Reality came to “Orphan Black” this past week.
On the surface, this is a show about clones. Yet as Tatiana Maslany’s Sarah Manning has uncovered the secrets that led to her creation in a corporate lab, “Orphan Black” has alluded to sociopolitical themes that touch upon religion and civil liberties. Among the threats leveled at Manning, however, none may be as chilling as those circling around her at the start of Season 3.
Since its inception, “Orphan Black” has dealt with the power divide between men and women, chronicling via science fiction how one’s status throughout life is determined pre-birth. Manning has spent the past two seasons fighting for her identity, her daughter, her ability to be a mother and her right to know her sisters.
This year the BBC America’s “Orphan Black” has received an infusion of men, and they’re out for blood. Characters once in control are losing it, and others are thrust uncomfortably into leadership roles. It appears that the patriarchy the show has long disregarded is suddenly asserting itself.
“The spiral of the show is getting closer to the center, so there’s something a little more scary,” said Evelyne Brochu, who plays the once-lovesick and now no-nonsense Delphine. “We’re closer to the truth, and we’re all closer to the danger of knowing the truth.”
Throughout its first two seasons “Orphan Black” has placed a diverse slate of women in positions of power, fighting against corporate bullies and religious fanatics. Many of them are played by Maslany. Just when Sarah and her clone sisters – the results of an experiment the show has dubbed Project Leda – appeared to have triumphed, along came a slew of male counterparts to undercut it all (and leave fans hanging at the end of Season 2).
And little in “Orphan Black” has challenged the show’s messages of female empowerment as much as a brutal sexual assault that marked the start of last night’s episode or a tough-to-stomach scene of male-on-female violence in this season’s premiere. Each brought a level of danger to the series that suddenly hit closer to home. There was no sci-fi metaphor here; just shocking, uncomfortable realism.
Co-creator Graeme Manson admits the new season of “Orphan Black” may challenge “what people hold dear” about the series, but stressed that it’s all in the service of advancing the show’s core themes.
“If you want to highlight feminist issues, throw a misogynist into the mix,” said Manson. “Then you’ll see the contrast. The show is still about Project Leda, and everywhere we go with the male clones is about exploring the same feminist themes.”
The male clones, portrayed by Ari Millen, are bringing the gender roles the show has long toyed with to the fore. The clones in Maslany’s likeness, for instance, have occasionally been referred to as “little girls,” even though they can be downright vicious and are generally smarter than any of the male characters on the series. Meanwhile, those portrayed by Millen are military men — boys who muscle their way into positions of influence.
As the season starts to find its groove, a fight over a woman’s right to bear children is intensifying, and BBC America’s marketing for the new episodes has cut to the core of what “Orphan Black” has long been about. “I am not your property,” read billboards and advertisements that feature Maslany’s face.
Ownership has been at the heart of “Orphan Black,” but the debates have been more about biological possession. The introduction of the Castor clones has shown more forcefully the ways in which men dominate women in society.
“The show is science fiction but I always tell people it’s not that fictional,” said Kristian Bruun, who plays the schlubby suburban dad Donnie Hendrix.
With the introduction of the male clones, “Orphan Black” is not a more masculine show, says another cast member; it’s simply more nuanced.
“How come this story, that’s narrated by a woman and has female characters, should only apply to women and be less interesting to men?” said Brochu. “Vice versa. Why, suddenly, in the third season if men come into play is it not the same anymore? Human beings are created with empathy. Art serves that purpose. So why should I be disinterested in a character who’s a man and why should a man shy away from a show that’s female-driven?
“This show blurs those lines,” Brochu continued. “Why not go deeper?”
“Orphan Black” appears to be heading further down the rabbit hole, so much so that Brochu noted that this season is starting to frighten her.
“There’s a lot of scary themes,” she said. “This show is what scares me about reality. Who is holding the strings, really? Who funds the people who hold the strings? Where does actual freedom lie?”
Don’t expect those answers anytime soon. “Orphan Black” has become adept at ending each episode on a cliffhanger, and Season 3’s story lines are still in their infant stages. Though the episodes ahead may be dark — suburban drug dealers, domestic violence — “Orphan Black” is now more than ever about family. For once, Sarah and all her sisters are squarely unified against a common cause — at least for the time being.
Some new-found machismo may add some tense moments, but Manson said the boys won’t destroy all the makeshift familial bonds the show has built up over its first two seasons.
“We’ve always taken care to explore themes of sisterhood and motherhood beyond the traditional nuclear family,” said Manson. “That’s what makes the show inclusive. It’s inclusive of people’s sexuality. Whatever family values you hold dear, we support that.”