Blurred identity: Orphan Black Sep21

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Blurred identity: Orphan Black

"Cosima" | Art by hobbittiponi. Used with permission.
One of the most engaging aspects of the first season of Orphan Black, the acclaimed Canadian and British sci-fi co-production, is the intersection of two main themes around individual identity. The first of these themes is the ongoing question of the characters’ identities, notably Sarah Manning’s (Tatiana Maslany) search for answers about her own origin, about who she is and where she fits in a deeply layered conspiracy involving illegal human cloning.

The second theme, one that works on the subtextual level, is an exploration of the performative nature of identity for the actor. When an actor plays a role, she “becomes,” on some level, that character. This is most obvious when considering the amazing work of lead actor Tatiana Maslany. In each episode, Maslany shows off the kind of range that few film and television actors get to demonstrate in a lifetime. Each clone is a separate role for Maslany, a unique and nuanced character, with distinct mannerisms and personality traits.

At the heart of the first season’s narrative is Sarah’s story of identity. It’s a standard sci-fi/fantasy trope, which I call Potteritis, in which the main character thinks of herself as insignificant; she’s usually orphaned and alone, believing there’s nothing special about her and that the world would not notice if she just disappeared. Through a series of events and revelations, she discovers that not only is she special, she’s the key to something much bigger than she could ever imagine.

Orphan Black examines the nature of human identity, what we project about ourselves and how others perceive us.

In the pilot, “Natural Selection,” Sarah Manning arrives at “the big city” train station and sees a woman who looks exactly like her step in front of a train. Sarah makes the split second decision to take this woman’s purse and, later, to assume the dead woman’s identity. At this point, Sarah is essentially alone—she’s “a poor little orphan foster-wretch,” on the run from her abusive boyfriend;  she hasn’t seen her daughter, Kira, in a year;  her foster brother, Felix, is flake; her foster mother, despite raising Sarah, Felix and now Sarah’s daughter, is known by the formalized, distancing epithet, “Mrs. S.” Sarah conspires with Felix to have Beth’s body identified as Sarah Manning and to clean out one of Beth’s accounts of $75,000 to set up a new life for her and Kira.

In assuming Beth’s identity, Sarah is drawn into events she can’t anticipate. Beth’s life, despite her nice clothes and expensive condo, is more complex than Sarah can imagine. When another clone, Katja, mistakes Sarah for Beth and is shot, Sarah realizes she’s become part of something complicated and dangerous. Soon she meets two other clones, Alison, an uptight stay-at home soccer mom, and Cosima, an alternative graduate student. Sarah feels a pull between her instinctual desires to look out for herself, a newfound responsibility to her “sisters,” and her acceptance of her own uniqueness among the clones (she’s the only one who has produced a child).

What makes Orphan Black such an intriguing show is its refusal to provide pat answers and draw straightforward conclusions, even about such a fundamentally human concern: identity. In assuming Beth’s identity, Sarah comes into her own, rising to challenges and exhibiting resourcefulness. But at the same time, her identity is blurred with Beth’s. She begins a sexual relationship with Beth’s boyfriend, she grows to trust and respect Beth’s partner, Detective Art Bell. As the season progresses, and more people come to learn about Sarah’s ruse, Sarah becomes “fractured”—needing to keep straight who knows what, who knows her as Sarah and who knows her as Beth.

Much of Orphan Black’s critical attention has fallen deservedly on the chameleon-like abilities of the Saskatchewan-born lead, Tatiana Maslany. But the genius of Orphan Black is how the show highlights Maslany’s talents by including Sarah’s preparations and extending the clone playacting beyond Sarah.

In preparing for her role as Beth, Sarah watches home movies, studying movements and mannerisms. She practices speaking as Beth, repressing her own working class London accent for Beth’s flat North American accent. She considers various wardrobe choices. In “Instinct,” when she has to testify as Beth at a police review board, Sarah studies the files, repeating the details of the “script” over and over until it’s not just memorized but part of her.

It’s a standard sci-fi/fantasy trope, which I call Potteritis.

That level of study is also the work of the actor—decisions about interpretation, research, practice. By including such scenes, the show subtly reminds the audience, never in an invasive way that pulls us out of the show, that what we are watching are performances within performance and Tatiana Maslany’s process of creation.

The show highlights this aspect of identity and performance throughout the season when various clones swap identities. In “Effects of External Condition,” Helena, a clone killing the other clones, impersonates Beth-Sarah, walking into the police station and searching Beth’s desk.

In another scene, Sarah realizes that she’s not going to be able to meet her daughter;, so she asks Alison to fill in for her—“I need to be in two places at once, yah? Well, if anybody can do that we can.” Alison, confident from her recent success in the Glendale Community Theatre production of Steal Magnolias, goes through a comical version of preparation with breathing exercises and speech warm ups.

Orphan Black, like all important sci-fi/fantasy, succeeds because of its ability to make abstract concepts concrete and to raise questions about humanity not possible in more realist modes. Beyond ethical questions of human cloning, Orphan Black examines the nature of human identity, what we project about ourselves and how others perceive us. At times, identity seems inconsistent, fluid, like any of the clones can “fill” in; however at other times identity is shown to be unique and individual, constant. Orphan Black moves beyond mere entertainment and to something much more: a quest for identity that sometimes raises more questions than answers.

Michael Boyce

Michael Boyce

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Michael W. Boyce is afflicted with severe boredom because he has a brain the size of a planet and he seldom gets the chance to use it at its full capacity. He boasts of a Ravenclaw education and we consider him to be our Yoda.

Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
Michael Boyce