Tuesday 11 June 2013

Orphan Black

[Spoilers for the first season of Orphan Black, a show that should be approached with absolutely no prior information whatsoever, so beware]

We're in Bummed Out City
That's what the sign says
I plead your mercy and your pity
Is not life a mirror maze 
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros – Bummed Out City

Imagine you were to accidentally catch a glimpse of someone who looked exactly like you, too much like you to account for it being happenstance, right before they jumped in front of a moving train; consider the number of possible reactions to such a situation, and the sum of all the thoughts, experiences and influences that would determine your course of action. The person who is met with this dilemma is Sarah Manning – and what she does is grab the bag of the woman who jumped, the one who looks just like her, and run. Within 24 hours, she figures out that her name is Beth Childs, where she lives, that she has a large sum of money in a bank account, and a way to get that money. Before we can even start to figure out what course of events shaped Sarah Manning into the kind of person she is now, we have a pretty good idea of who she is based on her reaction to the events that unfolded – resourceful, resilient, but also shockingly able to adopt someone else’s identity without much trouble or hesitation, someone who almost instinctively sees a dramatic event as an opportunity. Sarah Manning becomes Beth Childs because she is desperate to start a new life – to build a life for herself and her child currently fostered by her own former foster mother, to draw a line between herself and her criminal past, a shady ex-boyfriend. She reacts so effectively and quickly that the unlikeliness of the situation, the why and the how is that even possible, don’t really register until they catch up with her in the most brutal way.
Imagine you’d meet a spitting image of yourself, and watch her die in front of a train, and then another, with short hair and a German accent, who hints at a massive conspiracy right before being shot in the head on the back seat of your car, and then another, a suburban housewife who is surprisingly physical in the defence of her home, her territory, and then another, an aspiring doctor in evolutionary development who has some answers but none that make any sense.
The amazing thing about Orphan Black, apart from the stellar acting by Tatiana Maslany who somehow manages to play six people who all have the same face and still makes you forget that they are all played by the same person – is that the show isn’t just exciting because of its central mystery. How the clones came to be, who made them and for what purpose, all of these questions are interesting, but the more important question is how these women behave in the face of the quest for their history, how it affects them, the choices they make in the struggle to uncover the conspiracy that is slowly revealed. Sarah comes to a decisive point where she realizes that just taking the money – that turns out to be a sort of war chest that Alison (the suburban housewife) provided for their struggle to find the truth – isn’t a possibility anymore, not just because the diverse actors that are part of the conspiracy are starting to get a hold of her life. In order to be a good mother to her daughter, to make up for leaving her behind, she has to become a different person, and part of that is not leaving Cosima and Alison behind, and figuring out her own past in order to make a better one for her own little family.

Just one, I’m a few. No family too, who am I?

The idea of family itself is at the centre of the show as well, and it is deeply connected to the question of trust – who do these women trust implicitly, how is trust earned, what happens once trust is betrayed. Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Sarah’s foster brother, is absolutely trustworthy and reliable, and he follows Sarah even when her plans seem ludicrous. They are the most functional family unit the show has to provide, because of their shared history, their lack of a biological family and their precarious lives. Both of their lives seem impossible to master without being able to put all that trust into another person (and part of Sarah’s story is that she left Felix behind as well, not just her daughter). Sarah’s relationship to the woman who raised her, Mrs S (short for Siobhan, played by Maria Doyle Kennedy) is more difficult; she trusts her with her daughter, and yet they struggle over custody, and Mrs S forces Sarah to change to prove that she is ready to be a mother to Kira – they share an odd kind of mutual respect in spite of their complicated history, because in spite of the fact that Mrs S is also an antagonist of sorts, someone who keeps Sarah away from Kira, she also has the same deeply felt distrust of institutions and authority that Sarah has, and has a gun ready when her makeshift family is threatened.
Alison Hendrix’ version of family seems to be the opposite of Sarah’s, and on the surface, these two couldn’t be any more different. It’s one of the points the show makes; how different lives can turn out, depending on the circumstances. Alison is a suburban housewife, has two adopted kids, a husband, nosy neighbours. She is ready to defend that life, and desperately tries to compartmentalize their attempts to make sense of themselves from her suburban existence, but once the clones realize that they are constantly being watched by “monitors” who facilitates medical testing and report every detail of their lives, she immediately jumps to the conclusion that her husband must be responsible – because she turns out to be incredibly unhappy and unfulfilled in her life, so somehow being able to blame that frustration with the narrowness of suburbia on a bigger conspiracy is almost a relief, something that triggers incredible energies in her. When she decides that it isn’t Donnie, she starts to suspect her neighbour Aynesley, because it becomes impossible to tell whether her constant questions and prying into her life are part of the greater conspiracy or just what happens in the absence of more exciting things in the suburbs. The questions that are raised as the scope of the conspiracy becomes larger and larger aren’t just about who created the clones, and what they were for – suddenly every aspect of their lives are in question, because if they have been constantly observed and manipulated, have their past choices really been their own? Can a life based on lies still be authentic? Absurdly, it is later revealed that Sarah was one of two clones that got away and led a mostly unobserved life (or might have, depending on what role Mrs S played), she just also happened to end up with the most unconventional and dangerous one. On the other hand, there seem to be hints of a shared darker side that all the clones have, a result of a common tendency to be “pragmatic and decisive” (a description Dr Leekie, who is part of the conspiracy, gives of Alison), which makes them all resourceful but also dangerous and fierce. Sarah didn’t hesitate to grab the bag of a woman who had just killed herself. Alison, in one of the most shocking scenes in the first season, watches her neighbour die a gruesome death, still suspecting her to be her monitor – it later turns out that it was her husband Donnie all along, that her whole life really is a lie. It’s both the awful effect that the constant mistrust has on Alison and the reveal that, once that mistrust is in place, every aspect of her life is suddenly dreadful and suffocating to her.
And then there’s Helena, eerie, terrible Helena, who was raised by religious extremists, with the idea that she is the original and that the others are imposters who have to be killed (because what happens to the religious idea of a soul when cloning becomes reality?). Her quest for meaning is violently different from that of the other clones – she was made into a killing machine for someone else’s purposes. When she first meets Sarah, she realizes that they have a connection, and they later find out that they, amongst all the clones, are actually twins, born from the same mother, who was a recent South African immigrant to the UK and figured out that she was actually part of a scientific project, and decided to protect the two girls by giving “one to the state, one to the church”. As different as they seem, Sarah and Helena share a desire to belong to a family – Sarah tries to build a safe one with Kira, Helena, once she feels the connection to Sarah, sees the possibility of one for the first time in her life. Helena was raised to believe that she was the only, singular real one, and finding out that Sarah is her twin has changed everything, has put every bit of the ideology she’s been raised on into question – but Sarah already has her family, and there is no place for Helena. Worse, Helena kills their birth mother, and the one thing that Sarah had, during her difficult childhood and youth, was clinging to an idea of her real mother. All the clones are resilient and resourceful, but they are also all terrifying when cornered, fierce when something they care about is in danger. Alison watches Aynesley die, Helena kills her birth mother, and Sarah shoots Helena, the only family in the biological sense that she has apart from her daughter.

We are your biological imperative now.

We know the least about Cosima’s family, but her relationship with Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) is the most interesting in terms of shifting trust. She goes into it knowing that Delphine is very likely approaching her because she is her monitor, and – both out of the certainty she gains from thinking that she understands the nature of the situation as a scientist, and a naivety that the other clones don’t share – begins a relationship with her. We know more than Cosima does, for example that Delphine is indeed her monitor, and is reporting to Dr Leekie, with whom she seems to have an affair. Somehow in the process of playing each other, genuine feelings appear. Cosima drops her guard and gives Delphine access to information that she delivers to Leekie, but not all of it, because she is already too emotionally involved and is starting to have doubts (doubts that Leekie preys on, because one he realizes where Delphine’s weakness is, he tells her that all of it is to make sure that Cosima is safe). It’s the ultimate question in any story about conspiracies and spies – can genuine emotions exist if everything else is a lie? Can two people fall in love if they are being dishonest about their identity, their intentions, the amount of information they have on each other? Once Cosima realizes the extent of Delphine’s betrayal, she retaliates with a personal insult, and soon after, Delphine jumps ship (or so she says, it’s always a difficult story with trust) and regains Cosima’s trust not by revealing her feelings – she stops herself, barely – but by offering to help solving some of the questions. This is an odd sort of family as well, two people and the strange kind of intimacy that comes with trying to find the one sequence of DNA that differs in every clone, that makes them individual. They share their passion for science, enough that both were to a certain extent corruptible. Delphine used to see Cosima and the others as numbers until she fell in love, which is an insight into how the other scientists probably feel about them as well. Delphine becomes empathic when she isn’t dealing with abstract numbers or DNA sequences, when she realizes that what they add up to is a complete person (and that most of the things that are important don’t actually translate into these numbers). Cosima always seemed to be tempted by the idea of joining Leekie’s organization in trade for access to all the technology and information she needs to better understand herself and the others.
Cosima’s trust in science to provide meaning is the reason why the ultimate reveal of the season is so horrible, why it is the ultimate betrayal: the sequence that differs, that makes her special even though there are so many other women who look exactly like her, turns out to be a patent. The scientists numbered their clones, and made them restricted intellectual property.
Cosima: Sarah. You can’t make a deal.
Sarah: Why not?
Cosima: Any freedom they promise is bullshit. They’re liars. That synthetic sequence, that barcode I told you about, it’s a patent.
Sarah: A patent?
Cosima: We’re property. Our bodies, our biology, everything we are, everything we become, belongs to them. Sarah, they could claim Kira.
Sarah: They patented us. 
It’s when she realizes how cruel Leekie’s joke about her being on the cover of Scientific American really was, and it gives an awful spin to how these people use the terms “self-awareness” and “freedom”. They didn’t just lose autonomy, they were never afforded any in the first place, and suddenly, it’s no longer a struggle to understand – to find questions to all these answers – but one for their very existence, in the most profound sense.


Maybe Mrs S history mirrors that of Delphine: she was a scientist working on LEDA, realized that they were dealing with actual people, not just genetic material, and switched sides (or she was Sarah’s monitor and Leekie deliberately chose not to reveal this because it’s still a useful connection, but I’m assuming that Felix and Siobhan took Kira away because Sarah was going to sign the contract).

What kind of organization, in 1983, would have operated both in Soviet countries (Katja was born in the GDR) and in Europe/North America? To what end? Is the disease Katja and Cosima are suffering from an unintentional mistake or some kind of safety to keep the clones in check should anything go wrong?

Also, the fact that they raised genetically identical women in intentionally different environments would speak for some kind of sociological experiment?

If they got Paul through blackmail and Delphine first because of her scientific curiosity, then because of her empathy and her growing feelings for Cosima, what’s Donnie’s story? How long has he been Alison’s monitor?

We have to assume now that both Alison’s and Cosima’s parents were scientists working on the project.

Who is Kira’s father? Does the fact that Sarah is a twin have anything to do with her ability to have children (and could she be immune against whatever disease Katja and Cosima have?)

Also, Kira seems to have amazing regenerative abilities, but she also has amazing foresight (so maybe she has whatever abilities allowed Helena to “sense” her connection with Sarah).

Fun with references: 

Episode titles from On the Origin of Species, Aldous Huxley, 1984, Dyad, LEDA.

Orphan Black, Season One (2013-), created by John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, starring Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Hanchard, Dylan Bruce, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Michael Mando, Skyler Wexler, Inga Cadranel, Evelyne Brochu, Matt Frewer. 


LadyCanuck said...

I think it's also likely the parents were ignorant to the embryos being implanted not being their own during their IVF treatments.

cathy leaves said...

I think you're right. It would just be that more twisted if they were aware of it, and I can never quite tell how far this show is willing to go.