WIT welcomes Kristen Daley Mosier as a guest poster. Her full bio is available on her first post with our blog.
Over the summer, my spouse and I started to watch the show Orphan Black. I had read how innovative it is for turning gender stereotypes on their heads, and how uniquely feminist it is for having developed strong female characters. Yet what caught my attention is the deeply (inter)personal portrayal of genetic cloning. At one level the show’s narrative functions as a semiotic system critiquing the television industry for keeping women’s roles overtly scripted, typologically flat and incredibly boring. Not surprisingly perhaps, much of the critical acclaim is focused at this level. (Spoiler alert: the following contains discussion of the storyline that will give away plot points through the first few seasons.)
At plot level, Orphan Black is dealing with high level themes of genetic modification, women’s bodies, and agency, with deeply empathic (female) characters. At a theological level, the relationships that develop among the clone “sisters” offer a secular and very human rendering of Trinitarian unity/particularity. Then to complicate (and complement) things, by the third season, the sisters of Project Leda encounter clone “brothers” from Project Castor thus encompassing a spectrum of genders and gender identities. This is all taking place at a secular anthropological level, yet the relationships prompt reflection for their strong Trinitarian motifs.
Trinitarian theology has inspired a kind of renaissance in recent decades, largely having to do with seeing the three persons in dynamic relation with one another as a source for seeing relationality throughout creation and humanity. Where previously Trinitarian language tended towards a segregated reading–for example, Father God as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as Sustainer–contemporary theologians are pushing through more permeable conceptions. Thus we see the Spirit in Genesis as the ruah of God, the Creator, and the breath of the Word in the Gospels. Theologians have recovered from the Greek Fathers an understanding of the Trinity that is fluid, dynamic, perichoretic. One is not without the Others. Leonardo Boff describes Trinitarian interrelatedness in this way: “The Trinity allows identity (the Father), difference of identity (the Son), and difference of difference (the Holy Spirit) … Through being an open reality, this triune God also includes other differences; so the created universe enters into communion with the divine.”1 This more expansive rendering of the Triune God sparks our imagination to see multifaceted webs and ecosystems of connection.
Perhaps theologians are particularly susceptible to looking for vestiges of the Trinity everywhere, but I couldn’t help but see these themes while getting fully hooked on Orphan Black. To begin with, there is the motif of particularity united with multiplicity in that the sisters are technically clones, yet they have their own histories and idiosyncrasies.2 Alison is a suburban soccer mom with a fierce need for order, while Cosima is a lesbian scientist who enjoys getting stoned. Beth, a cop, is the one who draws them together off screen and at first Sarah only gets involved to secure getaway money by taking on Beth’s identity. Having the characters portrayed by the same actress increases the hyperreality of genetic cloning, while also hearkening back to Trinitarian depictions in art of Three (identical looking) Divine Persons.
Within the first several episodes, the clones come to realize that the only people they can trust are one another. Over time they develop a kind of mutual self-giving love, also emblematic of Trinitarian interrelatedness. We see this when the clones periodically have to ‘cover’ for one another performing as one of the others. Sarah willingly continues on as Beth to investigate who’s coming after them, Cosima pretends to be Alison at a major school event, and Alison steps in for Sarah so Sarah doesn’t get cut off from seeing her daughter. The force of their connection allows them to eventually bring into the circle of confidence Helena, the clone sister who had been trained to assassinate them but comes to embrace each as sestra.
Questions of generation emerge when we find out most clones are incapable of bearing children. Reflecting on the divine Trinity, God the Father begets Jesus, the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Procreative activity, then, is limited (though not exclusive) to the Father. In the case of our spirited television show, only two clones are capable of producing children: Sarah and Helena, who was Sarah’s gestational twin. Through issues of procreation, religion and science meet within the story arc itself. Helena gets kidnapped (back) into the cult of “Proletheans” to be a part of their scientific experimentation. Through what looks like an IVF procedure, Helena is impregnated by the cult’s leader. At this point, Helena is still technically a virgin. This new responsibility of motherhood offers her a vision for transformative change which plays out in subtle and moving ways throughout subsequent episodes.
The clone universe is replete with theological motifs interlaced with the scientific. The narrative itself maintains a critique of power even before it comments on the ethics of genetic manipulation. Initially, the greatest threat seems to come from nebulous (masculine) powers-that-be and their lackeys employed to monitor the clones. The whole system of monitoring is conducted as a scientific experiment and relies on keeping the (female) clones in their places. Sarah and Helena unwittingly hack the system as the two ‘wild’ unmonitored clones, and embark on a chain of events leading them deeper into webs of conspiracy. There is a kind of ambivalence about the technology, inherent when the protagonist(s) herselves are not mere products of technology but are actively trying to choose life over death, love over separation and rejection.
Early on the sisters learn that those who were in the Dyad Institute’s monitoring system suffer from a fatal genetic defect. Cosima, in her research learns of clones who already have died and discovers she, too, is falling prey to it. Sarah’s immunity opens new possibilities to seek remedies for healing. This becomes a kind of salvation narrative within the story, including sacramental elements, and even extending out to the line of male Castor clones. During the second season, we see the possibility of salvation in material form when Kira offers Cosima first a tooth, then some bone marrow blood. Some healing occurs, but it is not a permanent ‘fix’. As the storyline with the Castor clones develops, the women sense a keen relational responsibility. We see moments when reconciliation is offered to the brothers out of the recognition that salvation for one is salvation for all.
Hope comes in healing, and healing occurs when the sisters draw together for strength and support. There is the possibility of healing for those who come around them as well. Orphan Black is certainly not intended to be an analogy for God-talk, but it offers some provocative theological imagery and allows us to reconsider traditional metaphors for the Triune God. Dynamic Trinitarian theology forms the basis for deeper reflection on the created, material world for writers like Leonardo Boff, Jürgen Moltmann, and Elizabeth Johnson, to name a few. To speak of Trinitarian relationality in the realm of creation simply means looking for relationships that are inseparable between discrete entities, which can be as small as the community of mitochondria functioning within eukaryotic cells, or as great as the lifecycle of a cedar tree that becomes a nurselog to fungi, huckleberries and young cedars; or as cosmic as the gasses and particles shared throughout millions of galaxies. For Sarah and her sisters, unity is found not just in a static manner at the genetic level, but also in their coming together as they fight to simply live as fully human individuals rather than as science experiments. In this way, we may consider how Orphan Black renders an image of divine particularity and unity, through depictions of genetic experimentation, and thus explore one more metaphor for God.
I am a longtime fan of Orphan Black and am always happy to hear that others are watching too! Your post left me thinking about Helena’s upcoming “virgin birth” and what kind of salvific role her children might play.