Friday, March 14, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Allison (Orphan Black)

Ah, Friday. Spring is in the air, Purim starts tomorrow night, there are a ton of awesome movies coming out (Grand Budapest Hotel, Veronica Mars, Divergent, need I go on?), and I managed to find pre-made tahini sauce at a supermarket for under ten dollars. Today is a good day.

One of the other things making this beginning of spring pretty awesome is the return of some of our favorite shows to the screen. Hannibal returned a few weeks ago, Game of Thrones is back the beginning of April, and Orphan Black shall grace us with its presence very, very soon. I'm excited about all of these, but today I am especially excited about Orphan Black. Why? Because I love it. I love everything about it. I love how it's shot, I love the mystery, I love Tatiana Maslany, I love the science stuff, I love how the plot is so confusing but so good, I love seeing clones playing other clones, and I love love love Allison Hendrix.

Okay, that last one might be a little confusing for all of you. For the people who don't watch the show, I just spouted off a random name, and for the people who do, I just declared my undying affection for one of the most objectively boring and/or annoying clones in the cloneclub. What gives?

For those of you who don't watch this show, first of all, do, and second of all, Orphan Black is a science-fiction thriller about illegal human cloning. Which sounds kind of dull maybe I guess, but it so isn't. Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah Manning (and every single other clone, which we'll get to), a down on her luck low level con artist and criminal who's just come back into town to get her daughter. Before she can even leave the train station, though, she sees a woman commit suicide. A woman with her exact same face. Shaken, Sarah grabs the woman's bag and runs.

Upon looking into the bag, Sarah discovers that the woman, Beth Childs, could be her twin. Except she doesn't have a twin. Using her incredibly limited moral faculty, Sarah decides to steal Beth's identity for a little while, just long enough to withdraw all her money from her bank accounts, and skip town with her daughter, Kira.

But things get more complex as "Beth" discovers she's a cop, and oh by the way, she keeps getting weird phone calls, and then she's supposed to pick up a "German", who also looks exactly like her and then the German gets shot, and what is happening oh my gosh.

It turns out that Sarah, Beth, the German (Katje), and a whole host of other women, most notably Allison and Cosima, are clones. They don't know who made them, or why, but they do know that they are the result of someone's genetic experimentation a quarter of a century ago, and now they're being picked off one by one.

So, you know, normal day at the office.

The real highlight of the show is watching Maslany play all these incredibly different characters, and it's super cool how each one is incredibly distinct, not just in look, but even down to the most minute of facial ticks. They don't even hold themselves or walk the same way. It's amazing. 

Now, most of the clones are in some way memorable or adorable. Cosima is a beautiful science angel with awesome hair and adorable style that I generally try to copy because it is so wonderful. Sarah is the stone cold badass who doesn't take any crap from anyone and who can probably save the world on her own. Helena is crazy on a terrifying level, but she's also sweetly childish and cute and likes pudding. Beth is dead, and Rachel is a little scary, but generally, we like the clones, the clones are cool.

But then there's Allison. Allison is the normalest of the clones. She's a freaking soccer mom. She's an uptight, annoyed, constantly neurotic, white wine swilling suburbanite. She's only really concerned with the clone thing insofar as it could affect her normal, nice, cushy life. She likes being normal. She is good at being normal. She has absolutely no desire to be otherwise. Being a clone has completely and utterly messed up her worldview.

And that's what I like about her. Because as much as I love Cosima and want to be as cool as Sarah, let's be real, I'd totally react like Allison. Scared. Angry. Protective of my family and the little life I've built for myself. Concerned with my own comfort. In those first few episodes, I recognize Allison, and I like her, even if it's kind of a begrudging, "Yeah, I guess you're okay," like.

As the season went on, though, I grew to like Allison more and more. Far from being a hindrance, her love of normalcy and her determination to have a normal, safe life for her kids and her husband becomes a major plot point that drives the show forward. Allison is willing to go to pretty much any lengths to make sure that she and her family are okay, and while it's pretty genuinely terrifying, it's also pretty cool.

More than that, though, Allison is honestly quite comforting in her humanity. She's the one who breaks down and freaks out and gets drunk and makes mistakes. She gets totally smashed and sobs out her problems to her clone's foster mother. She drives around screaming the lyrics to "Bitch", and she chases people down in the street in order to make sure they aren't going to come after her kids.

Allison is human. Delightfully, infuriatingly human. And it's this humanity that makes her dangerous. 

Sure, Sarah is cool headed and the main character, and totally the kind of person you want with you in a crisis, and yes, Cosima is a beautiful science angel, but Allison is real. She's the sort of woman you already know. You probably don't even really like her. Not gonna lie, Allison reminds me really strongly of some parents I've run into, and ones that I've actually argued with. That's okay. I don't have to love the Allisons of the world in person in order to love her in fiction. Because in fiction? She's perfect.

Or rather she's so ridiculously riddled with flaws as to be a perfect way of telling the story. When the clones are offered the opportunity to sign an agreement that will give them their lives back if only they stop looking into this whole mystery of their origins, Sarah nobly refuses, while Cosima considers it for the science aspect, but Allison pretty much snatches the pen up and signs before anyone can blink. And we need that character. It's not a real story without that character.

Allison is proud and wrathful and obsessed with petty, stupid things. She's selfish and conceited, and really only cares about her own life. What matters is that she changes. Not a lot, she's still Allison, but her world, and the things she considers "her life" grow to include Cosima and Sarah and even Kira. Allison never really grows up or becomes a demonstrably better person. But she does try. And when that fails, she goes back to what she knows.

I'm okay with that. I hold out hope for her, and for the amazing progress she's going to make as a person this season. But more than that, I love Allison because watching her freak out at wine tasting parties, watching her try to meet covertly with clones while supervising her children's soccer team, and seeing her drown her sorrows in cheap white wine is freaking hysterical. And needed. There's so much weird in Orphan Black. Allison brings it back down. Reminds us that these are people, people whose lives are being impacted. She's funny and mean and selfish, but she's also the one who best understands the consequences of finding out where they came from.

Allison is the stakes. You need the stakes in order to have the story. And it certainly helps when the stakes are as fun as she is.


  1. I love Tatiana Maslany

    I've commented before that I'm not sure there's been another show in the entire history of television - with the possible exception of those with only one recurring character - that's depended so completely on one person's talent to carry it off. This is one case where I've actually resorted to saying it's a travesty that particular person didn't get an emmy.

    I haven't had a chance to watch a lot of Orphan Black, but Alison won me over with the "if you wake my kids or let them see you, then yes I will shoot you." I could totally see that reaction in a soccer mom whose world is collapsing.

    1. It kind of reminds me of Dollhouse, actually. That was another show intended to rest primarily on one set of shoulders, that then transitioned into being an ensemble show. But this one, this one is just all Tatiana all the time. And it works. I think that's the craziest part.

      Allison's scene with the hot glue gun torture goes down in my memory as one of the best characterized scenes of all time. It's just so...her.