Orphan Black: Playing Within the Play

Spoiler Alert: This is a post about the Season 3 premiere of Orphan Black. If you haven’t seen it (or any of the previous seasons for that matter) please go watch it first!!

I have been obsessed with Orphan Black since it started. As others have recently pointed out, part of that obsession likely stems from the fact that it is one of the only shows on the air that is really, truly invested in showing a large female cast (even if only one woman actually plays most of the leads), who are fighting for autonomy over their bodies and the decisions made about them. Sure they’re clones, and one might argue—as the show’s antagonists at the Dyad do—that they’re not fully human and thus not fully deserving of human rights… but they fight for them and you, as an audience member, are fully invested in seeing them win. (For more on the woman-centric-ness of Orphan Black, check out “The Many Faces of Tatiana“, which discusses how using female archetypes in concert with each other actually breaks down stereotypes and begs TV to do something new with women; or “Orphan Black: An Allegory for Reproductive Rights“, and “TV’s Most Important Political Debate Is Happening Right Now on Orphan Black” which both delve into the ways in which the show directly comments on the politicization of women’s bodies and issues.)

So they’re clones—so far there are nine, to be precise (Beth, Katja, Alison, Sarah, Cosima, Rachel, Helena, Jennifer, and Tony)—all played by the same actress, Tatiana Maslany. Each is similar, of course, in that they have more or less the same face, and yet they are all so very different. There is no mistaking when Maslany walks into the shot, which character she is playing. Each has their own style and demeanor—Alison, the stiff, Stepford-wife; Sarah, the punk rocker; Helena, the abused, misguided killer—and they’re unmistakeable for the viewer. Prior to this season Sarah had “played” Beth, the deceased police officer, in order to figure out who—or perhaps more fitting what—Beth was, as this is the first time she has seen someone who shares her face. Since as an audience we have never seen Beth herself, aside from the brief opening sequence in which she commits suicide in front of Sarah, we had no way of knowing whether or not Sarah’s “acting” was on point. The show has played with clone as clone in various ways, but the audience is always in on the joke and the often times the characters are recognized quickly as impostors. Two seasons into the show, we know each of the living clones so well that it would be hard to fool us as spectators.

Clones will be clones, indeed.

So when the premise of the season 3 premiere became apparent—(and here come the spoilers): that Rachel, although not dead, is badly wounded and Delphine, who has taken over Dyad, needs someone to “play” Rachel for a visiting executive—I found it hard to believe that it would work. The clones, in all their guises, are familiar, and so different, that it seemed a stretch that one actress could play them all playing each other.

And yet… it was perfection. The play-within-the-play is a trope that has been around for hundreds of years. In the Spanish Golden Age (as well as the English one, I would think) it was used for a variety of purposes: to move along the plot; make a point about a character’s flawed nature; to disguise one’s true purpose… but the audience is always aware of its relation to the overarching storyline, even if the characters are not. Here, when Sarah-as-Rachel appears on screen we can sense her nervousness; she wants to pull off a one-line act and escape as soon as possible. Ferdinand, the visiting exec, will have none of it though, inviting “Rachel” to sit down and discuss their future plans. Sarah-as-Rachel quickly realizes that they have shared a more intimate relationship and, not wanting to jeopardize her freedom, agrees to a more private meeting later on. She almost panics, however—as do the spectators, since we aren’t yet in on the whole story—when he asks to see the captive Sarah. As Sarah, she cannot possibly be playing herself and Rachel at the same time. When they arrive in the holding area, we see an almost-too-perfect version of Sarah sitting, chained, before us. Alison has been brought in on the game and she plays Sarah for Ferdinand, Delphine, and Sarah-as-Rachel.

The part that is perfection is not so much that Maslany is playing Rachel and Sarah in these scenes, but that she is flawlessly pulling off Sarah-as-Rachel and Alison-as-Sarah. In the scenes in which the clones are themselves, they are fully themselves. There are no seams, no tells that remind the audience that this is one actress playing nine (or more?) separate people, but rather she embodies each of them fully and distinctly. In these scenes, there are gaps, holes through which the audience can see another character thinly veiled below the facade of the character they are then playing. Alison-as-Sarah has an obvious wig—the bangs are all wrong—as does Sarah-as-Rachel. Alison’s tight-lipped smile belies her wound-up nature even as she tries her hardest to be Sarah for her audience of three. Sarah-as-Rachel does somewhat better—which makes sense, given Sarah’s background as a bit of a vagabond who has had to be deceitful in order to survive—but can hardly suppress her panic in the elevator to what she assumes will be an empty cell, as well as in Rachel’s apartment when she realizes that “Helsinki” is code for kill-all-clones. Still, she holds it together enough to try and seduce Ferdinand in order to kill him off (although unsuccessfully thanks to the interruption of Delphine).

In a way, the season 3 premiere has pulled back the curtain. We watch as Sarah picks out an outfit with Delphine’s help, and puts on a wig to match her hair to Rachel’s—likely the same wig they use to make Maslany into the “real” Rachel. Alison’s valiant, but ultimately poor attempt to play Sarah can only be pulled off for someone who is completely unfamiliar with the clones and their personalities. By showing us how difficult it is for Sarah to play Rachel and Alison to play Sarah the audience is forced to acknowledge how seamlessly Tatiana Maslany plays each of these characters as individuals, and yet even as individuals they are only made whole by each other.