On Being Human Redux: Notes on “Orphan Black”

An occasional series that is a continuation of my essay anthology, On Being Human: critical looks at books and movies that examine the question of humanity. (Buy the limited edition hardcover, Kindle version, or download it for free at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.)

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Orphan Black: Season 3 will be premiering on April 18, 2015 on BBC America. Below are a series of notes on Seasons 1 and 2. Due to the nature of these essays, they contain many spoilers, major and minor. If you haven’t seen the series, I would suggest watching it before reading these Notes. The series has countless cases of reveals, character reversals, and moral alignment switcheroos, usually in the same episode. These notes seek neither to be definitive or universal. Series 1 and 2 have revealed a lot of Orphan Black’s world, but there is still a lot we don’t know. These notes seek to make sense of this darkly paranoid world, but also to tease out themes and issues hinted at in the episodes.

Self-ish Genes

  • Orphan Black (BBC America, 2013 – ) offers a unique opportunity to explore not only the question, “What does it mean to be human?” but also, “What is the self?”
  • Orphan Black, through the storylines of the various clones, is simultaneously: a mystery, a thriller, a suburban farce, a police procedural, a game of identity mix-up, an exploration of espionage (corporate, government, and military), a compelling drama set to feminist and LGBTIA+ themes and an acidic social satire on corporate behavior without any oversight, fringe religious cults, and personal megalomania.
  • The series makes an effort to counter the assumption there is a generic clone. Many clones fall under the category of heteronormative (Alison, Helena, Sarah, etc.), but there are variations. Cosima self-identifies as a lesbian and Tony is a transclone (same template as the female clones, but taking hormone therapy to transition to a male). The series also excels in its depiction of these clones. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, none are seen as abnormal. This is important, since abnormality (and how one defines it) has been the instrument of oppression, terror, legislative bigotry, and all other kinds of inhuman awfulness. While no clone is seen as abnormal, they are seen as both different (as individuals) and the same (Clone Club). Despite the variety of backgrounds, each clone is seen as an individual, but also an individual working towards a common goal.

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  • The series goes to pains to show how individuals aren’t the same, even if they are genetically identical. The series is anti-reductivist.
  • Each clone possesses an individual self. The clones were manufactured (or at least mass [re]produced). Compare this to the artificial humans manufactured in the Cassandra Kresnov series.
  • Project Leda designed the clones to be sterile. Sarah presents an “error.” Helena becomes pregnant via artificial insemination from the Proletheans. It was revealed that Sarah and Helena are twins, except that Helena has her internal organs reversed. She is a mirror image of Sarah. Like Sarah, she is also a survivor.
  • Cancer is a malady that affects some clones (Cosima, Jennifer). Kira’s bone marrow may hold the key to curing cancer in the clones, but it is not confirmed, since Rachel destroyed the bone marrow samples in a fit of rage.
  • Does the “aura” (to borrow a term from Walter Benjamin) of human individuality disappear when a genetic pattern (in this case of a human being) be manufactured in mass quantities? In Season 2, it is mentioned that the Dyad Group made 400 attempts at human cloning. Of those, thirteen are known to exist.

Property is Theft

  • Clones are considered intellectual property according to the Dyad Group. While there are international laws and national laws (see the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of the US Constitution), this would assume those working on cloning projects weren’t involved in covert military and corporate programs. Where does Canadian law stand on human cloning and/or seeing human beings as corporate property? Is there a difference because in the United States we consider ourselves citizens while the UK and Commonwealth nations consider themselves as “subjects of the Crown”? (Someone help me with this one. I’m not an expert on British law.)
  • While public scrutiny would shine a bright light on Dyad’s malfeasance, what’s to stop an organization from this kind of behavior?
  • Patenting a chemical compound, plant variety, or animal breed is nothing new, but does this apply to humans? This might sound like a rhetorical question, but … “What makes humans so special?”

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  • The drama comes from the clones resisting the heavy-handed tactics of the Dyad Group. They refuse to see themselves as corporate property.
  • Beyond the obvious legal restrictions like slavery, the controversy over seeing the clones as human property brings up important points about contracts and rights. Every day we make compromises big and small. Whether it is signing a credit card agreement, a job contract, or following road signs, we sacrifice total freedom in dribs and drabs. Some of those are good things, we have to follow speed limits, road signs, and office rules and regulations. But … and this is a big one … how far is too far? Yes, we compromise to go about our daily business, but we shouldn’t agree to give the farm away. (See unions versus right-to-work arguments and counter-arguments.) The United States touts its commitment to freedom of expression. But what are “free speech zones” outside political conventions? You can say almost anything positive or negative about the President, but you can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The Second Amendment is important for self-defense and sport hunting. But is this right absolute, especially with the plague of gun deaths (including 20+ dead children at an elementary school)? Freedom can not be absolute. Unless it is a dictatorship or utopia, it can’t be done.

Human Decency and Institutional Rot

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  • Orphan Black, like The Wire, highlights individual human decency and corrupt institutions.
  • The Dyad Group uses its abundant capital and high-level connections to get people out of jail, to frame people for crimes they didn’t commit, and to engage in scientific discovery (even if it is totally illegal and unethical).
  • A number of Dyad Group members belong to a group called Neolution. The group aims aims to “push the limits of human evolution.”
  • Neolutionists include body hackers, body modification aficionados, and radical scientists.
  • Contra:

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  • The Proletheans engage in the usual fringe religious cult behavior: reducing women to second-class citizens/brood mares, enforce an authoritarian groupthink, and see themselves as creating a better world. (Change a letter: Proletheans became Prometheans, stealing fire from the gods – scientific discovery – and see themselves as “acting in God’s name.” Those who steal the fire die by the fire.)
  • Unlike other fringe religious cults, they see scientific knowledge as a means to further God’s will. There exists a rift between the Old World and New World Proletheans.
  • Helena, a victim of both Old World and New World Prolethean propaganda, is capable of acting murderous and merciful. On the orders of her Old World Prolethean handler, she killed other clones. They told her she was an abomination. But she is good with kids. Her maternal instincts kick in when she takes care of Kira. She also threatens to gut a New World Prolethean like a fish when the Prolethean verbally abuses and smacks a child. Just because she was raised by fanatical lunatics, doesn’t mean she has to be like them. While exhibiting the feral behavior of a wild child, she acts with a level of cognition, autonomy, and moral independence her handlers take for granted.

Quints and Clones

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  • In Canadian history there is a precedent for Dyad’s behavior towards the clones: the Dionne Quintuplets. When they were infants, the Dionne Quintuplets were treated like zoo animals, scientifically examined and put on public display.
  • Where does public fascination for the odd and peculiar stop and a person’s right to privacy begin?

Paul’s Games, or The Wilderness of Mirrors

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  • What is Paul’s endgame?
  • In Season 1, Paul acted as Beth’s monitor. In Season 2, he acted as Rachel’s monitor. At the end of Season 2, he meets Siobhan and hands over Helena to the military (Project Castor?). The challenge with Paul’s character is figuring out where his ultimate loyalties reside. With Dyad? With the military? With Clone Club?
  • During Season 1, it was revealed Paul served in Afghanistan. He was involved in a friendly fire incident. Because of this, Dyad saw an opportunity and hired him on as security. Given Season 2’s revelations, who does Paul actually work for? When he worked at Dyad, was he still in Special Operations working deep cover? But Dyad may know this and might use Paul to give them military intelligence on Project Castor. (Project Castor and Project Leda both began as military projects. As with the Cassandra Kresnov series, manufactured humans were intended for military applications.)

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  • Season 1 played like an extended 1970s political conspiracy thriller (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men). Siobhan operated an orphanage/rat-line for political prisoners, dissidents, etc.

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  • This is a series that dwells in the shadows. The Dyad Group does shadowy things, some illegal and/or with little government oversight. Paul works in the shadowy realm of military intelligence. Siobhan, Sarah, and Felix grew up “underground.”
  • The shadow realms of the military, corporations, and the criminal/political underground reflect back on itself like a mirror. Sarah survived as a con artist, exploiting the confidence of her marks. The Dyad Group does the same thing but on a macro level. To paraphrase Hubertus Bigend from William Gibson’s thriller Pattern Recognition, intelligence is the opposite of advertising. Dyad advertises its successes to investors, the press, etc., but has many secrets it needs to keep hidden to avoid criminal prosecution.
  • Sarah becomes aware of a “cabal” run by Marion Bowles. They don’t control as much as steer. As with many institutions in the series, details are sketchy.
  • Orphan Black doesn’t necessarily reveal, so much as open new folds of narrative complexity. A big reveal only yields more questions. It is a conspiracy that becomes more mysterious, not less (see Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon).

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  • Season 3: Who does Paul really work for? What’s his connection with Project Castor? Can Paul actually be trusted? Is Paul loyal or merely useful?

Self-Awareness and Psychic Powers

  • Rachel: Self-aware clone.
  • One by one, the other clones become self-aware.
  • Kira: Vague psychic powers. Not specific enough to merit concern, but vague enough to feel unsettling. She can tell the clones apart, even when one clones acts and dresses like Beth.
  • Kira is the key? But the key to what?

Season 3: Questions

  • What was the origin of Project Castor? How does that relate to Project Leda?
  • Will Tony make another re-appearance in the series? He’s too rich a character to make a one-off episode. Plus, he has links to the military side of things. Prior to hiding out at Felix’s, he and his partner in crime (also his monitor) were breaking into military installations. More details, please.
  • Whatever happened to the body hacker/clubland weirdos of Neolution? These people still exist and still rabid fanboys of Aldous Leekie. After his (alleged) heart attack, are they curious? Would they want to anoint a new de facto leader?
  • Where is all this going? What is the big pay-off? Is there a Big Bad in any traditional sense, or do we face an infinite progression of higher and higher bureaucrats? How far is Marion Bowles from the top of the food chain? Is it a food chain?
  • Or is it rhizomatic, a system with no center? Dyad has many tendrils involved in many different things. Is that what we’re supposed to think?
  • Is it a garden variety international conglomerate octopus, or is there something more sinister hiding in plain sight?
  • Given what Siobhan and Paul did in the Season 2 finale, are they to be trusted?

chart1“It all makes sense now!  Isn’t it obvious?”  Via

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