(Note: While it avoids any major plot twists, this FOC does include light spoilers.)
When people began to take notice of Orphan Black it was because of star Tatiana Maslany, and deservedly so. Maslany’s incredibly nuanced portrayal of at least four different characters per episode is unparalleled for a television drama. She imbues each character with such distinct personalities, gestures, walks, and vulnerabilities that it would be easier to believe the BBC had actually found an incredibly talented set of quadruplet actresses. The show would collapse on itself without such a strong central performance. Worse, it would look like a gimmick. As with every show, Orphan Black’s ambitions can be only as good as the talent bringing them to life. But Maslany’s tour de force isn’t the only reason Orphan Black is so exciting. In fact, the most revolutionary aspect of the series fell into place long before Maslany was attached, and it deserves recognition.
While Orphan Black is ostensibly about clones, the question of whether clones are morally problematic is not the show’s main concern. Sure, the debate is acknowledged, with one fervent religious group damning the clones as abominations, and the clones’ creators claiming that it’s a necessary way forward for the human race. It’s no coincidence, though, that the episodes that lean more on these morality riddles are the weakest. Frankly, these riddles are played out. Science fiction has asked, answered, and re-answered them a thousand times before. What we haven’t seen, though, is a science fiction show that makes female agency its priority as persistently as Orphan Black does.
It’s not that other sci-fi shows haven’t addressed the issue. Battlestar Galactica features several female characters that confronted their personal concepts of power, but the series was persistently gender-neutral and rarely addressed agency from a female perspective. Dollhouse tried to offer similar commentary on the powerful versus the powerless, but the story of individual freedoms fell to the wayside in favor of larger government conspiracy. More recently, Doctor Who’s resurgence has brought questions of female power with it. “Companion” is a loaded, complex title that’s taken on several different meanings with each of the women (and Rory) that have held it, especially as the Doctor tends to make decisions on their behalf in the interest of what he believes to be their own good. Even the potentially kickass Amy Pond became known as the far more passive “Girl Who Waited.” The closest contender may actually be Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which Joss Whedon created as a way to give power back to the blond girl who gets killed first in horror movies. Buffy struggles throughout the series about how much power she actually has, and while she’s stronger than most, she’s still “The Chosen One.” She didn’t choose it; she was chosen. (Then again, Buffy is more fantasy than science fiction, but that’s a debate for another day and/or the comments section.)
So where other sci-fi shows briefly acknowledge the gender politics at play, Orphan Black devotes almost all of its narrative energy towards women working through what it means to be independent. (Granted, they all look like Maslany, so they’re all working with the same privilege of being pretty and white.) While they’re curious about their shared background, the clones spend far more time working through the present, only asking “why?” after “what now?” They’re all desperately trying to hold onto their power. As the obstacles mount up around them, each clone gravitates towards different methods. It’s also significant that those trying to limit the clones’ freedom are all men: the smirking scientists who claim ownership over the clones; the duplicitous monitors that keep tabs on their every waking moment; the fanatical religious order that’s trying to eliminate them all together. All men, all trying desperately to keep control of these miraculous women’s bodies. Without giving too much away, the finale’s revelation that the clones have even less independence than they realized is especially devastating because the entire season is about them fighting tooth and nail for their freedom.
When Orphan Black introduces Sarah, she’s a petty criminal whose only priority is getting her daughter back. But as the series progresses and she gets deeper and deeper into her clone heritage, Sarah’s most pressing concern is how to keep control of her own life and her daughter’s, who’s essentially an extension of herself. She may have stumbled into the conspiracy, but she doesn’t shy away from it. Sarah’s way of reclaiming her power comes from forcing her way in and going after the outcome she wants, whether it’s by assuming another identity, meeting face-to-face with the very people who want to strip away her freedom, or taking a loaded gun to potential threats. Sarah’s also the most concerned with distinguishing herself from the other clones. When someone asks “how many” of her there are, she snaps back, “There aren’t more of me. I’m my own person.” There may be an infinite number of women walking around with her face, but as far as Sarah’s concerned, her individuality is all she’s got.
Grad student Cosima goes after the “why” more aggressively than her co-clones. She treats their genetic material like a map to their independence, because more than anything, Cosima believes that knowledge is power. Meanwhile, tightly wound soccer mom Alison is obsessed with getting her “normal” life back. She deeply resents being a clone, her constant panic indicative of a deep insecurity. Alison’s actually the one to tell Sarah that she’s a clone, spitting, “We’re someone’s experiment.” She often refers herself and the others as “lab rats,” subject to the whims of a mysterious higher-up who wants to do who-knows-what with their bodies. While her type-A personality suggests that she would prefer to play a more controlled political game to get what she wants, Alison makes more extreme, reckless decisions as she spirals deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole of paranoia. But even as she makes these questionable choices, Alison is always fighting for the right to make any at all.
Finally, there’s Helena. Being raised in the religious order that thinks clones are abominations, Helena was stripped of her power early on. The show often paints Helena in a feral light, a stray made wild by abuse. She was raised to believe that none of the clones are legitimate people, and therefore that they don’t have the right to make their own decisions or even live—so far as she believes any of them are “living.” Sarah challenges that notion directly, making Helena come to terms with her own deeply rooted beliefs. There are a lot of questions surrounding Helena (namely if she’s sane), but the most pressing one is whether she will ever become more than a tool for someone else’s cause.
As Orphan Black inevitably introduces more clones into the mix, challenges to their independence will be just as inevitable, and Maslany will likely bring the same attention to detail to her performances. But it’s important to acknowledge that the writers gave her a unique opportunity simply by creating a sci-fi series that focuses on female agency, and committing to telling the stories of a seemingly infinite number of women.