The Orphan Black Legacy: A Galaxy of Complex Women

For five seasons, Orphan Black has given us a world of complex women worth watching.

For five seasons, Orphan Black has always put its galaxy of women, as Felix so aptly called it, at the center. When the show started, it was hard to think of many others where so many other characters were played by women and where the women characters were fully realized, complete with flaws, rather than walking tropes or the equally one-dimensional “strong women” characters. A lot has changed in five years, and luckily the television landscape Orphan Black leaves behind is better than the one it started with.

As others have pointed out, Orphan Black was about far more than clones. Orphan Black has made its mark in so many ways: its focus on women’s autonomy, marginalized people like queer folks, and its emphasis on found family. But ultimately, what I will miss the most about the show, and what I hope to see reflected in other shows for years to come, is a focus on so many nuanced women. Orphan Black stands in direct opposition to the danger of a single story

The clones, in particular, were ripe for the kind of flat characterization that women actors and audiences have had to settle for in the industry for far too long. Alison could have easily been a stereotype of the anal-retentive, pill-popping suburban housewife. Cosima, the weed-smoking hippie lesbian. Sarah, the troubled, drug-abusing single mom who came up in the system, destined to put her kid back in it. Helena could have been the simple, brainwashed cult victim. Instead, Orphan Black brought these characters to life, with an incredibly large debt to the performances from Tatiana Maslany. Even Crystal went from a one-off ditzy nail tech to a beloved, unaware clone threatening to, “blow this whole thing wide open.”

Alison found her warmth and much of her depth in the scenes she shared with Felix. An unexpected pairing, it brought out the best in both of them, whereas hijinks with Donnie and her desire to protect her family brought out her playfully dark side. Sarah was intriguing from the beginning, when she showed her competence as an investigator while impersonating Beth. With the other clones we saw her leadership and she was the obvious protagonist, but the inclusion of Mrs. S kept her on her toes, and was a constant reminder of Sarah’s past shortcomings with her daughter. Of course, Helena is perhaps the biggest change of all, going from season one’s mysterious big bad to the lovably misunderstood Meathead, one powdered doughnut at a time. 

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Orphan Black allowed these women to be complicated, authentic people, especially when it came to their choices around motherhood and relationships, something many shows are loathe to do. Cosima’s sexuality was never presented as an oddity, fetishized, or up for debate. In fact for much of the fanbase she and Delphine were the OTP, and at many points within the show, they were canonically the only couple to root for. Helena was shown going to any lengths for her miracle babies. Others may have doubted Helena’s ability to raise her children, and on another show there may have been a protracted debate about whether Helena should keep her babies. But the perspective of the show was clear: regardless of the violent means by which she became pregnant, what to do next was Helena’s choice. Those babies were hers and hers alone, and she and her sestras were going to handle it just fine. Alison’s adoption of her two children with Donnie and Cosima’s experience as an adoptee were also validated, laying out another path and addressing the Ledas’ emotional as well as scientific struggles with infertility. 

Beyond the confines of its own five seasons, Orphan Black‘s influence on the television landscape can be seen in a variety of shows, from the graphic births and dystopian experimentation on women of Van Helsing to the brazen rebellion of The Handmaid’s Tale. You’re the Worst and Bad Behavior feature women antiheroes in the vein of season 1 Sarah Manning: complex, clever, self-destructive, and completely incapable of getting out of their own way. In fact, between The CW and Syfy, there are now so many somewhat-emotionally damaged badass leading women just within sci-fi television shows that it’s hard to keep track. 

It would be easy to picture Cosima Niehaus and Felicity Smoak nerding out together about “the science,” and comparing basement labs/secret lairs, although Cosima might insist that Felicity light up first to take it down a few notches. While Wynonna Earp incorporates the supernatural in a more direct fashion, everything else on the show feels like a frothier, Felix-less kindred spirit, from the drink-swilling, gun-toting protagonist born into a life not of her choose and sisterly bond to the heavy use of science and research-based team members and the positive depiction of queer femme love. 

There are plenty of other shows that feature on women — Two Broke Girls and the Real Housewives franchise come to mind — or even pass the Bechdel Test. But there’s more to representation than women simply existing on screen or checking the boxes on a test that was designed to be a bar so low that failing would say more than passing. For five seasons, Orphan Black has given us a world of complex women worth watching, and in the end it leaves television’s future a little more female than when it started.