'Orphan Black' season finale review: Tatiana Maslany dazzles, the clone sisterhood frazzles

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Haven’t seen the season finale of BBC America’s Orphan Black? Then I’ll give you two shakes of a genetically engineered tack-on tail to click away, because there be more spoilers here than Sarah Manning has dopplegangers. “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” gave the audience a little of everything – matricide, sororicide, death by garbage disposal strangulation (!), devilish bargains, numerous twists, and new a big bad ProClone – and dealt the many multiples played the marvelous Tatiana Maslany a lot of loss. Unhinged Helena lost her lunatic life, Brainy Cosima lost her health, Domesticated Alison lost her husband, and our Anti-Hero Sarah lost her child (abducted!), her birth mother (murdered!), and her foster mother (?), who appears to have been playing ball all along with the devious Evo Devo conspiracy that has populated the planet with oblivious petri dish spawn.

In its own unique way, Orphan Black’s cliffhanger-packed capper dramatized at variety of Feminist concerns. A discussion among the clones about whether to accept “peace treaty” deals from their morally ambiguous makers sounded like a conversation about something else altogether. Cosima, Alison, and Sarah spoke of their right to choose, and that their individual choice should not be judged. The Faustian bargains presented by snakey Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer) were tempting apples, indeed, and they should have been resisted. They offered only the appearance of freedom and effectively trapped them in narrowly defined social roles. Alison the Mother-Wife was offered a lifetime of security in suburbia for herself and her children, while Cosima the Careerist was offered unlimited professional advancement and forbidden knowledge.

Another loaded theme: Sister versus sister. Sarah and Helena – biological twins, we learned – fought yet one more time, and for the last time: Sarah put a permanent end to deranged, damaged sibling, who had become fully activated with homicidal rage at anyone and everyone who had made her nothing but a more-ways-than-one mad woman, from the birth mother who abandoned her to at the anti-science zealot who warped her into a killing machine. A new clone was introduced: Rachel Duncan, a high-ranking member of the conspiracy, a sell-out to the corrupt culture that forged her. She was a pitiless ice queen who reigned high above the city in a empty skyscraper suite, her exalted office as barren as a prison cell. Her burdensome job, it seemed, was to police her fellow clones, to keep them boxed and checked. Way to smash through that glass ceiling, sister.

It was Cosima – unlocking a bar code embedded in her DNA – who discovered the secret that revealed just how profoundly not-free, how truly chained and kept these women were: They had all been patented by the conspiracy. They were someone else’s product, someone else’s property. She rejected her deal, a choice that will cost Cosima the knowledge she needs to figure out a cure for the degenerative respiratory sickness (cough-cough-bloodycough) now killing her. Sarah – who was offered protection from further persecution and prosecution – rejected her deal after Cosima tipped her off to the fact that she lacked ownership of her life and body. (“UP YOURS, PROCLONE!”) Rachel retaliated by taking away her daughter, she of the miraculous healing powers.

Begun, I think, the Clone War has.

What dazzled me most about Orphan Black this season was Maslany’s performance. If I had an Emmy ballot, she’d be on the Best Actress list, or at least three of the Best Supporting Actress spots. Or both. She never phoned in any of her clones. They all felt remarkably realized. In the finale, I loved Cosima’s complex reaction to learning that she was just a bunch of numerically-tagged genetic material to the conspiracy — a string of numbers that her duplicitous Watcher-crush knew it by heart. Dearest 324b21! How I’ve secretly yearned for your digits! Have grace for my amateur lesbianism! Sarah’s drama, Helena’s tragedy, Cosima’s romanticism, Alison’s comedy – Maslany made me believe in all of her clones and all of their textures and tones, even when the story’s twists and turns threatened to subvert them. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite… although I will say that by the end, Helena was my least favorite. But her death felt correct, and therefore poignant. Her demise also gives Orphan Black a chance to strengthen if not reinvent a weak spot in its saga, the under-developed conflict between science (represented by the Neolutionists) and religion (represented by the Prolethians, who I suspect will see more screen time next year).

One of the best things about Orphan Black’s well measured first season (10 episodes — a perfect number for this series) was how the writers allowed the mystery of the clone mythology to gradually reveal itself while maintaining a thriller’s momentum. The strategy allowed for much character-oriented storytelling and imbued the sci-fi with intriguing human drama. I hope Orphan Black can maintain this quality now that the slow-burn mythology blazes hot in the foreground. I said I don’t have favorites, but the clone that comes to mind as I reflect on season one is Alison. I loved watching this tightly wound desperate housewife unravel into a chaos-producing mess as she valiantly tried to wrap her mind around a terrible enlightenment that nonetheless produced some terribly needed transformation that stretched her identity and world… at least until she sold out anew to suburban safety in the finale. (Ah, but how long will it last? What’s going to happen when the cops ask her some questions about Aynsley’s absurd but satisfying garbage disposal death? Does Watcher-Hubby plan on actually returning from that nighttime jog to see Dr. Leekie? ) (By the way, kinda saw that coming, just as I always suspected that Mrs. S knew more about Project Leda than she was telling.) The episode that convinced me that Orphan Black was not just good but great was “Variations Under Domestication,” the worlds-colliding, role-swapping riot set during an afternoon house party, in which Alison/Sarah tried to juggle being a good hostess upstairs while stealing away downstairs to beat some secrets out of Alison’s husband, whom she suspected of being her watcher (she was right!), whole also dealing with intrusions from Sarah’s rough-and-tumble world. I really hope Orphan Black can keep producing episodes like that, be it with the existing clones (and/or clones to come?) …  and/or another set of clones altogether. Because I have to think there has to be a whole bunch of Neolutionary Adams out there for all the Eves that Project Leda has created.

Did  “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” dazzle you as it dazzled me? The message board is yours.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen 

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