Nobly, I have taken one for the team.
Here’s a question which may haunt viewers of Orphan Black: Echoes more than the show’s writers: if we continue a franchise with none of the same writers or core themes, characters, and continuing plotlines, is it still the same show?
Orphan Black was firmly centred on the perspective of the victims of hubris disguised as good intentions, whose individual autonomies and fates were so difficult to claw back because of their forced creation. Echoes appears to try and absolve characters who would be the villains in the original show, and to that end, undermines the core message of the original show with a blind alley of logic. Full spoilers for this show in discussion of the themes below.
35 years after the events of Orphan Black, a young woman wakes up in a medical facility by a stranger who appears to know her. She learns she is a synthetic human being, a ‘print-out’ based on an existing person, but sharing none of this person’s memories. Disoriented and disgusted, she escapes and starts to forge her own life in the strange world of the near future. Taking the name Lucy, she finally finds stability in the countryside, somewhat adopted by a single father and his child. But when an accident reveals her location to a mysterious medical company that wants her back, Lucy must confront her troubled beginnings. In doing so, Lucy meets Jules, a troubled teenage iteration of the same genetic material. Together, Jules and Lucy unravel the truth of their existence. Which is fully wild.
It turns out that Dr. Kira Manning, aka Sarah’s miracle ‘Monkey’ from Orphan Black, created Lucy after the death of her wife Eleanor. Eleanor, a brilliant scientist suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, quickly declines and dies following the appearance of severe symptoms characteristic of the disease. Kira, a noted bioengineer and pioneer of printing organs, feverishly pursues a way to create a brain for her wife to take refuge, but is sadly too late to prevent Eleanor’s death (MORE ON THIS LATER JFC). So she creates Lucy, who is a notably younger version of Eleanor, in an effort to buy time for the therapy to cure Alzheimer’s to be perfected. However, the quality of the medical data used to create Lucy is not high enough for the copy to retain the memories of the original. After Lucy escapes without memories or context for this situation, a heartbroken Kira destroys the machine on principle… No, she doesn’t. She makes another Eleanor!
But wait, she fucks up more! In order to attain more funding for her project, Kira seeks help from the private sector. Paul Darros, a philanthropist billionaire, co-opts Kira’s machine, first making Jules, and then a young version of himself. His vision for this technology is to create young versions of great intellects past, giving them privileged existences so they can focus solely on creating a better world. He’s wrong of course, or more wrong than Kira somehow, so ought to be stopped.
I have to sidebar on a very specific plot point for a minute which is a linchpin that most of the series hinges upon, the use of early-onset Alzheimer’s as the bogeyman of the near future. The depiction of Alzheimer’s in Echoes is concerningly underbaked and under considered. I found it reminiscent of the problematic depiction of multiple sclerosis in “Long, Long Time”, the much-lauded standalone episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, whose secret sauce is also using queer disabled bodies as the sliced onion shortcut for cathartic tears. Please note I am getting into the nitty gritty about medical and spousal abuse for the next couple of paragraphs, please read with caution.
In the non sci-fi present day, those who are aware of this disease in their family history can undergo genetic testing to determine if they are a carrier of this gene or likely to experience the onset of symptoms ahead of major life decisions like family planning (FOR INSTANCE). This possibility does not appear to exist in Orphan Black: Echoes. Eleanor, who is a leading Alzheimer’s researcher with a known history of the disease in the family, seems to be completely unaware of the fact that she carries the gene. We in the present day know that an individual with early-onset Alzheimer’s has a 50-50 chance of passing the disease to their children. In the near future, Eleanor does not get the genetic testing to determine whether she will develop Alzheimer’s.
Incredibly, Eleanor has no issue using her eggs for the surrogate pregnancy which produces her and Kira’s son Lucas, who now also has an odds-on chance of developing an aggressive degenerative disease; indeed, Eleanor is only prevented from carrying the child herself from a separate diagnosis of PCOS. Eleanor and Kira both elect to keep Lucas in the dark about Eleanor’s illness, and in doing so directly hide the truth of his own health and steal his bodily autonomy at a crucial time in his life. This is not something which is ever acknowledged by the show as the fucked up thing that it is. And this is all before Kira starts using Lucas (who is incidentally a young man of colour) as a Never Let Me Go style genetic match for Eleanor’s experimental plasma therapy which she is secretly administering to the woman she created to be her wife. Stop me when any of this starts sounding ethical or hell, fucking human. Eleanor’s mother Melissa, also has Alzheimer’s but retains an impressive amount of executive function despite having had the illness for far longer than her daughter. On the other hand, Eleanor dies shortly after Kira attempts a stopgap treatment to preserve her mental function rather than caring for her as a whole, without her knowledge or consent to boot.
So to be clear- Kira kills her wife because she cannot simply fathom taking care of her or having to deal with her at a reduced level of mental function in the time it takes for the imminent cure to be available. This is because Kira does not consider Eleanor to be Eleanor if she has a less than operational mental function. This is the moral conundrum at the centre of the show, no matter what the writers think; whether the people you love and care for are still people worthy of said love and care once they cease to bring you pleasure. And the answer, according to Echoes, is a resounding no. Woof.
While Kira is roundly told off by Orphan Black alums Felix and Delphine, as well as the women she created to be her wife for her transgression, in the end her responsibility to others appears to be curtailed by a shapeless grief she can’t contain or control. More than Eleanor or her mother, who must contend with their disease, Kira’s mind is a self-regulating entity, and as such she has no culpability for what she does under its influence. She sees her dead wife in every stranger, and can’t account for lost time, ironically hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Echoes effectively pathologises Kira’s actions in an effort to make her understandable. In doing so, this makes her incomprehensible. Kira is told “You’re not God,” in every possible variation, which unfortunately begs the question: Who is God, and why should God do what she apparently should not? Did God give her the grief which sustains her, and did God give her the drive to transgress against Nature, her family legacy, and the lives of others in such a spectacular way? A smarter show wouldn’t try a vague “science vs religion” debate that goes nowhere and leaves the most interesting spiritualism, that of Darros, completely unexplored.
James Hiroyuki Liao as Paul Darros, a Steve Jobs billionaire type from Boston, was an unexpected highlight of this series. Despite clearly being positioned as the main villain with no moral centre, the compelling part of this character is that, unlike others on the show, his code of ethics and spirituality informs his actions. To Darros, suffering is anathema to creation and success; he does not or cannot ascribe to the idea that his success is hinged on a key tragedy in his life. In a monomaniacal attempt to remove net suffering, he is compelled to make decisions which are simultaneously cruel and compassionate (in his view), but always fascinating and comprehensible from a character point of view. Darros’ world view is particularly interesting when paralleled with Kira’s inconsistent and confused individualism.
Another gripe with the show is less related to Echoes and to media at the moment: why does every other show have a “fridged queer partner” special of the week? It would bother me less if it wasn’t soapy in the way heteronormative relationships are often depicted–and with the same downfalls, too. Making queer characters act in ways where their judgement matches often straight couples with different power dynamics (and imbalances) feels like an unscalable uncanny valley in the worst way (making the queer viewer go Would I do this? Would anyone I know do this? Would anything in a queer theory or history book align, even vaguely with this idea?
Notes on the new clone club, in no particular order: Jules dying at the end wasn’t a great plot twist–it just felt like something done for shock value that made no sense. Jules having a throw away line about wanting to be free and also maybe poly? Was absolutely not good enough and made me cringe. so. hard. Lucy kinda becomes a minor character by the end with not much to do (an utter waste of Krysten Ritter tbh) and Eleanor… like if I was her I’d also be having an affair, and I certainly wouldn’t be staying with Dr. Frankenstein upon the discovery of her reprehensible character. Jury’s out on whether Kira would accept this outcome, or if she even cares about Eleanor if Eleanor elects to not be in her life.
Overall, the biggest pitfall of the show is this: Echoes is not aware of the meta-theatrical hilarity of its own snafu. At all. In the age of hollow franchise rebranding and AI aping dead celebrities and underpaid extras– could the show about clones, printouts, and fake grandpas not get with the program a little bit and become a tad self-aware? (every pun intended.) The beauty of Orphan Black’s original was that, although imperfect, unique and strange and lovely to watch. Much like a beloved first wife, it’s time to let her go– because a copy of an original certainly isn’t the same. Without the original writers, grounding central performance, or makeup artists, this Orphan Black really is just an echo of its former self.
Other notes/random things I noticed:
–The pink goo was sooooo fun. Stim stim stim.
–I think the futuristic scenes are really good. The labs look clean and pretty. Girlboss!
–Emily seemed cool…would have loved to see more of her, any characters of colour who had –almost nothing to do, and also Felix! Felix, who also had to have a dead partner after his arc in the original. Again, thankless and redundant.
–Camera work, while terrible, doesn’t take away from some of the very good acting.
–Why is the only sex scene het AND right at the beginning? Also, the show could have been fun and sexy instead of sexless and drudging.
–Évelyne Brochu could read a phone book and I would be thrilled to watch a series of that.