“… but you’re not the smartest clone, are you, Sarah?”
Daniel, Orphan Black
Orphan Black is simply the best science fiction show on television right now. Their not-so-secret weapon is super-actor Tatiana Maslany, who plays (or has played) up to eight separate roles on the show. Before they cast her, though, the show-runners and writers came up with an idea for how to tell this weird-science story in a way that puts this show on the map. Our main characters are not scientists (well, one is); they aren’t cops, doctors, investigators or independently wealthy bloggers. They are, mostly, outsiders… except perhaps for soccer-mom Allison. Sarah, the first character we meet, is a scam artist, playing the margins, who stole drugs from her abusive boyfriend and is on her way back into town to grab her daughter, reconnect with her foster brother Felix, and head for the hills. Things change radically for Sarah when she sees a woman who looks exactly like her take off her shoes, set down her purse, and throw herself in front of a train. Sarah does what any scam artist would do; in the confusion, she grabs the purse and runs.
That’s in the first three minutes of Episode One.
Minutes later we meet gay artist brother Felix, and the story starts to unfold as Sarah searches the dead woman’s apartment. And the story, to summarize, is this: Sarah and several other women who look just like her are clones, being pursued by Big Science and by a weird religious cult. One clone, Cosima, is a graduate student in life sciences. One, Allison, is a too-tightly-wrapped suburbanite who uses alcohol and drugs to take off the edge. The suicide is — was — a police detective. Several other clones are dead. One clone is a frightening, unstable killer.
The one who is the most unusual of all the clones is Sarah, because Sarah has a child she gave birth to. This makes her something different.
While the story rotates among the storylines of the various characters (Felix is often the connection, both narratively and emotionally, between the clones) Sarah is the “main” character. Daniel, who works for the Big Science corporation and has been bested by Sarah on several occasions, was speaking rhetorically in May 10’s episode, but it raises some interesting questions about these characters. Just who is the smartest? Are they equally smart? The answer to that may be “Yes,” but it gives us a chance to discuss types of intelligence.
Cosima is an American scientist, finishing up grad school. She is brilliant, but she takes a scientific and methodical approach to things. Cosima is willing to think “outside the box” on scientific issues, but it’s clear, though unspoken, that her personal upbringing was pretty stable and sheltered. In a crisis, she does not always leap to a successful solution. She knows that “call the cops” really won’t work, but she’s still trapped in a middle-class mindset. Cosima’s intelligence is also hampered by her supreme self-confidence, as when she decides that the beautiful woman who is pursuing her is a plant by Big Science, but that she “can handle it” because she sees it. This miscalculation puts all of the clones and Sarah’s daughter in jeopardy.
Sarah is a scam artist, using her intuition and her sexuality as tools/weapons, as well as anything else she can reach; bribery, blackmail, outright lying, hitting people, shooting people, stealing cars and running away. I say all of that with the greatest admiration. The May 10 episode was powerful and terrifying because Daniel has finally caught her. Daniel has been ordered not to kill Sarah, but he has either been pushed so far he no longer cares, or he plans to stop short of killing, and is just going to hurt her, badly. Sarah is terrified. Even in that moment she is trying to scam him, push his buttons, find a way to manipulate him. “I look like her, don’t I?” she says, referring to Rachel, another clone and Daniel’s lover. Even overtaken by fear Sarah is drawing on information and creating models. It’s just that, in this case, it doesn’t work.
Sarah doesn’t have a lot of patience for data collection and analysis, though,so I wouldn’t call her a brilliant analytical thinker. Cocooned as she is, much of the time, in a pills-and-booze fueled haze, Allison may, in fact, be the best analytical thinker. Allison decided that her nebbishy husband Donnie was secretly an employee of the Big Science Corp, set to monitor her, her “watcher.” Her reaction upon reaching this conclusion was to hit him over the head with a golf club and torture him with her crafts tools, but her evaluation methodology was flawless. When police detective Art’s new partner pretended to be the New Girl in the Neighborhood, paranoid Allison saw through her in seconds. The other clue about Allison is that she does crafts. She is an expert at measurement and precision. I’m telling you, cut that piece of felt too short and you will have to throw it away and start over. I can’t imagine what questions Allison could find answers to if she was sober. She’s in Rehab right now, so maybe in an episode or two, we’ll begin to find out.
Helena has fried blond hair, a Ukrainian accent, and a sentimental attachment to her “twin,” her “sister,” Sarah. It turns out that they might really be spontaneous twins (and “mirror twins” at that, which is used as a plot device). Helena was tortured as a child and brainwashed by one of the two weird cults that are after the clones. She was taught to be a killer. I do not think that Helena is technically crazy, even with the screechy theme music she gets. I think she is something scarier than crazy. Like Sarah, Helena functions at the level of survival. She is not educated. She can’t even eat very well with a fork, but she could kill you with a paper napkin and a bendy straw. Helena is instinctual and intuitive, but can only navigate in the shadows.
Then there is Rachel, COO of the corporation; unemotional, bigoted, strategic and ruthless. She is probably smart but so far we’ve seen much more of the ruthlessness and strategy.
So, who is the smartest? I don’t have an answer. Cosima is really the best at emotional intelligence (Sarah could be, but Sarah does not see beyond her daughter, and sometimes, Felix). Sarah’s intuition and intuitive follow-through are hands-down the best, even with the glaring blind spot about her foster mother. Allison is the best analyst of the bunch, even if she is unpleasant. Beth, the dead-before-the-first-commercial-break clone, was a cop; I’m guessing analytical intelligence and intuition were both pretty strong in her. Oddly, Rachel seems like the least successful in the IQ sweepstakes because we haven’t seen her do much except guess wrong and underestimate people. We have to take it on faith that she’s smart, though, because look where she’s ended up. Helena is also very smart, and if she ever starts accessing her intelligence, the world of Orphan Black will become a very scary place indeed.