The Moral Off-Center: how the sidekicks of #OrphanBlack and #LostGirl are so much more.
While it might not be obvious at first blush, Orphan Black and Lost Girl have a significant Venn diagram intersection. Even beyond the initial “made in Canada” or “female lead in a SF/F show” or “obsessive tumblr fandom” comparisons, both shows examine—among other things—non-traditional family structures and the inherent difficulty involved in meeting everyone’s emotional needs. Each show goes about it in wildly different ways: Orphan Black grounds its sci-fi elements firmly in realism, whereas Lost Girl strives for emotional resonance and meaning in a world (and a genre) which fully embraces its most fantastical elements.
The functionality of characters and archetypes, however, remains the same even in disparate settings. Felix of Orphan Black and Kenzi of Lost Girl are quite similar, and not only because they’re easily our favorite characters, or because they can pull off any outfit, or because they often serve as comic relief. Their similarities are revealed in many more subtle things the shows do to utilize both as the hearts of their respective shows.
Quickly and upfront, let’s acknowledge that both characters could easily be clichés and mere plot devices – Felix the absolutely fabulous gay character who dispenses pithy life/sex/fashion advice, Kenzi the streetwise bestie who wears outrageous outfits and always has the quip and skillset any particular situation calls for.
The fact they’re not one-dimensional snark machines should be attributed to a combination of things: solid casting and direction, fantastic acting, and—most significantly to this conversation—the way they’re utilized in the story. They serve as partners and co-conspirators, as every good sidekick should, but rather than being merely supplemental to the heroines [and we could also talk about how shows anchored on strong and flawed female leads are already inherently more willing to work outside boundaries and stereotypes], they have their own agency, they interact with other characters, and both of them–instead of their shows’ main characters–serve as unique moral centers.
We meet pill-popping, prostituting, in-the-nude painting, irreverent Felix when his sister Sarah comes running to show him an eerie doppleganger dead girl’s ID on her way to kidnap Kira, Sarah’s daughter. Though loyal Felix is going along with the plan, he also constantly expresses reservations and tries to get Sarah to verbalize the possible consequences of her actions. Ultimately, he helps talk her out of the whole thing, even while riding shotgun in the potential getaway car.
Felix is more grounded than Sarah, in fact more than the rest of the clones. He may be drawn to Alison, Cosima, et al. out of a somewhat strange familial obligation, and he paints them out of macabre fascination, but he sticks with and helps them because he’s truly a good person. Various facets of his three-dimensional personality are shown through his interactions with his new ‘family.’ His concepts of obligation and unselfishness keep Sarah in check as she figures out her relationship with Kira; his strength and self-determination gives Alison power to take control of her own life; his willingness to risk his life in a creepy dark club saves Paul’s life; his instinctive protectiveness makes him wary of Delphine and downright hostile towards Vic.
Kenzi comes into Bo’s life as a pickpocketing vagrant who needs to be saved from a dreadful fate in an elevator. But though she runs into deep trouble several times in the series, she doesn’t exist merely as motivation for Bo and other characters, ie to fulfill the ‘get put in danger then rescued’ cycle. She saves Bo several times; in fact, later in the episode where we meet her, she tries to jump into the arena where Bo is being held, and hearing Kenzi’s voice helps break the mental hold Bo is in. Only four episodes after Bo saves Kenzi from being literally raped and killed, Kenzi saves Bo from the same metaphorical fate. Dyson helps rescue Kenzi from a couple scrapes, she in turn rescues him from death and then retrieves his love from the Norn by force. She, like Felix, is wildly protective of anyone in her circle of loved ones, even if (at first) she grudgingly loves a few of them only because Bo does.
Kenzi is the character who jives with all the others, whether it be right off the bat or after a period of feeling each other out. She and Dyson hit it off instantly; she brings out the nurturing side of him, and even his sense of humor. Kenzi and Lauren start off far more rocky, but eventually come to a place of mutual respect as they combine their resourceful sides. She and Tamsin are at loggerheads before Tamsin regenerates, but then her protectiveness and desire to teach people things brings Tamsin back to Fae maturity. Even Trick starts to put some of his prejudices aside for Kenzi, admitting he’s come to see her as family.
It’s with the main characters the comparisons become most obvious. Felix and Sarah and Kenzi and Bo share powerful bonds. They help and need each other in really tenable, beautiful ways. When Sarah Manning and Bo Dennis aren’t sure what to do in everything from their love lives to their moral quandaries, they turn not to the authorities or their parental figures or even their lovers, but to Felix and Kenzi, best friends who would be mere sidekicks in lesser shows.
Felix is the only person Sarah respects enough to listen to; Sarah rejects the authority of her foster mother Mrs. S, but her younger brother Felix can talk sense into her. More than that, Felix is Sarah’s only viable connection to her pre-clone life, and the only person to encourage Sarah to define boundaries in her new, post-clone life. They are entirely comfortable and trusting of each other, and Felix is who Sarah runs to with problems. ALL OF THE PROBLEMS.
Kenzi is also younger than Bo, and when we meet them Kenzi is the one who is vulnerable and in need. But we quickly realize Kenzi is more street savvy and able to read people and situations than Bo. They move in together, and while Bo tries to figure out her life, Kenzi pragmatically handles most of the day-to-day business: starting a Private Investigating business, ordering pizza, keeping the liquor cabinet stocked, obtaining furniture, doing everything but the dishes. At one point, after Kenzi bluntly tells Bo to solve a problem involving her paramour, Bo pouts “I liked it better when I was the mom,” and Kenzi replies “Honey, you were never the mom.”
More than just functioning as a narrative Swiss Army knife, Kenzi and Felix are the consciences of each show and the main protagonist in particular. Sure, it’s a tad unusual when your moral compass commits or is accessory to impersonating a police officer, pickpocketing, bank fraud, identity theft, hard drug dealing, etc., all within episodes of meeting him or her. But it’s also bloody brilliant. If you’re writing a show that challenges social norms about family, gender, sexuality, and agency, why wouldn’t your moral center reflect the morass between morality and societal norms?
Kenzi’s sticky fingers and hustling ways are a direct reflection of life and necessity in the economic underclass, as are Felix’s drug dealing and prostitution. When they each get coerced into watching children while the heroines go off and sleuth, Felix’s genderfuck babysitting only serves to highlight suburbia’s fervent pursuit of rigidly idealized gender norms, while Kenzi’s kid-aversion and inability to cook even grilled cheese stand in stark opposition to the stereotypical ‘feminine’ social roles society would say she’s supposed to inhabit. (Later, Kenzi’s dislike of children and babysitting deliciously complicates the surrogate mother role she plays to reborn TamTam, a role she takes reluctantly but infuses with her typical supportive and non-judgemental flair.) Felix’s blithe lying when cops come to his door is practiced from years of dealing with johns and other corrupt authority figures. Kenzi’s casual acceptance of closer ties to Dark Fae in Season 4 reflect a flexibility borne from years of shifting allegiances between varying degrees of ‘bad guys’ on the street, and the resulting understanding one’s ethical center is not defined by the company one is forced into keeping.
These characters and the actions they commit are not set in stark relief against ‘normal’ culture to be mocked, but because the contrast best demonstrates how those who may appear crazy or abnormal are often those who understand what’s truly important. Kenzi and Felix function the same way in their stories, as characters, plot devices, and people. They actively prove that widely accepted constructions of ‘morality’ are inadequate, especially for people and situations outside of the beneficent umbrella of societal privilege.
And damn, they look good doing it.