“We did not have to twist our narrative to stand in defiance.”
Days before the series finale of Orphan Black airs, co-showrunner Graeme Manson is in the mood to reflect, and this seems to be the axis around which all his other revelations revolve. The cultural moment in which this last season is airing is a charged one, and plenty of storytellers have been scrambling to make sure their work rises to meet it. But Orphan Black needed no radical adjustments to Make A Timely Statement about feminism, LGBTQ rights, or equality.
On its face, this show is a sci-fi drama about women who discover they are the product of a secret cloning experiment, their bodies and the variances within the property of men in lab coats who care little for these sisters, as they call themselves, and their respective humanity. At core, it has been, always, about women and the connections among them — about sisterhood and motherhood — and about the forces, largely male with a handful of female conspirators, that want to define and control them. In an especially cutting twist, the clones were designed to be sterile, but Sarah and her biological twin, Helena, are able to bear children, making the twins a source of constant, invasive fascination for their makers. That these genetic identicals are all played by a single actress, the Emmy-winning Maslany, is in and of itself a rejection of the Hollywood tendency toward shoving women into two-dimensional archetypes with little of interest to do or say.
“This premise allowed us to make a statement that there is strength in diversity. This is a biological fact. How can you refute it? How can you refute the diversity of nature? How can you refute the strength and diversity of your own country?”
Orphan Black, which ended its five-season run on Saturday night, was designed to stand for women: their infinite variability, their fundamental rights, their bonds as mothers and daughters and sisters. At the end, these women literally killed the old white man who sought to siphon off their life-giving power to extend his own existence. Each of the main sisters was at the beginning of a life free from violent, patriarchal interference. In the face of a man who, like a terrible Bond villain, would not stop talking while trying to murder her, Sarah Manning bashed his face in. “We survived you,” she said, towering over his lifeless body. “This is evolution.”
Orphan Black aired on BBC America and is shot in Canada, but its creative team was still riveted by and is invested in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. (Not to mention a huge contingent of the show’s fan base is American.) “Nobody could have foreseen where we’d be now in this political climate and in this incredible closed-minded time,” Manson said, adding that he thought “we’d be somewhere opposite” than where we are right now. Election results in hand, Manson said, “We dug down harder.”
“Nothing changed in our tone and intention,” Manson went on. “But every scene that we wrote from there on had to reflect the world we were sitting there writing it in… All the themes of patriarchy and autonomy and identity and deception and a grand fraud, all of that stuff just became thrown in high relief.”
By last November, Orphan Black‘s biggest plot machinations were already underway. Helena (Ukranian orphan, trained assassin turned sestra-in-arms) was already pregnant with twins she needed to protect from corporate interests who wanted to steal her miracle spawn for themselves. Sarah was already scrambling, as always, to protect her young daughter — a medical fluke whose biology is a skeleton key that could unlock secrets of the sisters’ DNA — from the big bads who wanted to strip her for parts. Cosima, brilliant geneticist battling a genetic disease (an ironic flaw in her coding, as it were) was already hunting down a cure she could take and share with her sisters who would almost certainly be killed by the same illness in time. Allison, a suburbanite soccer mom on the surface, was already coming into her own as a force to be reckoned with.
“We knew where we were going. These were our themes. But particularly Tatiana dug down deeper and harder to layers of celebration, I think,” said Manson. “It all became that much more important to us. Many, many times, particularly the strong presence of the women in the writers’ room, our producers, our cast, the women, with tears in their eyes, said, ‘We have to double-down. We have to resist with our story as much as we can.’ It meant a lot, particularly to Tatiana, to be able to do that. And we’ve never been afraid of being political in that way. And the show supported it.”
“All the themes of patriarchy and autonomy and identity and deception and a grand fraud, all of that stuff just became thrown in high relief.”
What’s Orphan Black‘s legacy? “I think we’re all just proud that this premise allowed us to make a statement that there is strength in diversity,” he said. “This is a biological fact. How can you refute it? How can you refute the diversity of nature? How can you refute the strength and diversity of your own country? That being able to rely on that, as not only a theme but honestly, as a biological truth, has been, without being heavy-handed, I just think it’s managed to infuse the moral and the ethics of the show. I think that question underpins exactly where the show stands ethically and politically.”
“I’m really glad the show is here in this time to give a positive message about strength and diversity… a defense and a celebration of feminism and all things motherhood,” Manson said. “That’s what this series boiled down to.”