Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Orphan Black and the Nature of Plot

So many Maslanys!

As a whole, the internet tends to grossly overrate plot.  To me, focusing on plot will almost certainly lead to disappointment.  When the goal is to constantly think of ideas that are fresh, unique, and surprising; the end result is always going to have something that can be picked apart.  Plot is just harder to sustain long-term than character, which often finds beauty in the way it circles back on itself to reveal new things about an individual and their place within the world.  For that reason, I tend to prefer character development and thematic storytelling over sheer plot.  If the plot of a show is good, then that's just icing on the cake, but there's something innately more satisfying about a tightly constructed theme than a shocking twist.  Would people be as upset about series finales for shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica if they weren't so obsessed with uncovering some grand mystery?  Granted, both shows were set up in ways that promised some kind of payoff, but I was never convinced that they were actually going to be capable of doing it, so I was instead able to sit back and enjoy both for the often lovely stuff contained within their respective finales.

If there's one show that's proving to be the exception to my "plot will always let you down" theory, it's Breaking Bad.  Throughout its four and a half season run, Breaking Bad has been able to spin a yarn that keeps going to increasingly crazier places, and yet very few people have gotten tired of it or questioned the storytelling decisions.  At least some of that can be attributed to the show's descent into madness, which occurred as gradually as its protagonist's did.  Things started from a place of mild plausibility (high school chemistry teacher cooks meth to pay for cancer bills) and rose the stakes so slowly that hardly anybody thought twice when Walter White pulled off a train heist in season 5.  Even still, the twists and turns of the plot work so well because they rest on top of a strong foundation -- a deep sense of morality in a world full of three-dimensional, tragically flawed characters.  Plus, Vince Gilligan is a genius and not everybody can be him, nor should they try to.

Of all the shows to take up Breaking Bad's mantle, I never expected that it would be some BBC America sci-fi show called Orphan Black.  As anybody who reads this blog knows, I'm obsessed with television and I follow the TV world religiously, so it's rare that a show comes around and catches me completely by surprise.  Whether it be from the cachet of the showrunner or general screener buzz, I can usually tell whether I'm going to like a new show or not.  And even if something turns out to be better than expected, I at least know about it beforehand.  I hadn't even heard about Orphan Black until A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff tweeted about it and sung its praises the night before the premiere.  I'm so glad that he did, or else I would've been late to the party on a great new show in a year chock full of them (Hannibal, Nathan For You, The Americans, Rectify, etc)

Even after the VanDerWerff Seal of Approval, I was still completely surprised by the pilot of Orphan Black.  For the first few minutes, I was put off by the "BBC America" feel it had and the overbearing score, but the episode quickly settled into itself.  By the time the end credits rolled, the show had instantly announced itself as a twisty sci-fi show that was going to be a blast to watch.  Over the course of the season, the stakes never stopped raising.  Much like the early days of Breaking Bad, it was so refreshing to see Orphan Black gleefully refuse to step on the brakes, as it veered from reveal to reveal with shocking aplomb.  The writers had a habit of writing characters into a corner and coming up with smart and surprising ways to wriggle out of it, another signature Vince Gilligan trait.  The Breaking Bad similarities don't end there though -- much like that show, Orphan Black has constructed a world that's just a wide net of complicating factors, most notably seen in "Variations Under Domestication," where almost every tangent of the season converged in madcap fashion at a suburban house party.

The real find of the show, however, is lead actor Tatiana Maslany.  Her performance carries the show, as she inhabits multiple roles with various accents and makes them feel like distinct people.  Maslany commits to everything so completely that sometimes you forget that all of these roles are being played by the same actor.  At certain points in the season, she has to play Alison pretending to be Sarah and somehow it manages to be different than when she's actually playing Sarah and it's absolutely nuts.  It's Maslany's performance that makes some of the season's goofier elements -- clones, silver-eyed science freaks, a guy with a tail(!) -- easier to swallow.

Yet for as rollicking and delightful as the show and Tatiana Maslany were, its lack of an emotional hook was keeping me from ever truly loving Orphan Black.  For all of the acid-dissolving, chemical exploding madness of early Breaking Bad, it still was about a man dying of cancer at its core.  A fun ride is fine enough, but I needed more of a personal connection to the show than Sarah's devotion to Kira, her mysterious moppet of a daughter.  Well Saturday's season finale took my complaints and completely smashed them to pieces, revealing that the show had a beating heart that wasn't just made of cogs all along.  "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" took the three main clones and put them all through an emotional wringer.  Cosima's ominous coughing of blood, Alison passively witnessing her neighbor's death and not doing anything about it (Breaking Bad similarity #475), and Sarah losing her birth mother were all happening separately, but they were tied together by the tragic weight they shared.  Yet even without those gut-punches, the finale was filled with so many other twists and plotlines converging in ways where I didn't realize they were being built up to until they happened.  It's a neat little trick that should stop being so impressive, but it's always surprising and satisfying when it happens.

The episode closes on a final reveal that's too good to spoil, one that should be a bizarre head-scratcher, but like every other element of the show, it's held together by the confidence with which they pull it off, and it ultimately devastated me.  After all, the entire season was about the clones' struggle for individuality -- their drive to want to get a new start and be free.  That's why the twist was so effective and brutal, because it establishes just how unattainable that might be for all of them.  Who knows if they can keep this highwire act up, but "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" made me stoked for season 2 and guaranteed a top 10 spot for Orphan Black on my end of the year list.


  1. Weird. I hate Breaking bad but I love Orphan Black. Don't see the similarities. Glad that people like the show though. I also like Mad men and Hannibal, two other "acclaimed" shows, altho I'm sure plenty of other shows I like are considered trashy.

    1. Like I said in the piece, I think that Breaking Bad and Orphan Black both have plots that move forward with a similar momentum. And the way they paint their protagonists into a corner, only to concoct a clever way for them to get out of it bears some similarities. But all of the Breaking Bad love can get a little overwhelming, so any dissent or hatred of the show is welcome and refreshing.