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Saying goodbye: 'Orphan Black' explored identity and the freedom to pursue it

Saying goodbye: 'Orphan Black' explored identity and the freedom to pursue it
"The show was a high-wire act, and she never wobbled," says "Orphan Black" co-creator Graeme Manson of its star, Tatiana Maslany. "We wanted it to be funny, action-oriented, slap-the-viewer-upside-the-head, gory and sick and meaningful. Tatiana gave us that ability." (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

"Orphan Black" may be – to the uneducated eye – just "that show about clones."

But during its five-season run on BBC America, "Orphan Black," which began its final episodes just after Emmy eligibility last summer, was actually about much more, focusing on themes of identity and body autonomy led by a tour-de-force, Emmy-winning performance from star Tatiana Maslany, who played no fewer than 12 clones during the series.

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And as it turns out, when creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett first formulated the germ of the idea for the show in 2001, all they knew they had was a wicked opening scene: a young woman briefly sees her doppelganger, who promptly walks in front of an oncoming train and dies. The surviving woman – a grifter and con artist – assumes the woman's identity, which leads her down a dark, conspiracy-laden rabbit hole.

So who was the woman? "We knew we had a rich opening," says Manson. "We thought, 'twins?' – but quickly, we got to clones. We were fascinated with nature versus nurture."

Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) in "Orphan Black" on BBC America.
Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) in "Orphan Black" on BBC America. (Kenâ Woroner / BBC America)

They were also approximately 10 years from seeing that idea realized on camera. Their concept was too early for the zeitgeist storm that would make "Orphan Black" light up: cable television's appetite for original programming was just getting whetted, and science-fiction dramas were still a few years away from being trendy. The idea was too big for a feature film, so the pair set to developing a TV series and started pitching in 2009. It would take another year or so before BBC America gave them the green light.

"Everyone said no," recalls Manson. "Everyone was thinking, 'How are they going to pull this off?' Because if an actor couldn't do absolutely everything, it was going to suck."

Fortunately, Maslany came along, and was perfect. "The show was a high-wire act, and she never wobbled," says Manson. "We wanted it to be funny, action-oriented, slap-the-viewer-upside-the-head, gory and sick and meaningful and have real characters. Tatiana gave us that ability."

From the start, the actress turned heads for the way she could seemingly shape-shift into versions of a person who always looked more or less the same, yet each was clearly a unique individual. She contained multitudes.

"It was a huge learning curve," recalls the actress, who faced additional challenges like sometimes playing a clone who was pretending to be yet another one of the clones. "Thanks to the writing, the voices were clear on the page, and I had the luxury of an hour in hair and makeup where I could let an old character leave and a new one come in."

Tatiana Maslany won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for "Orphan Black."
Tatiana Maslany won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for "Orphan Black." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

"Orphan's" cult success had a ripple effect on its network, which at the time was in the process of refining its brand on this side of the pond, and wanted a defining series. While "Orphan" never reached the heights of, say, "Mad Men" or "The Sopranos" — two series that did help brand their respective networks (AMC and HBO) — it was successful at giving BBCA a voice, particularly with women and the LGBTQ community.

"It positioned us as being a place that was willing to take fresh risks, and a place that would bank on outlier stories," says BBCA President and General Manager Sarah Barnett. "But it also taught us how fans could form a passionate nucleus for the show, and we learned our job was to give the audience content they could share. It really was about listening and not just talking and responding – giving fan groups a real say."

In the end, "Orphan's" success lay in its content – that it wasn't just "that show about clones."

"Our show is about individual and community identity and how you define yourself," says Maslany. "The clones are seeking autonomy and freedom to be who they are. That is what we were interested in exploring, and that's what people responded to."

Still, after five seasons Manson says it was time to put a period on the end of this 16-year sentence. That said, he (and Maslany) are both open to more "Orphan" projects down the road, including a movie.

As for how the TV series ended, Manson wanted to keep things open-ended.

"We wanted to honor these characters' choices and their individuality," he says. "That's what they fought for. Maybe you can figure out a way to say that I could barely use the word 'hope.' I do like the sense that there's still a future to come. That we really watched the journey … but the journey isn't over."

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