I began my reviews of Orphan Black saying that I wasn’t quite sure whether the show had an overall theme or agenda, which now seems painfully obtuse. I don’t think this was entirely my fault, however: the show’s first season built a strong foundation for the series, but there was so much groundwork to lay, and so many complex plotlines to set in motion, and so many thought-provoking ideas to introduce, that it was hard to predict where exactly the show’s thematic center might lay.
By now, however, Season Two has made it much more clear what this show is really about: it’s about misogyny.
If that sounds like a gross oversimplification, I think it’s only because Orphan Black doesn’t deal with the subject in a simplistic, afterschool-special kind of way. There are no cartoonish villains here pontificating about how much they hate women, and there are no radical feminist warriors giving eloquent, mission-statement speeches about women’s rights and subverting the patriarchal paradigm. (I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a show without which, perhaps, Orphan Black might not exist—but one need only look to the final season of that series for speechifying, painfully unsubtle representations of misogyny and female empowerment.)
Orphan Black’s heroes don’t spent a lot of time making empowering speeches: they’re too busy fighting back and kicking ass. And its villains don’t make self-consciously evil proclamations about how much they hate and fear women: the show is realistic enough to recognize that they probably don’t even recognize that they hate and fear women. However, whether rationalized in the name of science or justified in the name of religion, what we have seen repeatedly on this show are attempts to silence women, to claim ownership over their bodies, to take away their agency, and to turn them into objects and commodities.
These issues have always been at the center of Orphan Black, of course, but current events have made this feel like a good time to pay particular attention to their depictions. I’m not going to try to seriously use a TV review to talk about the recent Santa Barbara shootings, or the much-needed discussion—catalyzed in the #YesAllWomen hashtag—that has begun in their wake. But I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to believe serialized television can contribute to that conversation about male entitlement and the pervasiveness of misogyny in our culture—and if it can do so in the form of a kick-ass entertainment about clone conspiracies, so much the better. One of the things science fiction has historically done is shed light on important issues through a fictional lens, and its become absolutely clear this season that this show is part of that honorable tradition.
And, though it is one of the lightest and funniest episodes of the season, “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motions of Things” turns out to provide some pretty good fodder for this discussion. It stars our usual cast of heroines, of course, but it is constructed around the stories of three men who all feel entitled—in different ways, and for different reasons—to possess and control these women. And all three are due for a much-needed reality check by the episode’s end.
“He’s the one who’s blocking her.”—Sarah, as Allison, of Donnie
As I said, I’m really not going to try to make this episode sustain the weight of the very important discussion of the #YesAllWomen campaign (or pretend for a moment that I’m the best person to pontificate about it). But part of what made me start thinking about this episode in light of it was that #YesAllWomen is a beautifully appropriate response to the widespread #NotAllMen argument, which derails discussions of societally pervasive attitudes. “You can’t claim our culture is sexist, because not all men are like that,” this argument goes. It’s a defensive, blowfish reaction that refuses to recognize any but the most extreme forms of misogyny, sets the bar conveniently low for individual men, and tries to turn men into victims while willfully ignoring the ways in which male entitlement is woven into the fabric of our entire society. (You see similar arguments trying to derail discussions of racism and white privilege: How can you say America has a problem with race? My best friend is black!)
And from there I started thinking about these three men—Donnie (Kristian Bruun), Vic (Michael Mando), and Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer)—and how none of them would think of themselves as misogynists. They all think of themselves as “nice guys,” who have the best interests of “their women” at heart.
Let’s begin with Donnie, who—it turns out—may in fact be the most decent of the three, though his crimes are not limited to simple stupidity. It’s Family Day at rehab this week—or, as Felix (Jordan Gavaris) calls it, “some kind of public flagellation day”—which sets the stage for a domestic comedy tour de force the likes of which this show has not seen since Season One’s “Variations Under Domestication.” This week’s episode is almost a reunion of that episode’s ill-fated gathering, in which Allison hosted a potluck party while interrogating her husband with a hot glue-gun. (Now, as in that episode, Sarah gets to play Allison confronting Donnie, Felix gets to play bartender, and Vic gets to end up in a bloody heap on the floor. Plus ça change…)
As strong as the individual subplots all are, there is a special magic that happens when Orphan Black lets its different worlds collide, and this week is no different. (The show continues to thwart me by refusing to put Allison and Helena together, but that’s just as well: my brain might explode from the sheer awesomeness.) And one of the things we get from these pinball collisions of characters is the joy of seeing the various clones stretched outside their comfort zones. Here, Sarah and Allison are forced to assume each other’s roles, literally in Sarah’s case and figuratively in Allison’s. Of the core-three clones, Sarah is the one least comfortable with relationships, so it’s a pleasure to see her forced into role-playing about marriage with Donnie, and amusing to discover it’s the one bit of impersonation she’s bad at. Meanwhile, Allison takes the improvisational, problem-solving Sarah role, tasked with disposing of Vic’s unconscious body. (Always more capable than anyone gives her credit for being, it’s no surprise that she turns out to be better at this than Sarah is with her part.)
But let’s get back to Donnie. (It’s a marvelous bit of passive-aggression that Allison—who makes personalized cards for firearm deliveries—doesn’t even bother to decorate Donnie’s name-tag.) We learn this episode that Donnie had no idea Allison was a clone: he was monitoring her, but he didn’t really know why he was monitoring her, believing that he was taking part in some kind of sociology experiment. (This twist from the writers, it should be noted, doesn’t really explain all of Donnie’s shady past behavior. We’ve seen him having sinister phone calls, following texted instructions, and burning evidence: all the cloak-and-dagger seems a little too extreme for Donnie’s naïveté to be totally believable, but we’ll let it pass.)
So Donnie is innocent, right? Donnie is one of the good guys, and has been treated unfairly? Donnie really loves Allison: surely that makes him one of the #NotAllMen?
Well…no. One might be tempted to feel sorry for the big idjit by the end of this episode, until one remembered that Donnie is kind of a dick. His part in the conspiracy may have been inadvertent, but that doesn’t excuse the violation of Allison’s privacy without her consent. (I’m pretty sure that if I’d spent ten years reporting my girlfriend’s every move to someone else, without her knowledge, she would not accept “sociology experiment” as an acceptable justification.) It doesn’t excuse the constant lying. It doesn’t excuse the public humiliation he put her through in the “intervention” last season. It doesn’t excuse the sense of entitlement that leads him to accuse her this episode (publicly, again) of “withholding affection.” Most importantly, it doesn’t excuse Donnie’s attempts to manipulate and control his wife by using her children against her. Do what I say or you’ll never see your children again is a time-honored way for men to “keep their women in line,” and a recurring theme on Orphan Black: Donnie’s use of it this season—”for her own good”—is no more justified, or forgivable, than any of the more overtly sinister methods we’ve seen. He will use whatever power he has to use to possess her and control her.
My point is not that Donnie is an evil, woman-hating man: certainly, on the scale of misogynistic villains in Orphan Black, Donnie is several notches below men like Leekie or Henrik (Peter Outerbridge). But neither does he examine his own behavior, let alone take responsibility for his betrayals. And, in his final scene with Leekie, his language is telling: “You came into my house, and probed my wife,” he complains. “You ruined my marriage, my wife hates me.” (Emphasis mine, obviously.) He never says Allison’s name; he never even uses a plural pronoun. (Compare it to Allison’s confrontation with Donnie earlier: “You destroyed us, Donnie,” she says. “Your ruined our family.”) For Donnie, Leekie’s violation is a violation of him—of his life, of his rights of ownership and entitlement—not of Allison.
Leekie, ironically, puts him in his place—”In a hundred years, no one will care about Donnie Hendrix except as a footnote”—which is cruel, but also appropriate: This isn’t all about you, asshole, Leekie is saying. And it is fitting, in a way, that this episode about men refusing to recognize their own crimes ends with an explosion of careless, unintentional violence from Donnie, a sudden shattering of his illusions about himself, and his harmlessness, and his decency.
“You never let me in.”—Vic, to Sarah
And then there’s Vic. Again, one is almost tempted to feel sorry for Vic by the end of “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motions of Things.” After all, he had been trying to turn his life around, and had made what appeared to be major strides, kicking the drugs and embracing the non-violent path of the Buddha and all. This episode he is on his very best behavior, all dressed up and seeking atonement from Sarah—and his reward is that he gets roofied and ends up face-planting in a craft-table full of glitter. (“Christ, he looks like he’s been molested by elves,” Felix says.) Vic doesn’t think he’s a bad guy: he might have been a bad guy once, but now he’s changed.
Except, of course, he hasn’t: he’s still a bad guy, and he, too, is willing to manipulate and threaten women to get what he wants. “I’m moving forward,” he tells Allison and Felix, explaining why he’s willing to destroy Allison’s life to improve his own. Last episode, Allison reminded us that Vic was violently abusive to Sarah, and his self-excusing justification was “I was in a lot of pain”—he was a victim, not an abuser.
Now, he threatens Allison in order to extort a meeting with Sarah, ostensibly to apologize. But let’s take a close look at how this “apology” is expressed: “Sarah, you are a rock in my stream, blocking my flow…” Far from an admission of wrongdoing, it’s actually an accusation: Sarah is an obstacle, an object, causing harm to Vic‘s forward movement. He’s Vic the Victim again.
And it doesn’t matter anyway, because the apology is bullshit—a pretense on which to extort from Sarah what he wants. “You don’t have anything you want to say to me, after all the heartbreak, the finger loss?” Vic whines. “Oh, you want me to apologize to you?” Sarah quickly realizes. (“Which of the twelve steps is that?” Felix asks, reasonably.)
This entire scene is as good an example of male entitlement, disguised as romantic longing, as we’ll see on television. He has embraced that pervasive fantasy, perpetuated by countless rom-coms and other fictions, that “getting the girl”—for women are things to be “gotten”— is simply a matter of deception, manipulation, stalking, and feints at self-improvement. He’s followed the formula, and he’s done what he was supposed to do, and he’s entitled to the rewards: he becomes increasingly angry that this reunion is not following the script. Vic wants Sarah back, and he feels he has a right to her now, and he’s angry that she won’t make herself accessible to him, even after all he’s done. “You always do this to me, you always keep yourself at a distance,” he yells at her. “You never let me in.” You owe me you, he is saying, completely disregarding her feelings, her desires, her decisions. She’s not a person with agency to him, she’s an object in his fantasies, a projected extension of himself. (“Those guys are not you,” he says to her, of whatever other suitors she might have. “I’m you.” )
Sarah, of course, doesn’t entertain his bullshit for a moment: the most that she is willing to concede is that she and Vic were “two colliding trainwrecks.” (Note how her metaphor gives them both agency and responsibility.) But her real response to his entitled, objectifying fantasies is the appropriate one: “Piss off, Vic.”
“I gave you your wife.”—Dr. Leekie, to Donnie
Finally, we come to Dr. Aldous Leekie, who is—to the extent we’ve met one yet—the architect of nearly all that is bad in Orphan Black. (I don’t doubt that there are bigger “Big Bads” we’ve yet to meet, especially since this episode ends with Leekie being taken off the board.)
Leekie is someone else who would never claim to hate women—in fact, he clearly thinks he loves women. He is infallibly charming, funny, flattering and flirtatious with them. He would no doubt, if you asked him, tell you how much he values women—even as he patronizes and belittles them. (“Cheeky” is how he assessed Cosima, in their first real conversation, when she challenged him.)
Last week we learned that this entire clone conspiracy came about because the Dyad Institute wanted to create, in the words of Ethan Duncan (Andrew Gillies), “little girls.” We still don’t know the full extent of this plan, or its ultimate goal, but the information we have is chilling enough. They wanted to create girls—not women, mind you, but “little girls”—that they could own and control, over whom they would have rights.
In retrospect, the revelation at the end of last season that the clones had all been patented was less a plot point than a thematic punctuation mark: these women have literally been branded as possessions. The objectification of women doesn’t get much more literal than that.
And Dr. Leekie is the owner—or he thinks he is. We first met him—not coincidentally—in “Variations Under Domestication,” the same episode this one calls back to so clearly. He was giving a speech about how “neolution”—self-directed evolution—is all about choice, about the ability to decide for yourself your own fate. “I believe that’s not only a choice, but a human right,” he said.
But it has become clear, ever since then, that what he means is that it that self-direction is a right of men. Women have the power of creation, and men do not, and that is the fundamental inequity that Leekie (and his religious counterpart Henrik) intend to correct. It is a power to which they feel entitled, one they intend to seize by any means necessary. (If there is any doubt about that, note the terrifying revelation Leekie casually drops this episode: “We’re developing an artificial womb,” he says. “Bit of a hobby of mine.”)
Leekie’s entire life is constructed around controlling women, objectifying women, silencing women, and claiming their power for himself. But now his chickens are coming home to roost. This episode he has a series of meetings with three strong women, all of whom he tries to charm, and all of whom he grossly underestimates.
First up is new character Marion Bowles (Michelle Forbes), presumably a Dyad executive who is perhaps higher up in the ranks than Leekie himself. (As with Rachel, where she fits in the power structure is not entirely clear—partially because Leekie treats all women in the same insincerely ingratiating manner.) Their topic of discussion is Rachel, and how she will react to the news that her father is alive. “At one time, I’d have counted on her to see the big picture,” Leekie says, but lately “she’s taking things personally.” (Designed to be a cog in the corporate machine, Rachel is clearly not supposed to have emotions, or—for that matter—independent thought: she is the clone Dr. Leekie has carefully trained to think like him.)
Next up is Siobhan (Maria Doyle-Kennedy), whom Leekie thinks he can manipulate the same way he has manipulated and controlled all the other women: by charming her, and making deals, and threatening to take away her (in this case surrogate) children. “I give you Duncan, and you give up on Kira,” she offers him, and he agrees, especially when Siobhan pretends to be giving up Sarah as well. We know, of course, that Leekie would never give up on Kira—who holds the key to Leekie’s entire project—and so does Siobhan. But I’m not sure Leekie thinks enough of women to even consider that they might be playing him.
Finally comes Leekie’s meeting with Rachel, who has now learned that Leekie manipulated her throughout her entire life, beginning with the murder of her mother and the attempted murder of her father. “Ethan and Susan Duncan left us no choice,” he tells her now. “When they tried to run away with you, I intervened.” The Duncans tried to take Rachel—his belonging—away, and so he killed them to get her back. Now he tries to take a firm, threatening tone with her, to put her back in her place. “Your task now is to put it behind you and not fight,” he says. “It won’t end well for you.”
But Rachel is far ahead of him. “It’s already over,” she informs him, and with a phone call makes it clear that Marion has already sanctioned Leekie’s death. But Leekie’s final surprise is that Rachel is not the cold, emotionless thing he tried to turn her into: she is not just an extension of him. Rachel makes a choice for herself, out of emotion, and decides to spare him. “Nurture prevails,” she says, and it’s not Leekie’s nurturing she’s talking about: she learned love and compassion from her parents, and this act of mercy is proof that Leekie failed to kill that in her when he killed them. “Rachel is a creature of Dyad,” Siobhan says earlier in the episode, but Rachel proves her wrong: she’s her own woman, not Leekie’s creation. She has choices.
Leekie has been beaten, and he has been beaten by the very women he tried to control. Unrepentant to the end, however, he still speaks of them as possessions. “I gave you your wife,” he tells Donnie—and they are practically the last words he says. Donnie, realizing that he is just another pawn in Leekie’s game—and not even an important one—offers his resignation. “I won’t participate anymore,” Donnie says. “I quit!” And in emphasizing his point, he slams his gun down, and pulls a Vincent Vega.
I am tempted to read Leekie’s fate as a commentary on misogynistic culture in general. If Leekie represents the Big Bad Sexist Power Structure, and Donnie represents the essentially decent man who is nonetheless pervaded with sexist attitudes, then the way Donnie’s “resignation” leads to Leekie’s death takes on metaphoric meaning: if good men refuse to play along with the dominant paradigm, it can’t survive.
There are two problems with this reading, however. First, I’d feel more confident in this interpretation if I thought Donnie had actually come to any kind of self-awareness by the end of the episode, but I don’t think he has.
Second, I’m pretty sure I’m thinking about this way too much.
But that, to me, is the genius of Orphan Black, and why I frankly think it needs much more serious thought and discussion than it seems to be getting. One could watch and enjoy Orphan Black as a funny, thrilling, kick-ass show about clones, without ever thinking too much about its political agenda. And yet it is dealing, every week—directly and indirectly—with issues of misogyny, objectification, reproductive freedom, gender, sexuality, orientation, medical ethics, religious oppression, and a host of other vital subjects that rarely get discussed on television at all. And it is doing so in a way that is smart, sophisticated, and entertaining, while avoiding the sorts of flowery speeches, preaching, and stern lectures that most shows would use to underline their points.
(One might not even think too much about the fact that the show has almost completely reversed every standard gender role, offering a host of female heroes—who all have power and agency, and who are sexual without being overtly sexualized—surrounded by an essentially passive male supporting cast. That it does all this matter-of-factly, without drawing attention to its novelty, may be the most subversive thing about the show.)
None of this should make Orphan Black revolutionary genre television, but it does. In a sea of programs that give lip service to issues of female equality and empowerment, this show is just quietly (and awesomely) embodying those things. In a television landscape in which the best we can usually hope for is an awareness of gender bias and misogynistic attitudes, this show is addressing them head on.
The word “feminist” seems to have fallen out of favor: I can’t remember the last time I heard it used in popular culture, and Orphan Black doesn’t use it either. It just is the most feminist show on television.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Only because it didn’t fit easily into my “three-man” structure, I skipped over Cosima again this week, but her story adds some interesting elements to the discussion by allowing for the fact that it’s not only men who can manipulate, patronize, and attempt to control the women they claim to love. Cosima learns this week that Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) has kept from her the knowledge that Kira (Skyler Wexler) is the source of Leekie’s stem-cell line. “Did you ever stop to think, once, that this is my decision, not yours?” she says, quite rightly, and throws Delphine out. “This is my lab. My body. I’m the science. Get out.” Delphine too, we should remember, is Leekie’s creation, a pawn of his patriarchal games: their entire relationship was engineered by him to manipulate Cosima into where he wanted her. In this sense, she is Donnie’s exact counterpart.
- What I love about this turn, however, is the way both Cosima and Sarah immediately take back their agency. Cosima throws Delphine out, and calls Sarah to confess the transgression, and Sarah decides right away to bring Kira into Dyad. This, ironically, is what Leekie and the other manipulators have been trying to bring about for months—as Cal (Michiel Huisman) points out—but the difference is that this is their choice: not Leekie’s, not even Cal’s, but theirs. It’s a point immediately underlined by Sarah—”It’s not your decision,” she tells Cal—and by Kira herself, who makes the independent choice to yank out one of her teeth for Cosima with the old string-and-a-doorknob trick.
- Have I mentioned that I don’t believe for one moment that Cal is really Kira’s father? Well, I don’t.
- In an episode that otherwise gets high marks for women’s issues—from this man, at least—I have to give demerits for staging a sexy, sensual scene between Cosima and Delphine during a gynecological procedure. (I checked with my girlfriend on this, and she confirmed my assumption that speculum and stirrups do not generally make for a romantic ambience.) It also calls back a little too clearly to Helena’s recent horrifying experience to be anything but creepy. (Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we could assume writer Aubrey Nealon and director Ken Girotti intended this—to foreshadow their fight and underline the essentially creepiness of Cosima and Delphine’s relationship—but I’m inclined to think it was just misjudged.)
- I kind of love Sarah’s no-bullshit approach to life. “”If we drop this bomb on Rachel, there’s no telling which one of them will fall,” Siobhan cautions her.” “I’m good with either one,” Sarah replies. “Let’s blow up their shit.”
- Focusing on the men this week, I didn’t get to do my usual raving about Tatiana Maslany, but let me just briefly say that my (mild) early complaints about her performance as Rachel are now a distant, embarrassing memory: she is killing that role now, and I’m hoping Rachel moves from antagonist to problematic ally in Season Three, the way that Helena has done in Season Two.
- Excellent use, twice in the episode, of “Love Is All Around” by The Troggs. Whenever I hear it from now on, I will think of splattered brains on a windshield.
- If I ever lose a finger, I want Allison to make me a set of nine-fingered technicolor dream gloves.
- In this painfully long review, I gave Francis Bacon a rest this week. Next week’s title, “Variable and Full of Perturbation,” comes from the same Bacon quote about misguided notions as this season’s fourth (and best) episode: “So that the spirit of man (according as it is meted out to different individuals) is in fact a thing variable and full of perturbation, and governed as it were by chance.”