Island of Sisters: Let's Talk About Ferdinand (Orphan Black's Final Trip Episodes 1 & 2- "The Few Who Dare" and "Clutch of Greed")
Island of Sisters is a bi-weekly series in which I will discuss/process important themes that are going down in the final season of Orphan Black as it airs. Major spoilers for all aired episodes.
"Why are they here?"
This is Cosima's question to Mud about the Revival members in the first episode of the final season of Orphan Black, and it is possibly the most apt question anyone could ask in the season opener of this show. It addresses the current mystery at hand, of which there are always at least a few, and it articulates the core of the show: Why are the sestras here? Why are any of us here? What does it mean to be human, and who decides?
In the title of this blog series, I've used the word "sisters" instead of "sestras" for a reason. The latter term, coined by Helena in the first season, is at turns funny, sweet, beautiful, and deeply meaningful depending on the context in which it's being used. But it also implies a certain separation, a specific kind of distance between the Leda clones. The language barrier that has Helena mispronouncing "sister" is just one part of it. The clones don't have an automatic sisterhood from the start. Many of them, including Sarah, are unaware they are clones; they did not share childhoods and are effectively strangers to each other until they are adults. They share genomes, and this makes them sestras; always knitted together genetically, yet still somehow apart. The word "sestra" evolves through the series to become an important word for "family," but it is still an insider term, one that is exclusive to the outside world. Now, as this story hurtles toward its conclusion, things are different. Now is the time for the whole truth. The sestras are secret, the sisters are visible. It's another way in which they will have to reclaim their autonomy, their bodies, their will, their freedom.
The "island" theme has also been prevalent throughout the series. It's no coincidence that Darwin's theory of evolution was born from observing island species, and that the show's ongoing human evolution experiments that now permeate all corners of the world (or at least Canada) grew from the Island of Doctor Moreau aka P.T. Westmoreland's cult island. Some of the sisters (Cosima and Charlotte, sometimes Rachel, formerly Sarah) are physically on this island. The human cloning experiment that fractured from that rock in the north and made its way through several iterations and splintered factions over time sought to keep the Leda clones naive, to make them into their own islands, perhaps in order to best observe their specific evolution a la Darwin and Westmoreland. In many ways, the sisters are islands, or an island, isolated from other humans because of their unique biology. But an island is not isolated; in the same way that islands are part of earth, never truly unreachable, the sisters are part of humanity, and must reckon with what that means. They must ask it of themselves, and we must ask it too: what makes us human? If the clones are owned and patented, how can they claim sovereignty?
This is where Orphan Black becomes beautifully subversive in its depiction of the oppression brought on by Toxic Masculinity and the Patriarchy (with capital T, M and P). In fact the show is unapologetic and fearless in its exploration of this oppression. On a meta level, the fact that the entire story rests squarely on women- a lot of women, women who are powerful and vulnerable, intelligent and fearless, badass and tenacious, conflicted and complicated- undermines the patriarchy of most popular culture. Within the narrative of the show, patriarchal structures and toxic masculinity (and their disruption by the Leda clones) is pervasive (see: everything Helena does after season one). The towering corporate figure of Dr. Leekie and DYAD, the gruesome Castor clones, the Prolethean cult, the terrifying mind-fuck of pop-Neolution, smaller actors like Dr. Nealon and Rachel's henchman/sex toy David, the mysterious Topside, the appalling entity of Brightborn, the "benevolent" father figure of P.T. Westmoreland perched in his house on a hill above his minions, and Ferdinand, always Ferdinand- these embodiments of horror and abuse are a crucial reflection of, well, the world we live in. They show the patriarchy as the thriving many-headed monster that it is; and lest we forget, the human cloning experiments (both Leda and Castor) that cleaved off of P.T.'s original Neolution Island/Island of Dr. Moreau began as a military project before becoming privatized. The military is a cultural hotbed of toxic masculinity, where violence, dominance and hierarchical power structures are celebrated and encouraged. Embedded in this troubled origin story is the need for control- over evolution itself, over humankind's flaws, and over the bodies of the women all of these entities claim, in one way or another, to own. (It means something that Orphan Black centers on female clones rather than male ones; this choice addresses the patriarchal view of women as singular in nature and dispensable).
Within the first two episodes of season five, there is a lot of patriarchy all around- borderline-gaslighting and forced lies by P.T. Westmoreland and whatever cop faction has a hold of Art and Alison, respectively; penetrative symbolism in the dart that knocks Sarah out (not to mention the knife to her leg at the end of last season) and the giant needle inserted into Cosima's uterus- but these are details compared to Ferdinand's poisonous grasping at the clones reaching a tragic and soul-destroying peak.
Ferdinand is a sociopath who is driven by hate, and he hates women. This is clear from his introduction in the series. He orchestrated Helsinki, and his dominance/submission BDSM play with Rachel is not healthy kink but fully exploits her broken personhood. Rachel's life is a skeleton she cannot make sense of, as she consistently fails to reconcile the loving parents she thought she had in early childhood with the cold corporate framework she was raised in after their disappearance. Rachel has internalized the greed for ultimate power and control over others as the only way to find purpose in her identity as a clone, and is therefore a shell built by patriarchy, and as fragile as one. (A nautilus, if you will. Points if you get the reference). Ferdinand claims to love Rachel, but what he loves is the violence of their relationship, the power play that makes both of them, presumably, feel stronger.
In this season so far, Rachel seems to be going through a shift and does not want to engage with Ferdinand in the same way she did before. She is calmer. She tries to get him to do a tantric meditation with her and he can't stay still for long. He wants, needs, the power and dominance. He gets angry. And the person who is in front of him when his anger erupts is MK. She shares a face with Rachel. That is enough.
I won't describe what happens in this scene. It is too brutal and devastating. It's the most violent act I've yet seen on this show. If you've seen it, you know.
Here's the thing about Ferdinand. He's been an enemy and uneasy ally to the sestras but has always acted from his dark core of hate. His character is a fantastic emblem of what toxic masculinity and patriarchal structure can reap. He is that many-headed monster; he can't be trusted, but through charm, expressing vulnerability (remember the bomb-chair?) and mundane domestic acts like omelette-making and witty jokes, he slithers his tentacles into people- mainly women- who know better, who are in fact more powerful than him, and manipulates them in invisible ways. The grim irony of MK's death is that without Sarah, without Mrs. S, even without MK herself, Ferdinand would not be alive.
"Clutch of Greed" is more than apt as a title for the episode in which Ferdinand murders MK. It's a scene that continues in the footsteps of previous scenes like Henrik's insemination of "brood-mares" including Helena and his own daughter and Seth and Rudy's sexual assault of Willa Earp (sorry I mean Patty) in previous seasons. These scenes are unapologetic reflections of horrors many dare not address- horrors that a patriarchal cultural paradigm enables, and which the same paradigm silences discussion around. My favorite thing about Orphan Black is its ability to be part of the conversation around the darkest realities of patriarchy without sacrificing women in the process. The Leda sisters are victims in many ways, but they are not weak. The victim narrative is almost always tainted with weakness. These women are mighty and essential.
I'm looking forward to the next eight weeks of the trip, as much as I can't accept that I will need to let this story go after that. (Especially because of my little hunch that Cophine will get a heartbreakingly beautiful happy ending, but I digress). See you back here in two weeks, with some more meaty themes and discussion! (Because when doesn't this show deliver on that?)