The Surprisingly Heroic Soap Opera Tropes of ‘Orphan Black’

The popular show embraces and subverts soap opera-style storytelling to create groundbreaking television.

by Noah Berlatsky
Jun 16 2015, 6:50pm

Photo courtesy of BBC America

Warning: Spoilers about the third season abound.

These days, narrative complication is de rigeur in television drama. Game of Thrones,Mad Men, and other prestige television make a virtue of tying plots and counter-plots and character arcs into a great labyrinthine. Even by those standards, though, Orphan Black is a triumph of convolution. The show originally started off as a kind of sci-fi detective show, with gutter punk Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) impersonating her dead clone double, Beth Childs, to investigate Childs's death. Quickly, though, that already improbable scenario has spiraled up and out and round about. Everything culminated in the latest episode with the discovery that Sarah's grandmother is also her twin brother. Believe it or not.

Despite the tangles, the dead Beth Childs isn't entirely forgotten, and her police partner, Art Bell (played by the rubber-faced Kevin Hanchard) is on the margins of the narrative. Instead of serving to drive the investigation, the plot rather desperately compels Bell to retroactively transform his relationship with the dead Childs into a love plot. The hard-boiled, competent detective we were introduced to has been replaced by an incoherent soap opera-y puddle.

Calling something a "soap opera" is, of course, a deadly insult—when Downton Abbey for example, is compared to a soap opera, it is not a compliment. It's hard to think of another television genre outside reality TV that is so thoroughly and universally despised. Soap operas—as feminist scholar Tania Modleski suggests in her classic 1982 Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women—are seen as drippy, sentimental, and dumb. They looked at as a mangle of confused narratives lacking the intellectual fulfillment of closure, designed for consumption by bored and undiscerning housewives. You can see some of those prejudices slipping through in Spencer Kornhaber's review of the series, which points out that Orphan Black is often a bundle of confused clichés and coincidences. Though he doesn't use the exact words "soap opera," when you put together lots coincidences with love plots triumphing over logic, the connection isn't all that obscure.

Overall, Kornhaber likes Orphan Black, and his appreciation of soap opera that isn't called soap opera seems in line with our particular historical moment. Serialized fiction is huge on television and elsewhere, and soap opera tropes have become almost surreptitiously accepted, and even celebrated.

Scene from 'Orphan Black.' Photo courtesy of BBC America

Orange Is the New Black alsoemploys soap opera tropes—like the manipulative Big Bad villain in season two—as part of its effort to turn the women-in-prison genre from exploitation to a female-friendly drama. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's soap operafication of the superhero genre in the 1960s—with convoluted continuity and unrequited love affairs—has fostered our current superhero obsession, from Daredevil's tragic back story to Age of Ultron's weepy, unlikely Hulk/Black Widow romance.

But Orphan Black isn't just decorously dabbling in soap opera. On the contrary, it revels in the stuff up to Tatiana Maslany's staggeringly varied hairlines. The show's entire premise is based around the hoary twin trope, as Maslany gets to play a fleet of different characters, often in the same scene.

Scene from 'Orphan Black.' Photo courtesy of BBC America

The Big Bad villainess is all over the place, too: In the second season, Maslany gets to play corporate ice-princess dominatrix Rachel as the villain, and in the current season three arc, there are not one, but two heart-of-coal mother characters. In fact, the most thoroughgoing way in which Orphan Black embraces soap opera is through its obsessive, almost self-parodically escalating obsession with family. Sarah goes from trying to protect her daughter to trying to protect all her fellow sister clones, to trying to protect male clones, who are her biological brothers. The seemingly endlessly metastasizing cast of allies and antagonists and protagonists is thus united by blood: Everyone, it seems, is related to everyone else.

All this waiting is tied to domesticity and family responsibilities. Mothers are expected to identify and care for children, spouses, and often extended families, in a constant, fluctuating spasmodic but constant effusion of care and empathy. Like Tatiana Maslany, they must perform the emotional work to be everybody in turn—and, not infrequently, like Maslany playing four clones in one scene, the emotional work to be everybody at once.

Not all of those who watch soap operas are housewives, of course. But Modleski argues convincingly that through its rhythms and thematic concerns, the soap opera "constitutes the viewer as a mother in the home." Orphan Black does this as well, very self-consciously, through the clone Alison Hendrix.

Alison is an uptight suburban mom whom Maslany plays with tightly-wound, neurotic glee. In the current season, while the rest of the clones are dealing with intertwined loopy conspiracies and murderous religious fanatics, Alison and her husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun) are embroiled in a comic, largely self-contained arc as Alison attempts to win a school-board election by selling mother's-helpers illegal drugs to the local housewives.

When Donnie wonders if everybody else's life is as complicated as theirs, it's in part meant to be ironic—the suburban complexities of getting kids to soccer practice are obviously not as grueling as Sarah's fight against whoever it is she's fighting against at this moment in the plot. But Donnie's complaint is also a tip-off: The soap opera spy drama is a metaphor for Mom's frantic, emotionally-draining, repetitive task—the intricate, thankless salvation of the family.

Also on Motherboard: Cloning a Mammoth Is Only the Start

Alison at first seems like the perfect-mother archetype‚ complete with minivan, scheduled activities for the kids, and scrunchy hair ties. But over the course of the meandering plot, it becomes clear that she's got other interests. After she and Donnie bury a dead body in the second season, she's turned on, telling him (in the same clipped, soccer-mom voice) that she wants it nasty, bent over the sink where they just cleaned up the blood. And she almost radiates excitement as her drug-dealing business becomes more successful, doing a bump-and-grind with Donnie on their bed amidst all the money—a lighter take on Walter White's insight that it feels good to be bad. The violent world of spies and sudden, brutal endings frightens Alison, but is also thrilling to her as an escape from the dreary humdrum soap opera of suburbia. In that sense, we can see Orphan Black as a rejection of domesticity and its tedious emotional and physical work. As more and more women are moving out of the home, Orphan Black sets up a soap opera dynamic to celebrate leaving it behind.

Still, Orphan Black is too committed to its soap opera tropes to simply toss them aside. Rather than replacing soap opera with espionage or cop shows, the series instead works to turn all those other genres into soap opera. The world of violent endings and focused missions is domesticated. The virtues and trials of motherhood—empathy, multiple focus, diffuse goals—in Orphan Black spread out of the domestic sphere, and into the whole world.

Scene from 'Orphan Black.' Photo courtesy of BBC America

In one episode this season, Helena is in the process of escaping from the clutches of a military conspiracy. But as she's sneaking out, she finds one of the male clones who captured her strapped to a medical contraption with his brain exposed. He begs her to kill him—and though she knows it will mean her own capture, she does as he asks. Her love for her brother (whom she doesn't even yet know is her brother), lands her back in a prison much like the one in which she spent her childhood. Every time Helena breaks free, she's locked up again. Love, soap opera tells us, is a trap of drudgery that never ends. But it's also heroic.

That's not a heroism that's much celebrated in most sci-fi, spy, or action stories. Usually such narratives focus on disconnected cowboy loners: James Bond, Batman, Han Solo, and, yes, even Katniss and Mad Max. Which is why it's so refreshing to find a story that, with paranoia but also with hope, imagines a future in which housewives, and sisters, and mothers still matter.

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 9 PM EST on BBC America.

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