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Orphan Black season 4 premiere: the show takes a huge risk — and it pays off

A flashback episode helps the show get back on track.

Tatiana Maslany as Beth Childs, a clone we've only known peripherally — until now.
BBC America

If the BBC's sci-fi drama Orphan Black wanted to move forward, it had to go back to the beginning — and thankfully, that's exactly what its fourth season premiere did.

Orphan Black — which began a new season April 14 on BBC America — has made a point of complicating its world beyond recognition. In the beginning, that was exhilarating. As British grifter Sarah Manning (the titanic Tatiana Maslany) and her clone sisters (also Maslany) spiraled deeper and deeper into webs of conspiracies, so did we; being overwhelmed was part of the point.

But the show's ambition got the best of it in last year's third season. New villains kept popping out of the woodwork like nefarious Whack-a-Moles. A line of male clones (played ably by Ari Millen) brought a whole new world of possibilities that almost immediately collapsed, as the series had almost no time to properly delve into their stories. The "previously on Orphan Black" segment stretched with every passing week, hurrying to bring confused viewers up to speed before trying to blow their minds minutes later by throwing everything out the window.

That's why it's so promising that the fourth season premiere takes a deep breath and a significant step back from Orphan Black's preexisting, overlapping stories. In a risky move, "The Collapse of Nature" holds off on forging ahead from where the show left off to travel back in time, all the way back to the beginning.

It's the smartest move Orphan Black's made in ages.

"The Collapse of Nature" lets us meet an unfamiliar clone, to devastating effect

When we first met Sarah, she was on a train platform, recoiling in horror as a woman identical to herself stepped in front of an oncoming train. Written by series co-creator Graeme Manson, "The Collapse of Nature" plays off that moment by flashing back some time before Sarah was in the picture to follow Beth Childs — the woman Sarah saw — in the days before she killed herself.

We've heard about Beth before, since much of the first season depended on Sarah pretending to be her in order to exploit her police department access. (Beth was a clone, too.) Still, we've never really spent time with the character outside of anecdotes from fellow clones Allison and Cosima, or scraps of home videos.

But as Beth keeps uncovering awful secrets about where she came from, "The Collapse of Nature" lets Maslany fully inhabit yet another clone character as she slouches into Beth's personality.

Beth is fiercely protective of herself and her clone sisters, ensuring that the smart and flighty Cosima gets tuition, and that the strict and chirpy Alison learns about gun safety. But she's sick to death of feeling like a freak, and equally furious and heartbroken over the revelation that her fiancé, Paul (Dylan Bruce), is spying on her. She's blunt, irritable, determined, and focused to a fault. She probably would have loved Sarah.

And yes: Knowing Beth's awful fate already makes thoughts like that so much worse.

Maslany's deft performance of any given handful of clone characters is Orphan Black's one constant, and that still holds true for this fourth-season premiere. She not only plays Beth, Cosima, and Alison, but MK, a mysterious and reclusive clone we've never met who seems to have intimate knowledge that present-day Sarah and company desperately need.

More importantly, getting to know Beth lets the show reacquaint us — and itself — with the the myriad details that make up Orphan Black's increasingly entangled big picture.

Flashing back to before the show began recontextualizes some of Orphan Black's more disparate storylines

Tatiana Maslany as MK, a clone who's apparently been in the mix all along.
BBC America

Having recapped every episode of Orphan Black in detail over at the A.V. Club, I've thought about this series more than I have about some close relatives of mine. But I still couldn't tell you exactly what's happening in the show's sinister periphery. With every episode there have been so many complications, twists, and turns that keeping track of it all was just about impossible — even if it was your job, as it was mine.

So even besides the novelty of it all, flashing back to Beth's part in everything is just smart storytelling. It reminds us of the comparatively tiny place where the story started and what's at stake — not to mention why the hell we should keep caring about Neolution.

In Orphan Black's reality, "Neolution" is a movement and/or cult (depending on whom you talk to) that hinges on the idea that human evolution should embrace scientific advancements, especially in the realm of body modification. In the show's universe, Neolution was the brains behind cloning, and they take the science so seriously that they treat the clones as clinical experiments, rather than living, breathing people.

Over the show's previous three seasons, Neolution vacillated wildly between hard sci-fi and convoluted, "what if?" flights of fancy. So by the time we got to the end of the third season, and it became clear that Neolution was going to be the series' Big Bad going forward, it was more of an exhausting reveal than an exciting one.

So when "Collapse of Human Nature" sent Beth down a rabbit hole that led to Neolutionists, I actually groaned.

But even if I'm not totally sold on Neolution as the crux of the show, damned if this season premiere didn't make a strong case for shutting me up. Even if I'm not wholly convinced that the most zealous body-mod enthusiasts are compelling villains just yet, this episode reminded me why they're such a threat. They will stop at nothing to keep evolving — even if it means sometimes literally tearing people apart.

Bringing the story back to basics was smart — but can the show keep it up once it goes back to the present?

Watching Beth and MK circle the root of the madness in "Collapse of Human Nature," I found myself wishing the entire season could be a prequel. It's not that I don't love Sarah, whom we returned to by the episode's end as MK warns her to run from her Iceland safe house. It's not even that I'm reluctant to see what's going to happen now that all of the characters' backs are seemingly against the wall.

But I was just so relieved to have the show's storylines go back to something manageable — and interested in the different cast dynamics that Beth introduces, besides — that I was actively dreading getting launched back into the mess of where the third season left off.

Still: There are a couple encouraging factors here. The first is that Manson and co-creator John Fawcett — who directed the episode — decided to go back to Beth's storyline at all. This shows a willingness to get back to basics, which the series desperately needed to do. Yes, I want to know what happened to Delphine (shot in the third season finale), and whether or not Cosima can find a cure for the disease wracking her body before it's too late (and she becomes yet another lesbian casualty on TV). But everything around the interpersonal drama is so fraught with complications that boiling it back down for a second was an absolute necessity.

The second is that "Collapse of Nature" does not, in fact, end with Beth jumping in front of that train. Instead, it ends with her dodging a police department drug test after she accidentally shoots a civilian dead — an incident we learned about early in the first season — and struggling to come to terms with it. We almost certainly will see her again, and hopefully, it will be for a chapter as clear-eyed and purposeful as this one.

Orphan Black lost some viewers last season as it kept burrowing ever deeper into its own mythology. When the show is off its game, it's a confused jumble of sci-fi nonsense and good intentions. But when Orphan Black is good, it's a laser-focused, hyper-imaginative gem. If this fourth season can sweep aside some of the clutter and find its surreal, fiercely intelligent core again, there's no reason to believe it will be anything other than great.