Orphan Black sneaks up on you. Watching the clone drama can feel like navigating a hall of mirrors with Tatiana Maslany at its camouflaged center: Its pleasures often seem silly or soapy, spiraling out from the series’ sci-fi premise as each season becomes more twisty and convoluted than the last. Still, its legacy will come not from its science fiction but its social fiction, from the environment it crafts without drawing attention to it—a world like ours, and yet profoundly altered. Cloning, sadly, is not the most far-fetched part of Orphan Black. That honor belongs to its matriarchy, a culture in which the women are dominant in technology, science and business, and in which being a stay-at-home mom warrants just as much narrative coverage as covert military experimentation.
Empowering its women is just as important to the series as outlining the failings of its men, even those with good intentions. To flip the gender imbalance (as properties like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Ocho have done in its wake), this clear subordination is a necessity, showing that it isn’t an accident or exception, but a rule of its universe. “Gender-swap” fiction, something taking (or reclaiming) pop culture by storm, often empowers female leads by placing them alongside men: fighting with them, scheming as successfully as them, pursuing sex as confidently as them. What’s pioneering about Orphan Black’s brand of social commentary is its embrace of a goddess-worshipping society—literally, in one Season Five art show—in which women are not simply as empowered as men, but more so. Its male antagonists are cruel, mistreating women’s bodies; its female antagonists are framed as traitors to their sisters. This is not a world of false equality, but of matriarchy under siege. Orphan Black quietly, admirably restructures traditional gender roles in life and on television, and that choice informs the show’s every component.
From the moment Sarah (Maslany) sees her clone, Beth, kill herself in the pilot episode, she becomes—perhaps ironically—empowered. Beth’s death provides Sarah with a new life, a leg up on the man who’d caused her grief, and access to a world where women are put-upon, in part, because their power is so desperately sought. It’s a world in which a suburban school board election holds enough weight to share an episode (Season Three’s “Community of Dreadful Fear and Hate”) with two newly freed clone POWs. Giving equal footing to subplots that wouldn’t enjoy the same treatment on another series explains Orphan Black’s unique valuation of typically “feminine” and typically “masculine” activities. Marital problems and corporate, Bourne-style espionage often share the screen, and in no shortage of cases, the former has pride of place.
The most highly valued states in Orphan Black are motherhood and freedom—in that order. Individual plotlines may use the series’ myriad mother-daughter relationships in indelicate ways, distilling the components in those relationships to mere devices. But that tiresome trend never undermines the spirit and philosophy of the show’s maternalism, which binds it tighter than all its countless narrative threads combined. When these mothers, grandmothers and daughters drive the story, Orphan Black converts the maternal bond into raw dramatic fuel, the way some TV series turn murder cases or baskets filled with secret ingredients into years of power over audiences.
At its core, the series is not just about “strong women”—which is, in itself, a rudimentary catchphrase that often assumes the answer to feminism is more “masculine” women—but also about a woman-run world. The men are simply not as effective, except for Felix (Jordan Gavaris), Sarah’s gay foster brother—and he possesses more than enough nuance and personality to undo stereotypes about TV’s generic “gay best friends.” Men who’d normally appear hyper-competent on TV (cop, executive, scientist, drug dealer, military lifer, hit man) are all comically inept. Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer), the world-famous scientist and antagonist of the first season, accidentally gets his head blown off by a suburban wimp, while it takes Art (Kevin Hanchard), a professional detective, a full season to realize the person pretending to be his partner (whom he was in love with) isn’t even the same nationality. British Sarah’s Canadian Beth impression couldn’t have been that good.
Seemingly all the clones successfully slip into male-dominated professions at one point or another. They also impersonate each other—and not well, either, thanks to the nice touch of some noticeably downgraded costume design—often to show that men don’t pay much attention to women. If one of the male characters solves a problem, it’s all the clones can do to mask their surprise. The men may contribute to the execution of a successful plan, but that plan is inevitably designed by one of the female leads. The men aren’t just secondary; they’re dominated.
“Dominated” is very much a meaningful word here. The romances in the series, when they’re heterosexual (and, in Orphan Black, this isn’t assumed to be the case), involve men who exist to support and tend to their women. They can be timid or demanding in their submission, but the power in the relationship always lies with the woman. When the hunky piece of eye candy that was Paul (Dylan Bruce) fell to three separate sestras (Beth, Sarah and Rachel), there was never hope that characters like Art, Vic (Michael Mando) or Donnie (Kristian Bruun) could be anything but the biddable bumblers they are. Their love of the clones is so passive and benign that the one assertive, non-villainous man introduced in the series (Cal, played by Michiel Huisman) was quickly and quietly written off. He just didn’t fit. This wasn’t the world for him.
Then we come to Ferdinand. James Frain’s gloriously realized submissive plays many sides over the course of the series, following his desire for a foot on his crotch as often as his greed. His sexual manhood is an extension of his character, the double-crossing snake driven only by his whispering, conniving ambition and his need to get slapped around by a no-nonsense business woman. There’s no kink-shaming here, but Ferdinand’s submission comes linked with his villainy. Not immediately, of course, as he and Rachel initially play safe and value consent. But when things stop going his way, Ferdinand’s reactions explain his place in this world. He is the person that gets off on being dominated by women over whom he ultimately has some form of power. It’s a role-reversal within a role-reversal, his kink nested within patriarchal toxicity. That dangerous assumption of control (even if that control is having your testicles squished exactly the way you like) means that when sex is denied him and his plans are usurped, his manhood is undermined. That, as the show demonstrates again and again, means violence.
When the one character openly in a sub-dom relationship acts out cuckold revenge fantasies on MK, a clone of his dom, Rachel, thus killing her, that’s not meaningless violence. This is villainy of the highest order for Orphan Black. It’s a brutally efficient critique of the fetishization of “strong women,” which our culture has begun to adopt while simultaneously being threatened by them. This hypocrisy is an instability personified in Ferdinand. He loves strong women, but not that strong. Not stronger than him when he wants to regain control.
The violence lashes out of Ferdinand at MK and Mrs. S. He only suffers Rachel to live thanks to the remnants of his sexual attraction and her begrudging submission in their now-flipped power relations. As soon as Ferdinand got on his back foot, his need for dominance became both sexual and violent. And it’s not like he’s an exception. He is, to Orphan Black, the rule when it comes to men: His violent outrage is that of the spurned gunman, the abusive ex, the sexist Twitter fan. It is an inherently gendered threat, which the series also uses in other major plot lines, including sexual assault through intentional STD transmission and the forcible harvesting of children and eggs.
Orphan Black doesn’t do any of this by accident. Its genre trappings—which make its gender composition even rarer than if it was a straight drama—helped pave the way for more diverse comic book and sci-fi programming. Its relevance as one of the few female-led TV dramas has always been in its soul, and the series has always looked to emphasize it in both quality and quantity. (As an example, Agent Carter has seven recurring female characters. Orphan Black has almost thirty.) The distinction lies in its fearless decision to use its world and its narrative to undermine patriarchal ideas. The nearest example is Jessica Jones’ abusive antagonist, but that show still takes place in real New York. Orphan Black embraces matriarchal power in every protagonist, side character and doofy love interest, in every resonant theme. The show will be remembered not for its twists and turns, but for its unwavering commitment to its feminine fiction, woven together by Maslany’s iconic performances.
The series finale of Orphan Black airs Saturday, August 12 at 10 p.m. on BBC America. Read Paste’s episodic reviews here.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.