Epigenetic Television: The Penetrating Love of “Orphan Black”
By Everett HamnerJune 9, 2017
At its best, Orphan Black is one of the most thorough explications of the epigenetic tension between genes and environment ever to appear on screen or page. Beyond the quality of its writing, acting, and post-production, the foundation of the show’s success is its alignment of feminist, queer, and even post-secular critiques against a too-easy biotechnological corporatism. At the same time, it maintains considerable open-mindedness about the positive potential of genetic research and new medical technologies. Embodying an intertextual consciousness that has become a predominant trait of genetic fiction, this TV serial builds not only on major works by Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley, but also lesser-known, more recent novels like Pamela Sargent’s Cloned Lives (1976). In the process, it demonstrates how genetic influence is both very real and yet only part of what shapes human destinies. Perhaps most strikingly, it asks how love may be described by biology but still exceed it, suggesting that this prospect depends on defying religious fundamentalism’s and global capitalism’s mutual complicity in human objectification.
The show’s alternate-history premise is that a combination of US corporate and government interests began secret experimentation with reproductive human cloning soon after the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, long before Dolly the sheep’s birth announcement in 1997 and just as bioethicists, government watchdogs, and most scientists were beginning to think it possible. The resulting children are now adults, but not all are aware of their origins. In the first two seasons, viewers are invited to identify with three clones in particular: Sarah, initially a negligent mother prone to disappear for a year at a time and to make ends meet selling drugs, a habit patiently resisted by Felix, her gay stepbrother; Alison, an obsessively organized suburban soccer mom with two adopted children and a chubby, always-snooping husband, Donnie; and Cosima, whose doctoral work in genetics allows her a unique perspective on the activities of the show’s Dyad Institute, even as her dreadlocks and lesbian self-discovery land her in a relationship with a woman revealed to be one of its top scientists, Delphine. Then there is Helena, the Ukrainian avenging angel hell-bent on murdering her “sestras.” Helena has been brainwashed by a religious cult, the Proletheans, that raised her to believe her clone sisters are the demonic copies of her original source material, and much of the early plot turns on her decisions about whom to believe. As it turns out, Alison and Cosima are aware of the threat, having already been in contact with other clones like Beth Childs, the police detective whose suicide Sarah witnesses in the pilot’s opening scene and whose identity she assumes in an attempt to access the woman’s bank account. To say that “complications ensue” vastly understates Orphan Black’s intricacies, and only determined viewers can stay cognizant that all of these characters are played by a single shape-shifting actress, Tatiana Maslany. This is to say nothing of the male clones who emerge in the show’s third season or of additional developments in seasons four and five.
Season two is especially evocative in its exploration of the relationships between literal and figurative children and parents, the latter of whom sometimes suffer from divine pretensions. I examine it here as a microcosm of the entire show’s interest in the dialogue between creators and creatures, a 21st-century expansion on the relationships between Frankenstein and his “monster” and between Moreau and the Beast Folk. One of two highly paternalistic figures in the show’s first two seasons, Dr. Leekie is a corporate geneticist whose dystopian role is intimated by his first name, Aldous. This technoenthusiast has developed his own sense of morality, and his TED Talk–style sales pitches are steeped in transcendent rhetoric. In season one, he recruits Cosima to a lab at the Dyad Institute, at first condescending to her as a junior researcher, but soon realizing that she is not intimidated by his fame and that her dissertation on “the epigenetic influence on clone cells” has prepared her to grasp the significance of his efforts toward “patenting transgenic embryonic stem cells,” an allusion to Huxley’s novel and its hybrid-species experiments. It is not coincidental that Cosima first encounters Leekie as he is promoting “Neolution,” a cult-like posthumanist movement. Offering his listeners the possibility of replacing their current visual ability with infrared, x-ray, and ultraviolet capacities, he enthuses, “Plato would have thought we were gods.” In season two, he waxes similarly poetic before potential investors at a fundraising party for Dyad: “To combine is to create; to engineer, divine,” he declaims. This is humanity pursuing divinity not with humility but via high-tech mimicry, a pulse-pounding ideology that denies the inevitability of death and views genetics and other cutting-edge sciences as tools for elevating the species into a mystical invulnerability.
If Leekie’s language exploits religious rhetoric for technocapitalist purposes, the show’s other major cult uses biotechnology to serve religious ends. The Proletheans are a group of seemingly low-tech traditionalists living on what appears to be a self-sustaining communal farm. However, their exceedingly modest dress code and decorum mask a heavy investment in the tools of artificial insemination and genetic modification. As Henrik Johanssen explains of the effort to use his sperm, Helena’s eggs, and as many “brood mare” women as possible to expand his clan, “Man’s work is God’s work, as long as you do it in his name.” His public prayer is equally revealing; he informs God, “We are your instruments in the war for creation.” But Johanssen does not just rely on apocalyptic biblical allusions and militant, paternalistic rhetoric. Beyond the extremist stereotype, he also possesses some attractive characteristics. Like Leekie, Johanssen is awed by genetic biology, embracing its findings as revelations rather than threats to his faith, even if he is similarly overconfident of his ability to control life. Played by Peter Outerbridge, the same actor who helped create the more sympathetic researcher David Sandstrom in another Canadian television show about genetics, ReGenesis, this sexist is blind in his convictions. Yet we also see him leading a children’s story time with genuine charm, amusingly adapting Shelley’s novel to create the same happy ending he expects to foster in real life. “His creation pursued him with a terrible vengeance, because the doctor had never shown his creation any love,” Johanssen tells his enrapt young audience. “And so when they finally came face to face, they sat down, and they had a great big bowl of iceberg cream!”
Unfortunately for the storyteller, his own ending cannot be sugarcoated, and ultimately, the audience is not sorry. Johanssen never learns one of Orphan Black’s (and much genetic fiction’s) foundational lessons: love is antithetical to use. The unquestioning patriarchy of Prolethean culture may allow him effectively to take Helena as a second wife, remove her eggs, inseminate them, and then place the embryos in her womb and in that of his daughter; however, it is no coincidence that the show portrays him adapting the same tools to impregnate women as he does cattle — they are no less experimental beasts than the humanized animals in Wells’s novel. Appropriately, when Helena finally escapes her bedroom prison and overcomes Johanssen (with his daughter’s help), he finds himself strapped into the same stirrups he used to access his patients’ wombs. Tied in place, he panics as he senses the clone’s intentions. Marshaling the farm husbandry implements he had used on her, Helena gleefully asks how far his interest in human-animal hybridity goes: “Would you like horse baby? Cow baby?” The last we hear of the Prolethean leader is a terrified scream as she shoves the lengthy insemination device through the upper reaches of his anal canal. Helena’s triumph is as appalling as it is just, and it represents the rawest form of Orphan Black’s feminist rejection of the patriarchal technoreligious manipulation that Wells imagined a century earlier.
Beyond its shock value, two further elements of this scene deserve attention. First, however brutal Helena’s actions, they are motivated by a defense of her “babies,” as she calls them. While less conscious of social expectations than the other female clones, Helena embodies a childlike innocence that is matched only by her fierce instinct to protect the vulnerable. At the end of the scene featuring Johanssen’s Frankenstein adaptation, for instance, she observes one of the Prolethean women disciplining a distracted child with needless cruelty. Pinioning her against a wall, Helena informs the woman that she will be “gutted like a fish” if she does something similar again. Second, the phallic shape of Helena’s vengeance against Henrik is not just a clever device for transfixing the audience. By utilizing his own artificial insemination stick, she turns his penetrative power back upon him, creating the most painful of ouroboros images. There is nothing pretty about the outcome, but its reversal of men’s violence against women is riveting. A woman raised by a cult to believe that she and her sisters are “abominations” — a commonly decontextualized biblical translation routinely leveled at LGBTQ individuals and sprinkled across the series, starting with the fourth episode of season one — rejects their ideology, turns their violence upon them, and departs to defend her true family. It is no mistake that the scene’s denouement lingers on Helena’s face as she looks back on the burning Prolethean farmhouse. Like Frankenstein’s creature departing the burning cottage where he had learned to read but was ultimately rejected, Helena is thoroughly disillusioned with her early mentors.
This is far from the only moment in which Orphan Black redeploys a phallic signifier in order to illustrate the non-utilitarian nature of authentic love and its sexual expression. Not all of these scenes are so serious: when Alison’s husband proves impotent with a jackhammer, for instance, the results are comical. Failing to break the concrete in their garage under which they will (repeatedly) bury the accidentally murdered Leekie, Donnie hands her the gas-powered battering ram, scoffing at the notion that she might do better. Alison breaks through the surface immediately and turns to him with a smirk, and their eventual success in completing the unconventional interment proves an aphrodisiac. Orphan Black’s references to phallic power often anticipate violence, though. One of the most emotionally intense sequences in the show’s history comes in season two’s fourth episode when Sarah slips into the condo of Dyad’s new leader, her clone sister Rachel, who was raised by the corporation after the disappearance of her early childhood parents, Ethan and Susan Duncan. Eventually caught by one of Dyad’s hired guns, Sarah is forced into an all-glass shower enclosure and handcuffed to the overhead fixture. After sharpening his razor, the henchman begins an excruciatingly slow process of cutting her throat. The show’s avenging angel answers her prayers, however: Helena bangs into the apartment, still wearing the exceedingly modest wedding dress supplied by the Proletheans, and promptly dispatches Rachel’s thug. But this is hardly good news to Sarah, as she now shrinks from what she fears will be a new assailant, given that she had shot Helena the last time they met. The camera lingers over Helena’s hip-high, upturned knife blade as she approaches, but instead of finishing the male torturer’s violence, Helena shocks her sister into convulsive tears, falling onto Sarah’s breast like an exhausted child seeking a mother’s comfort. As Jill Lepore noted well before the climactic fight scenes at the end of season four, “the show’s go-to wound is the puncture: the act of penetration.” That pattern makes its embraces all the more poignant.
This scene is so moving not just because of the way Sarah escapes the razor wielded by Rachel’s minion, but also because Helena declines to turn the knife on her sister. If the point were not sharp enough, it is repeated in the next episode when Sarah convinces Helena to put down a sniper rifle rather than giving Rachel what she too might seem to deserve. Looking through the glass wall of an adjacent skyscraper, Sarah and Helena see their lingerie-clad sister straddling Paul Dierden, who replaces the henchman dispatched by Helena in the previous episode. Significantly, he is not allowed to enjoy the sexual services he provides, earning a slap when he reaches for Rachel. The show reverses but also reaches beyond a form of sexual objectification usually applied to women: Rachel commands him not to kiss her, to be still as she pleasures herself, but remains entirely unaware that Helena’s crosshairs rest on her skull. Sarah steps into her sister’s line of sight, determined not to let Helena shoot, and the sniper’s initial response again demonstrates Orphan Black’s stress on love’s distinction from use. “You only want to use me,” Helena accuses Sarah. But her sestra proves convincing, seemingly discovering the truth of her words even as she utters them: “No, that’s not true. You saved my life. You’re my sister. Helena, I thought I killed you. I couldn’t tell anybody what I lost.” Reenacting the shower scene of the previous episode, Helena surrenders a different pointed weapon, hoping once again what experience has taught her to doubt — that love might not be delusory. There is nothing weak, passive, or sentimental about this choice. On the contrary, Orphan Black reaches beyond the thriller’s stereotypical boundaries to demonstrate that an even greater power can imbue acts of mercy than of violence.
Taken together, scenes like these represent Orphan Black’s feminist and often queerly inflected rejection of the corporate, utilitarian power driving a simplistic genetic determinism, whether it is being used to fuel religious fundamentalism or biological reductionism. It is not enough for Helena merely to take revenge, whether on Sarah or Rachel in these scenes or on Siobhan in season three: what she wants is genuine acceptance. Only hope in the possibility of loving and being loved is capable of making a trained killer trust a woman who had previously stabbed and shot her, and it is one of many places in which the show demonstrates a sober hopefulness about individual agency, yet without disregarding biological influence. Not only does Helena grow immensely in her capacity to believe in others — though not without serious relapses — but Sarah becomes far more responsible, Alison far less self-centered, and Cosima far more willing to accept others’ help. In these ways, Orphan Black insists that environment not only can make radically different characters of virtually the same genetic material, but also that individuals can learn to make profoundly different choices from those to which they are predisposed, even when a corporation claims ownership of their DNA.
In the months since composing Editing the Soul, I have enjoyed conversations with several of Orphan Black’s creators, taught the first season as a course text, and organized several conference panels on the show. These discussions have heightened my interest in its final season and especially the following questions, which I expect to pursue in subsequent articles in this LARB series:
- How will the show end up positioning itself relative to the mad-scientist-cum-creator narratives in Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Brave New World? All of these novels have elicited specific references in previous seasons, and the show was clearly moving toward questions of radical life extension at the end of season four. When it comes to new biotechnologies, Orphan Black has always leaned more heavily toward caution than enthusiasm, but it has also consistently affirmed the scientific method and the uncertain labors of laboratory sleuthing. How will the show expand upon Cosima’s remarks in season one that she is “more worried about scientists than science,” or in season two, that “science is what scientists do. We’re just poking at things with sticks”?
- The show’s most evocative treatments of gender role expectations have been achieved through both comedy and horror, sometimes in delightfully absurd combinations. The effect can be relatively light and satiric, as when Aynsley, the paradigmatic suburban busybody, is strangled by her scarf and kitchen sink garbage compacter, with a shocked but calculating Alison looking on. Or it can be much blacker, as when Helena has her revenge on Henrik Johannsen. Whether working with the bright shades of dance scenes, baby showers, and bath-shop dinners or in the darkness of body disposal sites, church basements, and mysterious islands, how does season five culminate the show’s hybridization of tragedy and comedy, and what does this say about its engagement with feminist theory?
- Another of the show’s strengths has been its capacity to distinguish between areas of biotechnology that can be too easily blurred, a phenomenon I call “biotech slippage.” Reproductive human cloning may not be high on many bioethicists’ wish lists, but the show has also featured direct attention to the history of eugenics, dilemmas around genetic testing, the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, upper-class dreams of designer babies, and various forms of gene editing. In season five, how will the show’s shift toward posthumanism conclude its assessment of these possibilities? Will it continue to confront biotech’s capacity to exacerbate already vast disparities in health care access? Will it also stay conscious of the ease with which we humans adopt “status quo bias,” the tendency to regard contemporary expectations as normative across all times and cultures?
- Orphan Black has shown a deep awareness of the metaphysical dimensions of the technological sublime. When we ask what our genomes can reveal, probe alternative forms of reproduction, and consider questions about quality of life, we often end up in terrain once considered that of theology alone. P. T. Westmoreland appears set to join Aldous Leekie and Henrik Johanssen among the patriarchs in the show’s history who have expressed enormous optimism about humanity’s capacity to rewrite nature, adopting mythical language to advance their cause, but there have been similarly overconfident and coercive female scientists like Susan and Rachel Duncan and Evie Cho. We have also encountered humbler, more winsome geneticists of both genders in Cosima Niehaus, Delphine Cormier (eventually), Scott Smith, and Ethan Duncan. What will the show ultimately suggest about the relationships among gender, spirituality, and “making crazy science”?
Orphan Black’s final season begins Saturday, June 10, at 10/9c on BBC AMERICA. Everett Hamner’s reflection on the first episode can be found here.
Everett Hamner is an associate professor of English at Western Illinois University and the author of Editing the Soul: Science and Fiction in the Genome Age (Penn State University Press, AnthropoScene series, forthcoming October 2017).
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