Orphan Black: Bad girls do it well

Orphan Black's resident bad girl, Sarah

Orphan Black’s resident bad girl, Sarah

We are here to talk about bad girls. Or one particular bad girl, Orphan Black‘s protagonist, Sarah.

Last month I started watching Orphan Black on BBC America. It just finished its 10 episode first season and I am loving it. It’s kind of a dark action show with science fiction elements and some really strong female characters (most of whom are played by one actress). None of my friends are watching it yet (hint hint, friends) so after finishing the first handful of episodes I went online to see what people were saying about it. I was surprised to see how many people had  strong negative feelings about Sarah. I think Sarah is great. She’s strong and dynamic and interesting and passionate.

But she’s also basically an anti-hero. She lies, she cheats, she’s an absentee mother. She has a terrible, sleazy, violent drug dealer ex boyfriend. She is not your typical female protagonist, and yes, she fits the bad girl mold.

I’m going to talk about the plot a little bit but nothing that the preview for the first episode doesn’t basically spoil.

In fact here is that trailer, you can take a peek!

This tips the hand on a plot point I was planning to play coy with: Sarah is a clone. And the excellent actress playing all the clones, Tatiana Maslany, gets quite a workout throughout the series.

When we meet Sarah, she thinks she’s just a girl who has effed up her own life in a fairly spectacular way. At the beginning of the first episode Sarah sees someone who could be her twin commit suicide by throwing herself  in front of a train. Sarah steals the woman’s ID out of her abandoned purse and goes to check out the apartment of Beth, her doppelganger, with the intent of investigating their similarity and possibly robbing her. Now because this is a TV show, Sarah gets in over her head quickly and ends up taking over Beth’s life.

In the first episode alone, we find out that Sarah has: not seen her young daughter in 8 months, stolen a large amount of drugs from her scary ex boyfriend, taken a dead woman’s wallet, had sex with that woman’s boyfriend, stolen $75,000, and  faked her own death. Girl is busy for sure.

I’m having a hard time thinking of another female protagonist with a rap sheet like this. However, based on this, Sarah could certainly take her place in one of televisions most prestigious boys clubs: the anti-heroes.

The anti-hero club is made up of men who do some reprehensible things, but the audience feels compassionately towards anyway. The Shield‘s corrupt cop Vic Makay is an anti-hero. Dexter‘s serial killer battling his dark passenger, Dexter Morgan, is one, as is Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. These men do terrible things. They kill people. They have no respect for the law and they have super questionable morals. Yet, we as an audience let them be bad. We even revel in it sometimes, these actions that are forbidden to us but fascinating to watch. Even so, the anti-hero is always the protagonist, not the antagonist.

However, as a protagonist Sarah makes people uncomfortable. She’s a bad mother (bad fathers are fine, or even expected. Hello, Mad Men’s Don Draper). She uses sex to manipulate people. She steals.

However, the thing that ultimately revokes Sarah’s membership to the anti-hero club (or at least makes it iffy) is not that she has lady bits but that she has a sense of morality. Part of the complexity of this character is that while she is doing some horrible things, she is fundamentally good. She does want to be a good mother. She loves her foster brother. She’s just not always sure how to be who they need her to be, how to listen to her moral compass.

Yet unlike any of the male anti-heroes who are allowed to stay bad, Sarah is on a path towards redemption, almost from the very beginning. She picks a side to fight for and takes a stand against the terrible things happening around her, instead of taking her daughter, her brother, the $75,000 and running. Which in itself is super compelling. But honestly, I wouldn’t mind watching Sarah be bad. I have no need for her to be on a trajectory towards goodness just because she’s a woman. I’d love to see what it means to have a lady in the anti-hero club.

Sarah is not a cardboard cutout of an action heroine. She’s flawed and she makes mistakes. And that, more than anything, makes Orphan Black and Sarah crazy captivating.

There’s a lot more I could say about Orphan Black. I’m surprised that I was able to say so much and still keep most of the show’s secrets. I could do a similar character analysis for any of the five or six main characters: the tropes they represent and how they subvert them, the characterizations are consistently smart and deep. There is even some juicy stuff with a number of LGBT characters.  Orphan Black certainly is not a perfect show, but it’s an entertaining and dynamic one. As one of BBC America’s first self produced shows, it has the potential to really influence the network, and as its already been renewed for a second season (airing next spring) that will be a journey we will get to watch.

Charlotte is likely to forget in a year’s time how much she likes this show.

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3 thoughts on “Orphan Black: Bad girls do it well

  1. What an excellent analysis of the character and the difference between male and female anti-heroes. I agree it’s not a perfect show, but it’s so different from most TV shows and is highly entertaining as well, I’m very much looking forward to Season 2!

  2. I disagree that too many anti-heroes are allowed to stay bad. Male Characters who start off as kind of “bad” and a character to be wary of – Damon on The Vampire Diaries, Gregory House on House M.D., Neal Caffery as a criminal con man on White Collar, etc – they grow into better, more moral people over time. Very few leads of a show are Walter White, starting out completely good and quite far from being a killer but turning evil.

    I adore Sarah exactly the way she is, and I think any show about secret unethical scientific experiments needs a main character WITH some strong morals in order to balance out the immoral stuff that starts the whole thing off. 😛

    I would love to read your analysis of any of the other main characters on the show, btw. 😛

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