Victims and Villains: The Women of Orphan Black

Anyone who doubts that women contain multitudes should really watch Orphan Black.

It’s not just the consistent complexity of the characterisation, although lead actress Tatiana Maslany’s astonishing performance as multiple, distinct clones is so eerily perfect that it’s difficult to believe she isn’t secretly a single persona applied to quintuplets. (At the Hugo Awards afterparty at LonCon3 last year, I had a fascinating conversation with Orphan Black writer Will Pascoe, who told me that on set, he once turned to ask where Cosima’s actress was, momentarily forgetting that she and Sarah were being played by the same person.) No; it’s the underlying tension of nature versus nurture: the idea that people—that women—don’t just contain a single, pre-determined version of themselves, but endless possibilities.

Spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 ahead.

Having just caught up with the second season and eagerly anticipating the third—I prefer to bingewatch shows instead of drip-feeding them week to week—I’m more impressed with Orphan Black than ever. Season 1 had the vibe of a fast-placed SF police drama, every episode part of a tense, impressive reveal from the moment grifter Sarah Manning witnesses the suicide of an unknown doppleganger and assumes her identity. The discovery that Sarah is a clone—and more, that she and her sisters are being hunted down and killed—is made even more compelling by the revelation that the assassin, Helena, is also one of their number, abused and brainwashed by Christian fundamentalists opposed to cloning. The season arc asks as many questions as it answers—of all the clones, why is Sarah alone able to have biological children? Who created the clones and for what purpose? Why are they being monitored?—before building to a tense finale, revealing not only that Sarah and foster-brother Felix’s foster-mother, Siobhan Sadler, knows much more than she’s letting on, but that the clones themselves have been patented, making them the intellectual property of the Dyad Group.

As such, Season 2 feels much more like a thriller, focusing on questions of loyalty, agency, trust and politics. With Cosima reliant on Dyad for life-saving medical treatment, Sarah is forced into an antagonistic near-alliance with Rachel, a clone raised in self-awareness of her status by the scientists originally responsible for Project Leda and now, technically, in control of Dyad. The introduction of Kira’s father, Cal, further complicates Sarah’s loyalties—as does the fear that Siobhan is no longer entirely trustworthy. Trying to compensate for her guilt at the role she played in her neighbour’s death and fearful that her husband is her monitor, suburban mother Alison spirals steadily out of control, while Helena—having survived Sarah’s attempt on her life—is co-opted by yet another religious group, the sinister Prolethians. In the midst of all this, the introduction of Tony, a trans clone, further expands on Orphan Black’s welcome exploration of gender and sexuality, with detective Art’s introduction to the fold standing in sold contrast to Felix’s increasing unease and personal vulnerability.

What really stood out for me in Season 2, however, was Helena’s development. In Season 1, she’s described as a ‘furious angel’, her back crisscrossed with marks of ritual scarification, her horrific upbringing—first raised in a convent in the Ukraine, then taken by fundamentalists who taught her she was soulless, inhuman, an abomination, trained to kill a succession of sisters who shared her face—an explanation, but not quite an excuse, for the violence she commits. Helena is a fascinating character, imbued by Tatiana Maslany with all the smiling, ethereal, childlike menace of a dark fairy: a changeling-clone and Sarah’s literal mirror-twin, stolen by monsters and sent back with sharpened teeth. Her murder of Amelia, her birth mother, in the Season 1 finale, is both horrific and tragic, and it’s this act which prompts Sarah to try and kill her. That Amelia is guilty of the two offences Helena lays against her—first separating her from her twin, then leaving her to be raised by a succession of abusers—doesn’t make her actions any less awful, let alone defensible; and yet we sympathise with her, too, because she’s been robbed of so much.

OrphanBlack-Helena

And over the course of Season 2, she’s robbed of even more. Taken from the hospital by Prolethian leader Henrik Johanssen, Helena—who, like Sarah, is fertile—has her eggs stolen, though initially, she doesn’t understand what’s happened to her. While Helena is sharply intelligent in her own way, possessed of the hardened instincts of a survivor, she has no formal education, no understanding of science or bodies beyond what’s necessary to fire a gun and stitch her wounds: she mistrusts her captors despite (or perhaps because of) their surface kindness, but doesn’t understand the full monstrousness of their actions until teenage Grace, Johanssen’s daughter, explains it to her plainly. Johanssen has not only taken Helena’s eggs; he’s fertilised them himself and implanted them, not just in Helena, but in Grace, too—and (we assume)—in multiple other Prolethian women. His subsequent death at Helena’s hands is both shocking and cathartic: Helena might not understand the science of artificial insemination, but she certainly comprehends the savage irony of strapping Johanssen into gynaecological stirrups and impaling him on his own equipment.

Helena isn’t just a fascinating character: she’s an important one, too. In accordance with the pervasive narrative influence of the Madonna/Whore complex, women are seldom written as both victims and villains—or rather, as persons whose actions subvert that particular binary, defying easy categorisation as one or the other. Either their victimhood is a charade used to lull the (traditionally masculine) hero into a sense of false security, or their superficial villainy is overcome by the (again, traditionally masculine) hero’s romantic advances; or at the very least, by his ability to charm them into switching sides, however temporarily. Instead, Helena’s ‘hero’, inasmuch as she can be said to have one—more often than not, she saves herself—is Sarah; and Sarah, who’s already a fantastic anti-heroine in her own right, has as a relationship with Helena that’s uneasy at best and hostile at worst. More than once, she successfully appeals to Helena’s better nature in order to sway her from violence, but at the same time, she never forgets Helen’s own violent capabilities, and so is equally likely to both betray her ‘sestra’—and to expect betrayal in turn—as to expect or offer help.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Helena’s characterisation, however, is the extent to which she remains unsexualised. Helena has lived a horrific life and is demonstrably capable of killing in cold blood—with her bare hands, if need be—and yet she’s also prone to being touch-shy, treating kindness as a trap. Early in the season, Helena meets and forms a brief attachment to a trucker in a bar, kissing him with needy inexperience, until their tryst is interrupted by a barfight that leads to her arrest. Later, in describing the encounter, Helena spins a whimsical tale about their grand romance, describing the man as a soldier who had to go undercover as a trucker to hide from his enemies. It’s the same impish blend of fact and fiction we’ve seen her employ elsewhere, her narration reminiscent of nothing so much as a small child’s storytelling, and yet it resonates even more deeply here, both as a clear coping mechanism for the repeated loss of good things, and because of what it says about her emotional maturity. Helena is a changeling, an assassin, a furious angel, a survivor, but we are never allowed to forget that she not only was, but in many important respects, still is, a lonely, abused child.

Orphan Black is an amazing, complex, well-written, powerful show, and though all its characters consistently give me feelings—about Sarah, Felix, Kira, Cosima, Alison, Art and Delphine—for me, Season 2 was all about Helena, and I can’t wait to see what happens in Season 3.

Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. As well as being the author of Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt, she reviews for A Dribble Of Ink and Strange Horizons, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate; her writing has also appeared at The Mary Sue and The Book Smugglers, and in 2013, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. She likes cheese, geekery, writing, webcomics and general weirdness. Dislikes include Hollywood rom-coms, liquorice and waking up.

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