Sarah Manning is punk-chic. She’s standing on a train platform, shouting into a pay phone. One thing is clear: she’s demanding to see her daughter, but the answer is no and a dial tone.
In the meantime, there’s a woman on the platform who keeps catching Sarah’s eye. She’s pacing, in distress, and then she sets down her purse, takes off her shoes, and removes her jacket. By now, Sarah’s approaching her like one would approach a wild animal, and when the woman turns around, and Sarah sees her own face, there are two reactions:
Sarah’s, of shocked disbelief.
The woman’s, a numb not-surprise.
And then the woman turns away and launches herself in front of an oncoming train.
Sarah is understandably shocked and horrified. The station turns into madness, stopping the train, finding the woman’s body, and Sarah can’t believe what she’s just seen. Witnessing someone’s suicide is clearly horrifying, but it’s far worse because the jumper looks exactly like her.
But Sarah, slowly realizing that no one else saw what she saw, that she could be a twin to the woman now dead under the train, pulls away from the crowd and spots this woman’s belongings exactly where she left them. And Sarah does both the stupidest and yet somehow most obvious thing in the world:
She reaches down and grabs this dead stranger’s purse.
So let’s make one thing clear about Orphan Black: if not now, there will come a time when you do not like Sarah Manning.
Episode 1.01: Natural Selection
Episode 1.02: Instinct
Episode 1.03: Variation Under Nature
Episode 1.04: Effects of External Conditions
Episode 1.05: Conditions of Existence
I promised in my introductory post that my rewatches would not be recaps, nor academic/critical reviews of each episode. Which is fine, because the whole point of a rewatch, for me, is to see episodes in a new light: I know what comes after. I know where the story is going (to a point). It’s a good chance to measure just how much has been set up in advance, and a good chance to refresh my memory of events that have all gelled together into one clump of story in my brain.
So for the first post, I want to talk about how perfect it is that the show opens the way I described it above. With Sarah Manning, showing us just now flawed she can be.
It’s funny: when I first discovered this show and started singing its praises, the people who told me they couldn’t get into it stumbled on the very thing I just described: they didn’t like Sarah as a main character. Now, don’t get me wrong: Sarah Manning is a great character. She actually has a lot of qualities I admire. They just aren’t very evident in the pilot, and I find that interesting. Over at The Mary Sue, Candice Patton talked about how female characters need permission to be flawed. After all, one female character cannot represent all women in a single show or movie, but they often do because they are the only female character in a cast of leading men. This means there are a lot of expectations heaped upon those female characters, and who wants to see a flawed woman on their screen when that’s the only female representation the show has to offer?
In the long run, that certainly isn’t a problem for Orphan Black, but in the first episode, “Natural Selection,” it’s actually quite a big one. Because with the exception of the very beginning and the very end (Beth and Katja, respectively, and both of whom die right in front of Sarah), we only ever see Sarah Manning interact with men. For a show that’s so female positive, it’s a shocking realization. For that first episode, Sarah has to be all things to all people when it comes to representing women, and that doesn’t leave room for flaws. Which is unfortunate, because we see Sarah steal a dead woman’s purse, forage through her home and belongings, and slide into her identity just to steal $75,000 from her bank account. And to top it off, Sarah even fakes her own death to do so.
But weirdly, I find that’s the right choice: rewatching those first episodes, I can’t get over what a right choice that is. What other character is so well-equipped to slip into someone else’s identity, and when backed into a corner, uses all the contextual clues at her fingertips and not only comes out swinging, but comes out on top? I think that’s what drew me into the show from the start. Sure, there was the mystery of the identicals (which had already been spoiled for me), but it was watching Sarah fight and figure her way out of situations where no one else could. The way she combines her knowledge of Beth’s medicine cabinet to Art’s snark and Paul’s confrontations to connect the dots and put the therapist in the crosshairs, basically telling the woman the reason Beth was unbalanced and confused and — season three fans, this had me cackling — glitchy, it was because the therapist had been giving Beth things she shouldn’t, and Sarah uses that to get Beth reinstated. That’s just one example. The other is Sarah piecing together what exactly Beth did to get suspended using Art’s file and how she’s able to pull off her second hearing, after the creative use of soap to get out of the first hearing.
That’s why I love Sarah. She’s a fighter. She’s smart. Yes, she’ll do and entertain stupid things, but she’s got heart, and she’s loyal in her own way. And her motivations become crystal clear by the end of the pilot: she’s fighting to get her daughter back.
That, in and of itself, would make for a compelling series. Yet by the end of the second episode, when Sarah is confronting Alison in her home and meets Cosima for the first time, we learn that things are far more complicated than we ever thought (and trust me: those first two episodes make everything complicated enough). This is why Sarah is the perfect gateway into this world: by having the ability to read people, to con people, to figure out anything and everything she can to turn the situation to her advantage, she is the best audience surrogate we’ve got to this world and its conspiracies. She wants no part of them, yet she can’t help but be drawn in. She’s not perfect, but she uses the resources she’s got, and I love her for it. And I especially love how, over the course of just five episodes, Sarah’s world goes from herself, Kira, and Felix, to embracing — somewhat grudgingly at first — her fellow identicals and fighting for them so that they can all stay safe.
You notice I haven’t used the C-word yet, right?
We don’t find out they’re officially clones until the very beginning of episode three, during Alison’s outburst that lands like a sack of hammers. Cosima’s response, “I wanted to float that whole clone thing a lot softer,” had me cracking up. But what else are they? Certainly, the big mystery from the start, aside from who is killing them and why (answer, yet another clone, a reveal that still thrills me), is this: who is the original? I remember being obsessed with this question because Sarah was so different, you see: she has a biological child and has never had any reason to think she was different. We learn that Alison’s children are adopted and that Beth couldn’t have children. We also find out that Helena, our serial killing, religious fanatic, Ukrainian clone believes she is the original, and she believes that all the others are abominations that must be cleansed from the Earth. But she doesn’t kill Sarah because she feels a connection, sees a light there that she didn’t see in others.
Upon rewatching, this isn’t quite as impactful as it was the first-time around. But it is interesting, and somewhat perplexing: we’ll talk about why next month.
For now, let’s talk about other things I noticed upon rewatching the first five episodes:
1) It never sank in until now that Sarah was a victim of domestic abuse. It’s not all that subtle either: the way Felix talks about Vic, the way Felix talks to Vic, and how Vic responds to Felix and the news of Sarah’s death; the way Sarah puts him in his place in episode five when he’s trying to gaslight her into remembering how in love they were, and Sarah finally takes a stand and tells him no. I never liked Vic except as a kind of comic relief, but this realization made me realize how much I was diminishing his character. Seeing Sarah stand up to him and realizing what she was getting away from made me see her in a whole new light. Sarah may be an orphan, but she’s a survivor: she has always been a survivor. This makes her desperation at the start of the show more immediate and more understandable.
2) I’d forgotten just how horribly mean Mrs. S. was to Sarah at the start. Yes, the woman is doing everything she can to take care of and protect Kira, who is “a special girl.” It speaks volumes to Sarah’s past behavior and acquaintances (like Vic) that Mrs. S. is willing and able to keep Kira away from her mother, but it also adds volumes to Sarah’s motivation to get the money that she’d taken from Beth’s bank account and get the hell out of dodge. Never mind that Sarah has been away for ten months: all she wants is to be with the people she loves and trusts most (Felix and Kira) and have a fresh start, away from all the craziness. I can’t blame Sarah for that, and I side with her, even now, and feel her pain when Mrs. S. tells her she’s got one shot, and she’d better not screw it up.
3) Alison was such a bitch from the start. Holy crap, how did I forget that? She is a tightly wound-up soccer mom who has no compunctions about brandishing a knife at a stranger (who wears her face) or pointing a gun at Felix in the backyard. And I can’t tell you how much I loved Sarah for diffusing the situation and then, once the gun was no longer a factor, slapping Alison hard across the face and threatening her appropriately. Yeah, yeah, physical violence doesn’t solve everything, but no one, and I mean no one, threatens Felix, and Sarah makes that clear. In doing so, Alison crumples, and whomever the top dog in Clone Club was before, it’s certainly Sarah now. The irony is, after this initial introduction, you can see Alison and Felix make quite the dynamic duo later on! How much do I love Alison’s impersonation of Sarah? Oi! So freaking much. Especially when, even though things go kind of south with Kira, Alison makes a legitimate effort to patch things up enough with Mrs. S. that Sarah gets another shot with her daughter. For a woman who originally thought Sarah didn’t deserve Kira, that’s a helluva nice thing to do, and that’s also when we start to see Allison’s character develop beyond the uptight soccer mom stereotype.
4) Speaking of Felix, I adore him. But I was shocked at how violent and cruel Vic was to him from the start, and just how well Felix handles himself. Felix is often played for laughs and comic relief (the nudity under the apron? HA!), but one of the best things about him is that he makes it clear from the start that he isn’t just Sarah’s sidekick. He lashes out often: calling Sarah on her shit, on leaving him out or leaving him behind, and when he feels slighted, he makes her pay for that. Again, this was something I’d forgotten, and it’s important to see that seeded all the way in the beginning, because as Sarah’s life becomes chaos, it’s easy to forget that Felix is his own person, with his own life. That said, pairing him and Alison together is one of my favorite things on this show.
5) I haven’t spoke much about Cosima, and frankly, it’s because we don’t really get much of her until the fifth episode. I can’t believe it took this long in the show to introduce Delphine, but it does so at the very end, and you know, with that adorable little smile on Cosima’s face, that this is going to be an important pairing. But there’s more to Cosima than just that: while we don’t see her much, she really does shine each time she’s on the screen: her animation and energy differentiates her from her clones, and while Sarah’s smart in her own way, Cosima is a serious academic. The science of it all, getting the samples, learning how the clones are made and why and what’s making them sick (another thing I didn’t realize was introduced so early: before she gets shot in the head, Katja makes it clear she’s ill), Cosima is the go-to for the science driving the show, and she’s just so much fun. I’d forgotten that Scott’s introduction (when Cosima co-ops him to help her study the clone samples) to us was one of the stereotypical geek guy: he’s obviously smitten with Cosima, and wants to know what he’ll get out of helping her. Her response? “How about you get to have sex…. with yourself.” I love her so much for that line.
6) I don’t know if I’ve made it clear, but everyone we meet starts off as a stereotype before unraveling into something a bit more complex. I know I’m speaking from a longer view than the first five episodes, but I point it out here because when it comes to the clones, it shows a real depth to what actress Tatiana Maslany pulls off on this show. I mean, do we ever mix up any of the clones, ever? Even when they’re impersonating each other, there’s little differences that are true to their character that makes it clear who we’re watching. And let’s just count the number of clones we get up to this point: Sarah, Beth, Katja, Alison, Cosima, Helena: that’s six that Maslany portrays actively, but that doesn’t count Sarah-as-Beth, Sarah-as-Katja, Alison-as-Sarah, Helena-as-Sarah-as-Beth. It’s astounding, and you’d think after watching four seasons, I’d be immune to it, but I’m not. The Emmys finally recognized what fans have known this whole time, that this show simply works because of how Maslany is able to portray each character so easily and comfortably, while never letting us forget just who is on the screen. Oh, not to discount wardrobe or hair & makeup either, nor the accents, but I’m a fan of shows like Alias and The Americans, which are both shows (spy shows, no less) where the characters have to disguise themselves, but we never forget who’s really under the disguise. Of course, with those shows, we’re not meant to, but still. Maslany makes it all so effortless, and I never get distracted by the special effects it takes to help make it so.
7) Even with the first five episodes, we score a few points for diversity with Art, Vic, and Allison’s kids, and we score points for sexuality: Felix is gay, and by the end of the fifth episode, we definitely learn Cosima is a lesbian (I also wonder if Angie, the other detective, is a lesbian or at least bisexual, because Art’s question about whether or not she’s ever fought with a woman is answered with a laugh, followed by the question, “Business or pleasure?”). Of course, there’s also a lot of female characters on the show, though given the fact they’re all clones, that limits the number of women in the cast.
What’s next? In October, I’ll be discussing the back half of season one, which consists of the following episodes:
Episode 1.06: Variations Under Domestication
Episode 1.07: Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner
Episode 1.08: Entangled Bank
Episode 1.09: Unconscious Selection
Episode 1.10: Endless Forms Most Beautiful
I aim to have this live on Wednesday, October 19th, but that may be a challenge with October being my vacation month, so if that happens, I promise to make sure our next post is live before October is over. But as long as you finish season one by October 19th, you’ll be good to go for what comes next!
And that’s it for part one of the Orphan Black rewatch! What are your favorite moments from the first half of season one? Who’s your favorite character to this point? Who have you fallen in love with all over again? What surprises you upon rewatching? Are any of you watching this show for the first time? Share your thoughts! And remember, if you’ve watched past episode 1.05, please don’t spoil anything beyond that in the comments!