“Natural Selection,” the first episode of Orphan Black, opens with Sarah, a grungy drifter, arriving back in town to attempt to see her daughter, Kira. As she angrily argues with the person keeping Kira, she sees a well-dressed woman, crying, putting down her purse and removing her shoes. Sarah moves toward her, and the woman turns to face her. To Sarah’s shock, the tear-stained face is exactly the same as hers. Sarah freezes. The woman jumps in front of the train. Sarah is still numb, but, thinking quickly, takes the stranger’s purse and runs.
In an empty bathroom, Sarah opens the dead woman’s wallet and pockets her money. She then checks the ID card, to see her own face staring at her. She reads the name on the ID in a whisper. “Elizabeth Childs.” Sarah takes the stranger’s two phones, a pink one and a black one. She glances in the mirror and then heads to a bar, where she meets Felix, her foster brother. The two discuss Vic (apparently an abusive relationship of Sarah’s), and the likelihood of Sarah being able to get Kira back from Mrs. S who is keeping her, despite Sarah having been gone for a year. Sarah gives Felix some coke to sell for her, which she stole from Vic. Finally, she shows him the ID card she stole from Elizabeth Childs. “What the hell, Fee. Did I have a twin sister?” she asks. He says when you’re a foster child, “anything’s possible, or so we tell ourselves.”
She decides to go up to Elizabeth’s apartment. She finds it empty with a note on the fridge from Paul, her boyfriend, saying he’d be back Saturday.
Felix has just finished sleeping with someone to try and up the price for the coke Sarah wanted him to sell. Vic arrives at his apartment, angrily looking for Sarah and the coke. Felix tells Vic he doesn’t know where either are, and Vic threatens him before leaving.
Sarah calls Felix, who tells her the coke is bad quality and Vic came around. She replies that they need to get enough money out of it to settle themselves and Kira somewhere. Then, she discovers that Elizabeth has 75,000 dollars in a savings account. After seeing a news broadcast about Elizabeth’s death, Sarah gets an idea. She dies the blonde streaks out of her hair and learns to adopt Elizabeth’s Canadian accent.
While Sarah-as-Elizabeth goes to withdraw the 75k from her savings account, Felix reports Sarah Manning as the dead jumper. Sarah is successfully able to con the bank manager into withdrawing the money and putting a rush on it. While doing so, she discovers a safety deposit box, and accesses it, puzzled to find that it only holds birth certificates: Elizabeth Childs, Allison Hendrix, and Katja Obinger. The pink phone has texts from an unknown number saying “Where are you? Must see you.” Sarah brushes them aside and takes the birth certificates.
As she is walking home, a police car pulls up and a man gets out, angrily telling her to get in the car.
“What’s the charge?” she asks, and he replies, “Don’t, Beth. Not today.” She hesitates and he barks, “We’re late!” As she gets in the car she sees that his name is Arthur — he must be the Art she has been receiving calls from on the black phone. Sarah struggles through the conversation. Apparently, Beth was in some sort of trouble.
As Felix arrives at the morgue to identify the body, Sarah arrives at the police station. Her history as a con artist makes her twitchy around the cops crawling everywhere. Apparently Beth is expected to give a statement of some kind. Sarah stalls by heading to the wash room, and calling Felix in a panic. She wants to abort the plan because Beth is a cop. She drinks soap so that she can puke all over the table in the meeting, avoiding testifying about the line-of-duty shooting in which Beth apparently accidentally killed a civilian, Margaret Chen. Art is noticing “Beth” is acting funny — she doesn’t have the same sense of humor and hasn’t referred to him by her usual demeaning nicknames.
Vic returns to Felix’s apartment to find Sarah, and Felix tells him that she’s dead and jumped in front of a train. They return to the morgue, where Vic breaks down in tears over the corpse of “Sarah.”
Meanwhile, Sarah has a difficult time answering questions during an apparent therapy session, and tries to act like she just has amnesia. “I think I need some leave.” “You’re under suspension,” replies the therapist.
Afterward, at Beth’s apartment, Sarah checks the pink phone’s many unanswered text messages, while Felix summarizes the situation in which Beth finds herself. “So. Your twin, all hopped up on cop tranquilizers guns down an innocent Chinese lady holding a cell phone in her hand.” Sarah replies that she doesn’t know and her partner doesn’t even seem to know. She says it feels like Beth was lying about something.
Felix tells her maybe this is her story. That deep down, every foster kid hopes they’re special and they have a family out there. Felix notices the birth certificates from the safety deposit box, and further notices that all the birth dates are within a month of Sarah’s. She insists it’s a coincidence, she doesn’t care, and they are only there to try to score the money from the account and leave with Kira. She tells him to sell the cocaine, keep half of the money for himself and give half to Kira. She says that after she gets the savings account money she will have to disappear but she will come back for the two of them. Felix is angry that she will leave again. Apparently, nearly a year ago she left her daughter at Mrs. S’s house “overnight,” but didn’t return for 10 months.
As Sarah is packing to skip town, Paul returns. He immediately notices that she’s wearing a rock t-shirt, which is not something Beth is into. She’s also acting really weird, and her hair is longer. She attempts to distract him by having sex with him.
Vic arrives at Felix’s in tears and says he needs closure. Felix is annoyed but agrees to have a wake so Vic will leave him alone.
In the morning, Sarah attempts to sneak out but Paul comes up behind her and starts kissing her. She behaves very stiffly and asks to take his car. He tells her to take her own, but she says she can’t find the keys. He asks if she looked where they always are, and she says that she did. He smiles and gets her keys from the usual location. Does he suspect something?
As Sarah goes to the car, we see that Art has been tailing her. She goes to collect the cash, and looks a little too gleeful stuffing it into her bag. She goes up into Felix’s apartment and finds flyers for her own wake, and Art breaks into her car, finding the large amounts of cash. Sarah watches her wake from across the river, but then is heartbroken to see her daughter arriving with Mrs. S. She doesn’t want Kira to think she’s dead.
Sarah is distraught and returns to her car to leave. As she gets in, another woman with a pink phone gets in the back seat. She asks Beth why she hasn’t responded to her. She is apparently Katja, a German “twin” of Beth and Sarah’s, and has some sort of respiratory disorder which causes her to cough blood. She begs to see Beth’s scientist friend. Katja tells Sarah that Art has been following her, and then realizes, “You are not Beth.” Just then, a sniper shoots Katja in the head, through the front window of the car. Sarah hurries to drive off while laying low to avoid the incoming bullets. As she drives away, both Katja and Beth’s pink phones ring. As the episode ends, Sarah finally answers the pink phone.
In “Natural Selection,” Orphan Black feels much more like a character-driven drama than anything else, as we are introduced to the world tinted by Sarah’s perspective. She is a con woman, and only thinks in terms of survival and payouts. So she lets Beth’s secrets fall to the wayside as irrelevant to her, while searching for money to get Kira back. However, like Chekov’s gun, these hints steadily lay pressure on the trigger, and fire at the end of the episode as Katja hops into Sarah’s backseat. One woman wearing the same face could be a fluke, or a long-lost twin. A third seems to indicate a much deeper mystery. As Sarah answers the pink phone, which has floated in the background of this entire episode, she opens the door to this mystery and jumps in. She seems to accept, with the appearance of the sniper, that Beth, Katja, and herself are all part of something that none of them can handle themselves. Certainly the fact that Sarah has met two women who look like her, and both have met an untimely death, must not be lost on her.
The impressiveness of this show lies in how well it morphs from a drama about a foster child inhabiting the life of a dead twin, to a sci-fi mystery with the edge of a thriller. Fans of sci-fi television know that it’s a rare occurrence for such shows to be given much attention in the awards circuit, regardless of whether they are critically acclaimed. “Natural Selection” demonstrates why this show could be a chance for sci-fi’s day in the sun. It’s incredibly accessible, even to a casual viewer. The pacing is consistent and the plot is gripping. It becomes clear by the end of episode 1 that the intricacies of Sarah’s life are probably not the core plot of the show, and that there are larger designs in place, yet both the larger plot and the more intimate one are equally exciting to watch. It’s a bit like Game of Thrones, in which you sometimes get the sense that the intrigue in the South at King’s Landing is just a distraction from the coming Winter – yet it seems equally intrinsic to the story that’s being told. The writing on this show has a confidence and simplicity that allow incredible realism despite the fantastical story. I’m very much looking forward to what happens next.