Orphan Black follows the saga of two experimental cloning projects, named after characters of Greek myth: Project Leda and Project Castor. The clones of Project Castor (Ari Millen) have been raised mostly as military operatives, while those in Project Leda are surreptitiously monitored for reasons that remain unclear. But in reality, Orphan Black is about Tatiana Maslany. The 30-year-old Canadian actress plays almost a dozen different characters from Project Leda on the series, often performing entire scenes with multiple versions of herself — dizzying to watch, and even more so, we imagine, to play. Maslany’s performance is electrifying, and the real reason to watch the show. It’s easy to suspend your disbelief when she so convincingly occupies each role.
The plot of Orphan Black is convoluted and confusing, with seemingly infinite tangents and a long list of characters. But at its core are the stories of the female clones, which Maslany plays with a chilling efficacy. With Season 4 of Orphan Black set to premiere tonight on BBC America, we thought we’d take a look at the different characters Maslany plays, and try to make sense of what is one of the most ambitious — and confusing — shows on television. [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. But believe us when we say it won’t matter.]
Sarah Manning – Our lead protagonist, Sarah Manning is the first of the clones that we meet. She’s reactive, hot-tempered, tough, and crass. She digs leather, combat boots, and the Clash. She’s also got some dirt in her past. In the first episode of Season 1, she’s on the run because she stole a kilo of cocaine from her boyfriend.
But Sarah also has a soft spot, her daughter, Kira. Of all the Project Leda clones, Sarah is the only one that is fertile, and Kira is the personification of that “miracle.” Kira is remarkable intuitive, heals quickly, and her blood has some healing properties for the Leda clones. While the clones have all agreed to help each other, Sarah’s main motivation has always been Kira. She’s anchored by her foster brother Felix, who has always looked out for her and Kira.
Elizabeth Childs – Beth died in the first few minutes of Season 1 Epsiode 1, but she remains one of the more important clones in clone club. A police detective, she was using her access to information to help Cosima find other clones, but cracked under the pressure of her clone status, the review board she was about to face over an on-the-job shooting, and her loveless relationship. We first meet her when she drops her purse, steps out of her shoes, and in front of a train.
Sarah Manning, who happens to be on the same platform, witnesses the suicide, steals the purse, and decides to impersonate Beth in order to take off with any money she might have. As Beth, she meets both her boyfriend Paul Dierden and her partner Art Bell. When Sarah finally answers the pink clone phone that Beth uses to contact the other clones, she inadvertently joins Clone Club — made up of the clones that are self-aware, and those that keep their secrets.
Cosima Niehaus – Cosima is the resident brain of the Leda clones. A geneticist, she’d been coordinating the investigation into the origins of Project Leda, finding new clones, and researching the mysterious illness that some of the clones seem to suffer from. Cosima has dreads, smokes marijuana, and likes girls. When we first meet her, she’s conspiring with Beth and Alison to find more clones, and is the one scientist with no ulterior motives that genuinely wants to help the clones — particularly because she is suffering from the respiratory illness that plagues them. Sarah and Helena, the two fertile members of Clone Club, are somehow immune. Cosima meets a charming French lady named Delphine, who introduces her to Dr. Aldous Leekie, the leader of a movement called “Neolution” and the head of the Dyad Institute, a research center pushing the boundaries of acceptable genetic modification. As she learns more about Project Leda, she begins to use Dyad’s resources to further her own goals, but is troubled by questions of just where exactly Delphine’s loyalties lie.
Alison Hendrix – Alison is the soccer mom clone. She has two adopted children with her husband Donny, her college sweetheart. They live in the suburbs, host birthday parties and pot lucks — the Leave It To Beaver stuff. Early on, her main contribution to clone club was financial; she donated the $75,000 that Sarah was trying to steal from Beth when she first impersonated her.
Alison has probably experienced the deepest character development over the three seasons —the money she had donated was meant to be in place of her actual involvement, since she was the least willing of the early Clone Club members to disrupt her life. Since, she’s helpfully impersonated other clones, tortured her own husband to get the truth about his monitoring, ran for school trustee against her nemesis, and sold drugs to finance the campaign.
After she finds out her husband accidentally shot Dr. Leekie in the head in his car, and she admits to watching her friend choke to death without helping her, they help each other destroy evidence and have sex on the freezer that formerly held Alison’s friend’s body. They also have an underwear dance party in their bedroom with the thousands of dollars they made selling drugs to their neighbors. Truly a happy home.
Helena – Of all the Project Leda clones, Helena has likely had the most tortured existence. Separated at birth from her twin, Sarah Manning (all the clones are “sisters,” but the rest had different surrogates), Helena was raised in a convent in the Ukraine. She was found by members of a cult called the Proletheans, who kidnapped her and told her about the clones, raising her to believe she was the original. The two cult members trained her in brutal conditions to be a killer, and had her target her fellow clones — the Proletheans believe that synthetic biology should only be carried out in God’s name. Of course, that means in the name of the oldest white man in the cult, who happens to be a sociopath named Henrik.
We first meet Helena after she kills Katja Obinger, a German clone who fled to Canada to meet Beth after she discovered Helena was on her tail. By that point, she has already killed three other clones: Janika Zingler, Aryanna Giordano, and Danielle Fourneir, but once she’s released from her religious indoctrination and informed of the truth, she becomes an important ally for Clone Club. Because she is the only other clone that can give birth, she’s used as an incubator for an IVF birth, with Henrik implanting his own sperm into Helena’s eggs. She kills Henrik almost immediately afterwards, absconding with the embryos in her womb as well as a tank of cryogenically frozen ones.
Rachel Duncan – The ice queen clone. Rachel Duncan had been raised by the two professors that started Project Leda, Ethan and Susan Duncan. They raised Rachel has their own — home videos show that she had a happy childhood, and that she was loved.
But Rachel is by far the coldest clone—even Helena, the clone conditioned to murder her sisters, values the lives of babies (and will kill mercilessly to protect them), while Rachel views Kira, the only successful birth amongst the clones, as leverage. It’s eventually revealed that her motivations are fueled by a desire to be a mother herself, something taken away from her by Project Leda.
She loses her eye when Sarah shoots her with a pencil, but thanks the the magic of Neolution, she gains a technologically advanced prosthetic.
Krystal Goderitch – An American manicurist, Krystal is consistently used as a pawn, both by Clone Club when Felix tries to steal her identity on behalf of Rachel, who wants to use it to flee the country, and by Neolution, who use her as a body double for Rachel in order to sneak her out of the Dyad facility. See, Neolution wasn’t actually run by Dr. Leekie, and right up through the end of Season 3 is still moving chess pieces in order to retain control of the assets in Project Leda and Project Castor. There’s no telling if Krystal will join Clone Club or not.
Tony Sawicki – Tony is a transgender clone from Project Leda, and has little desire to be apart of Clone Club. We don’t know much about him, other than he has a criminal record, and that his monitor somehow knows Paul, Beth’s monitor and high-ranking member of Project Castor.
Jennifer Fitzsimmons – One of the more tragic clone stories, Jennifer is already dead by the time we hear about her; we only see her from a series of video diaries she keeps as she succumbs to the respiratory illness plauging the clones. Cosima manages to perform an autopsy on her body, and finds a link between the disease and the clones’ infertility.