Orphan Black, BBC America's hyperspeed sci-fi melodrama, has many great characters — and one actress to play the vast majority of them. Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah Manning, a woman who has led a life of hard struggle. She also plays Sarah's many, many clones.
In the series' first episode, Sarah sees a woman named Beth throw herself in front of a train. The woman is an exact duplicate of Sarah, who promptly assumes Beth's identity in hopes of improving her station. Things only get crazier from there.
Before the show's third season begins on April 18, I talked with series creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett about the stories behind seven of the show's most memorable moments from the first two seasons. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[This article contains spoilers through the end of season two.]
1) Sarah, disguised as Beth, drinks soap in a police station to avoid being found out
Graeme Manson: That helped us define the pace and tone of the show.
We wanted to do something that puts you in the shoes of the main character. As they're charging through this story, you don't know any better where they're going to turn than they do.
She's in this interrogation in that scene, so in terms of storytelling it was a series of what are they going to do next — oh my god, she gets swept into the police station! Oh my god, it's a tribunal! So you're learning things as you go about the character she's portraying [Beth].
There doesn't seem to be any way out of it. I had her in the bathroom, and I was like, "What do I have her do?" And there were those public soap dispensers that everyone hates because they never work.
I just thought, Well, you could drink soap and barf.
John Fawcett: It shows how resourceful Sarah is. She's been on the streets! She uses her wit, and I think it just shows what she's capable of as a con artist, as a hustler, and as someone who's lived and survived on the streets for some time.
GM: At the same time, she's realizing she made a terrible mistake in taking on Beth's life. It's nicely layered. In terms of a scene in a pilot, it really helps establish the character, as well as the way the story is going to be told.
2) Clone Alison holds her husband hostage in her craft room
JF: For Graeme and me, that scene appeared very, very early on in some of the earliest incarnations of Orphan Black. It may even have its roots in the feature film version, back when we were first conceiving the concept. We wanted to do a sequence where Alison becomes paranoid that her husband is watching her or "monitoring" her and basically clobbers him, ties him up, and tortures him for information.
As we developed the character of Alison, it became clear that Alison was very crafty. One of the fun things about creating the character was the idea that she had this craft room, which came a little bit from my sister, who is kind of the same ilk.
So we tried to come up with hilarious ways to torture someone in a craft room. I don't know which one of us came up with the glue gun, but glue gun torture became the funniest thing going.
3) Sarah meets her birth mother — who is black
GM: The first shock here for Sarah is discovering her birth mother is not Caucasian. We thought that was a really interesting wrinkle in all of this — that you would be confronted with someone who really doesn't look anything like you.
This whole meetup is a ton of information hitting Sarah like a ton of bricks right in the face. It's emotionally charged, and it's a big part of the mystery at the end of season one. A lot of dots get joined for Sarah in that moment.
JF: It's the moment she realizes that [murderous clone] Helena is her twin sister [as opposed to just another clone]. Things have gone from bad to worse.
I remember watching episode nine from season one and watching it when we were getting pretty close and going, "Oh my god, our show is really pretty good, Graeme."
That whole episode for Tatiana, every single scene is utterly charged. She delivers one after another of these unbelievable performances. That's when I knew our show was well beyond anything Graeme and I ever dreamed of.
4) The clones learn a corporation owns the copyright to their DNA — and maybe even the clones themselves
GM: That was part of our big game plan for season one. It opens a new window and an understanding of why the clones were created, or at least the implication of being created. It cracked open the themes of ownership and corporate control of genetics in a way that expanded the themes of the show and solidified things for us.
JF: There's certainly a whole raft of political and ethical and scientific stuff you can talk about there. But one of the things I thought was so cool was that within these synthetic sequences, you could actually embed messages into the DNA. If you went looking that deep, you could actually find a copyright written right into these synthetic sequences. I thought that was really neat.
GM: That's not fiction.
JF: The other cool thing about that scene is that it's just two nerds geeking out at their computers. But then it's also the moment that Delphine tells Cosima she's sick. It was a really important scene for the end of the season.
5) After being left for dead, Helena finds her sister Sarah and embraces her in the shower
JF: We talked a lot about this reunion. We knew it was coming. We knew the sisters would be back together, and that Sarah would have this feeling of being trapped, and that was it.
One thing I remember is that in the production concerns of Helena coming into the apartment and killing someone on screen, we decided that the violence of Helena coming in and slashing that guy's throat was far less interesting than the character reunion of the two sisters. So we made a decision to make that happen off camera and lean on the really deep character story of the sisters reuniting.
There's that horrible moment when Sarah thinks she's about to get her comeuppance for shooting Helena, and then the scene turns the other way [to the embrace].
GM: What's great about that is that the show goes from being a drama thrill ride into being a horror film in that moment.
As Helena steps out in the bloody white wedding dress with a knife, because she just killed Daniel, Sarah is terrified. Helena, by all rights, should probably slit her throat, too. Sarah is handcuffed in the shower. She's helpless.
But it ends with this kind of beautiful thing. Helena uses love. She has this strange love for her sister, whom she doesn't know that well. It was this haunting, beautiful reunion between the two.
6) The clones learn one of them is a transgender man named Tony
JF: We knew we were going to do Tony literally at the end of season one, so we had a lot of time to talk to Tat about it. There was a lot of planning for it, and there were a lot of secret trips to the hair and makeup trailer.
And Tat would be in there dressed like Tony. It was totally secret. We would take notes and talk about Tony, and then three weeks later we would get another call, and she would be down there, and they would have taken our notes and tried something else with the look of Tony.
GM: One time they called us out and she was, like, leaning against a big truck with cigs rolled up in her sleeves.
Fawcett: It was interesting the first day on set, because there was obviously a lot of pressure on Tat that day. The crew was just so respectful of her and her abilities. They knew what she was trying to do.
That was the quietest I've ever seen our set, and it's not exactly a quiet set. Everyone knew she was trying to do something extremely difficult. It was cool seeing everyone pull together and try to make that into what we were trying to accomplish on the show — making it authentic.
7) Season two concludes with a bonkers operating room scene, as corporate clone Rachel gets a pencil in her eye
JF: That has one of my favorite lines of all time, which is, "Enjoy your oophorectomy!"
GM: For me that scene is really personal. I wrote and John directed, so we are really attached to it. The fire extinguisher as a weapon was one of those ideas I had a hard time selling everyone on.
JF: It was one of those absolutely ridiculous ideas that you bring up in a writers room that everyone says is stupid and ridicules you for it, but then it winds up in the show.
GM: I totally stuck to my guns. I brought it up pretty early, like a few episodes early.
JF: The other thing you wanted was to put the ax in Rachel's head. You wanted to kill Rachel. And then somehow your fire extinguisher pencil thing came out.
GM: I think that was a metaphorical ax, where we beheaded her at the end. But the funny thing is that I saw it on Bill Nye the Science Guy. It was a solution I saw idly watching science TV.
JF: The image of Rachel with a pencil in her eye was so outlandish and weird and sick-funny that we just kind of went, "We've gotta do that." When was the last time you saw that on television? Never.
The third season of Orphan Black premieres on BBC America on Saturday, April 18, at 9 pm Eastern.