Protest Unceasing, Redemption Unfinished: An Interview with “Orphan Black’s” Graeme Manson and Cosima Herter




GRAEME MANSON is co-creator of BBC America’s just-concluded series Orphan Black, and Cosima Herter is the show’s science and story consultant. As discussed in my June LARB article and then a series of BLARB essays about the show’s final season, the production built a devoted fan base with its combination of scientific specificity and feminist critique — not to mention phenomenal acting, directing, and special effects. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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EVERETT HAMNER: How have your attitudes changed toward the science of genetics and the corporatization of biotechnology over more than five years of imagining this show?

GRAEME MANSON: I have a much deeper understanding of the issues now and a greater commitment to communicating these profound questions about our future through the lens of fiction and the crazy world of television. If this is still nascent, I want to be here as it unfolds. The biggest and strongest realization — I mean it was fundamental and it happened early, and it was reiterated again and again by Cosima — was that biology and genetic science are always political. I think what Orphan Black managed to do is to peel back some of the mystery around that and show the larger questions in the sci-fi format and open people’s eyes a little bit.

There’s certainly a huge need to be cautious about where untethered, unregulated capitalism can take us when it comes to manipulation of human bodies, yet Orphan Black doesn’t just jump around and say, “Hey everybody, freak out!” It affirms deep scientific curiosity. How did you maintain that balance?

GM: Well, I think the series really showed both sides of science. It showed the corporate side — the dangers of that — and of course that’s very conspiratorial and not entirely fictional to some degree. And we also relied on sci-fi tropes and paranoia and things like that. However, we always grounded those in real possibilities from the history of genetics and eugenics. I came into this with quite a pessimistic view of corporate power in science, and that hasn’t changed. I think that’s just my fatalistic view that if there’s something humans can do, they’ll try and do it, whether it’s good or not. I have a much stronger sense now of what it might take to steer it, but I don’t have a sense of the solutions. I have a sense of the players and the problems.

There are two real major scientist characters on this show, and it’s the two women, Delphine and Cosima. I’m glad that we’ve emphasized a positive image of hands-on, deeply empathetic science. What we want to imagine is a scientist who does not work to preconceived conclusions or commercial ends, a scientist who works from curiosity and wonder. And — this is something that is very important to Cosima and me — someone who will work toward a scientific answer and conclusion, then immediately look for the next question. What questions does my answer spawn? I really enjoyed writing questions together, so that was part of our mandate for the show. We didn’t have to moralize on that, on corporate science or whatever. We could put it out there and ask questions, saying: how do you answer those questions yourself?

Cosima, one of your roles has been to choose a source text for each season’s episode titles. Season one featured the work of Charles Darwin; season two, Francis Bacon; three, Dwight Eisenhower; and four, Donna Haraway. This season you chose Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Protest.” How does it resonate as you look back on the season?

COSIMA HERTER: I love that poem. That’s the only source text that I didn’t have in mind at the beginning of the season. There were a lot of things happening for this last season: how to wrap up the story, how to work with the writers and with John [Fawcett]. When I was trying to figure out how we might name these episodes, I really struggled with it. And when I don’t really know how to think about things, I usually go to sources beyond nonfiction. I actually go to poetry a lot, so I went and read that poem again, which I had read for the first time when I was about 18 and learning something about feminism.

Orphan Black is a feminist show. So I thought about all the women I worked with that really banded together, supported each other, and encouraged each other, and the men who were our allies. And it just seemed to me that poem was the right one because the show’s always been about protest and not being complicit through our silence.

I look around at our political climate and I just think about all these protests, especially in the United States — they cannot stop! It’s a constant, constant battle, and I don’t really think that we’re ever going to kick back on the beach of equality and toast to having made it. It’s not just about feminism, it’s about how we agree to certain kinds of authority in our everyday life. How we internalize that authority. How we internalize misogyny, for example. How we internalize our tendency to defer to something outside ourselves, like the man in the white coat. That poem was actually what we’ve been talking about all along.

That moment in the finale with all the clones in Alison’s backyard isn’t quite kicking back on the beach, is it? I would be remiss if I didn’t invite you to sing Tatiana Maslany’s praises in one way or another here, and I think that scene epitomizes her achievement with this show’s major characters. What stands out to you about it? 

CH: Sand! Sorry, I wasn’t there on set when they filmed that one, but it still makes me laugh. “Everywhere I look there’s sand. Where does this sand come from?”

[After some laughter.] Graeme, were you there those days?

GM: Yeah, I did see Sarah’s side of that. I remember John working hard to get there with Tat. This is the hardest thing for Sarah to do, to reveal this crack. The whole thing was killing everybody. The decision was to come back six months later and to put Sarah in this subtle place of grief, with survivor’s guilt and the threat that she’s going to regress back to who she was when we met her. It’s a subtle thing to do in the finale with your main character, but we were just really dying to do it.

With Tat’s abilities, we were often like, damn, I wish we had more scenes like that. And usually when we said that, they were the quiet scenes. They were just the sisters and the more dramatic scenes, when the pace let up. I think because the pace of the show was so fast, those scenes really stand out; they are a great rest. Tat was so down that this was Sarah’s final journey — she really understood how subtle and powerful it was. She broke my heart in that performance. That scene allows each of the girls to state their differences again, but also they’re stating their weaknesses, and in doing that they’re giving each other strength. It gets me every time.

What about the main clone left out of the backyard scene, Rachel? In the season’s third episode, she gives Kira a spiny mouse and tells her, “He’s evolved this way, so that when he’s grasped by a predator, he slides right out of his own skin and escapes.” Is that a fair summary of what Rachel does herself? I can’t think of many characters who are so deeply immersed in such an exploitative corporate hierarchy and who escape it, yet bear the psychological scars so plausibly. How did you avoid the pitfalls of making her too fully repugnant or too easily sympathetic?

GM: Yeah, even at the beginning of the season I was pretty sure we were going to kill Rachel. But John wanted to save her. And that was good; we’ve always had this sort of tension. And I think that feeling of “No, you can’t kill her, she’s my favorite clone” helped to keep the cohesion. Five is a nice, dramatic number. So we made the decision early in the season to take Rachel on a much more complex journey, and at first the network wasn’t into it. They thought she was irredeemable and that she should be killed. I thought that Sarah would cut her head off. [Laughs.]

But we made the decision early that it was going to be a deeper journey. Part of what made that easier was the decision to have some more character-focused episodes. Once that was on the table, it was obvious that we could really, really do the heavy lifting, the work of transforming Rachel in some way.

But you’re right, we never wanted to put a ribbon on it. I was very adamant about that. That tone of redeeming yourself but not being forgiven by your victims — that’s what I liked about that end scene. I loved having Rachel’s shame and pride in the same scene. When she asks how the children are, Felix’s answer is, “You can’t come in, Rachel.” You know a part of her wants to see those kids. She’d never protest and try and go in. She knows Helena would bite her hand off. And frankly Sarah’s not altruistic enough to have it. There’s no way — I could not ever see any way to Sarah letting Rachel near; Sarah doesn’t even know she’s out there. And if she did, she’d stride out there and punch her in the fucking face still.

That was a tough tightrope walk to avoid minimizing who she had been, but also not to get lost in vengeance. Felix’s complexity there — what Jordan Gavaris pulled off — was critical, too.

CH: That was a superb bit of acting for both him and Tatiana. And that was Graeme and Renée St. Cyr writing that last episode. Like Graeme said, some people really want a tightly wrapped bow. But the thing about redemption, whatever it means to be redeemed or to want to redeem oneself, is that it’s a really complicated concept. And what might look like redemption for oneself does not necessarily mean redemption for others.

I don’t think that the end of this story is all a happy ending and everybody goes off in their happy ways. It’s not just like, hey we get to have babies and everything is happily ever after. You have Sarah saying there’s nobody left to fight, but the sisters answer, no, no, the fight continues every single moment of every single day. So the thing with Rachel’s character arc is that she goes from being pro-clone to being a human and a woman with these really difficult struggles. I don’t know that that character ever thought that she would be redeemed.

GM: One thing we both have to say is that episode seven was Renée St. Cyr’s episode, and she amazed us all with how deep she went with Rachel. She drove that episode.

And that drove the rest of Rachel’s story.

GM: Very much so. And she did a marvelous, marvelous job.

CH: Yeah, it was a lot about accessing one’s rage about one’s own injustices that have been committed against them or in the world at large. And plucking out the view of the world that we internalize. How damaging it is to rip out your own perceptions of the world and be left with … what? What are you left with? You end up with Rachel at the end, who has to reconstruct who she is. I don’t know whether it’s simply about redeeming oneself. I think what it means to be redeemed or to ask for redemption is far more difficult than people tend to depict it, even to ourselves. It’s an ongoing process. It’s not one act.

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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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