Welcome to Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’re featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” First up, Brian Psi on Beth Childs, the clone who exists almost entirely in inscrutable past tense.
The clones of Orphan Black are haunted by the ghosts of those who have died before their time, sisters who our characters will never come to know, and whose fates they may come to share. In the first season, Katja is a warning to the others of their propensity towards sickness, and is killed by the assassin that will soon be targeting the others. In the second, it is Jennifer Fitzsimmons, whose harrowing video diaries prior to her death amplify our concern for Cosima, who is suffering from the same rare respiratory ailment.
I’d like to focus on Detective Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Childs, the show’s ur-ghost, whose death in the pre-credits sequence of the very first episode is the show’s primal scene, its great moment of uncanny, existential ‘WTF-did-I-just-see?’.
The pilot episode of Orphan Black is titled “Natural Selection” after Darwin’s mechanism by which the smartest, strongest, and swiftest pass on their legacy, while the slowest and slightest do not. ‘Survival of the fittest.’ Its very first scene stages the only encounter between Sarah Manning and Beth Childs. Both of them are upset—Sarah about her inability to see her daughter, Beth about pain that we do not learn about until much later. While Sarah huffily paces the train terminal walkway, Beth ritualistically removes her shoes, jacket, and purse, leaving them in a neat stack. Turning to see her double Sarah staring at her, Beth abruptly walks in front of the train that she has come to kill herself with. Sarah is horrified, but not so stunned that her survival instincts leave her. She grabs Beth’s purse and flees.
Beth strips herself of self by leaving shoes, coat, and purse. By picking up this purse, with its photo ID and credit cards and police badge, Sarah impersonates or perhaps becomes Beth. She is for several episodes called Beth by people—Beth’s partner Art, her fiancé and observer Paul, his handlers, the other members of Clone Club—who don’t realize that they are separate people. Sarah lives in Beth’s apartment, works Beth’s job, sleeps with Beth’s fiancé… lives Beth’s life until it becomes too burdensome for her, and she, too, is forced to give it up (in this case, by confessing to Clone Club, to Paul, and to Art).
This transmutation of one character into another provides dramatic fuel. Early episodes, in which Sarah-as-Beth is working with detectives to find a suspect that she and we know to be Sarah herself, incite some of the same kinds of paranoid thrills as procedurals like Dexter or the film No Way Out, which are similar in this respect.
But it also performs a strange magic trick: in a miracle of addition by subtraction, the setup allows our new protagonist to be defined less by who she is than by who her deceased doppleganger wasn’t:
-Sarah’s life becomes defined by her efforts to save a young girl (her daughter, Kira); Beth’s became defined by her murder of a young woman.
-Sarah is a criminal, Beth was a cop.
-Sarah is sexually adventurous; Beth’s sexuality was internalized (in a telling exchange, meant at least in part to differentiate both women, Beth’s fiancé and watcher Paul expresses his delight in the recent upswing in his sex life to his handler at Dyad, who promptly categorizes Beth as a “cold fish”, because he gathers data on cloned women, and this is his SCIENTIFIC-MEDICAL DIAGNOSIS or something).
-Sarah Manning’s last name suggests strength and maturity; Beth Childs’ suggests fragility.
-Sarah is a survivor, Beth is a suicide.
Beth’s purpose within the logic of the show’s narrative is, it seems, to die, so that Sarah and the audience can be initiated into the secret world of its mythology.
This does not mean that we should think of her as disposable. Beth leaves her successor a name and a home that she uses to avoid her most recent scrape, rebuild her life, and to solve the mystery. Beth was the one that brought Clone Club together, who used her detective skills and resources to find Cosima and Alison. She taught Alison how to protect herself, and identified the organization that was killing women like her all over the world.
So while the Dyads (get it?) I mention above mostly put Beth at a disadvantage, let’s not forget what Beth did have, and what Sarah could so sorely use: a cutting sense of humor, the insight to identify those who take themselves too seriously and to de-puff their chests with a deflating barb. Waiting to speak to Beth’s doctor, Art asks Sarah-as-Beth, “Where’s your wit gone? You haven’t called me dipshit all day.” Or, returning again to their primal scene on the platform—turning to see Sarah staring at her, mouth agape, Beth’s expression is both a side-eye and an eye-roll, sarcastically intimating, “Yeah, it’s all about you.”