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Orphan Black: Echoes May Have Sealed Its Fate With Its Title

The new AMC series only begins to gain its power when it allows the story to breathe.
  • Krysten Ritter in Orphan Black: Echoes (Photo: AMC)
    Krysten Ritter in Orphan Black: Echoes (Photo: AMC)

    Relatively early in the pilot episode of Orphan Black: Echoes, the spin-off and kinda-sorta sequel to the much beloved sci-fi drama about a disparate sorority of clones, our main character Lucy (Krysten Ritter) stands in her kitchen eating Spaghetti-O’s out of the can while swaying to Neko Case’s barn-burning track “Star Witness.” 

    There’s a wonderful specificity to the scene, from the loving dinginess of Lucy’s trailer home to the almost dreamy pleasure in this simple meal that Ritter conveys through the looseness of her body and satisfaction flashing over her face. The casual routines of an everyday life juxtaposed against the operatic elegance of Case’s song, in which a young woman cradles her mortally wounded lover and sob-sings, “Don’t let him die.” 

    It would be a lovely, character-building moment in its own right, yet the ordinariness of it attains a deeper pathos given what we’ve learned just a few scenes earlier: Lucy is a living, organic “print-out” or this series’s version of a clone who has escaped the facility where she’s been made. This life, small as it is, is powerful and perfect because it is uniquely hers. Moments like this exemplify what Orphan Black: Echoes can accomplish when it allows itself to lean into subtlety and character. Unfortunately, they’re few and far between in a series that feels compelled to pole-vault from one big scene to another, producing only a stale disjointedness in its narrative while reducing many of its character motivations to cliché. 

    Case in point: Shortly after this scene in the kitchenette, which silently conveys so much about the pleasures of building one’s life, what freedom means to a clone, we watch Lucy canoodle with Jack (Avan Jogia), a hunky ex-Army medic (because is there any other kind?) and single dad to a pluckily adorable deaf daughter, Charlie (Zariella Langford-Haughton), who has major abandonment issues after her mother left (because of course she does), but is really bonding with Lucy (because of course she is). 

    Beyond the fact that Ritter and Jogia lack any real chemistry, and their dialogue — focused on topics like how hot he is when he says the word “suture” — seems like a forced effort to build an insular world of lovers, the situation is very much telegraphed as The Stakes or That Which Our Protagonist Can Not Lose When the Bad Guys Come. And the bad guys do come for her, compelling her to go back to where everything began — to where she herself began — to discover more of her origins and fight for her freedom. 

    Lucy’s quest will bring her into contact with a prickly teenager named Jules (Amanda Fix), who she’s seen in flashbacks and nightmares, as they attempt to unwind the tangle of their past, and a worldwide conspiracy lorded over by a nefarious corporation. If that sounds too familiar, it’s because it feels like a pale copy of the original series — as if someone laid tracing paper on some wild, intricate organism and came away with a few wan lines. It might feel unfair to compare Orphan Black: Echoes to its progenitor, which was one of the most innovative modern science fiction series in recent memory; however, Echoes all but begs the comparison not only by borrowing a generalized plot structure, but by directly weaving in the old series in a few key junctures. 

    While Orphan Black borrowed the taut beats of the conspiracy thriller, it managed to stretch them even further, over meditations on bodily autonomy, gender roles, fertility, bioethics, and found family, to reshape the genre into something more aching and exquisite. Though Orphan Black: Echoes was released into a time when reproductive freedoms are increasingly precarious and the tensions between the redemptive and destructive potential of technology are incredibly fraught, it has precious little to say about any of it. 

    Only in its fifth (and easily greatest) episode, which serves as something of a “bottle episode” explaining exactly how the prints or clones of this world came into being, does the show slow down enough to touch upon the truly, heartbreakingly human origins of technological advancements and mistakes. That episode returns to what made the original series so deeply moving. It fuses its more fantastical elements into a slow-burn love story that is less concerned with the mechanics of shuffling characters around a chess board than with the reasons why the characters make the moves they do. Like that earlier moment of Lucy swaying to music and eating Spaghetti-O’s out of a can, it gains its power by allowing the story to breathe.  

    The odd pacing of the show, which is so choppy and accelerated that the viewer never feels fully settled, does a great disservice to its leading lady. When she’s allowed moments to breathe and simply be a person on-screen, Ritter is terrific. Yet she spends most of the series as a walking exposition dump, in modes that veer between tersely driven, appropriately horrified, and blandly earnest. The performance feels a little paint-by-number TV heroine, as if she was somehow hesitant to shade any of the sardonic wit and verve of her work as Jessica Jones into this character. When Lucy witnesses a casually deployed act of devastating cruelty, her cry of “why?” seems shockingly limpid. Lucy is simultaneously a very flimsy yet tediously overdeveloped character to pin an entire series on, and her lack of tonal variance can make for a grating, grinding watch. 

    As Jules, the bristling innocent thrust into Lucy’s world, Fix fares better because she’s allowed greater degrees of confusion and discovery — an actual character arc. Jules’ unpeeling of the truth around her past has more heft because the writers wisely allow the magnitude of her discovery to speak for itself, without needing to attach a series of trite tropes to it. Unfortunately, most of the other characters are so thinly articulated as not to truly register, though James Hiroyuki Liao is clearly having a wry old time subverting the archetype of the evil billionaire by endowing his character with a cloying, nebbish whine of a voice instead of the standard approach of arctic command.  

    Unfortunately, Orphan Black: Echoes seems to have damned itself to mediocrity in its very title. It feels like a very distant echo of the rollicking song that was Orphan Black — a song that was willfully strange, large as the sky itself and fierce like lightning. The show’s writers have limited its potential by putting it on a merciless treadmill of plotting. If Orphan Black: Echoes was allowed to meander into some stranger places, it might find a sweet, odd song of its own. 

    Orphan Black: Echoes premieres June 23 on AMC and AMC+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    When she's not watching TV, Laura Bogart is writing books or tweeting at @LDBogart.

    TOPICS: Orphan Black: Echoes, Amanda Fix, Anna Fishko, Avan Jogia, Krysten Ritter