What most defines BBC America’s series Orphan Black is actress Tatiana Maslany’s amazing performance. She plays an ever increasing number of characters, clones or “sisters” as they have come to think of themselves, each with her own very distinct personality. So far, we’ve focused on British rebel Sarah, suburban housewife Alison, lesbian scientist Cosima, and mentally unstable Russian Helena; but Maslany has played a host of others, including Beth, Katja, Rachel, Jennifer, and even the transgender Tony. Maslany’s performance is such that, if you didn’t know they were played by the same actress there’s every chance you might not realize it. As Entertainment Weekly has pointed out on more than one occasion, the fact that the EMMYs continue to overlook Maslany is essentially criminal. Consider as a comparison the “brother” clones introduced last season, and all played – with almost no perceptible differences – by Ari Millen (in Millen’s defense, the male clones were raised in a military environment, so playing them as similar to one another makes narrative sense).
Leaving aside Maslany’s performance, the show’s many clones tap into our postmodern fears about the nature of identity in a technological world. More than just worries over identity theft, or the literal dangers that come with scientific experiments with our body, the show thinks through what it means to have a Facebook-filtered personality, an amalgamated personality made up of all the images we are exposed to day-to-day, moment-by-moment over the course of our lives. Baudrillard argued that the creation of a perfect copy (a clone) turns the original into nothing more than a copy itself, like a Coke bottle or a Campbell’s Soup can, objects without prototypes. Warhol understood that popular culture ultimately turned the human into mass produced object, copies of copies of copies.
We fight against this tendency even as the pull of popular culture becomes ever stronger, populating our iPods with playlists that are as unique as our genetic code, picking and choosing from a fragmented slate of television networks and shows, always eager to ask that twentieth-first century question of those around us, “do you know…? Have you listened to…? Did you see…?” Orphan Black fights this tendency as well: Sarah and her sisters may be clones, but they remain radically different personalities.
But that’s the true nature of our contemporary world after all, the true nature of postmodernism: a world of paradoxes, where extremes not only coexist but feed on one another. The web brings us ever closer to one another, even those on the other side of the globe; at the same time, it moves us much further from those sitting on the bus seat beside us.
How far, for instance, can we take individuality and uniqueness before it becomes another kind of conformity. Thomas Pynchon’s early work, his short story “Entropy” for example, plays with this notion. Entropy is the scientific principle that temperatures throughout a system (the universe?), no matter how extreme, will eventually – through encountering other extremes – become a uniform temperature. Energy, in short, drains from the system. Entropy for Pynchon works as a metaphor for individuality, a thirst for the unique that ironically results in a kind of sameness.
Helena was kidnapped at the end of Orphan Black’s second season. That’s not really a spoiler: she’s always being kidnapped by one group or another. The opening of season three finds her trapped in a wooden crate. Except that’s not how the season actually begins. Instead, we begin inside of Helena’s hallucination, a very different scene in which she imagines her clone sisters throwing her a backyard baby shower. The scene is remarkable for the way Maslany plays her most memorable characters all at once, but again, the scene is even more complicated than it seems at first. These characters are all filtered through Helena’s consciousness, so that each is an exaggerated version of herself. Sarah is the British biker chick, wearing nothing but leather and referring to Helena as “Oy, meathead.” Allison becomes the archetypal suburban housewife, carrying a tray of homemade cupcakes (“Oh, this? It’s nothing” she says matter-of-factly). Cosima appears a sort of bohemian peasant dress, explaining how science has saved her life.
Beyond the humor, the tragedy, and the deep psychological implications of the scene (it begins with Helena looking into a gift box she is opening, a metaphor for the box we discover she herself has been imprisoned in), it reminds us at the start of the season just how unified the extremes can be. At one moment we have the variety of the clones; at another we realize they are filtered through a single consciousness. All of this floats below Maslany’s performance, which involves a single actress playing multiple roles.
In the end what the scene, and the show, may most suggest is that we have reached a point in human history where it’s simply impossible to know just what constitutes identity, and more fundamentally, what constitutes reality. For one hundred years we have been haunted by the discovery that we have a sub-conscious. These days, though, it may be that we are ourselves only some lower level brain function of a larger pop culture consciousness.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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