Orphan Black Rewatch: “Natural Selection”

“Natural Selection”
Written by Tony Elliott
Directed by John Fawcett
Season 1, Episode 1
Original air date: March 30, 2013

The first episode of a new series with a relatively unknown cast of main players needs to be very special and do many things correctly if the series is to succeed; in short it needs to prove itself worthy of your time. The first episode of Orphan Black, “Natural Selection,” succeeded in many ways: a great intro scene, an earworm of a title theme, and a great hook at the end.

And wrapped between the intro and hook of an ending is a compelling story—we meet protagonist Sarah Manning (interesting gender name there, considering how many females dominate this cast), learn of her plight and the web of strange conspiracies in which she involves herself. Let’s see how it unfolds, shall we?

What Happens: The opening scenes introduce Sarah and the first clone she encounters, Beth Childs. It also establishes that Sarah’s returned from a mysterious sojourn in which she hopes to reunite with her daughter Kyra, whom Sarah left in the care of Mrs. S., Sarah’s foster mother. Beth and Sarah are superficial contrasts; Sarah sports a burnout/punk rocker/goth look while Beth (up until she jumps in front of the train and kills herself) sports the look of a professional, put-together woman. Sarah grabs Beth’s bag (as we see on CCTV) and runs, begging the question: can one bad deed with the goal of starting fresh be virtuous? One of many interesting questions Orphan Black poses to its viewers along the way.

Orphan Black Natural Selection

Soon after, Sarah meets up with Felix, her flamboyantly homosexual foster brother, and hatches a plan to sell the cocaine she stole from her boyfriend Vic—a relationship Sarah’s trying to escape. She sees the cash she’d get for selling the cocaine as a good start to a new life with her daughter. Felix is unsure, but goes along with Sarah’s plan. There’s great chemistry between Sarah and Felix right off the bat, and it feels like they’ve known each other forever.

In the meantime, Sarah decides to check out Beth’s apartment, and she’s pleased at the nice, clean and superficially pleasant looking space Beth shares with her handsome boyfriend, seen in pictures on the refrigerator. More importantly, Sarah learns of a bank account Beth recently opened which contains $75,000. This is an even bigger windfall for Sarah to restart her life, so she convinces Felix to go along with a new ploy: Sarah is the dead one who jumped in front of the train, allowing her to take over Beth’s life.

We learn more about Felix when we next see him in his apartment. After a being paid for sex by a male client, Sarah’s boyfriend Vic arrives looking for her, and more importantly, the cocaine. Felix shoos him away and heads to the morgue. In a series of well-done back and forth scenes, we get to see Sarah flirt with the bank employee to get a quicker turnaround on the withdrawal of money while Felix flirts with the male mortician to more easily get to Beth’s body so he can identify it as Sarah. At the bank, Sarah also discovers the contents of a safe deposit box Beth opened: birth certificates bearing the names of Alison Hendrix, Elizabeth Childs, and a third in German with the name Katja Obinger.

Orphan Black Natural Selection

As she leaves the bank, a police detective surprises Sarah and yells at her to get in the car. Sarah recognizes his name, Art Bell, from one of Beth’s two phones. When they arrive at a police station, Sarah learns that Beth is also a detective—Art’s partner. Sarah is shuffled towards a boardroom for an ominous meeting, but she excuses herself to go to the washroom and drinks soap to make herself sick. She learns that Beth shot a civilian, and—to quote comedian Doug Benson, who runs the terrific Doug Loves Movies podcast—the next scene in in the boardroom is not for emetophobes, as Sarah vomits. These scenes where Sarah discovers more about Beth really juxtaposes her situation, since Sarah has something of a checkered past. By saying only a little and reacting to the situation carefully with each new bit of information, Sarah manages to successfully evade Beth’s problems for the time being and craft a better plan. Quick thinking, Sarah.

Felix visits Beth’s apartment, and eventually decides that Sarah and Beth must be related. He also informs Sarah that Vic insists on a funeral for her before leaving. When Paul (Beth’s boyfriend) returns home early from a weekend away, both he and Sarah are surprised and tense. Thinking on her feet quickly again, Sarah suddenly kisses Paul and the two have sex in the kitchen. Lots of skin is shown, more than what one might expect from a non-HBO channel. The next morning, Sarah escapes the apartment with the keys to a Jaguar. Art (unbeknownst to Sarah) tails her to the bank, then to Felix’s apartment. When Sarah enters Felix’s building, Art breaks into the car and takes the money Sarah had earlier withdrawn. If it wasn’t evident before, Art clearly has trust issues with Beth, despite being her partner. It feels as if Art is being set up as early antagonist for Sarah.

Orphan Black Natural Selection

During Sarah’s wake/funeral—in what appears to be a field near a junkyard—Vic sorrowfully rambles through a eulogy before the assorted attendees. This includes an incredulous Felix (at one point he’s shushed by Vic) speaking on his cell phone to Sarah, who is watching from a distance. Sarah spies her foster mother Mrs. S driving up, and realizes her daughter Kira is also in the car. “She can’t think I’m dead, Fe’!” Sarah exclaims.

Sarah returns to the Jaguar when a woman sporting short-cropped dyed-red hair pops suddenly into the back seat. This is Katja—one of the names from the birth certificates in Beth’s possession—and she is nervous, frazzled, and scared. Katja coughs up blood into a tissue and then informs Sarah that Art was following her. German accent and hairstyle aside, the resemblance between Katja, Sarah, and Beth is unmistakable. Katja speaks a phrase between wheezes “Just one, I’m a few, no family too, who am I?” She pauses, realizes Sarah is not Beth, and in a scene that is one of many “Holy Shit!” moments in the series, Katja is shot in the head through the windshield—a professional hit. Sarah starts the car and flees as more shots are fired at the car. A phone rings. Sarah looks in the backseat at Katja’s phone; it is in a pink case, just like the phone Sarah found earlier in Beth’s bag. Sarah answers the phone, but the episode ends before we learn to whom she is speaking.

Orphan Black Natural Selection

Commentary: So, not a bad first episode is it? Ultimately, “Natural Selection” did a great job as a first episode: it laid the groundwork for the characters, and enticed viewers with mystery and some flashiness. Sarah’s situation is established fairly well—she’s a roguish character, on the run from her past, and looking to have a fresh start with her daughter and foster brother Felix.

We also get a sense that Sarah has survived for so long because she thinks pretty quickly on her feet and is able to navigate her way through each situation which she encounters. I certainly wouldn’t have thought to guzzle liquid soap to induce vomiting. And when presented with an attractive man with whom she’s supposed to be in relationship, it’s hard to argue Sarah’s reasoning for seducing Paul.

Orphan Black Natural Selection

This episode builds a solid foundation for the strongest and perhaps most positive relationship in the show: Sarah and Felix. The chemistry between Maslany and Jordan Garvis is immediate and powerful. In addition, the scenes that flash between the two (Sarah with the banker, and Felix with the mortician) highlighting their similiarites as non-biological siblings. In other words, the episode teases the “nature vs nurture” debate, which will become more integral to the series as it progresses. Cleverly, the idea comes up without a great big flag, and is handled in an entertaining fashion.

Let’s pause on Felix for a moment: he could easily be just a flamboyant, over-the-top gay stereotype (artist, prostitute) whose sole purpose on the show is comic relief. But because of the writers’ and Garvis’ take on the character, Felix doesn’t feel forced. Rather, he feels a natural part of the story and Sarah’s life. Don’t get me wrong, Felix is funny, but he’s much more than a token character, and is very much the glue that holds things together for Sarah (and the series).

Orphan Black Natural Selection

Beth’s partner Art is quite the unhappy camper throughout most of this episode (hint: he’s not a happy guy throughout most of these 10 episodes). He seems uneasy around Beth and most of the tension in the episode is between these two. Art is apparently hiding something to protect Beth, and this loyalty to his partner makes him incredibly uncomfortable.

Ultimately, “Natural Selection” sucked me in with well-drawn characters, great plotting and a hook at the end that screamed at me to tune into the next episode.

Orphan Black Natural Selection

Clone Count (episode): 3—Sara, Beth, and Katja.

Clone Total (series): Also 3—Sarah, Beth, Katja. So that’s three confirmed with one additional potential, given the other birth certificate in Beth’s safe deposit box—Alison Hendrix. However two are now dead: Katja and Beth.

Sexy Time: Felix and his client; Sarah and Paul; and potentially Felix with the mortician. In that respect, this episode started off with a big bang, showing a great deal of skin on both Paul and Sarah and quite a bit between Felix and his first client.

Hey, it’s that guy/gal!

  • Ron Lea, Lieutenant Gavin Hardcastle (Beth’s boss) played “The Caretaker” on an episode of Lost Girl, “Joseph Cavanaugh” on an episode of Smallville, and “Captain Ross” in Punisher: War Zone.
  • Seen briefly at the end was Mrs. S., Felix and Sarah’s foster mother. She was portrayed by Maria Doyle Kennedy, who portrayed “Sonya” in eight episodes of Dexter.

Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books for Tor.com, reviews and moderates forums at SFFWorld and runs a blog about stuff. He sometimes wonders if he is a clone, but shudders at the thought of multiple versions of him mucking up people’s lives. His twitter handle is @RobHBedford


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