Spoilers ahead for Orphan Black’s series finale.
Orphan Black‘s fifth and final season just wrapped up, and while the show faded from the limelight over the past few years, the finale managed to draw its many threads together. At its heart, Orphan Black has always been two shows: one is a science fiction conspiracy thriller packed with secret organizations (The Dyad Institute, Neolution, the Proletheans, Topside, and Project Castor, just to name a few), bizarre biology, and cadres of clones. The other is a look at what it means to be a family, and to choose a family, with ties that go beyond simple biology. And while Orphan Black occasionally tilted too far in one of those directions or the other, the meshing of both ideas made it stand out from the many other techno-thrillers on TV.
The fifth and final season really illustrates that split. Between answering questions (and yes, there are finally answers to long-simmering plotlines ranging as far back as the first season) and dealing with villains old and new, the show still makes time for the characterization that made its central clones (played by Tatiana Maslany) different from each other. Even at the end, it still made space to focus on Alison’s suburban life, or Cosima and Delphine’s relationship.
In Orphan Black, much like in the real world, nothing is clean and simple. Science is messy. Family is messy. Life is messy. And sure, parts of Orphan Black were complicated and messy, too, but every time the mythology of the show got too involved or confusing, it always balanced out the lore with the clones’ surprisingly ordinary and human moments.
The finale sums up the show’s spirit in a microcosm. Instead of focusing on a long, overwrought battle between the Clone Club and the forces of ultimate villain P. T. Westmoreland, Orphan Black spends barely a third of the finale on him. He and his minions are dispatched with quick efficiency. The remainder of the episode serves as an emotional victory lap, rewarding fans with a view into the lives the clones have carved out together as a family.
There’s a lot of catharsis in the finale. Helena finally has her babies, Alison and Donnie are still a happy couple, Cosima and Delphine are together again and working to save the rest of the clones scattered around the world. And Sarah — after struggling with motherhood with her own daughter Kira, and the recent loss of Mrs. S — finally embraces her family and her own role as a parent, instead of running from responsibility. One final campfire scene brings together the Clone Club’s core members, so Maslany has a last chance to show off her acting chops by portraying all four characters in a conversation.
It’s impossible to look back on Orphan Black without calling out Tatiana Maslany’s (finally Emmy-award winning) performances throughout the series. Even now, five years into the show, Maslany’s work in believably creating and portraying these disparate characters, truly imbuing each one with their own sense of self and personality, is still nothing short of astonishing. I’ve watched the show for years, and I still have to remind myself that Alison, Helena, Sarah, Cosima, Krystal, Rachel, MK, and Beth are not played by separate actors who just happen to look alike. And while the rest of the cast is certainly laudable, Orphan Black has always lived or died on Maslany’s performances. When the story of this show is written, those roles will stand out the most.
Orphan Black has never been a popular show. Even the highest ratings it pulled in its second season measured in the hundreds of thousands, with viewership taking a steep plunge after the third season. No single episode of the series has ever had more than a million viewers. But Orphan Black was critically lauded for basically its entire run, and even the relative low points in the mythologically dense third season were still excellent TV, even in today’s oversaturated market.
Despite its quiet excellence, compelling characters, and deep science fiction conspiracies, Orphan Black was never a breakout commercial hit in the way shows like Westworld or Black Mirror are. Still, looking back, I’m glad it was able to last as long as it did and tell the stories it told. Even without traditional television success, Orphan Black stood out as a smart, well-made series. It moved the bar on special effects through its use of digital shot tracking and composition. It offered intelligent commentary on modern technology and the ethics of scientific research, and it still managed to be entertaining along the way. As the show proved time and again: even if a project doesn’t go exactly as planned, the end result can still be great.