On the surface, Orphan Black is a science fiction show that explores the ethical implications of cloning and the lives of individuals who find out they are clones. Look one level deeper, though, and Orphan Black is a hidden gem of a dramedy with a touch of horror. It is a breath of fresh air with a myriad of perspectives on human identity — particularly female identity.
Orphan Black, the BBC America television show that’s just wrapped up its second season, begins when ex-con Sarah Manning passes through a train station and watches a woman who looks just like her jump in front of a train. Confused and scared by essentially watching herself commit suicide, Sarah takes the woman’s identity and learns that the woman is one of several lookalikes that share Sarah’s DNA. As Sarah delves into the dangerous mystery of who she is, she gets to know her fellow clones. They become her allies, all part of what they affectionately call the “Clone Club.”
Orphan Black offers a range of personalities among the clones, all of whom are skillfully portrayed by Tatiana Maslany. (Seriously, can someone get her an Emmy already?) In addition to Sarah, the Clone Club includes a cast of personalities like Alison, a suburban soccer mom; Cosima, an evolutionary biology graduate student; and Helena, a Ukrainian assassin raised in a religious cult. The show literally explores the different sides of a woman — the clones look the same (save some in-character hairstyle differences that really help out the audience) but lead very different lives.
Obvious ethical questions are raised when the clones meet (nature and nurture comes up often) and begin to realize the science behind their existence. Orphan Black employs science fiction, but it is firmly grounded in reality, as we watch each clone operate in her own world and make room for discovering her own biology. Cosima, for example, can throw herself wholeheartedly into research — biology is her field of study. Alison, on the other hand, tries to keep her life as a clone separate from her life as a wife and mother.
Last week, I brought up the problem of limiting fictional female characters into “strong” or “weak” categories. That’s not a problem on Orphan Black, as each character is thoroughly drawn-out and layered (and, thanks to Maslany’s performance, distinguishable — it’s common to forget that she’s often in the scene more than once, interacting with herself). In the first season, the clone considered the least threat ends up murdering someone — and it’s completely in character.
Naturally, the show uses its array of characters to explore different perspectives on different issues, particularly issues that affect women. Through the Clone Club, we see a variety of perspectives on sex, including different sexual identities. Sarah has no problem using sex as a tool to get what she wants. Alison’s attitude toward sex is heavily influenced by what she thinks her neighbors will think about her. Cosima identifies as a lesbian, and when she begins a relationship, it doesn’t fall into the one-dimensional categories of “functional” or “dysfunctional.” Rather, it is nuanced and refreshing as both women team up to solve the mysterious health problems that affect many of the clones while dealing with philosophical differences and their respective loyalties.
Another issue explored in depth is motherhood. Sarah, one of the few clones who is able to carry a pregnancy to term, has a child, Kira. Helena desperately wants a child and is literally willing to go through torture to have one. Alison is a mother to her two adoptive children but admits that she sees Kira as her own child since they share DNA. On the other hand, Kira is quick to accept her mother’s clones as maternal figures.
The show integrates several non-traditional family structures. As we watch the tenuous family that the clones build with each other, we learn about their own familial relationships outside of each other, which involve unconventional parental figures, of differing races and ages, which show the full range of parental abilities — from intensely protective to downright abusive.
When the clones learn who among them are the “originals” and who are the “clones,” we realize that the revelation doesn’t affect them. Each struggles with her own identity and the implications of being a clone, but the Clone Club accepts each other as people; that is never a question.
Though most secondary characters pale in comparison to all of the different Tatiana Maslanys running around, it’s significant to note that the clones’ ultimate sidekick is Sarah’s adoptive brother Felix, who is gay, an artist and routinely cross dresses. In one scene, he suggests that Alison’s children play dress up as the opposite gender — though they both protest at first, they end up enjoying dressing up and beg their mother for “Uncle Felix” to come back.
We need more shows like Orphan Black. Not only does the show tell a compelling story but it also showcases a cast of characters from different family structures and walks of life without calling too much attention to its themes, which offer a variety of perspectives. That it does not draw attention to its many layers of character and morality may be to the show’s disadvantage, but it’s also one of the show’s best qualities. Orphan Black is not a show about diversity. Rather, it brings a ragtag group of characters together and allows their uncommon perspectives to create a refreshing narrative about identity and community.