#OrphanBlack: Sex, Drugs, Genetic Programming

This is written by Dale and myself, cross-posted from TVquila

In honor of Orphan Black’s Season 2 premiere, we present you with the first part of a three-part overview of Season 1. Part 2 (Orphan Black: Literary Themes, Structure, and Genre TV) and Part 3 (Orphan Black: Performance, Production, and Post) are coming over the next two weeks, and we’ll also be doing episode reviews [appearing exclusively on TVquila, which you can find on FacebookTwitter, and tumblr].

The Clones and Nature v Nurture v Programming

The endless debate about Nature v Nurture rages through every philosophy class and often even pop culture, but few shows make identity and identity construction so central to their premise. In the first season, Orphan Black uses the story and development of the clone characters—specifically narrative doubling, which will be talked about in depth in Parts 2 and 3—to highlight this philosophical problem.

The writing practically begs the engaged fan to analyze the characters, posing questions such as: How much of each character is nature, nurture, or programming? Which things are programming features, and which are bugs? If religious mantra goes contrary to nature/programming, will that induce madness? Or is madness part of the programming? Are clones more prone to mental health issues? What about sextime preferences?

Nature, Nurture, Drugs

So. Many. Pattttttteeeeerrrrrnnnnnns.

The show does a great job using fairly stereotypical, environment-determined substance abuses to flesh out the individual clones. Beth, the cop, is a smoker with a cabinet full of prescriptions. Sarah, the grifter, drinks, pops pills, and deals (and presumably also uses) coke. The soccer mom has her wine and “mother’s little helpers”, the academic smokes weed, and the German looks like she parties with Motley Crue. Even the crazy homicidal religious one has an addiction, although hers is self-harm and cutting (which may be more to try and process all the things which made her the crazy homicidal religious one, without access to other aids and safer, more healthy outlets).

There is of course a difference between ‘natural predilection towards use of substances, with which substances mostly decided by surroundings’ and ‘genetically locked in to addiction.’ We haven’t seen clear evidence anyone is addicted (in fact, by socio-economic predictors, if anyone should be an addict it’s Sarah, but she’s not), only that they’re facing an extraordinary set of circumstances and using available coping mechanisms . . . and also sometimes ‘average’ mechanisms like coffee, wine, and pot. We don’t think they’re going to venture into the ‘addiction is disease’ route, but suggesting people can be naturally predisposed to substance use just like they can be disposed toward specific personality quirks and violent tendencies, is a suggestion few if any current shows are brave enough to venture.

Nature, Nurture, Violence

This scene is priceless.

The show has gone out of its way to show all of them as killers or at least capable of violence. (Almost all. Interestingly, so far not the gay chick, perhaps they’re trying to steer clear of a couple stereotypes.) Beth was in an inherently violent profession, and killed Maggie Chen, one of the people responsible for the clones’ origins. Helena used violence against her own seestras and anyone who got in her way. Alison’s suburban violence is its own microcosm, but you can’t exactly downplay beaning your husband with a golf club before torturing him with a glue gun, or choosing to watch your former best friend get strangled to death with her own scarf. Sarah assumes Beth’s role as cop, lashes out against Helena with rebar, punches her in the wound the next time she sees Helena, and picks up shooting very quickly.

In fact, shooting a firearm seems second nature to all of them: Beth was a great shot, she taught Alison, and Alison seems to have perfected the skill enough to teach Sarah in a short hour how to shoot well enough to pass by police standards. Helena kills Katja with a sniper round in the forehead, ambushes Art and Sarah, and always seems to have a handgun to brandish at Sarah, as well.

Is this ‘coded’ into their shared DNA? And if they’ve been ‘coded,’ what does that say about the ability in all of them to kill? Again, feature or bug? Is it possible they were the first attempt to create some sort of soldier or spy? Or was it an accident of DNA that all of them are lightning fast learners at firearms and more capable than the average human of processing murder and death?

Nature, Nurture, Sexuality

Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 9.53.19 AM

This topic is actually directly addressed by the characters. In episode 8, Delphine explicitly says that sexuality is a spectrum, and that we only codify attraction because of social biases.

Delphine is, obviously, bisexual, though mainstream articles about the show skirt calling her that. In fact, most avoid talking about her sexuality at all. Meanwhile, Cosima is bisexual, yet somehow EVERY BLOODY ARTICLE/REVIEW/BLOG POST refers to Cosima as the “pot-smoking lesbian”. GODFUCKINGDAMNALLTHESHITBIRDHELLS.

*deep breath*

We like to think that Cosima’s snarky “my sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me” in the trailers is a response to that. Dear Mainstream Outlets: we understand non-binary terms freak you out, but the show you’re talking about makes everything pretty clear, so just follow their lead.

Besides general bi-rasure, acknowledging Cosima’s fluid sexuality is important because the clones are genetic identicals. Is it possible that all the clones’ sexuality is coded to tabula rasa? Is bisexual the default setting, and their surroundings dictated the rest? These questions, of course, parrot the conversations that larger society is having as well. It’s true we’ve seen Sarah can have kids while other clones can’t, so they may well go the route of general differences occurring through mutation, in gestation, ‘original’ vs ‘copies’, whatever, but at this point it’s important to keep the ‘nature’ *and* ‘nurture’ on the table so far as how sexuality is expressed.

Besides, reducing an interesting clone to ‘the only one who likes girls’ is far too simplistic and easy. The reality is that each of the three main clones uses/performs sexuality in very different ways. Cosima dismisses her nerdy little suitor, but knowingly seduces her monitor. Sarah is perhaps the most liberated, but her choice of men leaves much to be desired. Alison’s sexless suburban life is thrown for a loop at any confrontation with sexuality: hearing Sarah’s admission that she slept with Paul; discovering of Donnie’s hidden “Big Boob Blowies” DVD; finding (and cleaning!) Felix’s sex toys; being informed of Cosima’s dalliances with Delphine; and finally venting her own sexual frustration in the face of personal crisis.

The sex in Orphan Black is a topic that mainstream outlets have avoided, over-simplified, or intentionally misunderstood, but the show outlines its stance very clearly. Sexuality itself is fluid, but actually having sex happens, even when it’s not romantic or planned or even a good decision. Moreover, sex performs many functions, including but not limited to: procreation or attempted procreation; making money or drugs; pleasure; release of tension; gaining access to someone’s trust for nefarious purposes (Delphine of course, but Felix too, and Sarah brashly flirts with the banker and likely would have banged him on his desk if it got her Beth’s cash on the spot); relieving boredom; or just desperately distracting a beefcake who is asking the wrong questions.


Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 9.42.54 AM

We’re not expecting the show to answer all of these questions about nature, nurture, and which made who do what. In fact, we’d rather they just pose more questions, have characters mull over the implications or even live out various potential ramifications, and let it go without trying to tie everything into a neat bow. For pop culture to seriously consider the knotty questions philosophers have wrestled with for ages, in a genre which is so ideally suited for direct social metaphors—and to do it while looking so good and creating such wonderful characters — is marvelous in its own right, and justifies the second season even before we get to all the wonderful acting, film craft, and character and thematic depth we’ll be talking about in parts two and three.

It’s clear the show is saying something about how we’re all shaped, and the influence or disadvantages of genetics, environment, and social privilege, but it’s also still willing to intentionally create enough gray areas to prevent any simple conclusions. Thus, while the surface plots may be more self-contained or fully resolved than shows like LOST, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, etc., the questioning and philosophical nature of the show open it up to a myriad of conversations and speculations just as those shows did. Neat trick, that.

Or maybe they’re just trying to keep the tumblrs jumping. Either way, we all win.

3 Responses to “#OrphanBlack: Sex, Drugs, Genetic Programming”
  1. Nicholas says:

    Holy shit!

    I never looked into this series before, but I just realised that this is nearly an exact copy of the YA Sci-Fi series “Replica” that I read in high school. If so, potential spoiler warning – they might delve into having male versions of the genetically designed clones appear as well, with weird pheremonal impulses to procreate (and lots of pseudosciency sexism about “peak abilities” for men/women) thrown into the mix.

    From what I’ve seen, though, it definitely looks interesting enough that I’ve downloaded the first season to watch.

    • Melanie says:

      I’m trying to imagine the double-headaches that sort of casting and post-work that would involve, and I’m thinking if it happens, it’s a very, very minor plot point (especially because of the feminist bent the show takes).

      But! I’m quite stoked you’re going to watch it, and we’re definitely going to have to discuss it at length.

      • Nicholas says:

        So, I binged last night and watched the first five episodes. It’s working out even better than expected, not the least because a number of various side details seemed far more accurate than I would have expected.

        Cops who don’t instantly get back fingerprint/DNA results, shootings that miss but still have actual consequences, tactical teams that actually secure an area before the detectives in their pretty clothes walk around the potential lair, characters that actually have to deal with the psychological consequences of their actions (for more than a single episode, after which they revert to the norm), all on top of the actual show’s premise itself?

        I don’t feel like I’ve gotten far enough into the show to actually get into the meat of your post yet, and have avoided reading much beyond the first paragraph or two because spoilers, but give me until this weekend and I know I’ll be there, so expect more soon.

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