Tatiana Maslany’s performance in Orphan Black, in which she portrays more characters than the Television Academy could even fit on the ballot, finally earned her an Emmy on Sunday after three years of critical praise. Maslany, who took home the trophy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series, has changed how we think about character work.
There’s a well-worn refrain that Orphan Black fans find themselves repeating constantly, even after four seasons: “I forget I’m watching the same person.” It’s true, and you do forget. But Maslany’s Emmy win isn’t just about versatility or being able to remember a lot of lines. It’s about the way that Maslany inhabits every character so fully, giving each a degree of intimate knowability that some characters fail to achieve in entire seasons that focus on them alone.
The Emmy-winning performance isn’t just in playing a bunch of characters with different accents and wardrobes; it’s in the way that Cosima holds herself; Alison’s anxious ticks; Rachel’s angular, measured dedication to her cause; the way Sarah’s entire body vibrates with the need to protect her family; Helena’s singular understanding of the world, despite it’s attempts to keep her on the fringes; the way that Beth’s eyes dull slowly and her shoulders sag progressively under the the burden of bearing the truth alone.
But that’s only half of what makes Maslany’s work Emmy-worthy. The other half is the careful attention to the elements that these characters share, the way they’re so different, but are joined by common threads, divergent but cut from the same genetic cloth.
Orphan Black succeeds on the strength of Maslany’s performance, and it hinges on her ability to live in a set of characters who share the same face but live fundamental truths. Here are Maslany’s most impressive clone performances, with drawings by Jamie Loftus.
It wouldve been easy to write Krystal off as a gimmick — nothing more than further evidence of Maslany’s incredible range, proving that she handle blonde and self-absorbed as deftly as she does dark and brooding. But in typical Orphan Black fashion, Krystal isn’t what she seems.
Doing her best Harriet the Spy impression by night, Krystal managed to get close to Dyad and the Neolutionist plot without any help from Sarah and the rest of the Pink Phone Clone Club. She was pretty wide of the mark when it came to what, exactly, she was looking for, but Krystal’s no dummy. She knows how to use people’s perception of her to get what she wants, and the delicate, nuanced self-awareness that Maslany brings to the character is what makes her more than a throwaway cog in the Clone Machine.
One of the most resonant clones from the moment that we meet her, MK is our newest addition. She’s not an easy character to get to know with her bevy of covered tracks, paranoia, and unwillingness to reveal much of anything. But her fear, genius, and connection to Beth make her a rich character that we keep discovering.
Rachel is easy to hate. She’s cruel, she’s a jackass, and she’s threatened the lives of the Clone Club nine ways to Sunday.
But the mark of a great character — a great villain — is a demonstrated ability to make us sympathize with them, even after they’ve done awful things to the characters we like. Rachel’s remarkable turn revolves around the fact that she may not be the villain at all. She’s a product of her environment and one of the clearest examples of Orphan Black’s central nature vs. nurture theme. She’s Sarah’s foil, but there’s something deeply affecting about seeing some of Sarah’s core truths come through in Rachel’s eyes (er, make that singular eye).
Like Krystal, Alison could’ve been inconsequential or even laughable in the hands of a lesser actor. But in Maslany’s hands, Alison’s character is so fine-tuned that the way she clears her throat becomes almost as important as the lines she says.
Alison is high-strung and occasionally difficult, but it’s her vacillating moral compass that provides the real draw for the character. Maslany’s Alison is polite and extremely concerned with outward appearances, but underneath the Stepford-grade gardening gloves, she has quite a bit of blood on her hands.
There’s no clone that’s more immediately likable than Cosima. Bonafide puppy, brilliant scientist, and often the optimistic force that keeps the Clone Club from collapsing under the weight of its own darkness, Cosima is kind and compassionate, but like Krystal, she’s more than she seems.
Beneath the surface, Cosima has plenty of anger, fear, and ferocity when the occasion calls for it. Constantly bearing her burdens, she’s strong but isn’t without the fissures that make her feel alive and electric. We’ve seen Cosima interact with her sisters Scotty and Delphine with tenderness, but also with suspicion and anger. Cosima feels so real because Maslany makes sure that we can recognize pieces of ourselves in her, whether it’s what we wish we were or the ugly things we wish we could change.
The moment we met Beth was the same moment she died. For us, she’s always been a clone of the past. But Season 4 foregrounded Beth’s lethal pursuit of answers that culminated in the opening scene of the pilot episode.
Maslany’s Beth is so clearly tortured, destroyed by a sudden loss of self, that she hums with a pain that we can’t help but feel through the screen. Beth was so chaotic and desperate and she wanted so badly to be good that it made us ache for her, made us wish she’d lived so that we could’ve known her better. Maslany had us finally mourning the woman we’d watched die three seasons before, and she helped us understand the profound nature of Beth’s sacrifice and struggle. Through Beth, we uncovered a deeper understanding of Sarah and of the critical importance of understanding ourselves.
Another character who could’ve easily become a caricature with someone else’s rendering, Helena’s journey from de facto antagonist to one of the most complex and unexpectedly affecting clones. Though she was raised on a steady diet of cruelty and killing, Helena’s capacity for gentleness is a constant surprise, and Maslanys light comedic touch riding on the heels of Helena’s unforeseen sincerity is is a big part of what rounds out the show.
And watching Maslany playing Helena pretending to be Alison and murdering a bunch of drug dealers is an indisputable highlight of the entire series.
Sarah’s changes — her development, regression, growth, doubt, and deepening understanding of her sisters — are what drives Orphan Black forward. As we see Maslany playing Sarah pretending to be Beth or Rachel or Cosima, it’s abundantly clear that Maslany’s ability to live in these characters isn’t just surface-level. The genius lies in the things you can’t write — the way that Sarah doesn’t look quite at home in Beth’s clothes or home, the way she can’t quite pull off Cosima’s easy vibe, or the way she can tap into Rachel’s calculating meanness but can never quite own it.
Obvious though it may seem, Sarah’s the clear winner for top clone. She may be the most “normal” in that she’s not an assassin, an anxious housewife, or a puppy scientist, but Sarah’s our window into this world. It’s through the the strength of her character that the entire world stands up, and it’s through Sarah’s efforts that we strip away the many unsettling layers of Leda, Castor, Dyad, Neolution, and the whole damn tangled web we weave.
Photos via Illustration by Jamie Loftus, BBC America