When Orphan Black premiered on BBC America five years ago, it did so without the kind of fanfare awarded many prestige cable dramas. Though its ratings never quite matched those of its TV contemporaries, star Tatiana Maslany gained acclaim as one of Hollywood’s new rising stars for her astonishingly nuanced performances as approximately a zillion clones, finally winning an Emmy for her work in 2016 (becoming the first Canadian on a Canadian show to do so). The show’s attention to scientific detail, as well as its ethical and political climate, was almost as uncanny.
Orphan Black co-creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett say that was precisely their goal: They never looked to make a huge splash with their science-fiction thriller about corporate science and bodily autonomy, which they’d been developing for nearly a dozen years — they just wanted to make it good. With Manson’s longtime friend Cosima Herter onboard as the show’s science consultant, plus a tight-knit team of writers, directors, and actors, Orphan Black became something entirely unique: a prestige thriller that paid as much attention to taking a pointed, factually accurate political stand as it did to creating beloved characters and compelling “seat-of-your-pants” drama. Ahead of the show’s finale, Manson and Fawcett spoke to Vulture over the phone — Manson from “life in a darkened room” where he’s recovering in Toronto, and Fawcett from Vancouver where he’s preparing to direct an episode of The Man in the High Castle — to discuss the show that set a new standard for science-fiction TV.
Did the series conclude the way you planned at the outset? I know you originally expected it to be just three seasons.
John Fawcett: Nothing is ever exactly the way you [originally] think of it. But Graeme, what do you think? Do you think we got pretty close to what we were originally planning?
Graeme Manson: I think we’re remarkably close to what we were planning. Of course, we didn’t have details. [But] around season three, we knew how the [rest of the series] was going to shape itself out. A while ago, John and I looked at our original notes from 2001, about what the story would be. Even those first cursory notes really have the seed of Orphan Black in them. All the sister characters are laid out.
GM: Yeah, I think we were kind of surprised at how close we stayed. Things changed along the way — production things, et cetera, et cetera. [The notes] are just tentpoles, so they get moved around and stuff, in the story. But overall, I’d say it’s pretty close.
What exactly did those 2001 notes look like?
GM: It identified the opening scene [on the train platform]; and it identified Sarah. It identified the first sisters that she’d meet. Some of the bigger questions about who are they, and where they came from. The very shape of the show’s premise was there.
This show’s villains have changed a lot over the years, and we finally end with Westmorland, who is basically the patriarchy embodied. Was it your goal to end with a single villain? Or did that just fall into place as you went along.
GM: It was partly practical, and partly the result of careful planning. The practical part was trying to be fresh every season. We loosely had a new villain or a new level of villainy every season. We had the Westmorland character in mind for a long time; we always thought that, when you got to the very top, it’d be a man. Do you want to speak to this, John?
JF: In the beginning, we were all very taken by the concept of this transhumanist movement which ended up becoming Neolution. That was the beginnings of it: building the mythology of Neolution. And then we had to have a pop-culture figure, who became Doctor Leekie. We kind of expanded from there, knowing that the end destination was Westmorland and this island.
When we would talk about the end, of the plot or of the villainy, it was in broad strokes. Graeme and I were somewhat surprised at first, because at the beginning we’d been thinking pretty exclusively about the first season. We were just like, “Man, let’s just do a good season one.” When we finished that, we went, “Oh, people like it?” So then we had to really, really start working on the story. Graeme and I always imagined a bit of an Apocalypse Now type of ending. In the end, that changed somewhat. Season five was always going to be our Heart of Darkness season; it was going to end on the island, and Sarah was going to save Helena, birth the babies, and chop off Westmorland’s head.
Then, as we started to gather steam, we knew that the Proletheans were going to play a part, because Tomás was already in season one. We expanded on that angle by making it so Tomás was the old world and Johansson was the new world. And then introducing our Castor clones, introducing new villains — to some degree, we built it like a tree that you have to climb to get to the top. That, from what I remember, was the way we went about building our villains. We wanted Sarah constantly having to climb up and get through another door, and conquer another hurdle.
Girl cannot catch a break.
Things got complicated with so many characters and story lines, but by season five, everything came together nicely. Was that challenging? After season three, it must’ve gotten a little hairy.
JF: In season four, we began digging a little deeper into the main characters through flashback. Then we were committed to expanding on that this year. Tying up loose threads can get kind of plot-y, but we really wanted to learn something new about these characters we got to know so well, to surprise the audience with something they didn’t know about each of them.
In the last couple of episodes, and certainly in the finale, it was a bit of a relief to us, to strip down the action and jump ahead. The six-months-later thing about halfway through the finale was a concept that caught on early in the process of planning out the episode. We wanted time to sit with them, to ask the question, “What does freedom look like?”
A lot of stories end with the big climax and that’s it.
JF: Obviously, we’ve always prided ourselves on the pace and the conspiracy and all the plot twists and turns. But really, the big reason why this show works is because we love the characters, and we love being with the characters, and the audience loves the characters. For us, it was really important to end the run-and-jump part of the story early, so that we could actually just be with the characters and enjoy them in a different part of their life — when no one is super-stressed out, and Neo agents aren’t bursting through the door at any moment — so that the final episode really is an emotional good-bye, rather than a thrilling, exciting, edge-of-your-pants kind of good-bye.
It does end on a satisfying note. You’re sad that it’s ending, but you’re okay with leaving the characters where they are.
JF: We wanted that feeling. We said, if we come back six months later, Sarah won’t have been able to move on. She’s in danger of being the same girl running away that we met in the very first episode. She’s come this far, and now it’s going to take her sisters to get her over the line and allow her to be still, finally. That’s the victory — the emotional victory. It’s them coming together to help the one who’s sacrificed so much to lead them through.
GM: And Tat nailed it. Tat did a great job of that subtle state of stasis.
It seems like you planted those seeds gradually throughout the season, hinting that she wasn’t going to be okay. When she didn’t cry at Siobhan’s funeral, people kept looking at her sideways.
JF: This is a woman who was kind of still a teenager. She was irresponsible, kind of a fuck-up at the beginning of the show. As she gets thrown into the story she’s forced to become responsible, is forced to protect her daughter, is forced to protect her family, and become kind of a leader. As the thing ends, it’s kind of like coming back from a war. Now she’s going, “Okay, I’ve got no one left to fight. What is normal for me?” She’s a bit adrift, she’s lost her mother, and … this rings very true to me, which is why I really gravitated towards this story line of Sarah being fucked up and trying to be emotional but can’t.
So why did Siobhan have to die? She was such a rebellious character, so it made sense, but would you walk us through that decision?
JF: We wanted to support Sarah’s journey to the end dramatically. She was growing up, losing her mother, and becoming a mother herself.
GM: Sarah had to step into her mother’s shoes and Siobhan had to demonstrate this amazing sacrifice. Early on in planning season five, we were right at the point where we were beginning to outline chunks of what the season might look like to our producers. We were talking about what our big, dramatic climax at that point in the season was going to be. When the idea came up in the writer’s room that the person who died could be S, it landed like a bomb in the pit of everyone’s stomach. It was one of those “oh no” moments — “oh no” because you know it’s right. And then we phoned Tatiana and there was silence on the line. That same “Oh no” came out, like Tatiana caught onto exactly the same thing that the writers felt. So then I phoned Maria and I was like —
“Sorry, we’re gonna kill you.”
GM: “It’s going to be a long and lovely season, but you’re going to get it.” And Maria, to her credit, understood, too. Of course. As John said, we just couldn’t stand to not have Maria in our finale, or at our wrap party. We couldn’t conceive of it. So we decided that we would do these flashbacks tied into all of this, adding another layer that stylistically worked with what we’d been doing throughout the season. John using them the way he did, to add the drama of Helena giving birth, was pretty amazing.
I’m sure you’ve heard this question a lot, but Orphan Black is one of the most scientifically accurate TV dramas out there. How did staying true to the science affect the show along the way?
GM: We’ve always been really invested in scientific accuracy — the SciFiNow element, as we used to call the show when we were pitching it. That was part of the show’s DNA: not just accurate science, but also accurate politics around the science, really highlighting the fact that biology is always political. Bodies, especially female bodies, are always political.
We called it investigative storytelling. Every year, we’d go, “Okay, what’s our new branch? What’s our new science angle?” Be it gene-editing or prolongevity, we took a look at something a little new and a little fresh each season, and tried to think along the question of, “What is possible right now?” Doing that really kept the show current, because we kept running smack into the headlines.
It’s something we’re really proud of about the show — certainly the writers’ room is proud of it because we were always aware of the science. It was an extra layer that was hard to do, and I think it paid off.
You came up against the news as you developed the story?
GM: Yeah, we would. And then of course by season five, we were bumping headlong not only into the science, but also into the politics. When the U.S. election landed in November, I think we doubled down. We didn’t change anything — we didn’t have to. We were already telling this current, scientific story. I know how hard Tat doubled down on the feminist themes of the show, really to put her foot down in protest by delivering a strong counterpoint with our show, which is a show about diversity.
Do you guys have plans to work together again? Or are you just decompressing for now?
JF: We’re decompressing, but …
GM: … we’ll see. Decompressions are temporary. I think we’d like to do it again. We’re just enjoying the end of this and the completion of this. I think at some point we’ll be back talking again.
What was the best thing about making the show for each of you?
JF: The best thing … that’s a bit hard to pinpoint. I think the best thing about making the show was the people. It’s an overall experiential thing. In the end, I’m obviously very proud of the work, I’m proud of what we made. But it’s all the things in the journey along the way, the people that were there.
Graeme and I were buddies for a long time prior to coming to the show. It was cool to go into that with a really close friend. We went into some stormy waters, right? It wasn’t all sunshine and flowers. You come out the other end, and you feel like you have this mutual thing that you’ve done together, and that we now share with this family, this Orphan Black family. This little close-knit group. That’s my big takeaway. I think I’ve also become a better artist from having done this. I feel like a different person.
GM: I really have to second John in saying that my biggest takeaway has been the teamwork of doing this thing in our own backyard with a tight-knit group of people that really gave it their all. And to add to it a little bit, it spawned this amazing fandom that connected in a way that none of us ever thought possible. John and I weren’t even on Twitter before this started!
Dang, it’s really a new world out here.
GM: In addition to that, the show was fun to watch and seat-of-the-pants and all that stuff that we liked, and it managed to be funny and have this mash-up of tones that kept us endlessly amused. The show also spoke a little bit of truth to power, I think. You add those up and look back over the past five years, and you think, “That’s satisfaction.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.