Culture

Orphan Black: TV’s most woman-centred drama

By Roz Kaveney

*Contains spoilers

A woman gets off a train and picks up a phone; in a few sentences we learn that Sarah is a grifter, in town to sell stolen drugs and collect her daughter Kira. At the other end of the platform, we notice a woman stepping out of her shoes, shrugging off her jacket and putting her handbag on the platform. As Sarah walks in her direction, the woman turns round; she has the same face – but then she steps under a train. Sarah looks down and picks up the handbag…

Those were the stunningly economic first few minutes of the Anglo-Canadian techno-thriller series Orphan Black which has managed, in two seasons of ten episodes, to be the most stunningly woman-centred action drama on television.

In the middle of a hokum-filled plot that is mostly about conspiracy, kidnapping and running around dark cities late at night, it manages to make some quite fascinating observations about nature, nurture and free will. Sarah steals, temporarily, the life of dead Beth, only to find that Beth, a cop with morals as sketchy as her own, had problems; a dead civilian, phone calls from mysterious women, and more clones.

The drunken soccer mom Alison says, “we don’t mention the c word”, but the rapidly evolving alliance between Sarah, Alison and lesbian German biologist Cosima rapidly reveals how entirely the same three women can be in some respects and how utterly different in others. And that’s before we meet feral assassin Helena and corporate bully Rachel…

It’s a show that passes most of the tests we now ask of popular media – not just the Bechdel test, because obviously these women find a lot to talk about apart from boys – but also the more recent Trinity test for strong women. All versions of Sarah are strong women – it’s as intrinsic to them as their chancer ruthlessness and sly smile. Strong women who actually do things, albeit in very different ways.

Sarah sleeps with Beth’s fiance, Paul, and realises that he is not to be trusted, even before he works out that she is not who he thought. It turns out, for example, that they all – except for Sarah – have someone in their lives who is spying on them, and reporting back to a company, Triad. In a revealing moment about the different forms that ruthlessness can take, Cosima seduces her colleague Delphine, knowing that Delphine is her monitor.

It’s a show which could easily have drifted into comic book misandry – but Sarah’s gay painter foster brother Felix would clearly die for her, and Beth’s fellow cop Art is almost as loyal. Even Alison’s bumbling husband Donny, and Sarah’s abusive ex-lover Vic, are rich and complex characters who can surprise us.

This is a show which brilliantly alternates excitement, scabrous comedy and moments of still emotion. There are no duds in the cast, but the show rests primarily on a stunning central performance from Tatiana Maslany as Sarah and all the others. It’s not just the well-established and radically different body language and speech of all the clones; it’s the moments of farce when Sarah and Alison impersonate each other, or of tension when Sarah confronts the terrifying, pathetic Helena. For a while, the second season seemed on shakier ground than the first, but latterly it came together, and established stunningly that things which seemed random clips of narrative were nothing of the kind.

Now we have to binge re-watch, noticing extra points of cleverness, while we wait for Season Three…

Roz Kaveney is a Contributing Editor to Feminist Times. She is a trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist.

Photo: CrazyTVTalk

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