In its second season, “Orphan Black” came perilously close to collapsing under the weight of its many interlocking conspiracies. The BBC America sci-fi drama still had Tatiana Maslany's remarkable performance(s) as a series of clones on the run from their makers, and it had turned each clone into a fully-realized character, many of whom could potentially carry their own show without the others. But the mythology got so dense, and forced so many abrupt changes in loyalty among both the clones and their various enemies and allies, that at a certain point I resolved to just pay attention to the character work, the comedy, and the episode-by-episode thriller material and not focus much brainpower on trying to keep track of who's in charge and what their agenda is.
The third season, which premieres Saturday night at 9, adds still more layers to the conspiracies, including an expansion on the season 2 finale plot twist that introduced a parallel project, Castor, that produced a series of male clones, all played by Ari Millen. In the early going, Millen isn't asked to be a chameleon on Maslany's level, but his clones still have specific identifying marks: Mustache Clone, Scarface Clone, Soldier Clone, etc.
Earlier this week, I got on the phone with the show's co-creator, Graeme Manson, to ask him how much he thinks is too much when it comes to the conspiracy and the number of clones Maslany can play, and how the writers make sure it all makes sense both to them and to their audience.
At what point did you decide you were going to introduce boy clones? Did you know when you cast Ari that he would be playing the clones, or was there something you saw in his performance that let you know he was up for this?
Graeme Manson: We knew where we were going at the end of season 1. It had been a long-time idea, part of the weave of the mystery of introducing Castor. Going into season 2, we were keeping it in our pocket and asking, “Who's it going to be? Who's it going to be? Are we going to cast someone new?” And then Ari knocked it out of the park in the first episode in the diner scene. By episode 4 or 5, John (Fawcett) was pretty adamant that we shouldn't kill Ari, we should keep him around and do more with the character. Then episode 8, 9 hits, and we go, “Who's the male clone going to be?” After a lot of debate, we figured that looping back, we could make it work and make it make logical sense. Ari got the tap and he was pretty excited.
In terms of looping back and making sure things made sense, did you do the same for Paul in figuring out if you could reconcile all his actions in the first two seasons as coming from a deep cover operative for Castor?
Graeme Manson: That's part of the process of a lot of the characters: Leakey, Delphine. It's part of telling the mystery: can you have revelations that lie within your cast and within your own mythology and still have them make sense? When you're mining backstory, it's one of the tricks.
When you were looking back with either of those characters, were there any moments where you had to pause and ask, “Wait a minute, does this really make sense?”
Graeme Manson: Yeah, all the time. But I think it all tracks. It doesn't get past the writers room if it doesn't track.
But you're in that writers room talking about the show at a length and depth that even your most devoted fans probably don't. How do you make sure that the mythology, especially as you add more layers to it, is something that is coherent to the audience and not just to you guys in the room?
Graeme Manson: It's a process of everyone involved in the show going, is this logical, and what can we do to reinforce it? All the way from the writers room through production and the art department and all our executives, and the net execs, too. We get read and vetted for clarity the whole way, from our crew, right up through editing. That's the trick. But if there's a certain point where you can't use all your cast at once, once you've expanded the show, so you've gotta rest people or gotta kill people or otherwise get them out of the show for a while and drop storylines. But telling a complex story is what we set out to do. We're not going to spoonfeed the audience. It's part of what our fans appreciate about the show, is it does make you think.
Do you feel like there's a point at which the mythology can expand beyond what the show is capable of supporting the weight of?
Graeme Manson: That's the point you're always trying to avoid.
But do you have a sense of what that point is? Could there be three other organizations above the current one, or are you running out of new organizations that can come in and be responsible for all of this?
Graeme Manson: No, I think that conspiracies work in layers. If you think about the shows that do it well, like “X-Files,” you can keep having revelations about the broader conspiracy. The key is to keep the story centered on your characters, and keep your characters alive and making logical decisions within this framework. Let's face it: this is sci-fi. If you can keep your characters rooted and anchored in making real decisions, then that's your world. You can exist in that world that is complex and has other steps if you keep it interesting, and try as hard as you can to keep it logical.
At the end of last season, you set up Michelle Forbes as the face of the new conspiracy, but she's not in these early episodes. Was she just not available, or did you decide you'd rather use a pre-existing character like Delphine in that role?
Graeme Manson: It was a little mix of both. Michelle is a very busy actor, and with a cast our size, we can't option everyone. In a pinch, our solution was to look internally and use Evelyne Brochu. The bottom line is, that was the best to include one of the characters we really knew more to be connected to that bigger mystery. It helps us invest, to see the conspiracy through a character's eyes that we know very well, rather than someone a bit omniscient.
The season premiere gives us a glimpse of another Tatiana clone, but it's pretty brief. Are you running out of different looks you can give her for new clone characters, or do you expect to keep introducing more Leda clones going forward?
Graeme Manson: It's one of the real joys of the show, and one of our joys creatively, in terms of Tatiana and John and I. What character can she play next? What can we do that really turns us on and can really help the broader story? We're a clone show, and we'll never stop coming up with new clones. I just promise we won't do it every single episode.
But Tatiana's a very specific physical type, and you've put her in a variety of wigs and even last season turned her into a man. Is there a limit at which you can't come up with a new hair color or new fashion style that's going to look as appreciably different from the pre-existing clones as Cosima is from Alison?
Graeme Manson: No. We're a show about multiplicity, and we'll do that as long as we can, and have utter faith in Tatiana. We spend a lot of time discussing the characters. When you watch those performances and put them together, you realize that she's a chameleon and a very special actor. I don't think that there is a limit. That's part of the fun of the show. The limit is, how long does the show go? Because we're going to do it right to the end, I can promise.
Chicken or the egg question: With the scenes where Tatiana plays one clone impersonating another clone, are they primarily motivated towards a desire to just do a scene like that because fans love it and she's great at it, or does a story reason have to present itself first?
Graeme Manson: I would say it's weighted towards the story, and the (question of) “What are they going to do now, how are they going to get out of it next?” nature of our storytelling. We get to those points where we go, “Wouldn't it be great if we could pull a switcheroo here?” Plus, Tat and the crew and people come to us all the time and are saying, “It would be hilarious if, you know, Helena played Alison.” All these different combinations that just make us laugh.
Has the digital effects technology improved appreciably over the last couple of years to allow you to do those multiple clone scenes more easily?
Graeme Manson: No. We've just gotten better at it. The crew as gotten better at it.
How satisfied were you with the look of Tony, and will he be back at some point this season?
Graeme Manson: I totally stand by Tony. I know where you're going. Some people were like, “Whatever.” They didn't like the mullet. We stand by that character. Tony will be coming back. But like I say, it's a broad canvas. Tony's out there hoboing around on the road right now, doing a little bit of Jack Kerouac, and he'll walk back in someday for sure.
Getting back to the Castor clones, there's a huge differentiation in appearance and personality among the Leda clones, because they were all raised separately, but the Castor clones all grew up together under military supervision. Should we expect to see any of them who look and act as wildly different from each other as, say, Alison and Helena do?
Graeme Manson: Part of the concept of these two sets of clones is that they're raised very differently. We've been describing them as a bit of a wolfpack. They've grown up self-aware and living together. They have softer edges to their personalities, whereas the girls have been kept apart to see how they'd grow up individually. With the boys, individuality is less defined.
I was at the San Diego Comic-Con panel last summer where a fan brought the room to tears talking about how watching Cosima's stories with her mom helped heal the rift that was created when she came out of the closet. And that's not an unusual story among your audience. How do you balance the responsibility of knowing the show can affect this audience in that way with serving the needs of the story?
Graeme Manson: Frankly, I think that aspect of the show has very little story need. The show and the characters within the show are inclusive. The sisters learn to be inclusive of one another and their differences. For myself and John, and for Tat and Jordan (Gavaris), it's extremely important to us that we treat this with respect, but also like any other character on the show, whatever your sexuality is. Story-wise, we don't have to have those, but why not? Why wouldn't you?
What I mean is, if fans are deeply invested in Cosima and Delphine because there are so few lesbian couples on television, does it give you any pause at creating tension between them, or can that not play a role in how you plot out story?
Graeme Manson: Yeah, I think it doesn't need to factor into the storytelling that much. You just honor those characters and take them forward. When that's done naturally, and the deeper stories that those characters are going through are as true as any other characters, that's when people recognize that they're being included, and that the representation is fair and just. It just is, if you know what you mean?
Without spoiling too much, what can viewers expect from the new season?
Graeme Manson: The bonds of the sisterhood are still tested constantly, but it's a season where our sisters are teamed up a little bit more. Our major characters are a little more on the same page this season overall. Of course, with divisions and strife within them and everything. But we're united against Castor, and Castor is a big threat, who's going to bring a lot of their own revelations. That's a hugely interesting storyline this year. And in addition, we've got some terrific storylines for our supporting cast. For Evelyne, for Dylan Bruce, and for Maria Doyle Kennedy. And also for Donnie, for Kristian Bruun, because Team Hendrix is a lot of fun this season.
Speaking of Team Hendrix, Alison and Donnie are both very funny characters, but there are times when it feels like the suburban stories are essentially a comedy spin-off embedded inside your conspiracy thriller. How do you balance that in terms of story and tone without losing what makes Alison such a great character?
Graeme Manson: It's a storytelling challenge in terms of balancing the weight between the characters. We always like the fact that we can go to Alison and have another tone to the show. The trick is incorporating and story-wise. But in that sense, Alison likes to carve out her little piece of individuality, her little niche of normalcy more than the other clones. In that sense, it's a battle. And it's sort of a battle that they all fight for Alison. Alison gets to have the normal life, even if it's one of the more twisted ones on the show. She's got kids, she's looking after them. In their roles, Alison has these great functions: supplying guns and theater costumes, or whatever. But the fact that she can occupy her own space and have an apparently normal family life is a victory for all the sisters.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com