Orphan Black’s beautiful, cathartic finale

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Pour one out for your adrenaline stores. Orphan Black — BBC America’s extraordinary thriller featuring clones, female agency, the expanding limits of what counts as intellectual and biological property, and one of our greatest actors — has drawn to a beautiful close. The series that gave us images like these…

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

…has ended with the even more disquieting spectacle of Sarah Manning wearing shorts and something other than black:

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

That’s fitting, as the series (through Helena, who has emerged as its author) both explains and finally shrugs off its name. Siobhan once explained that Sarah was part of a group of children who were disappeared “into the black” for their own safety. As lovely as it is to hear echoes of her phrasing in Helena’s title (this is one of Helena’s many acts of naming), the title is obsolete the moment its uttered. True, the episode was deeply invested in Sarah’s coming to terms with her mother’s loss. But it’s telling that she’s no longer wearing black, and that these lovely, lonely characters aren’t really orphans anymore. The crowd in Alison’s house makes this clear, as does the series’ ever-expanding definition of family, which has come a long way from Cosima’s genetically-fixated remark in Season 1: “We are your biological imperative now.” There are over 200 clones, it turns out, and they aren’t all family.

The thankless job of a series finale is to orient the viewer as to what really mattered all along. Fans will track a thousand theories and storylines, but the finale is where the creators announce which threads they personally considered most important, which arcs stood most in need of resolution, and which feelings merit closure and catharsis. Not every question will be answered. Orphan Black was riddled with more questions than most. What, for example, is the scientific explanation for Kira’s ability to sense the other clones? What are the limits of her ability to self-heal, and why does Helena in particular seem to have some of that ability (if her ability to survive rebar stabbings, massive blood loss, and other insults is any indication)? Does Kira possess the “fountain of youth”? Can she solve cancer? There are a lot of major-league sci-fi questions the show is asking, in other words — questions whose answers have major philosophical implications for humanity arguably matter more than Alison’s marriage or what Helena named her babies.

This has always been the split at the show’s core: whether experimenting on human beings is justified on the grounds that the answers will have implications for all of humanity. In the finale, the show (which has compromised a thousand times on this point — allowing Cosima to experiment on herself and others in the name of finding a cure to their genetic malady) pronounces on that question with some firmness. An episode that pointedly begins with Siobhan and Sarah outside a Planned Parenthood, debating the matter of Kira’s existence and Sarah’s choice, aborts its corporate plot halfway through and dedicates the rest of the episode to the beating heart of the series, which was always not just personal but about the idiosyncratic right to be a flawed and troubled human.

This really is a startling turn of events for a show that has for so long relied on plot for its propulsion. To be fair, Orphan Black has always married the pleasant granularity of character psychology to its larger sci-fi thrills. Last week, for instance, the show delivered in a major way on some of its other outstanding questions; specifically, how Helena got this way and how she can be broken. But Orphan Black has also respected plot with an intensity that’s rare these days. Early on, it developed a centrifugal aesthetic that kept spinning new alliances out of faceless corporations and hierarchies that were impossible to pin down. However admirable and thrilling this all was, the show’s breakneck pace had drawbacks: I wrote here about how that constant reshuffling eroded the moral and narrative stakes. And for those who adore its beautifully-drawn central characters and wish they could take a knee and process for a second — well, the speed got frustrating.

It’s truly amazing, then, for the series finale to shut that plot machine down halfway through. There were so many spinning plates in motion! Helena’s suicide attempt! Her labor contractions! The (literal) alarm! The helicopter! It was a vortex of adrenaline that seemed to be spinning up to a massively cathartic conclusion. But that turns out not to be where the show’s real interest lives: Halfway through the episode, the Big Bad and all his minions are toast. He goes out with an uninspiring speech, one that Sarah Manning interrupts by smashing in his head. We’re done with the philosophy.

That lets the show turn to something so rare that I’ll admit I blubbered every time I watched it: ecstasy. Look at these faces as Sarah and Art are finally free to help poor Helena give birth. Look at Helena‘s face:

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

It’s a stunner of a moment, a turn toward pure unvarnished catharsis untroubled by the prospect of future Dyad goons. It’s pain, it’s suffering, it’s relief. But it’s so sublimely paired with Sarah’s flashbacks to Siobhan helping her deliver Kira that it becomes a hurricane of gorgeous, poignant, sublime sentiment, of echoes of the things these characters have not had time to process or mourn.

And that, really, is what the series takes on: the fact that these characters — stressed by the demands of constant persecution — have for years been unable to lead normal lives. The show routinely uses Alison to investigate these more ordinary questions (more on that here), but it feels right and true that the finale turns to its hardest, most sensitive fighter: Sarah. Sarah, who has been living in a state of emergency for as long as the series has been on.

With the plot machine finally switched off, with the birth of Helena’s twins handled and behind her, Sarah does exactly what her creators feared she’d do: she stalls. Her engine falls out. She collapses into inadequacy and self-hatred. She forgets to buy groceries for Kira. And look at what she’s done to Siobhan’s beautiful, orderly house, the house where she served so many cups of tea:

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

It’s shocking, and upsetting, and Tatiana Maslany does extraordinary work registering the turmoil she’s in now that there are no overt emergencies to address, no Big Bad enemies to face down. Here’s her face when Felix asks her if she’s alright as she prepares to take her high school equivalency exam:

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

Sarah’s breakdown echoes the series’ central fear: that without emergencies, without persecution, the fight to live your life as you choose collapses into the problem of living your life as you choose. That’s not easy. And it’s so very good of this show, which relied so much on adrenaline, to recognize this. To look beyond the easy resolution a dead witch provides and examine the hard stuff on the far side of that. Like figuring out what a hypotenuse is. Like getting a job.

The collapse of Siobhan’s house (and her lovely, fierce domesticity) corresponds, of course, to Sarah’s inability to process her grief. She’s moving forward blindly, just as she always has, but it’s not working. What a comfort Alison’s house turns out to be. Her uptightness becomes security, beauty, and the place where everyone can gather. This is where Helena’s “babies” were buried, where her babies, Purple and Orange, “dangle in their sacks,” and where Sarah, who mutters sourly that “freedom looks different to everyone” when Alison objects to her plans to sell the house and run (from nothing this time), finally admits that the real source of her escapism isn’t Dyad: “I carry around all these mistakes,” she says. “I don’t know how to be happy. There’s no one left to fight, and I’m still a s–t mum.”

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

What follows is one of the loveliest and smartest silences on television and after that comes a list of the “sestras'” maternal failures: Alison admits to terrorizing Gemma with a threat that shows her capacity for inventive torture didn’t end with Donnie and the glue gun, and Helena offers her own hilarious confession, saying “Every time I look, the babies eating sand. I turn around. Sand. Where does this sand come from? I don’t know, so I let them eat it.”

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

What this perfect scene does, among other things, is permanently link sisterhood to motherhood. It connects all the missing mothers to these sisters who are sitting around a fire, trying to be present, healing by admitting the ways they fail and will keep failing.

If a series finale shows what the thing was truly about, the second half of “To Right the Wrongs of Many” delivers on so many levels that it practically starts forming its own harmonics. To the secret relief that Helena’s children are boys (and therefore free of oophorectomies) is added the fact that the show made a point of being about women without locking men out, or reducing them, or minimizing them. “Little purple, little orange, it’s time for you to take the names of real men,” Helena says to her sons, fastening stickers with the names of what she (and the show) considers real men on their wee chests.

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

I find myself wanting to enumerate the finale’s many mercies, that’s how much relief this produced. That Art didn’t die is something of a miracle, given the conventions this series was working with. That Kira’s overdetermined bond with Sarah didn’t take center stage was a blessing; that relationship needed some room. The finale gave everyone a little room, really; it remembered Rachel and Charlotte (it even remembered Gemma). And if there were parts I could have done without (Maslany is a genius, but her Spanish pronunciation is as unconvincing as Évelyne Brochu’s is excellent), the sum is so thoughtful and generative that it seems absolutely right for it to end with Helena, that murderously funny sometime angel, reading out her story, which has “many beginnings and no end, but I will start with the thread of my sestra Sarah, who stepped off a train one day and met herself.”

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)

This, then, is what the series is finally about: selfhood and its problems. And the intersections between selves that produce something that adds up to the “humanity” in whose service, and in whose name, the show asked its ugliest, most horrifying questions.

Lovelier still, perhaps, is the fact that the series ends with Sarah, a character whose capacity for psychic courage was matched only by incapacity for psychic healing, walking through Siobhan’s house. The boxes are gone. In their place: color, and Felix’s paintings, and Mrs. S.’s bookcase and teapot, which perfectly match Sarah’s shirt.

(Screenshot/BBC America/Orphan Black)



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