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Orphan Black fixes its messy past with a sharp course-correction

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The most surprising aspect of Orphan Black’s season-three tumble down the rabbit hole of convoluted conspiracies and proliferating plotlines isn’t that it became uneven. It’s that it managed to get through two whole seasons before hitting that rough patch. Juggling as many narrative balls as the series threw at viewers right out of the gate proved to be difficult, and it’s a testament to the strength of the creative team that the series sustained such breakneck momentum and focus for 20 episodes. But eventually, the show’s desire to keep deepening the mysteries and broadening the world of underground players—most notably with the explosion of characters and story arcs introduced by the Castor clones—bogged down Orphan Black, and did a disservice to the core relationships and fundamental accessibility that’s kept the series so compelling. Keeping track of all the angles and issues became a chore, not a treat, even as the fun of watching Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Helena, and the people they care about remained undimmed.


So it’s a relief to discover that season four of Orphan Black is about getting back to basics. (Even in terms of wardrobe, everyone’s keeping with the fundamentals—which you can order for yourself!) After the labyrinthine complications of last season, the series has course-corrected efficiently, with minimal narrative disruption. This return to core characters and streamlined stories manifests itself from the very first episode, which takes us back to Beth in a flashback episode dedicated to fleshing out the clone we only ever knew from the remnants of her abbreviated life. The episode re-examines some of the building blocks of this universe, but even better, it sets up the new season’s overriding arc without having to create yet another thicket of villains and conspiracies. By using Beth as a retroactive means of smuggling in a cool new threat—an unsettling organism both organic and synthetic, and looking Sarah right in the face—Orphan Black gets to step back from expanding outward to spend time with the people and conflicts already established.

None of this prevents us from meeting what looks to be the season’s essential new clone: M.K., a withdrawn and hyper-paranoid European with a penchant for wearing a sheep mask (a clever nod to the famed Dolly). We learn that her guidance helped Beth conduct the investigation into Neolution in the first place. And the new season, as hinted in last year’s finale, places the job of clone nemesis squarely on the body-modified frame of the Neolutionists. (The lingering threads of Dyad’s involvement are dispatched by a single-sentence reference to the company being “out of the clone game.”) From flashbacks of Dr. Leekie to the creepy new killers silencing Neolutionist underlings, a welcome sharpening of focus comes with every antagonist now being under the heel of a single entity.


That antagonistic society is on the hunt for the show’s heroes. Sarah and Kira, along with Ms. S and her mother Kendall (the source of the genetic material for both Leda and Castor, remember), are still hiding together in the Icelandic snow when we pick up their story, but not for long. Neolution’s quest for Kendall plunges Sarah and her family back into the world, and back to her sestras and supporters. Alison and Donnie are still busy with their shop and her responsibilities as an elected official, but the biggest change in their lives is continuing houseguest Helena. Cosima and Scott are still science-ing up the place (their new hideout is aptly named), searching for a cure and planning further maneuvers against the organization threatening them. Until Sarah returns, of course, and picks up the “dive in first, ask questions later” reins alongside Art.

The most uncertain aspect of season four concerns poor Felix. Jordan Gavaris’ performance consistently brought both humor and heart to the fraught machinations of the clone struggle, but it seems Felix is a bit fed up with being the sidekick expected to drop everything at a moment’s notice and do whatever Sarah and company demand. When we drop in on him, he’s not even answering Sarah’s texts, although his penchant for painting in the nude continues unabated. Siobhan’s foster son is going through his own emotional struggle, one that threatens to pull him away from his adopted and extended family, and—worryingly, at least for the first three episodes—away from any real involvement in the mystery and action. Felix finding himself is a good move for the character, but not much of a tactic for integrating him snugly into the story.

But that’s one of the few awkward creative choices in a season that largely reboots the central conflict. Not that it’s possible to get a wholly fresh start with a conceit that’s been running as long as Orphan Black’s—and honestly, fans likely wouldn’t want or expect one. Rather, the show looks backward as a way to move forward, returning to its initial premise as a means of unearthing further riches from the deep well of already established clones. By episode three, the series is slowly reintegrating the more far-flung and complex elements of the narrative, none more so than Rachel’s captivity at the hands of her mother. Things pick up roughly six weeks after the events of last season, and it will surprise no one to learn Rachel doesn’t have the warmest feelings toward the woman who abandoned her. Their prickly relationship gives the show a way in to the highest levels of Neolution, making the organization more than just a set of ideals spouted by random followers. (Also, it gives Orphan Black a chance to again showcase the strange and entertaining body-mod choices the villains opt for.)


Those who have never seen the show will find this the easiest place to pick it up since the pilot, and those who have been along since the beginning have a series again playing to its strengths. The biggest asset is still the one that gives the show its essence: Tatiana Maslany’s performance remains superlative, as she digs further into the nuances and core emotional bases of these women, while adding yet another identity to her arsenal in the form of M.K. Like Orphan Black itself, Maslany will likely continue to try out new faces and personalities, but as season four is proving, the foundational members of clone club still have rich veins to tap. Just don’t let the Neolutionists anywhere near them.