Protest Unceasing, Redemption Unfinished: An Interview with “Orphan Black’s” Graeme Manson and Cosima Herter

GM: Yeah, even at the beginning of the season I was pretty sure we were going to kill Rachel. GRAEME MANSON: I have a much deeper understanding of the issues now and a greater commitment to communicating these profound questions about our future through the lens of fiction and the crazy world of television. It’s not one act. You end up with Rachel at the end, who has to reconstruct who she is. I would be remiss if I didn’t invite you to sing Tatiana Maslany’s praises in one way or another here, and I think that scene epitomizes her achievement with this show’s major characters. When I was trying to figure out how we might name these episodes, I really struggled with it. We didn’t have to moralize on that, on corporate science or whatever. And it just seemed to me that poem was the right one because the show’s always been about protest and not being complicit through our silence. However, we always grounded those in real possibilities from the history of genetics and eugenics. The decision was to come back six months later and to put Sarah in this subtle place of grief, with survivor’s guilt and the threat that she’s going to regress back to who she was when we met her. The whole thing was killing everybody. I was very adamant about that. It showed the corporate side — the dangers of that — and of course that’s very conspiratorial and not entirely fictional to some degree. And what might look like redemption for oneself does not necessarily mean redemption for others. How we internalize misogyny, for example. How we internalize that authority. It’s a constant, constant battle, and I don’t really think that we’re ever going to kick back on the beach of equality and toast to having made it. But the thing about redemption, whatever it means to be redeemed or to want to redeem oneself, is that it’s a really complicated concept. And that was Graeme and Renée St. So I thought about all the women I worked with that really banded together, supported each other, and encouraged each other, and the men who were our allies. SEPTEMBER 12, 2017

GRAEME MANSON is co-creator of BBC America’s just-concluded series Orphan Black, and Cosima Herter is the show’s science and story consultant. I think because the pace of the show was so fast, those scenes really stand out; they are a great rest. I have a sense of the players and the problems. And plucking out the view of the world that we internalize. How did you maintain that balance? What are you left with? Cosima, one of your roles has been to choose a source text for each season’s episode titles. What questions does my answer spawn? I remember John working hard to get there with Tat. And frankly Sarah’s not altruistic enough to have it. “Everywhere I look there’s sand. We could put it out there and ask questions, saying: how do you answer those questions yourself? The biggest and strongest realization — I mean it was fundamental and it happened early, and it was reiterated again and again by Cosima — was that biology and genetic science are always political. She broke my heart in that performance. And she did a marvelous, marvelous job. I really enjoyed writing questions together, so that was part of our mandate for the show. CH: Sand! I don’t know that that character ever thought that she would be redeemed. GM: Very much so. They were just the sisters and the more dramatic scenes, when the pace let up. It gets me every time. With Tat’s abilities, we were often like, damn, I wish we had more scenes like that. I came into this with quite a pessimistic view of corporate power in science, and that hasn’t changed. Five is a nice, dramatic number. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. What stands out to you about it? Season one featured the work of Charles Darwin; season two, Francis Bacon; three, Dwight Eisenhower; and four, Donna Haraway. It’s not just about feminism, it’s about how we agree to certain kinds of authority in our everyday life. That tone of redeeming yourself but not being forgiven by your victims — that’s what I liked about that end scene. When she asks how the children are, Felix’s answer is, “You can’t come in, Rachel.” You know a part of her wants to see those kids. What we want to imagine is a scientist who does not work to preconceived conclusions or commercial ends, a scientist who works from curiosity and wonder. I think what Orphan Black managed to do is to peel back some of the mystery around that and show the larger questions in the sci-fi format and open people’s eyes a little bit. COSIMA HERTER: I love that poem. Cyr’s episode, and she amazed us all with how deep she went with Rachel. I loved having Rachel’s shame and pride in the same scene. Part of what made that easier was the decision to have some more character-focused episodes. How we internalize our tendency to defer to something outside ourselves, like the man in the white coat. What about the main clone left out of the backyard scene, Rachel? There’s certainly a huge need to be cautious about where untethered, unregulated capitalism can take us when it comes to manipulation of human bodies, yet Orphan Black doesn’t just jump around and say, “Hey everybody, freak out!” It affirms deep scientific curiosity. That was a tough tightrope walk to avoid minimizing who she had been, but also not to get lost in vengeance. That’s the only source text that I didn’t have in mind at the beginning of the season. [Laughs.]
But we made the decision early that it was going to be a deeper journey. But John wanted to save her. I actually go to poetry a lot, so I went and read that poem again, which I had read for the first time when I was about 18 and learning something about feminism. Cyr writing that last episode. They thought she was irredeemable and that she should be killed. How did you avoid the pitfalls of making her too fully repugnant or too easily sympathetic? And — this is something that is very important to Cosima and me — someone who will work toward a scientific answer and conclusion, then immediately look for the next question. GM: Well, I think the series really showed both sides of science. CH: Yeah, it was a lot about accessing one’s rage about one’s own injustices that have been committed against them or in the world at large. There were a lot of things happening for this last season: how to wrap up the story, how to work with the writers and with John [Fawcett]. And that drove the rest of Rachel’s story. And if she did, she’d stride out there and punch her in the fucking face still. And when I don’t really know how to think about things, I usually go to sources beyond nonfiction. It’s a subtle thing to do in the finale with your main character, but we were just really dying to do it. I think that’s just my fatalistic view that if there’s something humans can do, they’ll try and do it, whether it’s good or not. Tat was so down that this was Sarah’s final journey — she really understood how subtle and powerful it was. That moment in the finale with all the clones in Alison’s backyard isn’t quite kicking back on the beach, is it? She knows Helena would bite her hand off. And I think that feeling of “No, you can’t kill her, she’s my favorite clone” helped to keep the cohesion. Orphan Black is a feminist show. ¤
EVERETT HAMNER: How have your attitudes changed toward the science of genetics and the corporatization of biotechnology over more than five years of imagining this show? I’m glad that we’ve emphasized a positive image of hands-on, deeply empathetic science. But you’re right, we never wanted to put a ribbon on it. Sorry, I wasn’t there on set when they filmed that one, but it still makes me laugh. Felix’s complexity there — what Jordan Gavaris pulled off — was critical, too. I look around at our political climate and I just think about all these protests, especially in the United States — they cannot stop! She drove that episode. GM: One thing we both have to say is that episode seven was Renée St. I don’t think that the end of this story is all a happy ending and everybody goes off in their happy ways. And we also relied on sci-fi tropes and paranoia and things like that. I think what it means to be redeemed or to ask for redemption is far more difficult than people tend to depict it, even to ourselves. This is the hardest thing for Sarah to do, to reveal this crack. And that was good; we’ve always had this sort of tension. This season you chose Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Protest.” How does it resonate as you look back on the season? That scene allows each of the girls to state their differences again, but also they’re stating their weaknesses, and in doing that they’re giving each other strength. I don’t know whether it’s simply about redeeming oneself. As discussed in my June LARB article and then a series of BLARB essays about the show’s final season, the production built a devoted fan base with its combination of scientific specificity and feminist critique — not to mention phenomenal acting, directing, and special effects. She’d never protest and try and go in. How damaging it is to rip out your own perceptions of the world and be left with … what? If this is still nascent, I want to be here as it unfolds. You have Sarah saying there’s nobody left to fight, but the sisters answer, no, no, the fight continues every single moment of every single day. There’s no way — I could not ever see any way to Sarah letting Rachel near; Sarah doesn’t even know she’s out there. It’s not just like, hey we get to have babies and everything is happily ever after. In the season’s third episode, she gives Kira a spiny mouse and tells her, “He’s evolved this way, so that when he’s grasped by a predator, he slides right out of his own skin and escapes.” Is that a fair summary of what Rachel does herself? There are two real major scientist characters on this show, and it’s the two women, Delphine and Cosima. Once that was on the table, it was obvious that we could really, really do the heavy lifting, the work of transforming Rachel in some way. Like Graeme said, some people really want a tightly wrapped bow. I have a much stronger sense now of what it might take to steer it, but I don’t have a sense of the solutions. That poem was actually what we’ve been talking about all along. So we made the decision early in the season to take Rachel on a much more complex journey, and at first the network wasn’t into it. GM: Yeah, I did see Sarah’s side of that. Where does this sand come from?”
[After some laughter.] Graeme, were you there those days? I can’t think of many characters who are so deeply immersed in such an exploitative corporate hierarchy and who escape it, yet bear the psychological scars so plausibly. And usually when we said that, they were the quiet scenes. I thought that Sarah would cut her head off. It’s an ongoing process. So the thing with Rachel’s character arc is that she goes from being pro-clone to being a human and a woman with these really difficult struggles. ¤
Everett Hamner is an associate professor of English at Western Illinois University and the author of   Editing the Soul: Science and Fiction in the Genome Age   (Penn State University Press, AnthropoScene series, forthcoming October 2017). CH: That was a superb bit of acting for both him and Tatiana.