“Nature under constraint and vexed; that is to say, when by art and the hand of man she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded.”
- Sir Francis Bacon, Plan of the Work
In season one of BBC America’s science fiction series about cloning, Orphan Black, each episode title was taken from Charles Darwin’s treatise on evolutionary biology and natural selection, On the Origin of Species. Diverting from Darwin, Orphan Black’s sophomore season draws instead from the works of English philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon. Known primarily as the pioneer of the scientific method, Bacon spent his life asking complex questions; delving more into the science that brought the clones to life, season two unveils the scientist that created them, taking a cue from Bacon as it raises difficult ethical questions (and gives more cryptic answers) about the clones’ origin. Charting new territory as the sisters begin to unravel the secrets hidden within their DNA, the second season introduces new clones and tests the others, channeling Bacon’s famous method as it wonders not only how the clones came into being, but why. To quote the titles of the penultimate and finale episodes, “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done / By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried”.
The first season of Orphan Black introduced us to Sarah Manning, a cockney orphan and small-time grifter looking to regain custody of her young daughter Kira with the help of her foster brother Felix. In the opening moments of the pilot, she witnesses the suicide of a woman named Beth Childs with her exact appearance; relying on her instincts as a con artist, Sarah assumes the woman’s identity to make some quick cash. Inserting herself into what she later calls “a world of shit”, Sarah runs across several more of her genetic identicals, who identify each other with a cryptic recited code: “just one, I’m a few, no family too—who am I?” Sarah learns that she and her newly discovered sisters are just a few of many clones created by Project Leda, a collaboration between the military and a scientific conglomerate known as the Dyad Institute.
All of the clones’ drastically different lives and personalities are portrayed by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany—uptight stay-at-home mom Alison, bisexual evolutionary development graduate student Cosima, steely Dyad executive Rachel, and Helena, a psychotic yet childlike former clone-assassin who is revealed to be not only a clone, but Sarah’s twin. Maslany has been widely praised for her nuanced portrayals of the multiple clones, giving each one distinct physical quirks and regional accents—in the main group of clones alone, Sarah favors a cockney lilt, Helena is brusquely Eastern European, and Cosima’s American accent has just the right hint of friendly Midwesterner. In interviews, Maslany has shared that she assigns a different dance move to each of the clones, using them to get into character. Late in season two, the sister clones all dance together, individual responses to the music perfectly attuned, a feat that is even more impressive when considering that Maslany danced alone, the images of the identical sisters together stitched together in post-production.
The first season closes with the revelation that the clones have been patented by the Dyad Institute, the words “this organism is restricted intellectual property” encrypted into the very fabric of their identical DNA. While season one oriented Sarah to this new reality, season two of Orphan Black goes deeper into the individual journey of each clone. Stricken in season one with an autoimmune disorder that has infected several clones, Cosima is brought into the Dyad Institute to research her sister clones and her own disease from within the belly of the beast. High-strung at her best and abusing alcohol at her worst, Alison struggles to return to normalcy while grappling with the new knowledge that her husband has been a Dyad-appointed monitor from the start of their relationship. Rachel a higher-up in the Dyad institute, cold, unimpressed, and described by Sarah as “a very serious bitch”, gains unexpected depth when it’s revealed that her adoptive parents were Susan and Ethan Duncan, the very scientists that created the clones. Sarah, the only clone among the group able to bear children, escapes from the clutches of Dyad again and again to protect her daughter Kira from being seized and studied. And Helena, the least defined of the clones in season one, has the most dynamic season of them all as she re-encounters her religious past, falls in love on a road trip, and wonders if she too could bring a new life into the world.
Any one of these story lines would provide ample material for a whole season of television, but season 2 of Orphan Black deftly balances the narrative drama with expanding the underlying science. Season one’s greatest strength was its creation of a fully realized universe for its characters to inhabit—the various clones, the human monitors that keep tabs on their every move, and the strange, terrible influence of the Dyad Institute—a daunting task that has eluded more than one showrunner. This early universe-building allows season two to place a greater focus on the science involved while still advancing plot and character. The most effective science fiction is that which most blurs the line between science and fiction, causing the audience to question just how close what they’re watching is to reality. It was almost twenty years ago that scientists cloned a sheep named Dolly, and even the science on Orphan Black that seems closer to fiction may soon not be entirely out of our reach. With season two’s increased focus on some truly terrifying but very real reproductive science, Orphan Black makes the line between science and fiction even fainter.
When the now-elderly Professor Ethan Duncan, Rachel’s adoptive father and the scientist responsible for creating the clones, is introduced, he reveals that the autoimmune disease slowly killing Cosima is deliberate, encoded into the clones’ immune system to encourage infertility. “You are all barren by design”, says Duncan, telling Cosima that Sarah’s ability to become pregnant was a mistake: “She’s a failure, not a success”. Duncan recognizes what he has wrought through his creation, and he refuses to give Dyad the key to unlock the clones’ original genome, which he encoded with a non-repeating substitution cipher. To stop the rapid progression of her disease, Cosima needs both the original genome and the genome of each individual clone to analyze side by side; though the genomes for her sisters are easily accessible, the complete original genome used to create the clones was destroyed in a lab fire that also killed Duncan’s wife. Without access to the original genome, Dyad’s only hope is Duncan, who has spent the years since the destruction of his lab working on his cipher to unlock a copy. As he quips to Rachel, “I’ve had twenty years to work on it. It’s rather good.” His face is nearly always sad, the kindly face of an old man who never intended for his work to be so misused; as Cosima sums it up, “good intentions, bad science.” Almost immediately after meeting him, Sarah asks why he cloned the embryos, demanding to know what was in it for him in all this. “Babies,” says Duncan simply, “Little girls.”
Though Duncan considers Sarah a failed creation, Rachel and Dyad consider her to be their greatest asset. In the opening scene of the season finale, Sarah surrenders to the Dyad Institute after they kidnap her daughter, and is dragged kicking and screaming into an operating room where they plan to harvest one of her ovaries for further study. More often performed as a result of or a precaution against ovarian and other reproductive cancers, it is not an uncommon surgery, but certainly not one prescribed for a reproductively healthy woman. In light of recent political controversy around women’s reproductive issues, it’s a frightening scene. Orphan Black co-creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett place complete control of Sarah’s body and reproductive health completely in the hands of another, offering up an extreme yet disturbingly possible endgame for already contentious current policies; in a calculated departure for a series dominated by women, it’s also worth noting that the doctor performing the surgery is a man. Rather than denying Sarah birth control or the right to an abortion, Dyad demands complete control over any and all pregnancies in a binding contract; as Sarah signs the documents, its a moment that seems less emblematic of a fictional dystopia than what could become our own future. Rachel, coming to prematurely gloat at the proceedings, sneers at Sarah: “Enjoy your oophorectomy”.
Common procedures that would seem routine in any other context become perverse in the Orphan Black universe, and not only within the Dyad Institute; greater emphasis in season two is placed on the Prolethians, a sect of religious zealots living on a remote compound that juxtaposes extreme, often frightening, modernity with an almost Amish minimalism. Since the first test-tube baby was delivered in 1978, in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination have become commonplace—in the thirty five years since it was introduced, over five million babies have been born via IVF. In Orphan Black, the Prolethian patriarch Henrik is introduced artificially inseminating a cow, though his true focus is on Helena; as Sarah’s twin, she may also be able to reproduce. The Prolethians combine reproductive science with steadfast religious beliefs, two schools of thought that rarely intersect and more often clash; the Prolethian methods demonstrate that a marriage of science and religion may be more concerning than anyone previously imagined. Taking IVF to a far darker place, Henrik drugs and marries Helena before harvesting her eggs for fertilization, carrying her over the threshold of his backwoods operating room like newlyweds entering their first home before committing what is essentially rape for science.
Set against these gynecological horrors is the Dyad-sponsored research Cosima is conducting on the clones, assisted by Delphine and later guided by Professor Duncan. Cosima is given access to a video blog kept by a newly introduced clone named Jennifer who also suffered from their shared clone autoimmune disorder. The videos show her undergo various physical and emotional stages of the disease; she begins optimistically as she shares her hopes for an effective treatment, her words punctuated by the telltale cough shared by Cosima, before quickly spiraling into a frail, bedridden woman who knows she is going to die. It’s haunting when Cosima is called upon to perform Jennifer’s autopsy, removing layers of skin and bones to expose the dozens of tumors pressing against her vital organs. Cosima is visibly shaken by the findings, though the images would not seem out of place on any network medical show; far from an everyday medical procedure, the autopsy serves as a painful reminder of the importance of her research, both for the clones’ genome and the disease she and Jennifer share.
As the season progresses, Cosima’s health worsens; in one scene, she succumbs to a coughing fit that triggers a convulsive seizure, causing her to spend the remainder of the season with a nasal cannula fitted into her nostrils. Kira comes to wake her one morning after a rare evening reuniting all of the sister clones, and her complete stillness combined with the increasing urgency in Kira’s voice is momentarily heart-stopping. When her eyelids flutter and she turns to look at Kira, there is a palpable sense of relief as the girl hands her a book, asking for a story. The book is The Island of Doctor Moreau, an 1896 science fiction novel by H.G. Wells about a doctor who creates creatures that are half human, half beast, an exercise by Wells in examining the moral implications of meddling with nature. In an earlier episode, Professor Duncan gifted the book to Kira, reading aloud a passage:
“You cannot imagine the strange, colorless delight of these intellectual desires. The thing standing before you is no longer a animal, a fellow creature, but a problem.”
When Duncan and his wife successfully cloned the original embryo, they were delighted by the prospect of completing their family, adopting Rachel as their own. It was Dyad, enticed by the prospect of more, that meddled further in cloning, pushing to create even more clones. In the finale, Sarah meets one more clone, an eight year-old version of herself named Charlotte—the only surviving clone of more than four hundred subsequent attempts. Not animals, not fellow creatures—four hundred problems. Casting Dyad in the role of Dr. Moreau is not subtle, but very fitting; as Cosima flips through the pages of the novel, she finds written in every margin the key for Duncan’s cipher to unlock the secrets of the clones’ genome.
Orphan Black ends with the revelation that there was a military counterpart to Dyad’s Project Leda—Project Castor, responsible for producing a line of male clones. The possibilities of what this could lead to in season three are countless; just as the female clones were controlled by the Dyad Institute in their study of fertility, the male clones may be the military’s first step towards building a completely invulnerable superarmy. They could be designed for breeding, or they could be designed for infertility like their sister clones. For now, all viewers can do is guess what’s to come. As Cosima explains to Sarah, “Science is what scientists do. Nobody’s got any idea—we’re just poking at things with sticks.” Orphan Black may still be figuring out what they’re poking at, but so far, they’re using the right sticks.