Orphan Black
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Credit: BBC America 

Very Important Binge: Orphan Black's best clone swaps

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Jul 28, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

Welcome to Very Important Binge (VIB), where SYFY FANGRRLS tells you how to navigate your favorite TV shows.

When Tatiana Maslany was Emmy nominated in 2018 for the Orphan Black's final season, 14 separate character names were listed on the ballot. Two years prior, she deservedly won Lead Actress in Drama for her multiple roles on the BBC America clone series; merely seven roles appeared alongside Maslany's name that year. Inhabiting this many personas, and often playing opposite herself (with the aid of acting double Kathryn Alexandre) is a feat within itself. Despite being fully aware that Maslany is playing every Project LEDA clone, it is easy as a viewer to forget this detail because of how she alters her performance beyond accents and the costume she wears.

Much like any sci-fi show with sprawling mythology and a conspiracy-laden narrative (looking at you X-Files and Fringe), the overall plotting is convoluted at times. Having an anchor is important, which is what Maslany achieved as the core clones — Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Helena, and Rachel — and within her dynamics alongside characters like Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy), Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Donnie (Kristian Bruun), and Art (Kevin Hanchard). Somehow she had different types of chemistry with a character like Felix depending on who she was playing and this is another feat that earned her an Emmy. It has only been three years since Orphan Black ended, but now is a great time to revisit or watch for the first time.

Credit: BBC America 

The cast recently reunited via a Zoom charity fundraising table read, which saw the creative team and actors share behind-the-scenes anecdotes while performing two episodes from Season 1. Raising money for CenterLink and Sistering — two LGBTQ+-centric organizations you can still donate to — was the impetus for this delightful endeavor, revealing just how strong the Clone Club connection still is. This nearly three-hour-long live stream also delivered a peek behind the Tatiana Maslany acting curtain, showing how her body language changes depending on who she is playing (even for a table read). Props and costumes were used to differentiate but even within this stripped-down version, it was clear who she was inhabiting. Writer Will Pascoe noted that depending on who Maslany was playing, it would impact how she discussed the scene or dialogue — as if some residual amount of Sarah or Alison would rub off on her.

Playing multiple characters is an impressive flex, but what makes Maslany's performance even more spectacular is whenever the story calls for a clone swap. On these occasions, one clone takes on the identity of another. Sure, they share the same face but accents, style, hair, and mannerisms vary. It is easy to fool a stranger but the challenge is more extreme when it someone they have been intimate with. These moments are often comedic, sometimes emotional, and always astounding when factoring in what Maslany is doing on-screen within her performance.

So whether it is Sarah trying to lose her British accent and play the suburban soccer mom (while torturing her husband) or putting on her best Valley Girl voice, the audience is aware that this is an impersonation (or they will pick up on it as the scene plays out). A masterclass in acting whenever a seestra-swap occurs, these 12 episodes are some of Orphan Black's best.

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Orphan Black

Natural Selection (Season 1, Episode 1)

Sarah Manning’s introduction isn’t your typical grifter scenario because the person she ends up impersonating could be her identical twin. Taking Beth Child's discarded purse from the train station platform opens up this world of secret clone projects, but at first, Sarah takes on Beth’s visage for the cash (in a bid to get her daughter back). This first episode reveals how methodical she is within a hustle, practicing her best Beth impression via videos. She ditches her London-lilt and changes her appearance to be more in-line with the detective. Deftly showcasing Sarah’s quick thinking and Maslany’s ability to portray two different people at once, all while communicating to the audience exactly who Sarah is.  

Orphan Black

Instinct (Season 1, Episode 2)

The early days of Orphan Black introduced a lot of new characters all with Maslany’s face in quick succession. German clone Katja doesn’t stick around for long but her flamboyant style leads to some campy flourishes and borrowed clothes from Felix (something that will be repeated), including how to use a hat and large sunglasses to show disdain. Sarah has no idea why she is retrieving Katja’s briefcase or who she is even doing it for, but she can’t resist falling down this rabbit hole (and neither can we).

Orphan Black

Effects of External Conditions (Season 1, Episode 4)

“You’re not my mother,” a perceptive Kira (Skyler Wexler) tells the masquerading Alison Hendrix. This clone doesn’t have Sarah’s years of con experience, but it was unlikely that a beanie (to hide her tell-tale soccer mom bangs) would be enough to successfully create this illusion. This episode is a story of how hats are used throughout to aid the clone-swaps — because each has a different ‘do. Helena stuffs her mass of dirty blonde curls into another knit, which reveals just how unobservant Beth’s cop colleagues are. They don't notice their paler-than-usual colleague who is stuffing a muffin into her mouth. 

Orphan Black

Variations Under Domestication (Season 1, Episode 6)

After Alison semi-fakes her way through the important hangout with Sarah’s daughter Kira, she asks her clone to interrogate her husband Donnie (who she suspects is part of the overall conspiracy). The problem? The Hendrix home is the venue for a neighborhood potluck, and Donnie is tied to a chair in the craft room. A house full of people sends Alison straight to the white wine as Sarah tries to keep this whole scenario from unraveling — while wearing a headband to hide her lack of bangs. Leaning into the farce, this episode has a low-key Frasier vibe, right down to the revolving door nature of the direction. Nevertheless, this episode reveals how quickly these women will come to each other's aid in a time of strife — just like regular sisters would.

Orphan Black

Nature Under Constraint and Vexed (Season 2, Episode 1)

The great thing about Sarah impersonating her sisters is she will ask — no, demand, what they deserve. She drives home how important Alison to Donnie in Season 1, and when she negotiates a lab for Cosima. She’s done a relatively good job of mussing her hair up to give the illusion of dreads and the signature red coat, specs, and nose ring are all vital to the masquerade, but she can’t hide her Sarah-isms from Delphine (Évelyne Brochu) even if she passed the initial kiss test. 

Orphan Black

Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things (Season 2, Episode 7)

Whenever another clone has to pretend to be Alison, it is less life-and-death and more playing up to a large public crowd. Sarah's ex Vic (Michael Mando) is threatening to expose Alison’s secrets, so there is an element of danger. However, when Sarah inadvertently has to give her seestra’s speech during family day at rehab (lack of bangs headband and all), the farce leaps out once again. Alison has to help Felix get rid of Vic’s passed out body, but Sarah has to endure roleplay — we all know who the real hero is here. It also gifts us with Sarah pretending to be Alison but roleplaying as Donnie. Many hilarious layers to peel back as Sarah’s British accent keeps slipping out. This is a milestone episode as Donnie finds out the truth and ends up doing something very silly.  

Orphan Black

The Weight of This Combination (Season 3, Episode 1)

“Rachel Duncan. Uber bitch.” Sarah is convinced she can fake it as her now one-eyed nemesis, even if Felix thinks she needs style pointers. This is a double ruse that involves Alison as Sarah facing off against Sarah as Rachel, confused yet? This is next-level clone swapping, which is far from the farce of other switched personas. Sarah’s concerned eyes up the tension, and microexpressions such as this prove just how adept Maslany is at juggling these different combinations of characters. This is Sarah and Alison’s toughest challenge yet and the actress nails both women’s apprehension in this interrogation scene, which feels like it could go south at any moment.

Orphan Black

Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate (Season 3, Episode 7)

“As a lesbian… supporter,” is one of the funniest clone swap moments that delivers another comical Alison moment. This time, Cosima is stepping in at the last minute to deliver a campaign speech she is not prepared to make. All because she needs Alison’s pee. Wearing the same hat and shirt as Alison is enough to fool the crowd, even if she does almost accidentally out the soccer mom in the process. Felix even manages to fashion some fake bangs that say “unhappy sexless marriage” out of a wig, showing how quick he is in a style pickle. Cosima has to ditch her glasses, adding to how absurd this clone swap is because she cannot see a thing on the note cards, hence the awkward vamping.   

Orphan Black

Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow (Season 3, Episode 9)

Helena doesn’t have the same chameleon-like skills as Sarah, but she has got Alison’s sweet smile and wave down when she needs it. Luckily for Donnie, Helena does not wait in the car and is wearing half of Alison’s clothes in an attempt to play the dutiful mother-turned-drug-dealer. A cold is used as an excuse for her vocal change but the Helena jumps out after a threat is made to their children. Helena’s signature soundtrack note sounds before she asks, “Did you threaten babies?” There is no disguising her instinct to protect those she loves and when she emerges she looks nothing like the housewife she is pretending to be.

Orphan Black

From Dancing Mice to Psychopaths (Season 4, Episode 10)

A late clone addition, Krystal’s love of beauty products, and trying to crack conspiracies within this industry make her a useful ally that many people underestimated. Sarah briefly takes on the Valley Girl uptalk, hiding beneath a blonde wig, frosted lipstick, and oversized shades before quickly revealing who she is. Cutting between a scene of a frustrated Krystal (who wants to go on a “real mission”) with Sarah pulling no punches, reveals once again how well this show uses its clone squad and Maslany.

Orphan Black

Clutch of Greed (Season 5, Episode 2)

What begins as a typical clone swap ends in gut-wrenching tragedy. First, Sarah takes on Rachel’s brand of layered neutrals, so she can sneak Kira out of school. It isn’t quite a match, but the resemblance (like their faces) is close. After the plan is successfully executed, Sarah switches clothes with hacker clone M.K., so she can evade detection. The quick change of looks is a fascinating snapshot into the mechanics of the clone swaps, however, the explosion of violence that follows is hard to rewatch. 

Orphan Black

One Fettered Slave (Season 5, Episode 9)

“Guy’s do you have any idea how insane this plan is? Do you realize how many things could go wrong?” asks Cosima in the penultimate episode of the series. Of course, Sarah has factored this in as she enters the lion’s den dressed as Rachel. The eyepatch, blonde wig, and initially icy demeanor are enough to fool them until she leans too hard into the theatrics. She is always good at a scheme, but ultimately the real Sarah can’t help but reveal herself.   

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