What Orphan Black Can Teach Us About Family and Community (Part 2)

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Editor’s note: Don’t forget to check out part 1, “What Orphan Black Can Teach Other Shows About Writing Women.

[Spoilers to follow for Orphan Black seasons 1-3.]

In “Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method,” the eighth episode of Orphan Black’s third season, Felix sits across a table from Krystal, another Leda clone. Krystal has just given Felix a manicure, an act she considers to be healing. In a moment of raw empathy and honesty, he takes her hands in his and says, “The only thing you need to know is that you are one of a kind. You’re a survivor, Krystal, and you’re not alone.”

Perhaps more than any other, season three is about family and community. Sarah spends much of her time chasing down Helena, Siobhan and Felix take in Gracie, and Alison takes up politics and drug dealing to keep her kids in school. However, Orphan Black has long been crafting a radical example of how communities can look and function by outlining several principles that guide Clone Club. As Cosima does with Seth’s brain, we can dissect each of these to learn Orphan Black’s recipe for a successful community.

Clone Club Is Stronger Together

Communities often stay together because their members believe in the group’s collective power. However, buy-in to a community also requires trust, and many of Clone Club’s members justifiably have trust issues. In season three, the sestra who needs to work through those trust issues is Helena.

Helena has a habit of running off on her own and subsequently getting captured. Her penchant for solitude is understandable; Tomas raised her to believe she was the only clone worthy of life, and Henrik Johanssen violated her trust and her body. Helena has her own style of vengeance, as evidenced when she viscerally maims Johanssen and burns down his farm. (In addition to giving sexual power to women, Orphan Black also calls out and punishes perpetrators.) Helena has clearly cultivated survival mechanisms that allow her to fight alone, another of which we meet in season three: Pupok.

Pupok is a small scorpion that Helena hallucinates to survive desperate situations. The creature is merciless; it keeps her awake when she is drugged, pushes her to forge through the desert, and keeps her focused when she wakes up in a tiny box. When Sarah arrives to save Helena, Pupok reacts according to its nature and repeatedly tells Helena not to trust her.

For our favorite food-loving sestra, the only way to change is to literally eat her doubts: Helena consumes Pupok. Her subsequent journey back to the Castor base is not just a physical feat but also a psychological leap, one from which she immediately benefits. Rather than having a lonely, painful trek home, Helena enjoys a comfortable vacation spent eating and fist fighting in a tavern. Her role in Sarah’s final plan is pivotal, and completes her journey. Helena gives her strength to her sisters, and together they accomplish much more than she could have alone.

All Members of Clone Club Have Rights to Their Own Selves and Bodies

As a community constantly fighting for bodily agency (see part one), members of Clone Club naturally should respect each other’s rights. However, Siobhan violated this principle by giving Helena to the military, an act that Sarah succinctly explains was, “NOT YOUR BLOODY DECISION!” Appropriately, Siobhan’s character development in the third season surrounds her failure to respect Helena’s agency.

Since the day she took in foster children, Siobhan has been fighting to protect what she considers her family: Sarah, Felix, and Kira. Kira’s safety especially takes priority, and turns Siobhan into a broken record: trouble’s brewin’? Run away with Kira! Dyad wants stem cells and body gunk? Run away with Kira! Creepy boy clones appear? Run away with Kira!

Ironically, Siobhan shares Helena’s issue: she’s spent so much time making “wartime decisions” that she doesn’t trust Clone Club. Had she reached out to Cosima, she could’ve learned about the pencil scheme and helped in a way that didn’t involve offering Helena up for yet more involuntary medical research. When season three opens Siobhan is benched while she recovers from a physical beating, but she must also heal her trust issues. The Siobhan that arrives in the Mexican desert to face Helena is a woman who has chosen to respect all people’s bodily agency, and to face her mistakes. Her re-entry into Clone Club brings us to the third principle:

Clone Club Grants Forgiveness If Mistakes Are Recognized, and Lessons Learned

Sometimes people need forgiveness not because they consciously made a mistake, but because they unknowingly caused harm. In season three, the character who requires such forgiveness is Gracie.

Like Helena, Gracie has suffered horrible physical violations. Her mouth is sewn shut, her father impregnates her with his own child, and the Proletheans force her to sit through her miscarriage so they can pray over her bloody body. Gracie undeniably needs Clone Club’s support, but she also assists both the Proletheans and Castor in their attempts to use the Leda clones as animals to be bred, studied, and used as biological weapons.

Felix especially struggles to welcome Gracie, but his quick acceptance of her signals that the rest of Clone Club will follow. Felix is an important pillar for Clone Club; he provides resources including his own home (and his bathtub, when body disposal and corpse dissection are necessary) and is a constant emotional support. Where another community would write her off—Castor, for example; to Virginia, Gracie is just an entry in Mark’s logbook—Clone Club recognizes that she was on the wrong side by circumstance, and forgives her. Supporting Gracie benefits everyone. Gracie orders Mark to participate in Sarah’s plan to take down Virginia, and most importantly, Clone Club establishes itself as a support for people in need.

Everyone Gets a Chance at Being Part of Clone Club

“If your family is suddenly bigger than you expected and your house gets too crowded, do you tell your family that they need to find a different place to live?” asks Alison in her School Trustee candidacy speech. The answer is a resounding no: “You make room. You adapt. You find creative solutions to keep people together.”

Alison and Felix’s willingness to open their homes is not just an example of Clone Club’s readiness to forgive, but also their desire to be inclusive. The very pastel family dinner at Bubbles is a perfect, picturesque image of inclusivity, but two people are missing: Krystal and Beth.

Krystal needs Clone Club just as much as Gracie; she has been sexually assaulted, and she’s starting to see all the terrifying clues that lead to a big, bright, neon sign that says “CLONE.” When Felix and Sarah set out to steal Krystal’s identity, Felix repeatedly argues that they should tell the truth. He is right; Krystal deserves the chance to be part of Clone Club even if, like Alison, she chooses a less involved role. By denying her this right, Sarah leaves Krystal in danger, and Rachel drugs her and imprisons her in Dyad’s hospital.

Beth is another sestra whose absence haunts Sarah. In previous seasons, the audience has learned about Beth solely through stories told by others and tiny snippets of video. When she appears in Sarah’s delirious dreams, Beth is a more fully formed person than ever before. She is argumentative, stubborn, and takes ownership over her suicide. When Sarah toasts Beth at the family dinner, it’s as if the show’s creators are nodding at the clones whose names, IDs or medical data are only briefly mentioned. Even Patty, a minor character, is given time to call out the police for improperly handling her rape case, and to let us know she has a son, and a life. No woman on Orphan Black is a just a body or an object; all are individuals deserving of Clone Club’s love and support.

A Family/Community That Stands Solely for Itself Cannot Survive

Clone Club didn’t adopt these principles by sitting down together and writing out a community agreement on chart paper; they developed them while fighting for their lives. This final principle, however, was taken up by choice.

When Sarah is imprisoned in Castor’s military compound, she and Paul ponder an unsettling question: what makes Leda different from Castor? Both communities view themselves as families fighting for their survival. Both sides harbor murderers; Paul rightfully points out that Helena has quite a bit of blood on her hands. If Leda is using violent, ruthless methods to reach their goals, what separates them from Castor?

The answer lies in the difference between Mark and Rudy. Mark and Rudy are the only two Castor clones given personalities; Seth doesn’t get enough time before he dies to distinguish himself beyond a mustache, Parsons is a barely-alive example of Castor’s cruelty, and Miller rarely speaks. Where Leda gives us a plethora of fully realized individuals, Castor gives us opposites: Mark versus Rudy, respect versus violation, human versus robot. Mark has a respectful partnership with Gracie whereas Rudy is a rapist, and fittingly Mark is unaffected by the Castor “disease,” a robotic glitch that highlights their inhumanity.

Appropriately, Mark alone shows Clone Club his humanity. In an incredibly emotional, vulnerable moment, Mark tells Sarah about his childhood as she pulls a bullet out of this leg. Once the bullet is out, Sarah and Mark rest their foreheads against each other and breathe together, almost as if they’re saying, “we’re real, we bleed, and we’re both human.”

Rudy and Helena mirror this moment when Rudy lies dying in Alison’s garage. However, everything is opposite: Helena is harming, not helping, and where Sarah looks for Mark’s humanity, Helena names Rudy as what he is: a rapist. This is the difference between Castor and Leda: Castor, like Rudy, fights selfishly and without compassion. Leda considers everyone’s humanity, and fights for a cause larger than itself: bodily agency.

The principles of Clone Club are not just useful in the sci fi universe of Orphan Black. Just as Leda’s struggles bear a relevant urgency that mirrors real life battles for rights like access to birth control and legal abortion, these principles are useful to real communities. We can learn from Clone Club because we too are not alone, and we are stronger together.

Alenka Figa is a queer, feminist, wannabe-educator who is over traditional education. She spends her days reading comics at her toy store day job, watching Adventure Time, and writing book and comic reviews at her Tumblr blog League of Shadows.

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