That was my first response to the shocking revelation at the end Orphan Black’s season 2 premiere. And it wasn’t the good kind of “No way!” either. It made no sense. We saw her die! It felt like a betrayal. The producers insisted she was dead! It was worrisome. This cheapens her season 1 arc! This threatens the integrity of the storytelling! This…this…this is awful!
In short: I wasn’t wild to learn that somehow, someway, Helena – that sad, mad, Prolethean-warped, and apparently bulletproof Ukrainian killing machine – was still alive.
Now I know what you might be thinking, as some of you have actually said it to me. After I tweeted a version of WTH?! (What The Helena?!) last Saturday, a follower responded: “the thing you disbelieve in the show about clones is that one could survive a gunshot? #lame #OrphanBlack just go with it dude.”
But with all respect, dudes, I can’t completely abide by this sentiment. It’s not like cloning is some impossible sci-fi premise. I mean, Hello, Dolly! And it’s not like Orphan Black is set in a heightened reality where anything is possible, like, say, the witching world of American Horror Story: Coven, where black magic resurrection was almost a weekly occurrence, turning “death” and “stakes” into near-meaningless concepts. Orphan Black presents itself as a gritty thriller set in a world like our own, where people are subordinate to physical laws described by science (and, as last week’s premiere coyly acknowledged, legislated laws about cloning that are subject to vetting by the Supreme Court). This is Planet Cosmos, not Planet Lost – though even Lost had rules, like “whatever happened, happened” and “dead is dead”…unless you get dunked in a functioning resurrection pool or your spirit gets stuck on The Island or you’ve made special accommodations with your soul cluster for a private pocket purgatory. But I digress.
Orphan Black needs rules, spoken or unspoken. We need to be able to trust what we see, otherwise the drama won’t be effective or affecting. If death is an illusion, then should we be wondering if suicide clone Beth is still alive? If death has no sting, then why should I care about the suffering and striving of Cosima, who is currently afflicted with a disease that kills clones and is now searching for a cure? Orphan Black is a better show if “dead is dead” and the dead stay dead.
When it comes to Helena, yes, I am going to “just go with it.” In fact, I already have: I’ve seen the first four episodes, as you may or may not know, and I can’t deny my experience of the story you’re about to see. I was entertained. It’s intriguing, it’s weird, it’s scary, and it builds to a killer moment at the end of episode 4, arguably the best clone-on-clone beat that Tatiana Maslany and Orphan Black’s technical wizards have ever produced.
I do wonder if “cheating death” might be a central concern to the unfolding mystery of the clones. Is the Dyad Institute looking for a cure to mortality? Are the clones a means to that end? If so: Is death-defying Helena the killer app that Dr. Leekie and company have been looking for? And if Helena possesses some exceptional life extension qualities, might her genetic twin, Sarah, possess the same traits, too? (Ditto: Sarah’s daughter Kira?)
Orphan Black must pay for its Helena chicanery – and it must pay in clone blood. Sooner or later. By the end of the season, for sure. We need a real death – to properly define what life and death means to its world; to reset the stakes of the drama. Now, the show could kill any of its clones to achieve this goal. But whose death would be best? Which clone croak would have the most impact – emotionally and narratively – on Orphan Black?
The answer, of course, is Sarah. She’s been the central figure since the start. Her concerns – fighting for survival; insuring the welfare and safety of her daughter and her foster brother, Felix; exploring the mystery of her very existence – have driven most of the story and produced most of its emotional resonance. Deleting our heroine from the Orphan Black matrix would be a radical game-changer for the show and everyone in it. Kira, Felix, and Mrs. S, for sure. Other clones, like Alison, Cosima, and Helena would move more center stage – unless, of course, the show gives us a new clone (or two) to become the central figure(s) of the drama.
I recognize Sarah’s loss could upset Orphan Black’s marvelously balanced mix of tones. She embodies the gritty grounding of the drama. She provides a kind of baseline of clone character that helps us appreciate even more the different variations of clones, especially the extreme ones. She is our emotional surrogate – a helpful dramatic tool for shows like these. She’s our Helena horror, our Alison eye-roll.
But I would argue that Cosima – cool, reasonable, ethical – could perform Sarah’s function, and give you a bit more, too. She’s funnier than Sarah. She’s smarter than Sarah. She’s as emotionally invested in understanding her mystery of personhood as Sarah, if not more so. She’s certainly more naturally curious about it, being a scientist and all. (Also an interesting flaw, as it has contributed to her risky, potentially compromising working relationship with Dyad.) And let’s not forget Cosima’s most conspicuous point of difference: She’s got cooler hair than Sarah.
And she’s a lesbian, too, and while that does not totally define her – a note that show has verbalized – the show has made it one of her most compelling aspects of her identity. Cosima certainly has the show’s best and only true romance in the form of her relationship with Delphine. And she embodies the ideas of variation and difference – shaping up to be core themes this season – better than Sarah. She might not be able to throw a punch like Sarah – but she doesn’t need to. Not with Helena around. Again. And she doesn’t have Sarah’s same pissed-off want for justice and self-determination that makes Sarah an appealing protagonist – but that can get it. I suspect Sarah’s death, if she was to be killed by the same Dyad devils she now works for, would be a good catalyst for it.
In short: Cosima could execute the job of protagonist-in-chief quite well and represent a provocative face for the franchise.
To be clear: I am not lobbying for Sarah’s death because I don’t like Sarah. (I really like Sarah – when she’s not all about Kira-In-Peril plots.) Nor am I lobbying for Cosima’s elevation because Cosima is my favorite clone. (She’s not – Alison is.) And please take my bloodlust for what it is: A (bad?) joke. I risk looking mean, bad fannish, or plain misogynistic, opining for the death of anyone on TV, let alone a complex female heroine. If it wasn’t for the fact that Orphan Black is abounding with complex female characters – and has a mechanism in its mythology for producing many, many more, whenever needed (which could be a problem in itself; an essay for another time) – I wouldn’t write this. Please believe me: I am deeply concerned about the fragility of fictional life and have a huge, HUGE heart for unreal people!
But I do think Orphan Black should shore up its death policy. And by doing it with a central figure like Sarah – and not, say, Helena again – it can make meaningful story with grand consequences that can invigorate the series, especially as it enters into protracted middle act (which usually begins at season three) at the end of this second cycle of episodes. Doing so would affirm Orphan Black as the most unusual show on TV, one where anything really can happen – like killing your lead character without losing your star.