Falling For Orphan Black: does Nature or Nurture determine your clone’s life?

Catherine Eaton
Mar 3 · 5 min read

*First published in The Stake

A disheveled punk girl staggers off the train and up to a pay phone. She dials up a number and an argument swiftly breaks out. She wants to see her daughter, Kira, but the caretaker she left her child with ten months ago isn’t having any of it. Sarah doesn’t give off the dependable mother vibe, dressed in minimal black clothing with lanky dark hair streaked with blonde and eyes heavily outlined in black kohl. She hangs up the phone and huffs down the train station terminal, slowing her steps as she nears a sobbing woman. As Sarah watches, the woman puts down her expensive purse, slips out of her high heeled shoes and shrugs off her coat, carefully folding and placing it on her shoes. She gives Sarah a fleeting glance and walks into an oncoming commuter train. Sarah reels back in shock, not only because she witnessed a suicide but because the woman looked just like her. In a snap decision, she takes the woman’s purse and runs.

She rifles through her purse and finds Beth Childs’ ID. She quickly heads to her look-alike’s house, an expensive condo in a nice part of the town. She rifles through Beth Childs’ designer clothes, picks through her mail, uses her shower and chugs down her alcohol. Upon discovery of Beth’s fat bank account, the deal is sealed. She makes herself up as Beth and heads over to the bank, secures the funds and is ready to pick up her daughter and adopted brother. She can finally provide a safe home for the ones she loves, away from old troubles and worries.

Beth’s life swiftly catches up to Sarah and all hell breaks loose. On her way back from the bank, Sarah is picked up by Beth’s police partner, Detective Art Bell and hauled into a police meeting. Detective Beth Childs shot a civilian and she’s embroiled in a series of hearings. Sarah barely slides out of the meeting only to make a fatal mistake. She answers Beth’s pink cell phone.

A confused dialogue ensues in which the caller hangs up but Sarah tracks the speaker to a park. There she encounters another double, a knife wielding enraged soccer mom, enraged at Sarah’s intrusion into her life. The terrible truth comes out. Sarah and her look-alikes are not triplets or quadruplets. They’re genetically engineered clones, exactly the same.

From Alison, Sarah discovers the clones are in danger and they combine forces to discover their origins. This is when the talent of Tatiana Maslaney–who plays all the clones–flares into brilliancy. Each clone’s body language and gestures are so completely different from her sisters’ that there can be no confusing them. When the clones are chatting and interacting together, it’s impossible to believe that just one woman is playing them all. Maslaney, essentially, acts with herself, by herself.

Maslaney is supported by an excellent cast with sassy Jordan Garvais as her brother Felix, Kevin Hanchard as Detective Art Bell, Maria Doyle Kennedy as Sarah’s foster mother and Kira’s guardian and Dylan Bruce as Beth’s ex-military boyfriend. But it’s clear that Maslaney has the star power, and it’s possible–if her fans have anything to do with it–that she’ll garner awards in the upcoming future. Choire Sicha over at The Awl hopes so, as does the fanbase at Twitter’s #cloneclub.

Each clone’s story dominates an episode in turn, and the startling differences between sisters raises the question: nature vs nurture? Since each woman is genetically the same, how are they so wildly different, not only in clothing and hairstyles, but all the way to life pursuits and sexual identity? Maslaney’s excellent performances only serve to highlight the differences.

Sarah is a grifter, racing to make easy money, in love with the Clash and obsessed with making a home for her daughter. Alison is a soccer mom in suburbia, lips constantly thinned together, a hand clutched to her face while tossing out steely eyed stares. Cosima is a nerdy student physicist, sweet and laid-back, toiling to figure out the genetic conundrum of their lives while working on a PhD in experimental evolutionary biology. There was also Beth, a depressed detective on an army of pills, incapable of inspiring deep love in her boyfriend. Despite their genetic uniformity, the women do not share similar personality traits or even backgrounds. The troubling question of nature versus nurture winds through each episode, lightly touched on but always in view.

All the clones and their stories are mesmerizing, but it’s towards the end of the first season, when everything hangs by a thread and binge watching becomes inevitable, that grungy Sarah Manning rises to the top. She’s been a cool customer so far, taking over a dead girl’s life without guilt, sleeping with the deceased’s boyfriend and stealing her money. She’s a difficult woman to connect with as a viewer. If hadn’t been for a friend’s promise on the show’s big payoff, I would have thrown up my arms in disgust and walked off. But somewhere along the way, Sarah becomes a hero. Her unswerving devotion to her daughter and her fearless actions, bordering on manic, to do anything it takes to create a new life for her family, catapults Sarah from a no-honor thief to a heroic mother.

Alison sums up Sarah’s superpower nicely: “We’re all messed up except you, Sarah…because you say eff it. I tried to say eff it today and I blew up my whole life. I just wanted to say eff this. Eff you. And I effed it. I effed it all up.”

In the end, “Orphan Black” reveals the hearts of its characters. The show is slow to take off but after a few episodes, it explodes in a big way. While the cloned sisters race to uncover the complex mysteries of their lives, our real world and the ethical chaos of its technological advances are gently probed and inspected. The sisters’ stories, so wide and various, cover a large spectrum of what women struggle and cope with as they live. Each clone brings a new aspect to a large story, and with the new season currently in production, I eagerly await more stories and more reveals.

Catherine Eaton

Written by

writing one small line at a time

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