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Greg Nelson: The Three Writings of an Episode

Clone Club,

There’s an adage in the television business: An episode is written three times: first on the page, second on set while filming, and third in the editing suite. Episode 504 is a good example.

On a serialized show like Orphan Black, where the story is slowly developed and revealed over multiple episodes, we spend a lot of time in the writers’ room discussing exactly when each revelation should occur.  And, of course, the biggest revelations often form the climaxes of individual episodes.  In the case of 504, once we determined (after much planning and discussing) that this was the episode where we would not only learn about the monster, but about the terrible events in the past that led to the creation of the monster – we knew that we’d be able to structure the whole episode around this shocking revelation.


We had done the setup work. In the season premiere, Sarah has a dramatic encounter with the monster in the wilderness. But we don’t get a good look at it, and all Sarah can tell Cosima is: “there’s something in the woods.” Then, in 502, Cosima hears rumors of a “bear” in the woods, keeping the mystery alive. Now, in 504, we were ready to make our move.

1st “writing”: the page.

Burning the midnight oil

In the script, the monster is glimpsed midway through the episode, when Mud takes food and warm clothing to him in the snowy woods. Cosima witnesses the encounter (without getting a good look) and is propelled to make a dangerous trip into the mansion, following Mud through a secret doorway, where she discovers a creepy basement lab where the monster had clearly been imprisoned and experimented upon.  Boom. If this is what P.T. is capable of, what will he do to Kira?  Or to the Leda clones themselves?  There is still plenty of mystery — we still haven’t really seen the monster; he is still terrifying. We’ll have to tune in next week to find out…

2nd “writing”: on set.

Night shoot at Revival

Cut to: mid-way through the filming of Episode 504. Middle of the night; middle of the woods. Rock-star director David Wellington is shooting the encounter between Mud and the Monster, with Cosima watching in the shadows. And because David is an amazing director, he knows that “glimpsing” the creature won’t be enough. We need to really see him. And more importantly, we need to understand that he is not just terrifying — he’s also vulnerable. He is a victim. In David’s hands, the scene loses some of the mystery, but gains huge depth and resonance and emotion.

Prepping the pig

3rd “writing”:  the editing suite.

Finally, several weeks later, as John Fawcett works with editor Reginald Harkema in the editing suite, he makes a significant change. Instead of placing the forest encounter at the halfway point of the episode, he move it to the end of Act Four. So now Cosima follows Mud into the mansion not because she has seen the creature, but because she knows that Mud is lying about the bear in the woods, and is determined to learn the truth. The result is that the final climactic sequence delivers a greater one-two punch. And the climax of the episode shifts. The revelation of the horrific basement lab and the bloody cage and the experiments now serves to set up the real climax: the reveal of the monster in the woods. We understand the terrible human cost of what P.T. Westmoreland has done. And seeing the monster not only becomes a satisfying payoff to all of the setup work we have done, but it leads us to wonder: what role will the monster play in the episodes to come? Because we know that we haven’t seen the last of him.

Three writings. It’s a challenging, intensely collaborative, and incredibly rewarding process. It’s the best part of the job — working with talented and deeply committed people to tell the story, together.

Greg Nelson

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