It’s been a wild ride from that first moment on the train platform to the final shot inside an empty but lived-in house. Alas, Orphan Black has concluded. Fair warning: spoilers ahead.
Also, TL;DR: Orphan Black is well worth a watch.
First, I have to say that the series finale is one of the absolute best I have ever seen. It ranks with the original finale for Buffy (the end of season 5), Burn Notice, Babylon 5, and the remake of Battlestar Galactica. I know I’ll take flak for the last one, but taken in the context of the show it is a very good finale.
What makes it so good is that they spent about half the runtime in a sort of epilogue, though it really is part of the dénouement proper as it ties up quite a few loose threads. We get to see all the main characters who survived getting on with their lives. It is a happy ending of sorts, but it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows. There are also some substantial hanging plot threads that are not resolved though the main conflict of the series is resolved.
Orphan Black got a lot of things right, not just the finale.
First, the characters develop over the course of the series. For instance, if you watch Alison in season 1 and compare her with Alison in Season 5, you can see a marked difference. And, yet, the characterisations are not so different. This is a testament to Tatiana Maslany’s acting, but it also reflects well on the rest of the production team. Anyway, even the less central characters develop some over the course of the series, even if it is in a subtle way. And that is what makes for a compelling character drama.
Second, characters, even secondary characters, have their own motivations. Sometimes those motivations do not line up with what is best for the main characters, and sometimes not even for themselves. Sometimes things go wrong because a character acts contrary to the plan or due to other motivations. That makes the overall story feel more real. Everything from S keeping Sarah in the dark about her grand plan in the final season to Alison and Donnie burying Leakie in their garage (after Donnie accidentally kills him) all serve to confound the overall plans, yet they do so in a way that makes sense when considered from each character’s point of view.
Third, when secondary action is no longer relevant to the ongoing plot, that story line is basically abandoned. The most notable instance here is the island story line, something for which we never get any sort of conclusion. Sure, we have some idea what must have happened, but they don’t show us since the action has moved back to Toronto by that point. With none of our point of view characters actually there, there is no reason to tell the rest of that story. Another such story line involves Kira’s father who we meet more than briefly when he provides some assistance. However, the mystery of his connections is never explored further once he disappears from the narrative. Again, this is a good decision (though it might be a pragmatic one if he had to be written out due to actor availability). Basically, by leaving these threads untouched, they do not waste screen time on things that do not move the plot forward at all and still leave things open for the viewer to fill in the blanks. It also works more like real life – after all, life rarely gives you anything packaged up in a nice bow.
Of course, Orphan Black is not perfect. It suffers the usual pacing problems that serial story telling often does. Some episodes feel incomplete as they have to fit the narrative into the time slot while others feel slow as they need to keep filler sequences to fill out the time slot. The usual collection of factual errors, plot holes, and general continuity problems also exists. In a couple of episodes in the final season, I remember thinking that a director’s cut with a few added scenes would clear things up nicely.
Also, the story seemed to be falling prey to the mystery accretion problem that such stories often do. That is, each season adds some villain or layer to the conspiracy without ever really progressing the narrative. Season three seemed to be moving in that direction and it wasn’t clear that they would be able to save it even at the midpoint of season four though it was clear they were trying by then.
Fortunately, the producers knew that season five would be their last. That meant they had time to plan out a concluding arc that would tie up the central storylines of the series. I think it is a mark in the producers’ favour that it was unclear if the ending would be happy, pyrrhic, or tragic until the last couple of episodes, even though it was abundantly clear that the conclusion was coming.
Overall, the compelling story telling and brilliant execution, by both the on screen and behind the scenes talent, more than makes up for the faults that remain.
Basically, if you’re looking for an epic dystopian tale of suspense, mystery, intrigue, and even action and adventure, with deeply compelling characters driving the action, Orphan Black is well worth a look. You can embark on the journey knowing that there will be a fitting payoff in the end.