Orphan Black, and the Art of the Likable yet Deeply Flawed Anti-Heroine

Image: BBC America via Collider

Genre: Sci-fi/thriller


S1: Grifter Sarah Manning happens to meet a woman who looks exactly like her in a train station, right before the woman commits suicide. Naturally, Sarah uses the opportunity to steal all her stuff. But while pretending to be her in order to access her bank account, Sarah finds herself thrust deeper into the woman’s life than she imagined. She learns there’s a reason why the woman looked like her, and she’s walked right into a dangerous trap.

S2: Sarah knows who she and her look-alikes are, but she’s revealed her existence to a powerful organization that’s very interested in her. And in her daughter. She works to keep herself and her kid out of their clutches, while tracking down information on the project that created her. Meanwhile, her look-alikes struggle with maintaining their lives while under the supervision of the powerful Dyad Institute, which monitors and studies them.

S3: Sarah forms a tenuous compromise with the Dyad Institute, but her family is threatened by another set of clones–her brothers, given to the military while she and her sisters were given to a research institute. The male clones are suffering from a disease, and they believe Sarah and her sisters are the key to their cure. They–and their military allies–will do near anything to save themselves and each other.

Series: 4 seasons.

I’ve Watched: Up to the end of the 3rd season.

Verdict: Amazing

Note: I’m only on season three, so I’m behind one season on this show.

As always, Orphan Black impresses with its depth of characterization and its fast pace. And Tatiana Maslany impresses with her range as an actor.

I’ve talked about Orphan Black several times over the four years I’ve been blogging. This includes a glowing review of season one, a roundup of links on science in the series (which is pretty good), and the main protagonist topping my list of the Top Ten Badass Heroes of 2014. Because Sarah Manning is one of my favorite characters of all time.

This show has always done a great job of making unlikable characters likeable, by putting in the work to humanize them without excusing their faults. Sarah has come a long way since the first season, but Orphan Black doesn’t want us to forget where she came from. It doesn’t want us to think that just because Sarah has grown into a different person, she doesn’t have to hold onto the consequences of her past actions anymore. (Spoilers season 3 follow).

And one of the most powerful moments illustrating this happened as a hallucination, of all things.

I was surprised how much I liked the scene where Sarah hallucinated herself talking to Beth. A lot has happened since Beth died and Sarah took her identity, and this scene made some important points about that. Because in a way, Sarah really did take over much of Beth’s life, and carried it over to her own. Beth’s partner, Beth’s boyfriend, Beth’s circle of sisters. Sarah created real relationships with these people, after first approaching them with Beth’s identity.

My favorite line in that scene was when Beth told Sarah, “You don’t get to miss me.”

Because as much as I always root for Sarah, that much is true. She’s deeply imperfect, she’s made mistakes, and she’s done much to make up for many of them. But the present doesn’t overwrite the past, and Sarah still took Beth’s life without even knowing her, or without Beth knowing Sarah. It’s true that Sarah doesn’t really have the right to claim a relationship with Beth.

And since this is probably all happening in Sarah’s subconsciousness anyway, Sarah knows that. After coming to know about Beth from the people who loved her and finding a newfound dedication to all of her sisters, Sarah wants to miss Beth. But she knows she doesn’t quite have that right. It’s a scene with plenty of nuance of character, drawing lines without vilifying anyone. I’m still surprised a hallucination got used to such effect.

The other scene that really brought home Sarah’s mistakes and how she’s learned to own up to them is her conversation with Helena, while they were both imprisoned. Sarah talks about the moment when she, as a single mother, left her daughter in the care of her foster mother for a year, while she took off with her drug dealer boyfriend. It’s the first time we ever hear her explain what was going through her mind at the time. Sarah concludes that she lost out on a year of her daughter’s life because of her pride.

All of this goes to show, Sarah Manning is a great protagonist. She’s an anti-hero who’s capable of hurting people with her actions, but who goes the distance for the people she cares about. At the worst, most irresponsible we’ve seen her–back in season one, where she stole Beth’s identity, tried to steal Beth’s money, and intended to abduct her daughter from a stable life with her foster mother–her motivation was her family. I’m not sure if her selfishness is oddly selfless, or if her selflessness is oddly selfish. Either way, it’s compelling. And I love that she doesn’t get a free pass for the mistakes she’s made or damage she’s done with her misguided actions. But that she does get to change and rebuild her relationship with her loved ones.

Orphan Black is, of course, loaded with intriguing characters, many of whom are anti-heroines in their own right:

  • Sarah’s foster mother, Mrs. S, remains badass and intriguing. I’m still fond of how she gets to be the most stable caregiver in the series while also being a hard and emotionally closed-off person. She has an interesting mix of resistance fighter and social worker type qualities, which are frequently on display.
  • Sarah’s foster brother, Felix, goes around providing support and backup to each of the sisters in turn, and it’s hard to imagine where they’d be without him.
  • Cosima is off-balance after her breakup with Delphine, only making things more complicated when she meets this great girl–who may or may not be an enemy spy.
  • Delphine must make difficult decisions in her new, high-level position at Dyad, while everyone she cares about begins to question her loyalties. 
  • Allison’s an unusual kind of anti-hero, a soccer mom with small town goals, who seems to have no moral compass beyond what’s best for her family and what she can reasonably get away with. Her plotlines tend to have so many bizarre antics that they stress me out, but they do introduce most of the comedic aspects in an otherwise dark story.
  • Paul must choose between doing everything he can to save his fellow soldiers, or protecting others from the damage they’re doing in pursuit of their goals.
  • Helena is a definite anti-hero–she started off the series as a serial killer, and slowly learns to fit a different mold than the one she was raised into. Very slowly.

Even side characters get to be intriguingly complex. There was this woman who ran some random bar (she called it a cantina–I’m not sure if this was in Southwest USA or Mexico, but it seemed like speaking either Spanish or English was normal), where Sarah and Helena met Mrs. S. She was a completely new character, didn’t know anything about the situation, but still realized when Helena was on the cusp of violence and calmly removed the butter knife from her grasp. And being able to force a knife out of Helena’s grasp is no mean feat. Then she read the tension between Helena and S well enough to give Sarah a measure of comfort and advice. That’s a lot of depth from a few minutes of screen time, and totally make me wonder about her life and her past.

The one character that I feel is badly handled is Scott. He’s all stereotype, no nuance. Not to mention the way the show treats him feels…mean-spirited. I don’t think the show is particularly in touch with geek culture, and as a huge geek myself, this is a bit more glaring.

And finally, I’d like to bring up the awesome episode titles. They’re all quotes from writings or speeches, which probably helps. Some of my favorites are “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method”, and “Scarred by Many Past Frustrations”.

Overall, Orphan Black remains an amazingly compelling show with wonderful characterization.