One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
It’s easy to love BBC America’s Orphan Black at face value. And I mean that literally – the show’s selling point is still the central relationship of stalwart drifter Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), effortlessly cool nerd Cosima (Tatiana Maslany), plate-spinning soccer mom Alison (Tatiana Maslany), and psychopath-with-a-heart-of-gold Helena (Tatiana Maslany). If you haven’t seen the show before, those aren’t typos. Maslany plays a growing army of self-aware clones out to discover their true origins, and avoid getting killed off by various hate-spewing religious groups and evolutionary advantageous cults in the process.
It’s a unique, well-spun weirdness that plays straight into the show’s otherwise ordinary stories about murders, government conspiracies, and school theater. Four seasons in, and small revelations have doled out the mythology in satisfying increments, but its logic can be muddled, and its impact on here-and-now plots can be subsequently disappointing. Although season 3 started off with a bang, the introduction of male clones – and a repetitive storyline for Helena – were direct results of diminishing returns of a show with too many questions and too few answers.
Co-creators Graeme Mason and John Fawcett are at their cleverest when they just let Maslany do her thing, providing pure, thrilling entertainment from a show stocked with as many Parent Trap-like switcheroos than every iteration of The Parent Trap put together. There are no such specific set-pieces in the fourth season premiere, but Orphan Black‘s return is satisfyingly in tune with itself in a way that not only makes sense thematically with what’s been seen so far on the show – and where we left off with the characters – but satisfies in a purely dramatic, top-tier television sort of way.
If you can’t tell, I’m talking around a spoiler, and it might make this review as frustrating to read as it is to write. Suffice it to say, the 44-minute premiere airing Thursday night is essentially one long redacted zone that BBC has enthusiastically encouraged reviewers to keep as quiet about as possible. Its reveal is readily available for consumption elsewhere, but I’ll keep the specifics down to a minimum.
It’s not a twist of the jaw-dropping, blindside variety; it’s far more subtle than that, which makes sense for the heady material it surrounds. It promises a season of course-correction after a growing multitude of lethargic, bloated mysteries, one that feels aptly and energetically like the ten-episode first season of Orphan Black way more than anything else has in the interim.
So what can be said? Well, following new season tradition, there is a new clone thrown into the mix for fans to decipher. Her name is M.K., and she has a fondness for those You’re Next masks and staying one step ahead of the dastardly Neos as they try to sniff out the rest of the LEDA clones. She helps one of the other clones navigate a new conspiracy dealing with a specific sect of back-alley Neos who have a knack for implanting magnets in their finger tips and downright horrific biotech bug creatures in their cheeks (do not ask how they get removed). It makes little sense, but is in-the-moment thrilling, with an episode-ending confrontation that punctuates the premiere’s circular storyline with a hefty pathos.
And, honestly, what more needs to be said about Orphan Black other than Tatiana Maslany is still spookily on-point? The writing builds the characters and the tone cements their actions, but Maslany is a major miracle at surgically implanting a beating heart into this rotating cast of characters each expansive enough to warrant their own show. You know when Cosima is excited, or when Alison is impatient, or when Sarah is pissed, and you definitely notice when those emotions swap in and out of each character because they surface in believably different ways.
You’ll get to see her burrowed deep into the usual stand-outs (Cosima and Alison don’t have much to do in the premiere, admittedly), but it’s the variations she brings to the newbies that makes the on-going magic trick of Orphan Black continuously shocking. It’s a combo of top-tier special effects and what must be one of the most harrowing jobs in the business, but all of the backroom digital wizardry and workmanlike construction are non-existent thoughts within the diverting borders of the show. Maslany, for an hour over the course of a few weeks each spring, simply is more than herself, she’s whatever Orphan Black needs her to be. The creation of actual clones will probably be disappointing in comparison.
The sidekicks of the Clone Club make cameo appearances in the premiere, but honestly, it’s the Tatiana Maslany show through-and-through. In terms of the other familiar faces, Detective Art (Kevin Hanchard) maybe gets the most to do, and delves into some shocking intimacies with someone you won’t expect towards the end of the hour. Felix (Jordan Gavaris), meanwhile has a fleeting cameo, and another returning character (no spoilers here) has a sizable chunk of screen time that manages to not feel totally wasteful as some of their older subplots have.
It all lends the premiere a feel that’s a bit like Orphan Black‘s take on a Black Mirror-type anthology serial. It’s got similar pseudo sci-fi themes as previous seasons, the same mix of a gruesome yet nimbly humorous tone, a few connecting tissues in the periphery, and one actress playing a new character, infusing the hour with a mysterious energy from beginning to end. But, as is the case with such little content to go on, and with a comparably thrilling premiere last year, what the payoff looks like is impossible to know this early on in the season.
The remaining episodes have promising routes to go down if the show takes full advantage of the do-over set-up promised here, but Fawcett and Mason might have already strung together a mythology that’s simply too dense to satisfyingly follow through to the end. If the season 4 premiere proves anything, though, it’s that they at least know when to hit reset.
“Where the hell are you going?” Art asks Sarah, who’s bristling at the fact that her Icelandic hideaway might not be as well-protected as she thought. “Back to the beginning of all this shit,” she responds bluntly. As long as it doesn’t end up feeling like a redundant clone of itself in the process, the return to the streamlined genre blast that was season 1 could be the neatest magic trick Orphan Black has pulled off yet.
Stylistically daring and dramatically gratifying, the fourth season of Orphan Black puts the show's heady high-wire pyrotechnics on the back burner for a reset that will, hopefully, permeate into the entirety of the season.