Down the "Orphan Black" rabbit hole with its creators: "You’re being kept for days in a dark closet, I think your mind goes into some strange places"

John Fawcett and Graeme Manson sit down with Salon to talk about male clones, Helena's scorpion and Alison's pills

Published May 9, 2015 3:59PM (EDT)

Tatiana Maslany in "Orphan Black"     (BBC)
Tatiana Maslany in "Orphan Black" (BBC)

BBC America’s flagship show “Orphan Black” has become a phenomenon since its explosive debut in 2013. Starring the incredibly versatile Tatiana Maslany, it tells the story of a group of identical women who discover they are the product and property of a cloning experiment and their struggle for autonomy in a world that has no place for them. It’s a show that revels in biomedical ethics, sisterly bonding and the occasional enthusiastic eye-gouging—which has made it a show that is smart, touching and entertaining. No easy feat.

As the scope of the show has expanded, the series has struggled, at times, to keep up with the breakneck pace it set for itself in season one. In some ways, this first scripted program from BBC’s American arm illustrates both the triumphs and pitfalls of creating a TV drama for the first time. “Orphan Black” has been a critical hit and a cult favorite, but the show has repeatedly hit the hard ceiling of practical concerns, such as production schedules, actors’ contracts and network budgets. Every show has to tangle with those limitations, but the logistics of “Orphan Black” bite into the show’s most valuable asset: Maslany’s screentime, as she plays about five different characters on a regular basis.

It’s created a show that I’ve had some reservations about: As I wrote in April, the way “Orphan Black” has unfolded this season doesn’t quite satisfy the way the first season did. That said, Saturday night’s episode, “Newer Elements of Our Defense,” was my favorite of the season so far. For me, it’s raised the question of how much I can expect from a show—and how much what’s happening behind the scenes should affect what’s happening in the story.

So in order to get to the bottom of my many lingering doubts about the show’s trajectory, I spoke with the show’s creators, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, who graciously made time for me to hash things out on the subject of male clones, Helena’s scorpion friend and Alison’s new adventures in suburban drug-dealing. The result is an eye-opening conversation about the incredible balancing act that being a showrunner requires.

The big reveal that you both introduced at the end of season two was Project CASTOR—a set of male clones, played by Ari Millen. What was your vision with that story?

John Fawcett: We needed a new aspect in the mystery, in our clones and in what has gone on in the past. To unlock the puzzle for Sarah moving forward. One of the things that we always knew was strong and dramatic for Sarah was her finding out that actually there was a whole other aspect to the cloning program. It wasn’t just Project LEDA; there was a male aspect to this as well. As storytellers, we’re not just trying to just come up with the next cool thing; we’re trying to actually tell a cohesive story to the best of our abilities. We need this part of the puzzle to be able to move forward and tell the remaining aspects. This was, for Sarah, I think, a really interesting and dynamic way to move forward.

Why for Sarah in particular?

JF: Because Sarah is our main character. Listen, all of the girls are going to react to this news differently. At the end of [“Formalized, Complex, and Costly”], we reveal that CASTOR and LEDA are brother and sister. We force Sarah and Mark [one of the CASTOR clones, portrayed by Millen] together in episode four [“Newer Elements of Our Defense”], and the point of that episode was really to see that Sarah has to come to terms with dealing with more than she’s dealt with in the past. Because Sarah’s our main character, she shoulders a lot of our plot and the history. She is the eyes that we see the show through. She came to life as a character who really was kind of running away from her responsibilities as a mother, from her own biological daughter. Now as time has passed she’s gone through all these phases in very quick succession—she’s had to accept a whole bunch of new things. It’s interesting to see her now. She’s dealt with the fact that she’s got this evil clone twin sister. She’s taken on a little bit more responsibility in trying to keep this sisterhood as a cohesive unit, and build these women as a family.

Graeme Manson: It’s really important now, because that family has now expanded. Family is one of our real key themes and: Wow, they’ve got genetic siblings. So how do we react to that? It really goes to the root of the theme of family. What it means biologically: How do you choose it? Pick your own family? Sarah chose to see her sisters as genetic siblings, sisters. They began to call each other sisters. Do you think they’re ever going to call the CASTOR clones brothers? That’s a really interesting question. And it’s one that we’re going to explore this year.

All of the female clones that we’ve encountered have very different and often very fraught relationships with the men in their lives. Sarah in particular is a really good example of that. And I found the scenes with her and Mark to be very powerful; they’re a very good onscreen pair, I think, which must be very exciting for you guys.

JF: I’m glad you feel that way. It’s kind of dangerous but exciting territory to go and explore. Graeme and I always really set out to make a television series that was exciting and entertaining and a paranoid thriller, a big mystery. A rabbit-hole mystery. But there were so many things we wanted to say along the way, and aspects of science and family and biology and gender and those things that were all themes that we wanted. Identity, too. Themes that we wanted to bring in. And it’s a tricky thing to do when you’re really trying at the same time to walk ahead with a mind-twisting thrill ride. We’re trying to do a whole bunch of things simultaneously and it makes the show, especially in season three, a lot more complex.

GM: I think it’s dangerous but it’s exciting at the same time. There isn’t any reason to feel that—the male characters, if anything, they should be reinforcing our LEDA girls and our feminist themes. I don’t think there’s any reason that those things could be threatened by the introduction of a male clone. In fact the opposite; I think it should reinforce it.

Is that you articulating a response to some of the critics of that decision, including myself?

GM: [Long pause] Well, there was a lot of response off of two episodes. And John and I are just kind of rubbing our hands, like, okay—because we don’t want to jump the gun. We know where we’re going. We have always known that this remains the lead story. This is one chapter; we’re already sinking our teeth into season four, and rubbing our hands together over that. Our LEDA fans can be confident in us.

There is a practical element to all of this too: Everybody’s fallen in love with Tatiana Maslany, but you can’t make a show that’s wall-to-wall Tat. It’s impossible. It would kill us; we can’t afford it; we don't have enough time. That’s why we expanded our world; it’s part of the practicalities of it. There’s that aspect of it as well.

Because she has to play so many characters, you mean? Or is there something else at play here?

GM: It’s the scheduling nightmare.

JF: That’s been the biggest challenge to it from the very beginning. We were a little bit naive about it in season one, and we all almost died, literally. Me, Graeme, Tat: We all almost died.

Season one was a very crazy adventure in making television. It really felt like we weren’t doing anything that we’d never done before. We learned a lot from that season, and it was important because we were really laying the groundwork for the seasons to come—and frankly, we knew that going forward we had strong support characters now that we care about, that we could allow Tat to rest a little bit. In season three we had new aspects of the clone program that would allow for those little breaks that are necessary for Tat. As much as we love seeing Tat act, with Tat, you can’t have it all the time. You have to go, OK, when are we going to do it? It’s got to be important. As much as we’d like to see 15 minutes of Sarah and Alison running around in every single scene…

GM: It also holds true when we shoot time with the rest of our cast. When you cast Michelle Forbes or Michiel Huisman or Evelyne Brochu for strong supporting roles, but they’re not leads…. These are big actors; they’re hard to keep! They get big jobs, and you want them to do well, especially in Evelyne Brochu’s case. She’s got a lead on another series, and we’ve got to celebrate that and work with that. The practical aspect affects the storyline as well.

Is there a point where the general public finds out about the clones? Is that a tension you guys are still exploring? Is that even a possible end game?

JF: I’m just not sure how—we’ve thought about lots of those kinds of questions and we just don’t know how satisfying that would be. Every season of any TV show has to reinvent its direction a little bit from season to season so you don’t wind up spinning your wheels. Certainly, Graeme and I like to keep the feeling that we’re moving forward, that we’re discovering new truths.

The show is kind of a conspiracy thriller in a lot of ways. It’s not a passive watch: We ask a lot of our audience, and people respond to that. People do like the depth of the mystery—and it’s the nature of a mystery that when you watch the first few episodes, you’re not going to necessarily know what’s going on. That’s the point. Watching “Orphan Black,” Graeme and I both wanted it to be something where you had to pay attention.

This season Alison is a drug dealer, which to my mind sort of came out of nowhere. What was behind that decision? It’s kind of funny: Right now, Alison’s story is almost completely disconnected from the other clones.

JF: Obviously we wanted to have a little fun, because it is kind of fun. It’s a fun thing to do with that character. Maybe it feels like it’s coming out of left field, but drugs or alcohol are something that is not out of left field for this character. This is a world that we’ve very, very firmly put her in from the very beginning.

GM: There’s an interesting thing about this—about the sisterhood and the odd democracy that the LEDA girls have created amongst one another. I always see it as: Alison living a life privately in the suburbs with her family is kind of a victory for all of them. It’s one of the things that Sarah is fighting for.

This season Helena has a scorpion that talks to her in what I believe to be Tatiana’s voice. What’s up with that?

GM: Well it’s season three, right, John? You might as well have a talking scorpion.

JF: Well, listen. Here’s what it is in my brain. This character has been through a lot in her life. She has survived an awful lot, and I think she’s probably got a lot of PTSD. There’s probably a lot of really heavy emotional stuff that happened in her childhood, and the scorpion, to me, is something that she created in her childhood in having to deal with this emotional trauma. We can be as glib about it as we want and say, “hey, it’s a talking scorpion.” But really at the end of the day, it was a childhood fabrication. It was something that allowed her some strength and helped her through some extremely hard emotional times, and weirdly has only been around at those times. That is what that character represents to me.

GM: We talked about it as a spirit animal, as a golem, as an angel or a devil sitting on your shoulder. The poor girl needs a friend.

Why a scorpion? Because of its astrological significance?

JF: Initially it was just the desert themes. “We’re in a desert, what could it be?” Then you have to think of the practicalities: Do you even actually want to shoot with this creature, too? So, things like that. Then you delved into it further and you start to go, “Well, what is this scorpion, really? What does it actually represent?”

GM: It’s really interesting in Egyptian mythology. It goes back, so it was a very interesting creature thematically, although that wasn’t our drive. We didn’t go, “What creature can Helena have as a little buddy?” John went: “I want a talking scorpion.”

JF: I did, but as fun as it was, I wanted it to have history, I wanted it to make sense, I wanted it to come from within Helena and be something that she carried with her and that has helped her survive emotionally in the past, that she can lean on here and now in the present.

Do they have scorpions in Ukraine?

GM: I don’t think so.

JF: The point of it is more about what it represents in Helena. It represents her inner wisdom, it represents her intuition, it’s like Graeme said, the good golem/bad golem. It’s an inner monologue. When you’re sitting alone and you’ve been locked in the broom closet by the nun and you’re being kept for days in a dark closet, I think your mind goes into some strange places.

And that’s when she’s in that confinement, that’s where we first see that figure.

JF: Helena’s very used to being confined.

She’s had to suffer that a lot in the show, last season and this season.

JF: And I hate to put her through more, but she is kind of—

GM: She’s got a great journey. We’re going to have a lot of fun with Helena this season. You can’t keep Helena in a box forever.

JF: She’s a survivor. I think that’s what the scorpion represents too. The scorpion is a survivor.

Lastly, a question I got from a few fans. Is Tony coming back?

JF: Graeme?

GM: Um, well we think Tony’s off on an extended road trip. Tony is not an inactive character. Tony knew a lot of things when Tony left; Tony had met death. So whether or not we see Tony soon, we will see Tony again.

By Sonia Saraiya

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Bbc America Editor's Picks Graeme Manson John Fawcett Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany Tv