie admits his participation in the cloning experiment and also informs Sarah that he wants to “deprogram” Helena. As a reward for bringing Helena to Leekie, he offers Sarah and the other clones new lives, free of Monitors.
Sarah comes to find Helena with the intention of killing her off, but is unable to follow through. Thomas returns after Sarah has freed Helena and preys on Helena’s emotions to try and turn her against Sarah. Instead, Helena attacks Thomas and while the two are distracted, Sarah knocks Helena out, locks Thomas in the same trap that previously held Helena, and takes the clone with her to meet Leekie.
After seeing the subway surveillance footage confirming that Beth really did commit suicide and that Sarah stole her identity, Art gets a warrant for Sarah Manning’s arrest. (Side note: It’s really just dumb that Art waited a whole season to go to the train station and check for surveillance footage. I mean, really? C’mon. That’s really crack police work there, Art.)
Siobhan calls and convinces Sarah to bring Helena to her home instead of handing her over to Leekie. Once home, Sarah comes face to face with Amelia, a new woman claiming to be her birth mother. She explains that as a young woman, she agreed to be a surrogate, but found that the children she was carrying would be raised under the Neolutionist movement. Fearing for the children, Amelia had her twins in secret and gave both of them up, one to the State (Sarah) and one to the Church (Helena).
Sarah allows Helena to see Amelia, but their birth mother requests for a private audience away from Siobhan. During the conversation, the police swarm Mrs. S’ house and arrest Sarah and Helena uses the commotion to successfully escape.
Alison is approached by Leekie and propositioned with a contract: twice yearly medical testing in exchange for protection from Helena and a life free of Monitors. He also informs her that as a gesture of good faith, her Monitor has already been lifted, although there’s not much truth in that statement.
As Cosima is intercepted by Leekie with a separate proposition, she begins coughing up blood in a very similar manner to Katja’s. Leekie offers Cosima a cushy job at the Dyad Institute researching her and her sister clones, and dangles her complete sequenced genome in front of her to sweeten the deal.
Back at headquarters, Sarah is taken from the interrogation room by a mysterious lawyer named Daniel Rosen and whisked to a swanky office building. There Sarah meets another woman named Rachel Duncan who, same as all the others, shares Sarah’s features. Rachel offers Sarah an agreement much like Alison’s which would entitle her to a life without Monitors.
All the clones, minus Helena, gather in Felix’s apartment to discuss the terms of their contracts. Alison admits that she’s planning to accept Leekie’s offer. She returns to her home to see Aynsley’s house for sale and accosts the woman she believes to be her Monitor. In the kitchen, Aynsley scarf catches in the garbage disposal and Alison makes the choice to not save her, thus allowing Aynsley a pretty sad death-by-scarf-strangling.
Amelia arrives at Beth’s apartment, but has the misfortune of running into Helena first. The Angry Angel stabs Amelia in the stomach and blames her for the monster she’s become, then transports her to an abandoned warehouse. Sarah follows Helena’s instructions and finds Amelia, who has just enough life left in her to hand over a photograph of two scientists, a man and a woman. She claims that Mrs. S is the female scientist in the picture, which reads ‘Project LEDA, July 22, 1777’ with the names of each scientist blacked out.
Helena appears again (Boss Fight!) and Sarah attacks her deranged sister, resulting in a gunshot straight to Helena’s chest.
Meanwhile, Cosima and Delphine dig into Cosima’s genome, which they successfully decode and translate into a very unsettling message: “This organism and derivative genetic material is restricted intellectual property.” This is basically fancy-talk for a patent that allows the Dyad Institute to claim ownership of each clone and any life resulting from a clone, which essentially means that Kira could be claimed also by the institute.
With knowledge of the patent, Sarah quickly returns to Mrs. S’ house to find it ransacked. Both Kira and Mrs. S are nowhere to be seen.
And with that cliffhanger, you’re caught up!
As much as I loved Season One, at the end I was still hoping to get more out of the Proletheans plot line. I felt as thought there was so much left unsaid and unexplored about the group, and that they were very easily seen as villains while the Neolutionists had a better chance at being perceived as heroes. Digging deeper, I realized that both groups were equally villainous, but the Neolutionists hid their villainy better behind charming facades and a more commonly accepted scientific thought-process. I mean, monitoring people in their sleep and employing other people to basically stalk someone and make sure the tests are successfully administered? Sounds pretty villainy to me.
Still, it’s easier to understand the reasoning for the Neolutionist movement. Why would we want to age, to die, if we didn’t have to? But I always felt the Proletheans were tossed into the show without a fair chance to really demonstrate why someone would even consider joining their movement. It never felt like the Proletheans got the same chance to prove their following and there is a following there, so there must be a strong reason for it. I’m not saying the Proletheans are the good guys, far from it, but I do believe that they deserve a chance to be as well-rounded as the Neolutionists and the clones themselves. I feel that the Proletheans got out of the first season was a big ol’ “Because I said so” justification on their existence, and I felt that could have been handled better. With a show chock-full of intelligent writing and themes, ousting the extremist group as inherently evil from the beginning felt a bit cliché. Perhaps Season 2 will bring us more insight into the Prolethean lifestyle and help provide some much needed background to their movement.
As for other hopes for Season 2? More Felix, please! As delightful as Felix is for comic relief, I believe he’s under-utilized as a character. I hope to see more of Felix’s own personal history come to light. I’m also going to be eyeing this suspicious Mrs. S thing like a hawk with hopes of getting more insight on whether or not Siobhan actually played a part in Project LEDA. If she did, perhaps Siobhan’s been Sarah’s Monitor all along! Also, if there’s any more police work, hopefully Art won’t wait an entire freaking season to go watch some surveillance footage.
And lastly, I wouldn’t be upset if there were more naked Paul scenes. It’s not often we get to see man-ass on television so if we’re still objectifying the ladies across the board, let’s start objectifying the men more too. Equal opportunity and all.
Stay tuned for more mystery, more intrigue, and more accents with Orphan Black Season 2 recaps!