Orphan Black and Sisterhood

To reiterate the summary in my previous post: Orphan Black is the story of a group of women – all played by Tatiana Maslany in truly astonishing feat of acting – who discover they’re the subjects of an experiment in human cloning. It’s the story of their search for their origins, their developing relationships with each other, and their struggles against the forces who want variously to own, study, exploit, and exterminate them.

Which makes it, also, a story about sisterhood.

The show centres on four clones in its first season, five in the second. Sarah Manning, the mainest of the main characters, is a streetwise and initially amoral grifter. Alison Hendrix is a hyperenergetic and hyperefficient soccer-mom. Cosima Niehaus is a laid-back but rather bratty biology student. Helena is an outsider, abused and brainwashed by a cult, who enters the series as a feral murderer. Rachel Duncan is an insider, a cold and manipulative executive in the corporation that’s experimenting on the clones. (We see other clones, but they appear only fleetingly).

Each clone is also grappling with deep wounds, frailties, and vulnerabilties. Sarah longs to become someone who’s worth trusting, and to reconnect with the daughter she’s neglected. Alison lives her life in a fishbowl of a community where all friendships are laced with unspoken competition, which has left her filled with pent-up paranoia. Cosima fears needing and being needed, and is increasingly suffering from a congenital illness many of the clones share. Helena’s whole life is a wound, both salved and exacerbated by her desperation to belong and to be loved. Rachel was brought up with knowledge of the experiment but is still not free of it, and is torn up inside by the clash between her current environment and the loving family she once knew.

All good characters in all good shows grow and change of course, but it’s dispiritingly rare for that growth to be effected and shown through female-female relationships. On Orphan Black, such relationships are not only prevalent, and deep, but celebrated.

Which isn’t to say they can’t also be difficult and heartbreaking – they certainly can be, one of the most so being that between Sarah and Helena. When they first meet, it’s as enemies: the cult that raised Helena has told her she is the original and must redeem the taint of being cloned by killing the others; Sarah is her latest target, but Helena feels a connection between them, and despite everything so too does Sarah. At the end of the first season, this proves true when they learn they’re not just clones but also twins – a fact that Helena latches onto with all her desperate longing. At first Sarah resists this – to the point of shooting Helena – because Helena has threatened and hurt too many people Sarah cares about. And yet… when Helena returns, it’s to seek her sister’s help. And while Sarah starts off just trying to use her, she’s unable to stay unmoved by Helena’s attempts to reach out to her. It’s a relationship that’s still unresolved so far – as is the question of whether Helena’s shattered psyche can ever come to some sort of wholeness – but if it can, and if it does, it’ll be because of Sarah.

Sarah – as is apparent from the previous paragraphs – starts the series as a pretty awful person. In the opening scene, she robs the body of a suicide – Beth, the first other clone we see – and then moves into Beth’s life, intending to clean out her assets. While she wants to reconnect with her daughter Kira, her plan is to snatch Kira from her (Sarah’s) foster mother Siobhan who has been raising Kira in Sarah’s absence. Of course, this is all promptly complicated by coming across the other clones, Alison and Cosima, who with Beth were investigating their origins – and by seeing the depth of love between Kira and Siobhan – and she finds she can’t go through with either plan. Her mother and her daughter who love each other, and her newfound sisters who need her, add up into connections she resolves to do right by.

Redemption is also at the heart of another relationship, specifically Cosima’s with her girlfriend Delphine. When they first meet, Delphine is a plant from the group experimenting on the clones, assigned to monitor Cosima’s life. Cosima has deduced this, and intends to use Delphine in much the same way. Just as would be expected if Delphine were a man, they fall for each other; hard. And love for Cosima shakes Delphine’s loyalty to her employers. It’s not a smooth path, because Delphine is willing to betray the other clones for the sake of Cosima in particular – and as Cosima’s illness gets worse, a desperate Delphine secretly uses Kira’s genetic material to treat her. Both actions come close to breaking them up altogether – and do culminate in an ultimatum from Cosima to Delphine that loving her alone isn’t enough, not without also caring for her sisters.

Meanwhile, sisterhood is the furthest thing from Rachel’s mind. Raised inside the Dyad corporation, aware of the experiment and the other clones, she’s been brought up to believe that she’s better than them. But even so, she is not free – she is monitored like them, tested like them, just with her knowledge, and marked in her cells with the same patent. Where Helena has been taught that killing the other clones is the way of redeeming her body, Rachel has been taught to abstract her body – to ignore the way it’s treated in favour of a sense of superior perspective. In the second season, this illusion begins to crack – from learning that Sarah has had a child, something most of the clones cannot do – from Cosima’s stubborn refusal to be dehumanised, and her connections with her sisters – and finally dies when the man who’d once been her father, one of those who created the clones to begin with, blithely tells her that she was barren by design. Which she could have responded to by siding with the other clones. But instead, she retreats into her practiced superiority, and obsesses over “defeating” Sarah and breaking Cosima. And when the two of them escape from Dyad, Rachel is (perhaps fatally) wounded in the process. Where an acceptance of sisterhood holds the hope of healing and redemption for both Sarah and Helena, and sustains Cosima and Alison through the dark turns their lives are taking, the rejection of it proves to be Rachel’s downfall.

I don’t really have a larger point here, except for how rare it is for shows to do this. Even those that centre on female characters rarely have quite such a tapestry of female relationships – as sisters, daughters, mothers, lovers, friends – or have those relationships be such a positive force in those characters’ lives. And how appropriate it is for a show that depicts the violation of female bodies to balance that by celebrating the connections between female hearts.


  1. says

    Interesting review. Since I live under a rock, I’ve barely heard this show mentioned and wouldn’t have given it another thought. Now I’ll try to check it out.

    Minor biological point: Twins are clones. (Monozygotic twins, that is.) They’re just nature-made rather than human-made. As a biologist, it’s one of my pet peeves. When there was all the shrillness about clones ten or fifteen years ago, I kept trying to point it out. We’ve always had clones. They’re called twins. And triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, etc., etc.

    • SunlessNick says

      Well, just so’s you know, when I describe Tatiana Maslany’s acting as “truly astonishing,” I’m soft-pedalling it. By a long way.

      Good point about the biology.

  2. says

    Yes! You mentioned SVU in your first post – the difference here is that the whole show is mainly from the POV of the victims, who are humanized over and over and over. They’re not a crime to be solved – that’s the whole point of the show. Even Rachel is humanized over time, despite her attempts to treat herself as an object, both of scientific interest and as the unrealistically perfect corporate leader.

    • SunlessNick says

      Mm, I picked SVU because it’s garnered a lot of criticism specifically here in the past for exactly that sort of reason.

      • says

        In case I was unclear, I was totally agreeing with and supporting the contrast you made – just expanding on exactly why it works so well IMO. You can’t watch this show without seeing it from the POV of the clones.

        • SunlessNick says

          Oh, no, you were clear; I was just adding that it was the takedowns of SVU I’d read here that led me to pick it.

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