Life, Death and Motherhood: The Legacy of Orphan Black

Three women meet the man who claims to be their creator. The first worships him, accepts him as a father, and becomes his right hand–at least for the moment. The second questions him, searches through his motivations, actions and assertions until she unearths the lies he has told, and the truth of who he is. The third deceives him and then flips out a switchblade and goes for an artery, attempting to take his life.

The introduction of P. T. Westmoreland, the supposed father of Neolution, raised many questions at the end of season four. Why would a show so overtly about feminism cite a possibly immortal man as the creator of the clones, as a powerful giver of life? Is this the point where Orphan Black goes so far with the sci fi science that it gets too ridiculous? Is he actually Wolverine?

Ultimately, when we recall Orphan Black years from now and consider its contributions to television, “P.T. Westmoreland,” or rather John, won’t be well remembered. He’s not immortal, but in perhaps the most obvious possible metaphor, he’s an old, boring man who refuses to die. One of his most memorable scenes involves having his face smashed in with his own oxygen tank.

What I believe, or at least hope will be the legacy of Orphan Black, is how it values the lives of the women on screen, including those who didn’t survive. In previous articles about Orphan Black, I’ve written about how the show uplifts each of the women whose faces our eyes only graze; the clones we see on ID cards, in quick flashes, or as names in medical data. In “The Final Trip,” Orphan Black returns to this point during Felix’s art show. He uses portraiture to elevate his sisters to goddesses, including the beloved sestra who died in his very apartment. M.K. peers out from her portrait, sometimes visible over Felix’s shoulder.

If the legacy of Orphan Black hinges on its treatment of the dead, there is a key question we must consider regarding the final season. How does Orphan Black honor and respect the women it killed–M.K., Siobhan, Gracie, and even our villains, Susan Duncan and Virginia Coady?

The first, but also the most visceral death is M.K.. At the end of season four, M.K. coughed up blood, revealing to the audience–but not her sisters–that she was sick. When season five opens, it’s clear that MK’s illness has advanced. Constantly cloaked in cardigans and teddy bear shirts, M.K. has always seemed smaller than her sisters, although she never lacked ferocity. (Recall that she nearly set Ferdinand on fire.) However, M.K. has further draped herself in coats and blankets; symbols that, based on Cosima’s wardrobe shifts, are clear signs of increased sickness.

MK image via Project Fandom

Before her death, M.K. strips herself down to leggings and a t-shirt as she shoves Sarah into her own clothes, and it’s a strangely vulnerable moment. This scene is perhaps the most physical M.K. has ever been and in taking his frustrations with Rachel out on M.K., Ferdinand attempts to reduce to her to her body. Murder is an ultimate devaluing of personhood, a reduction of a human being to their fallible physicality, and the crush of M.K.’s body reminds the audience of Helsinki, a mass murder of Ledas undertaken largely by Ferdinand. However M.K., already dying, purposefully makes herself vulnerable and declares her personhood beyond Ferdinand’s reach: “You can’t hurt me anymore.” She makes a final stand for her living sisters, and for the Ledas of Helsinki long dead.

That’s what I want to believe, anyway. If I am being completely honest, M.K.’s death threw me, and still deeply upsets me. I’m close to crying writing about her, but that in itself is a testament to the strength of a character who actually didn’t get a ton of screen time. She could have lived, could have been cured, could have lived a life outside hiding and running–just like Gracie.

Gracie image via BBC

Gracie, like M.K., is a victim. Gracie, like M.K., is also a survivor. I’ve always loved Gracie’s character, not just because actress Zoe De Grand Maison gives her incredible spunk and boldness in impossible and horrifying situations, but because she constantly defies the patriarchal brainwashing that’s thrown at her from all directions. After growing up in a gross, horrifying cult, escaping a tyrannical and abusive father, suffering sexual abuse and a painful miscarriage, Gracie continues to move forward, to dream, and to love. When she tracks Helena down at the convent she’s trying to save Mark’s life, but she’s never able to forget that she loves Helena, who has long considered Gracie her family.

It’s notable that the audience doesn’t see Gracie die. Instead, we see Helena react. In a rare moment, Helena is helpless, and as she closes her eyes during the gunshot, it’s clear she’s already begun to mourn. Gracie is another lost sestra. M.K. and Gracie’s deaths are reminders of how high the stakes often are in struggles for bodily autonomy, and both die defiant, trying to ensure the safety of their family.

This brings us to the mothers.

Susan Duncan image via BBC

The season’s second notable death was Susan Duncan. While both Susan and Virginia Coady are fun, evil science mothers, their history with P.T. ties up the Leda clones’ long, endless search for their origins in a surprisingly satisfying way. P.T. (a.k.a. boring John) presents himself as the clones’ creator, but that assertion is false. Duncan and Coady were instrumental to the creation of Leda and Castor, as were numerous others–senile, regretful Daddy Duncan, surrogate birth mothers, Kendall Malone whose genes enabled the cloning process; it’s actually quite the list. Duncan and Coady, however, can stand in for countless women whose work and advances in science go uncelebrated, while men take the credit. P.T. murders Susan not just because she was attempting to kill him, but she was attempting to regain control of The Science.

Siobhan is the second of the three mothers who die in the final season, but her death makes more sense when considered in tandem with the third mother: Virginia Coady.

Virginia Coady has always been a Bad Mother. Sarah and Siobhan have also been bad mothers at times, but each keep the pursuit of their children’s health and happiness as the main goal, while Coady has always been willing to sacrifice her children–and many others–for The Science. In a completely opposite move, Siobhan, over the course of the series, positioned herself as a mother to of Leda. From the start, Siobhan has been an adoptive mother; first running for freedom with Felix and Sarah, then constantly running away with Kira, and eventually running into battle for all of them. In season five she extends kindness and trust, somewhat startlingly, to Rachel, both turning her into an ally and giving her the tools she needs to actually be free. It’s through Siobhan, a woman who dies gracefully with a photo of her beloved “chickens” in her hands, that the show delivers its final message about motherhood: that motherhood is not a single moment or act, but an ongoing process.

Siobhan image via BBC

Motherhood may not feel inherently tied to death, but season five seems intent to kill mothers in order to emphasize the vastness of their influence. As perhaps its thesis statement on the matter, the show spends a great deal of time suggesting Helena finally birthing her babies will be the climax of the season and series–only to say, psych! Sure, Helena dramatically stabbing Coady with a screwdriver before delivering twins into Sarah’s hands is quite exciting, but the drama of the scene is overlaid with a memory in which Sarah and Siobhan discuss whether or not Sarah should get an abortion. Obviously she chose not to do so and gave birth to Kira, but the conversation these women have outside Planned Parenthood isn’t really about the act of birth. It’s about mothering, about what it means to care for a child over time, to be there during moments of pain or struggle. P.T. and his ilk pursue cloning because they wish to prolong life, but Siobhan fiercely pursues motherhood because to live is to care for and love others, to in a sense, “mother” and nurture life continuously, until the very end.

The series’ true climax, followed swiftly by a cathartic breath, occurs when the four sisters sit around the fire pit at Helena’s belated baby shower, and Sarah finally breaks down. She expresses her fears surrounding the monumental burden that is motherhood, one that even Siobhan fumbled. When her sisters respond with their own concerns, they all stem from this same basic fear. Cosima, trying to “mother” 274 Ledas by curing their illness, is afraid to hold babies. Alison, despite the supposed ridiculousness of her midlife crisis, is beginning to be a mother whose children don’t smother her identity. Helena, raised to erase life, will ferociously instill her boys with the need to reject toxic masculinity. Rachel, long traumatized, tokenized and brainwashed by patriarchy, must start over completely and, in a sense, give birth to herself. Sarah must learn what it means to be a mother once basic survival has been achieved–and must step into Siobhan’s incredibly intimidating shoes.

Clone Club Final Image via TVLine

Orphan Black is not without flaws–mainly, fumbling trans representation and failing to do justice to Evie Cho, a fabulous and fun woman of color villain–but I’ve always trusted this show in a way that I often don’t trust other media. This is a show unashamed of its feminism, taking queer representation seriously and valuing each of the women it placed on screen, even if they didn’t survive. On the healing side of trauma, the survivors will raise tiny humans, build cosmetic empires, create, write stories and music, mother their children, themselves and each other. Orphan Black asks its audience to do the same.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka is a queer librarian and intense cat parent. They spends their days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts @alenkafiga.