The Grand Feminist Legacy of Orphan Black

By
Tatiana Maslany. Photo: Ken Woroner/BBC AMERICA

A young brunette, part sharp-tongued street urchin and part morally questionable con woman, scans the train platform when her kohl-rimmed weary eyes land on something both familiar and strange: her mirror image — soon to be revealed as one clone of many — jumping to her death. This moment splits the life of Sarah Manning in two, going from a single mother who screwed up the lives of everyone in her path to a modern warrior fighting not only for herself, but for a sisterhood. In the five seasons it aired, Orphan Black could have simply been a slick and propulsive science fiction yarn, propelled by narrative experimentation and visceral moments. Yet it was that and so much more. It built upon this surreal opening scene to create a sprawling mythos interrogating notions of womanhood, identity, the politics of science, and the prickly notions of autonomy for women, all wrapped in an immensely engaging science-fiction tale about clones.

Novelist Angela Carter once wrote, “The notion of a universality of experience is a confidence trick and the notion of universal female experience is a clever confidence trick.” Orphan Black’s creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, along with their collaborators, were intelligent enough to understand this. They used the multitude of clones, played with honesty and technical bravura by lead actress Tatiana Maslany, to examine the multiplicity of the female experience, while also interrogating the ways the female body is policed and manipulated. Orphan Black capably explored all this by melding the themes often seen in horror and noir: a primal understanding of humanity, and a black-hearted distrust of corporate entities. These two genres often work to project ideas onto women, sometimes making them more symbols than human beings, but instead Orphan Black twisted that to make their pulpy impulses serve a story about women’s battle to be the architects of their own destiny.

As Cosima Herter, the scientific consultant on the series who inspired the fan-favorite clone on the show who shares her name, said, “Science is always political.” No matter how outlandish its science fiction became — bionic eyes, corporate heads using mad science on themselves, a sprawling contingent of clones, implants that, if taken out, could kill their host — the writers always tied their creations back to the central characters and their brutal fight for autonomy. Sometimes Orphan Black’s audaciousness could prove overwhelming. Take season three and its failed gamble to focus on the male “Castor” clones, or much of Sarah’s daughter’s story line. But these flaws pale in comparison to the many ways Orphan Black enchanted and challenged viewers over the years. The clones played by Maslany always seemed to be in states of transition — between trying on one identity or another, between sickness and health — that reflected on their bodies. The ways these “sestras,” and the close-knit family they created, interact with each other on a physical level displayed a startling intimacy in the realm of science fiction. But the show’s social, scientific, and narrative goals would add up to little more than clever puzzle pieces if it weren’t for the wild, beating heart of the series: its sense of family.

Orphan Black wasn’t interested in a simplistic hero’s journey or keeping Sarah as a lone wolf. It made the radical choice of arguing for the importance of community and family, along with individual identity. The writers understood that for this battle to be won against the Neolutionist movement, whose various branches are responsible for the creation of clones like Sarah, and the ways their lives have been circumscribed, it would take much more than one person to take the operation down — making it one of the most honest examples of political and personal resistance in modern science fiction. As Tatiana Maslany said to Marie Claire, “We were telling that story from day one about autonomy, and about community as opposed to individual, and about our differences actually uniting us and making us stronger. So to get to actually talk about this mediocre man at the top, take off his head, it was really cathartic.” Orphan Black culled a pretty mammoth cast of characters over its five seasons, each of whom lent a distinctiveness to the series, whether they were noxious villains like James Frain’s Ferdinand or eventual heroes like Dylan Bruce’s Paul, so it’s hard to praise all their work individually. But there are a few I feel it’s imperative to highlight.

As Dr. Delphine Cormier, the girlfriend and fellow scientist to Cosima, Évelyne Brochu created a tender-hearted romance as one-half of the show’s favorite couple. Watching Delphine and Cosima interact was to watch a relationship always in states of negotiation. But for all their heartache, Delphine and Cosima’s bond represents one of the few times in recent memories a lesbian couple has had a happy ending. As Art, the detective partner of Beth who jumped to her death in front of Sarah, setting the entire series in motion, Kevin Hanchard grew to be a solid presence who somehow never cracked under the weight of the drama swirling around him, and felt sensitive enough to never devolve into a caricature of the stoic black man. But perhaps my favorite cast members that make up the family surrounding the clones are those closest to Sarah — her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and foster mother slash forever badass Siobhan Sadler (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Gavaris was at his best playing off of Maslany as Sarah, charting the contradictions that come between siblings. Their emotional moments — often pivoting between anger and deep-seated love — grounded the series in a personal history. Kennedy granted Siobhan, and by extension Orphan Black as a whole, its own sort of gravity. In her, I recognized women of my own maternal family, who despite the hardships of their lives retained a sharp sense of humor and clear-eyed understanding of the world that influenced the generations that have come after them. Of course, for all the technical skill and layered performances of the supporting cast, Orphan Black always lived and died based on the chimeral work of its lead, Tatiana Maslany.

Maslany, with the aid of her body double Kathryn Alexandre, created performances that on their own are a marvel for their technical feats. Playing well over eight different clones over the course of the series, Maslany took on a wild array of accents, styles, physicalities, and costumes to bring these people to life. She could be feral or prim, morose or bubbly, violent or tentative. Briefly, in season two, she even took on a trans male clone named Tony. But technical craft, no matter how thorough, isn’t enough to make a gamble like this work. An actor has to go deeper than that, they have to treat each character with empathy. Gena Rowlands once said about bringing to life her towering performance in A Woman Under the Influence, “You change your energy and allow another person to haunt your house so to speak. It’s like medium.” Maslany is one of the few actors who comes across as both haunted and haunting. She colors in minute details that make each of the clones — particularly the main five — feel like she’s also somehow conjured distinctive souls whenever she changes costume. They feel so carefully constructed and empathetically rendered, its easy to forget a single actress is responsible for them all. She’s especially triumphant when bringing to life Rachel, Helena, and Sarah. When Rachel, a character who vacillated between outright villain and occasional anti-hero, given how she sided with the Neolution movement, ripped out her own bionic eye, it wasn’t just a moment of horror, but a portrait of her desperate search for power and freedom thanks to Maslany’s understanding of the character. Whenever Helena’s blonde hair was haloed by light, or she’d arch her back revealing the wings she carved upon it, she felt like a girl-monster who’d lost her way from a fairytale.

Then, of course, there is Sarah, the lynch pin for the whole series. As much as I loved each of the main characters, it was Sarah I connected with most. Her inability to sit still, her fear about normalcy, her prickly relationship with Siobhan all worked to create a portrait of longing so finely wrought it could be overwhelming. In Helena and Sarah, Maslany created very different evocations of loneliness — how it reshapes the way you move through the world, from how you walk to the particular lies you tell yourself under the guise of survival. When Sarah breaks down in the finale, admitting, “I don’t know how to be happy,” I couldn’t help but tear up with her. Sarah was a selfish, destructive, wrecking ball of a woman. But there’s something triumphant and admirable in tracking her evolution toward regaining her own autonomy, which finally happens when she takes an oxygen tank to the head of P.T. Westmoreland, the final Big Bad whose own ego and quest for immortality is behind the sprawling Neolution mythology. This isn’t to say Maslany only works best creating darker, more morose individuals. Krystal, a blonde airhead, was buoyant to the point of being nearly untethered to the world around her. She was ridiculous, a quick shot of humor in an increasingly harrowing world. But Maslany never condescended to the character. Orphan Black’s greatest legacy can be found in the ways Maslany would transform herself to embody these radically different characters. Yes, it’s a technical feat of extreme skill. But it also points to the show’s feminist ethos, which portrayed women as being so much more than what the men who sought to control them wanted them to be.

Orphan Black asked tough questions about motherhood, identity, and autonomy, and provided even tougher answers in turn. It went wide and deep, sometimes overreaching its own capabilities. But even when it failed narratively, it was bolstered by commanding performance so layered and honest that it remained memorable. Orphan Black may be considered too pulpy, too prone to the baroque to be considered in league with the more austere series that have become entrenched in the modern canon. It’s a shame, because it pushed the boundaries of science fiction in startling new ways. It was bold enough to ask, what does it mean to be a modern woman? The writers, directors, and collaborators were smart enough to realize there isn’t just one answer.

Orphan Black’s Grand Feminist Legacy