Count to ten, this is the end. The final season of Orphan Black is here and I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what that means to me in light of the series premiere. It may not be entirely the show’s fault though, because I watched the series premiere right after finally catching Bones’ series finale, which closed out a sprawling twelve season run.
Bones was, in some respects, a gigantic achievement for women in genre television. It portrayed women dominating a number of scientific and law enforcement fields, and made their romantic and professional lives the true axis that the show revolved around, frequently overshadowing the murders that formed the skeleton of the show.
Orphan Black, on the other hand, has never seemed to fully stake out an effective balance between the clones’ personal lives and the big science fiction happenings behind Neolution and Project Leda. Season five’s premiere is a key example of that, as we get another long overdue reunion between Delphine and Cosima at the mysterious Revival settlement before the former is whisked away yet again. Similar patterns proliferate across the episode: Siobhan and Kira have disappeared again while Art is put in another compromising position by the Neolutionists infiltrating the police force.
There’s definitely a part of me already grieving for the fact that this is the final season. Despite its frequently misplaced priorities and various complaints like Helena’s grating music cue, Cosima’s white girl dreads, and Maslany’s cringey performance as the trans man clone, Orphan Black has been a novel, and at times vital series. The romance between Cosima and Delphine, when it actually had time to bloom, encompassed the kind of fraught beauty that more same gender romances in genre television deserve. The evolution of Alison Hendrix from a stereotype played for laughs into the true heart of the Clone Club and the introduction of Crystal were fascinating and empathetic portraits of performances of femininity that rarely get any kind of respect in similar shows.
But a more sober part of me is asking just what a Bones-like twelve season run would look like for Orphan Black. It doesn’t have the open ended episodic format that kept Bones as fresh as it was for over a decade. Leaving aside the question of whether Tatiana Maslany could survive another seven seasons playing an average of six characters, would the show find the space to let the relationships at its center breathe, or would Delphine and Cosima be doomed to seven more seasons of delightful tummy kisses broken up by one or the other being dragged out the door? Would Sarah ever get to be a mother to Kira for more than a couple episodes? The season five premiere puts me in a cynical mind on that front because the mystery at the center of this season is the seemingly immortal founder of Neolution, a character who only became an entity last season and isn’t filling me with any kind of anticipation.
It’s the fundamental reason why Orphan Black will always feel both novel and behind the times to me. The era of sci fi television shows making big science fiction mysteries their primary focus began to die when Lost and Battlestar Galactica whiffed on resolutions they hadn’t prepared for, but in the age of Sense8, a show that rose to acclaim by downplaying the mechanics of its world in favor of examining the emotional bonds between its protagonists, Orphan Black stands out as the last of a dying breed, held back from its full potential by outdated notions of what makes genre stories work for contemporary audiences.