That Orphan Black, the SF show about a woman who discovers she’s one of many, many clones produced by a secret and unethical experiment, has over the course of three seasons become almost insufferably complicated. What was once a fairly crisp story about a woman struggling to save herself and her child while dealing with the horrifying realization that she’s a clone has spiralled into territory familiar with anyone who has watched TV shows based on a “mystery” premise: The audience wants answers, but if you actually give them the show is over, so you pull a trick wherein you explain a mystery while setting a new one in motion.
This can work for a while, if you’re skillful, and Orphan Black, in fact, seemed to pull it off in its second season, expanding the world and complicating the mystery while delivering a continuously interesting story week in and week out. This past year, though, things have come off the rails a bit. There are still pleasures to be had, mainly in Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performances, but the story itself is slow-moving hogwash, to use a technical term. The main problem is that Orphan Black hasn’t met a villain it can’t destroy in a few quick episodes. In fact, the show has had so many it’s solution to the malaise at the end of the last season was to circle back and recycle a villain from the first season.
In the beginning, there were the Neoloutinists, a cult that believed in “self-directed evolution” who backed the cloning experiment and sought to control the clones, manipulating their lives and monitoring them. There was also a religious cult that saw the clones as abominations, and trained one of the clones to be an unstoppable killing machine, Helena, who was basically a serial killer of clones.
But the clones managed to turn the tables on the Neolutionists, maneuvering one of their allies into a position of authority at the institute set up to monitor the clones and removing the evil clone who’d been working with the Neolutioninsts. Also, Helena, once depicted as a crazy and incredibly dangerous person, was turned into a cuddly if sometimes murderous piece of comic relief as she became affectionate towards her clone sestras. So a new threat was devised: A separate military project involving male clones, which caused a bit of trouble until, again, the female clones managed to completely neuter it and render it impotent. And so, in the third season finale, the show surveyed its field of limp and defeated villains and came up with the idea that the Neolutionists, seemingly defeated for a very long time, were actually embedded in all of these other organizations and running the whole show secretly.
Much of this seems to have been done in the service of surprise: Build up someone as a Big Bad, then shock everyone when they are defeated much sooner than expected. This kind of writing gimmick is like crack: It feels good, but has diminishing returns and leads to your show being canceled.
The problem here is twofold: One, it’s hard to take these villains seriously when all it takes, usually, is a few episodes for them to either be utterly destroyed or brought over as allies; two, the new villains are always just permutations on the conspiracy the clones have been fighting against since Day One. They’re nothing new, just new versions of the same enemy.
A Glimmer of Hope
It’s possible that the bloodbath that was the Season 3 finale was a purposeful clearing of the decks, bringing back the original villains who will now be coherent and focussed. Instead of more and more variations on the “someone is secretly making and modifying or killing or spying on clones!” riff, we might get a real purpose to everything, and perhaps a single face for the enemy. That would go a long way to excusing Season 3’s disastroys meandering. Only time will tell.
The TL;DR version for writers is simple: When you’ve got a mystery-driven storyline, do two things immediately: a) have an exit strategy that involves and overall explanation for everything, and b) don’t give in to the temptation to destroy your villains on the regular just for the story shock value.