The nature vs. nurture question looms in Orphan Black [s2e5]

Caroline Siede on the latest episode of the BBC's clone drama

Why do people do bad things? The answer is, of course, because they don’t see their actions as villainous. In their minds, the end justifies the means. The weak link of Orphan Black so far has been the rote “bad guys” who populate its world. While the show explored the rich inner lives and goals of Sarah, Cosima, Alison, and Felix, the antagonistic forces felt a bit more like archetypes without clear motivations: the kindly cult leader, the icy business woman, the mysterious scientist. Tonight’s episode course corrects in a big way by lifting the veil on the show’s previously opaque villains. And once you understand someone, it’s a whole lot harder to hate them.

The idea of perspective is emphasized again and again tonight, as we are invited to walk a mile in the shoes (or stilettos in the case of Rachel) of people who do bad things. Gracie didn’t try to suffocate Helena because of an innate propensity for violence. Instead, she was raised with such a cultish devotion to God that she saw artificially created Helena as an abomination. “I didn’t think of it as taking a real life,” she explains. That’s not a shoddy defense; it’s an insight into Gracie’s warped perspective on the world.

The Proletheans are all about loyalty. When their daughter steps over the line they punish her by sewing her lips together, locking her in solitary confinement for 12 hours, and threatening her with a forced pregnancy if she doesn’t comply. Assuming Mark was raised in that environment as well, it’s more understandable (although not justifiable) that he continually does as Henrik asks. If he follows orders, Mark will be rewarded with a family. If he doesn’t, he will be cruelly punished. Four episodes ago Mark was a stone-faced menace chasing Sarah through a diner. Tonight I smiled when he nervously kissed Gracie on the cheek. He’s still a murderous lackey, but he’s also a nervous young man with a crush. Trying to rectify the two sides of that coin makes for very compelling television.

Over on the Neolutionist side of things, Leekie also gets a big dose of humanity. The idea of Leekie as a parental figure for the clones has largely been left on the backburner since he was first introduced in season one. It comes back in a big way tonight. He trusts Cosima with the truth: the Dyad Institute lost the original genome so they are flying blind when it comes to the clones. He also agrees to continue Cosima’s treatment against Rachel’s explicit orders. Leekie’s rewarded for his fatherly concern with a visit from Sarah. She’s discovered that one of the original clone creators—Rachel’s adoptive father aka “Swan Man”— may still be alive. If he is, that will give Dyad a big leg up on reconstructing the original genome. Whether or not this softer side of Leekie is an act is still up in the air. For the moment, however, his willingness to disobey orders and help Cosima earns Sarah’s uneasy trust. It also adds some layers to his character beyond “Dyad minion” or “manipulative scientist.”

When Orphan Black first premiered it seemed like a show tailor made to discuss nature vs. nurture. The idea of identical clones living less-than identical lives could open up a wealth of discussion about the factors that shape identity. Interestingly, that hasn’t been a particularly explicit theme so far. Sure Alison, Cosima, and Sarah took divergent paths in life, but the show has been less interested in exploring the nature or nurture that guided them along the way.

Tonight, however, nature vs. nurture comes up in a big way through Rachel and Helena. They are the two most explicitly “evil” clones: women who are willing to use any means necessary to achieve their ends and show no remorse for their actions. But just how did they turn out so differently from Sarah, Alison, and Cosima?

It’s all about how they were raised. Helena spent her childhood with nuns who were convinced she was a demon; her teenage years with abusive Tomas; and her adulthood sleeping on the floor of a storage locker. After getting shot by her sister, she was kidnapped, drugged, and forced to marry a creepy cult leader who then stole one of her eggs. Helena’s lived a life full of abuse and almost completely absent of affection. It’s no wonder she became an unstable killer.

Rachel, on the other hand, was raised with a different emotional burden. She’s been aware of her clone status since she was a child. While she claims this is a “privilege,” it’s easy to see it as a burden as well. Once her adoptive parents were killed in a lab accident, she was raised directly by the Dyad Institute and Dr. Leekie. Throughout her entire life she’s known that the people who love her most—her parents, boyfriends, and mentors—are also monitoring her every move as part of a science project. It’s an unbearable reality, and Rachel has learned to rigidly compartmentalize her life in order to regain some sense of control

That goes a long way to contextualizing tonight’s disturbing sex scene. She orders Paul around like a dog, pours him a glass of wine she won’t let him drink, and slaps him when he makes a move to engage with her. By dominating the man who is reporting on her, Rachel gives herself the facade of power. There’s a strong argument to be made that what Rachel is doing is rape. It’s certainly sexual coercion. That’s reprehensible on every level; and yet again it’s also understandable. Rachel demands absolute control in her sex life because she has virtually no control over the rest of her life. That again puts the viewer in a tricky position of condemning a character’s actions while sympathizing with her motivations.

But perhaps not all is lost for the show’s “villains.” Helena is a product of her environment, but once her environment changes, she begins to change as well. Now that she’s got Sarah, Felix, and Art looking out for her, Helena starts acting a little differently. She listens when Sarah asks her to respect Felix (“That’s my brother, which means he’s one of our sisters.”), she ties up Art instead of killing him, and she agrees not to shoot Rachel once Sarah shows her some genuine sisterly affection. At the end of season one Sarah decided Helena was too far-gone to be saved. Now that she’s been given a second chance with her seestra, Sarah’s trying rehabilitation rather than violence. It just might be working.

We’re halfway through season two and this episode lays a lot of groundwork for the main threads of the second half of the season: Helena and Sarah team up to find Swan Man while the Proletheans and Neolutionists—both suffering from some dissent in the ranks—hunt them down. Yet even with all of these swirling plot threads, Orphan Black never looses sight of its characters. Now that we’ve gotten to know Mark, Helena, Rachel, and Leekie it’s harder to hope for their demise. The line between heroes and villains is irreparably blurred. Orphan Black is all the better for it.

Clone Club Conversations

Published 8:30 pm Sat, May 17, 2014

About the Author

Caroline Siede is a freelance writer living in Chicago where the cold never bothers her anyway. She frequently contributes to The A.V. Club and documents her experiences in the city on her blog Introverted Chicago. When not contemplating time travel paradoxes, she often tweets sarcastic things @CarolineSiede.

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