The feminist sci-fi series brilliantly explores repro rights and female sexuality through its star Tatiana Maslany, who portrays a cast of clones. So where do the male clones fit in to the story?
[SPOILER ALERT: This article refers to plot points of the Orphan Black, up through season three’s episode, “Newer Elements of Our Defense.”]
My relationship with Orphan Black is complicated. It has brought me closer to rabid fandom than any other television show save the original Sherman and Mr. Peabody (defined as how tempted I have been to purchase one or more T-shirts). As a scientist, it makes me cringe whenever there’s an error in lab scene. As a person who is attracted to strong women, it can be very hot. As a feminist, I am most drawn to the solid, unapologetic, and consistent commitment to portrayals of reproductive and sexual autonomy and the many threats presented to it, as complicated by the nature of being clones jointly developed by a deeply shady multinational and the military industrial complex.
If you’re not a member of Clone Club, the premise of Orphan Black is this: A young woman named Sarah Manning returns to Toronto to reunite with her daughter Kira, after leaving her abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend. As she is leaving the train station, she witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks exactly like her named Beth Childs. After stealing her dead dopplegänger’s identity, she’s drawn into a fight she never wanted, and learns of her origin from two more “sisters”—all products of something called Project Leda. A third sister, Helena, is hunting and killing them one by one as part of a religiously fanatic cult that sees the clones as abominations. Sarah’s foster family—brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), mother Siobhan Sadler (Maria Doyle Kennedy)—are pulled into the fight for “Clone Club” and against the forces coming at them, whether religious, corporate or an ex-boyfriend that can’t let go. (Here, the cast will try and catch you up on the last two seasons in 30 seconds.)
The above paragraph cannot do this show justice: It is funny, dark, sometimes horrifying, occasionally sexy, and often moving. While the underlying story is that of a mother trying to get her daughter back, the way Orphan Black recounts this story—or stories, really—is what makes it such a critical success, and fodder for fervent fandom. The superlatives necessary to describe Tatiana Maslany’s performances as the female-born clones—over ten that we’ve encountered, plus a trans man named Tony—and clones playing other clones feel somewhat trite at this point, as so much has been written about her work (while, criminally and inexplicably, not yet matched by an Emmy nomination). Some of the most jarring scenes, functioning to both to advance the plot as well as illuminate the ways in which the women’s bodies are not wholly their own, have been improvised by the actress: an interrogation about Sarah’s reproductive history upon surrender to the shady multinational that has gone so far as to patent her genome; Helena’s revenge on the religiously driven “scientist” who harvested her ova, fertilized them with his sperm and implanted them in her (and his own daughter). These scenes are chilling, sometimes darkly amusing, and could easily appear in “The Handmaid’s Tale 2: Revenge of the Handmaids: This time, it’s personal AND political.”
How the show handles sex is so alien to most television as to be not just remarkable, but transformative: Felix is an Irish rent boy, but rather than being tragic and alone, has great play dates with a potential boyfriend complicated only by those who seek to control his sister. As for the clones, Sarah can choose (or not) to be sexual with the men in her life. High-strung soccer mom Alison, who in the first season seems puritanical and shames her husband for his taste in porn (while trying to ascertain if he’s part of the conspiracy to monitor the clones), becomes liberated by a comic, criminal act the couple shares. (A crime that also turns her on—she tells her husband at the crime scene, “I want to do the nasty.”) Even Mrs. S, Sarah’s foster mother, a woman who on most shows would be sexless at best, has an urgent and heated encounter with a former lover in a bar without embarrassment or regret, as it should be.
Which is why it’s so strange that the sex life of Sapphic scientist Cosima is somewhat muted. There is some debate on various fan Tumblrs as to whether she is lesbian or bisexual, but since the first season, her sole love interest has been her monitor, Delphine, a fellow scientist, and now the head of the multinational Dyad Corporation. Theirs is a comparatively chaste love, and that just seems wrong for this show. It can be argued that as Cosima has suffered from a mysterious “clone disease” for most of its two seasons—perhaps showing her romping with Delphine seemed inappropriate (i.e., not tragic. Let us just say that conservation of energy via chastity would not be a life-saving strategy for some of us).
Instead we see Delphine and Cosima holding hands, kissing during numerous medical tests filmed in close-ups with sad, ethereal backing music. It can feel like avoidance or discomfort with how you portray lesbian sex, and in Orphan Black it’s startlingly obvious, especially when the others’ sex lives are so explicitly drawn. With the new season, a new potential love interest for Cosima will arrive: The way it’s handled may require me to apologize to Fawcett and Manson. (I am willing to do it in person, carrying a crow pie to eat later.)
The new season also brought what some fans (and writers) have feared since the second-season finale: male clones. The program that produced them, Project Castor, has been fully under military direction for the past two decades and so the clones (all played by Ari Millen) have been raised in a group as soldiers, tattooed with an identical insignia that echoes the myth of Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux). While watching the episode that introduced the new threat to Sarah and her sisters, I, too, had that sinking feeling. I feared that bringing this element in would weaken the show, force it to become Yet Another Science Fiction Action Drama, and the season-three premiere seemed to confirm the worst. But after the next episode, I set my feelings aside, not because I was convinced, but because I saw the beginning of something emotionally moving, philosophically consistent, and potentially unique and important—not unlike the show as a whole.
Project Leda’s clones aren’t the only ones suffering from a mysterious disease. The Castor clones seem to have some sort of neurological dysfunction that manifests as “glitches”: head shocks, neuropathy, and eventually cognitive paralysis that may or may not be some sort of stroke. The male clones are monitored for this via testing that looks a lot like a brilliant homage to the Voight-Kampff test from Bladerunner, and while it’s too early to know what the normal protocol for glitching clones is, we have now seen what one clone will do for another when they succumb to the disease, and this is the part that gives me hope.
By showing us the parallels between Project Leda and Project Castor, there’s a rich opportunity to extend the subtextual commentary on how we deal with love and grief, family and death as men and women. The sisters and brothers are both fighting to save their siblings and find a cure. How they go about that, so far at least, is very different: When Cosima gets sick, sacrifices are made by the sisters to get her what she needs. When Seth falls to the floor in excruciating pain, his brother Rudy kills him, mercifully but without hesitation. He holds his head, and tells him to “go easy … I love you” as he expires. Meanwhile, the first male clone we’ve met, Mark, is attempting to erase any connection he has to these men, seemingly so that he can live with his new wife outside of the world of Castor and warfare.
Orphan Black has a huge opportunity here with the male clones to make a big statement about traditional gender roles and expectations, rather than to capitulate to them. I anticipate that the writers have set out to demonstrate how the male clones are so emotionally hobbled by masculinity, especially with one of them trying to extricate himself from the limitations of the extreme and idealized expectations of masculinity enforced by their upbringing (and society in general), that we will see how these binary roles harm us all, men and women, clones and non-clones alike, and how subverting them and rebelling against them is to the benefit of everyone, no matter who or how they identify themselves.
Four episodes in, I think I’m not completely wrong. The energy and violence that Project Castor has brought to the show is alien and disruptive to both the series and its audience, and I believe that it’s deliberate. We see how the newer male clones view women as targets, whether sexually or strategically (unless you’re their mother). They interact with one another like stereotyped frat boys, including sharing your sexual partners without their consent, an issue that’s handled in a nuanced interchange between a female clone and the victim. Mark, the one brother who seems to want out, is torn in “Newer Elements of Our Defense” between the newly found sister who just saved his life, and his mission/brothers (one of whom pointedly calls him “a pussy”) whose bond with him is lifelong, profound but ultimately destructive. When you contrast Mark to Helena’s continuing metamorphosis, from a fundamentalist-trained soldier assassin to “sestra” (as Helena refers to her “sisters”), a potential narrative emerges about how we train soldiers to behave during their wars, how trauma can linger and manifest itself during and afterwards, how gendered those expectations can be and the harm done by allowing only certain types of responses to be recognized.
The producers, directors, writers and actors of Orphan Black have shown an unwavering commitment not only to taking on substantive issues, but to the fans whose love and devotion can seem almost cult-like at times. At Comic Con last year, a young woman told the assembled actors and audience how Cosima helped her mother positively accept her coming out. Tatiana Maslany listened, tearing up before replying gratefully and gracefully, followed by Jordan Gavaris’s equally moving remarks. The success of the show is based on its extraordinary quality, its unwillingness to talk down to its audience, and a mutual trust between viewers and those who create it to not take the pleasant or easy path to the truth. I share that trust (to a point), and am willing to continue to suspend my disbelief until we either get to the end, or something so uncharacteristic and egregious forces me to break up with Orphan Black. You might say I’m “in for a sister, in for a bro” at this point, and am eager to see where it goes.
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