Friday, April 17, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Helena (Orphan Black)

Orphan Black comes back tomorrow, and while I'm sure that over the course of this blog you have somehow picked up on the fact that I rather like the show (maybe one of my loving recaps or other features on it tipped you off), I'd like to yet again remind you of my adoration by talking about one of the more complex and hard to pull off characters from the show: Helena. And I don't mean that she's hard to pull off because Helena has a hell of a grip and if she were stuck somewhere she would be physically hard to pull off - though that is true. 

I mean that the character of Helena, that of the somehow sympathetic crazy anarchic former serial killer Ukrainian twin clone of our protagonist, would so easily fall into the real of soap opera in anyone other than Tatiana Maslany's capable hands. That didn't happen here. Instead, we got a character so complex and so capable of change that she's become a fan favorite and, by the third season, the emotional core of the show.

How the hell did that happen?

Orphan Black is a Canadian TV show co-produced with BBC America and starring Tatiana Maslany as like nine of the main roles. I'm sure you've been hearing about it recently as it's picked up in popularity and people have started to notice what a gem it is. This is a good thing. The show itself is a semi-science fiction take on identity and feminism and "the personal is political". It follows Sarah (Maslany), a grifter who returns home to Toronto just in time to see a woman with her exact face step in front of a train.

This moment puts Sarah on a collision course with a lot of other forces in her life and reveals to her that she is a clone, a genetically engineered individual created by a corporation. Specifically, the DYAD Institute. Also, she's not the only one. There are at least a dozen clones all over the world, all about her age and looking exactly like her. The ones we get to know best, though, are the ones right next door. Alison Hendrix, a soccer mom who lives in the suburbs outside Toronto, Cosima Niehaus, a brilliant scientist researching their own genome at a local university, and Helena, a semi-sociopathic serial killer raised by a Ukrainian anti-technology cult. Sarah gets to know them all, sometimes better than she'd like.

But I want to focus today on Helena and her relationship with Sarah - most specifically how it's changed over the course of the show and what that says about the writing. Helena, after all, is introduced as the first main villain of season one. Unlike all the other clones who spent at least a little time in a loving family environment, even Sarah, Helena was raised in a convent by nuns. She is open about the fact that the nuns didn't much like her and she got in trouble a lot. There are implications that she was abused.

Then, later, Helena found herself in the custody of the Proletheans, an anti-technology Christian(-ish) cult that discovered she was a clone and used that information to destroy her mentally. The Proletheans told her that she wasn't "real" and that she was an abomination unto God. The only way she could seek salvation and get her soul was if she killed all the other abominations. So, Helena did. She was acting under the orders of the closest thing to a family she'd ever known, even if they did like to lock her in a metal cage when she disobeyed, and she murdered just a lot of people.

I'm not telling you this because I think Helena's abuse excuses her actions, for the record, but because it informs her character. When we first meet Helena, we mostly just think of her as the boogeyman. She's a pretty skilled sniper. She stabs people. She stitches herself up in the bathroom of a family whose house she broke into. She can withstand a truly horrifying amount of pain. From Sarah's perspective, being stalked by Helena is like being stalked by a Terminator who wears your face.

But somewhere in there, somewhere in those boogeyman episodes, we start to see other sides to Helena as well. For starters, though she's under orders to kill her clone sisters, she's also genuinely curious about them. She feels a spark of connection to Sarah and becomes fascinated with her. She loves sugary snacks and even goes so far as to pour sugar on her jello. Helena loves kids. The more we know about her, the more complex and interesting she becomes, and that's awesome.

And, it's worth noting, the more she learns about the world outside the Proletheans, the more she starts to turn away from them. She discovers that Sarah has a child, that one of the "abominations" reproduced, but Helena isn't horrified, she's enchanted. She adores Kira, Sarah's daughter, and lavishes (kind of creepy) attention on her. By the end of the first season, Sarah even views Helena as a sort of ally in the fight for control of their lives - up until it's revealed that Helena and Sarah are actually twins, and Helena murders their birth mother.

What's interesting here is that Helena's motivations for killing Amelia, their birth mother, are both completely understandable and utterly insane at the same time. On the one hand, Helena has suffered a lifetime of abuse and mistreatment, being brainwashed by a cult, being hurt repeatedly, because her mother chose to separate her from her sister and send her to a convent in Eastern Europe. It's not hard to see why Helena might be kind of pissed.

On the other hand, though, Helena here is acting entirely out of her programming. Amelia must be killed because she is "the mother of the beast" - she's the woman who brought abominations into the world, so she must be destroyed.

This is the turning point for Helena - this and the moment when Sarah shoots her upon discovering she's killed Amelia. This is the last solidly Prolethean thing she does. At the start of season two, even as she's bleeding out from a gunshot wound to the chest, Helena is finally a free agent.

So what does she do? Immediately get kidnapped by another branch of the Proletheans. But, in her defense, she is nearly dead when this happens. No, the second season is about Helena coming into her own as the owner of her own biology. While the first season dealt most with Helena learning to see herself as a human being and not just an abomination to be destroyed, the second season is about her coming to understand her own agency and biology. This is the season she discovers that she is fertile and could have children. Awesome! Helena loves children. But this is also the season when her eggs are stolen and used without her consent. 

This is the season when Helena falls in love - with Patrick J. Adams - and gets her first slow dance with a boy. It's also the season where she gets pregnant. Though these two events are actually completely unrelated, it's not hard to see Helena's second season as a sort of belated adolescence. It's where she, finally ensconced in a family that loves her (even if her clone sisters absolutely do not get her), has the space and freedom to figure out who the heckity heck she is. 

So she rebels and flirts with a boy and makes up ridiculous lies about herself to impress people. She sneaks off while her sister is doing important things and gets in trouble. She gets knocked up (entirely by her choice, it is worth pointing out) and then rebels against the people who tried to hurt her. In short, season two is about Helena becoming an adult, and by the end of the season and the world's best dance party, it's clear she has.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, partly it's to get you all as excited as I am for next season to start. I mean, we ended last season with Helena in a hell of a cliffhanger, having been kidnapped and taken by Project Castor and the military. But I'm also telling you this because I think Helena is one of the most interesting characters to come around in a long time. Not just on Orphan Black, either. I think she's one of the best characters full stop on television right now.

I think that because Helena is a mash of unlikable, uncomfortable, disturbing things. She's sympathetic but not excusable and she's so fascinating as she wends her way every more slowly towards being on our side. Helena is a character who grows and develops and changes, sometimes drastically, and that's awesome. One of the biggest problems we see with female characters is that they are so rarely given room to grow and change. Helena, then, is the poster child for what we should want our female characters to be able to do: to go from being the boogeyman to the adored sister. 

And this is the part of the article where we once again praise Tatiana Maslany and whatever magic she is using in order to play these roles. Because, in all honesty, if Helena were the only characters she were playing on TV right now, Maslany would still deserve all of the awards. That she's not the only character, and that Maslany is also playing four of the other five leads, is terrifying and awesome. But I think that sometimes in our elation at Maslany's skill and prowess, we lose sight of what makes each individual performance great: humanity.

I don't want to get so impressed by the sheer magnitude of what Maslany has done with her characters that I miss looking at them individually. So that's why we looked at Helena today. She's very much a model of what I wish more female characters could be. Flawed, a little broken, a little off, but fully capable of changing and growing as a person without having to become a clone (heh) of everyone else.

So watch Orphan Black you guys. Watch it for Helena and the joy of seeing what she'll do next.

Petition to #bringbackjesse


  1. So will you being doing posts for Sarah and Cosima as well (as you've already done Alison)?

    But I think that sometimes in our elation at Maslany's skill and prowess, we lose sight of what makes each individual performance great: humanity.

    Which can be an uncomfortable to thing to lose sight of, because doing so gives us something in common with the Proletheans and DYAD and all their other tormentors.

    I think she's one of the best characters full stop on television right now.

    I can't think of many characters so simultaneously shattered and clear, or so simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking. It's a compelling mix.

    I'm not telling you this because I think Helena's abuse excuses her actions, for the record, but because it informs her character.

    I like that most of what we know about her abuse is *through* her character - no flashbacks or long descriptions. While we don't see Tomas give her anything but water, we only really know the Proletheans starved her because she eats like she doesn't know where her next meal is coming from. We only know they sewed her mouth shut because she reaches out to Gracie over it. It keeps her - who she is - at the centre.

    1. I will eventually do posts on Sarah and Cosima, yes! And Gracie and Delphine. I've already done Mrs. S. There are so many wonderful female characters on this show and I love it.

      I sometimes find the reviewers a little unsettling when they talk about Maslany's ability with the characters because of how they de-emphasize the humanity of those characters in order to talk about the skill of her "trick." But then I do that too. Arrrrrgh.

      And that's a really good point. We only learn about Helena's abuse on Helena's terms. We only learn about it because of who she is now. And that shifts the balance of power very much onto Helena.

  2. But the "trick" is so good! But really, any actor can play five nothingy characters in one go - without the humanity of each one, and how throughly Maslany claims your heart for them all, there'd be no phenomenal feat to rave about. So, yeah, we have to remember to zoom in. But it can be hard to :/.

    1. So hard.

      I am quite impressed with Ari Millen so far, though. Not the same trick, not quite, but still very good.

  3. So I always thought Helena was taught that she was the original, and the rest of them were the abominations. Tomas tells her "you are the originsl. You are the light," a mantra she repeats. Then in the scene between her and Sarah, in Maggie's apartment, Helena says, "The others. Poor copies of God's image of human beings." Sarah replied, "But not you? You're special? They told you you were the originsl, didn't they?" Helena smiles a very creepy, very knowing smile. So I've always thought that the Prolethians told her she was the real one, the human, and all the others were soulless copies of her.

    I love her arc throughout S3. What're your thoughts?

    1. I think she was taught that, but that she also had doubts. It's hard not to have doubts about something like that. And the Proletheans, for all that they sometimes called her the original, also trained her to think of herself as an abomination. It's so ingrained in her. The abuse she's suffered is catastrophic. I think there's no one clear answer, probably because there was never supposed to be. Helena's life story has no obvious narrative, and that's appropriate.

      As for her season three arc, I loved it. I loved seeing her finally coming to grasp a sense of her own worth (in demanding more than a begrudging apology from Sarah in the desert and then duking it out with Mrs. S), as well as finally being accepted into the family she's always longed for. She made me really happy in season three.

      Also, JESSE! So happy about that. Just insanely happy.