Once upon a time, years before we came to the city that’s Not Officially Toronto But Come On, It’s Toronto, a woman had two children. As a fugitive from a dangerous secret organization, she had to give them up. One, she decided, to the church, and one to the state. This is the origin story for the two primary protagonists of Orphan Black. Sarah Manning went into foster care, while her sestra Helena went to an orphanage run by nuns in Ukraine.
Helena gets indoctrinated into the Proletheans, an ambiguously Christian sect that serves as one of the major antagonists in the series. The religious motifs around the Proletheans make them terrifying, both with Helena as their assassin and as their prisoner. However, the show misses an opportunity to really dig into the theology of the Proletheans and doesn’t truly engage with any number of religious objections to the biotechnology the show presents as being in our immediate future.
We don’t yet know what the endgame is for the Neolutionists, the show’s cultish scientific organization vigorously pushing the boundaries of the meaning of humanity. Sarah, Helena, and the other clones introduce us to their work via their simple existence, but more is steadily revealed: human-animal hybrids, genetically engineered babies, supersoldiers, and other horrors.
The show makes strong secular arguments about what these experiments mean for each of us as individuals and as humans, but it is frustrating that the religious side of the debate is raised and then ignored. Cloning, after all, raises fundamental questions about the nature of a unique soul. The show need not subscribe to any particular doctrine, and could easily continue to avoid any suggestion of literal divine power; what’s missing is only characters voicing the long history of religious philosophers addressing its central questions.
Instead, we get thin caricatures. Helena’s Prolethean handler is Tomas, who has brainwashed her and tortured her before sending her out to murder the other clones—they are seen as abominations. As we’ve discussed previously, Tomas’s motivations are obscure, to the point of being meaningless. The show’s stance on the clones’ humanity is unambiguous: neither the circumstances of their conceptions nor their common DNA makes them any less human. Murdering them as “abominations” sounds like something a religious fanatic would say, but isn’t linked to any specific theology, even a corrupted one. The Christian Bible makes use of the term “abomination”, but to describe forbidden acts, not individuals. This would allow, perhaps, a campaign against the cloners, but not the clones.
Tomas’s actions echo infanticide of imperfect or otherwise unwanted babies in the ancient world, particularly since the victims are female. These are the exact sort of murders broadly opposed by Abrahamic religions, despite being common in Greece, Rome, and Carthage. There is something potentially interesting in showing the Prolethean transition from their supposed Christian roots to mimicry of Baal-worshippers, but it’s entirely unseen. Orphan Black wants us to see this as an outgrowth of Christianity, rather than a regression to pre-Abrahamic ways, and in so doing, ignores a major ethical tradition.
Tomas is bumped off by another group of Proletheans, led by the depraved Henrik Johansson, who kidnaps Helena and brings her to their compound in the woods. Henrik’s clan leans harder on standard tropes about religious fanatics. The women’s clothes are meant to evoke the garb of rescued cultists, although they are also common in other conservative religious communities. Disobedience is treated with extreme measures: Henrik’s daughter Gracie has her mouth sewn shut. There is also a culture of sexual abuse and incest, as Henrik (artificially) inseminates both Helena and Gracie. The scenes on his compound work very well as horror, and the religious overtones just serve to make Henrik more monstrous. Further, if the Proletheans are opposed to biotechnology, Henrik is a rank hypocrite: he’s merely turning it to his own ends.
Henrik domesticates religious fanaticism—rather than the generically foreign Tomas, he’s a cowboy-style (North) American. He builds a closed society rather than lurking in the shadows of the city. He reverses course with Helena, forcing her to reproduce instead of to kill, and hopes to have his own clone force in the near future. It’s unclear exactly how he’s justifying any of this, other than his own self-righteousness. He is self-aware as far as playing God, customizing not only the next generation of humans but his livestock as well. Still, he claims that it is still part of a divine plan. Whether any part of his doctrine is sincere is left ambiguous.
Ultimately, Henrik’s downfall is linked to the religious values he so perverts. The breaking point is his decision to impregnate his own daughter with an embryo sharing his DNA and Helena’s. The religious taboos around incest are too much to allow this violation, and Helena, Gracie, and Mark escape and destroy the compound. Unlike Tomas, this at least touches on the religious tensions within the Proletheans, but it still avoids a religious response to the fundamental ethical issues of the show—while Gracie’s resistance is heroic and dangerous, a moral stance against incest isn’t particularly daring. We don’t see too much evidence of Henrik threatening, cajoling, or otherwise forcing his followers to accept his ways. We get a flat caricature to let us know the trope we’re dealing with; it’s not clear which atrocities are supposed to be unique to the Proletheans, or just standard issue for fundamentalism. It’s lazy.
There are more sympathetic characters who express religious sentiments, but they oddly avoid applying it to the actual existential matters at hand. Gracie and Helena both maintain some of their Christian upbringing, even after their escape, but it usually touches on fairly mundane matters like sex and prayer. Gracie wants to remain a virgin until marriage, and refuses to abort her father’s child. Helena continues to observe Orthodox Christian traditions, in her own way, praying with icons, as we’ve discussed here before.
Alison Hendrix occasionally interacts with her pastor, who seems very sincere, but is only aware of her substance abuse problems, and intermittently, her criminal tendencies. Alison’s faith is relevant on Orphan Black in the same ways it would be on a show without any cloning. It’s worth depicting the role of faith in overcoming alcoholism and drug addiction, but it’s too easy, and only deals with her more superficial concerns. Alison’s existential anxiety about her own existence may push her to the bottle, and her pastor may bring her back, but he’s locked out of the angst itself. As such, religion seems to be only an aspect of Alison’s upper-middle class status and not a more fundamental part of her psyche.
Perhaps the writers’ reluctance to engage with religious arguments sincerely comes from their cynicism about religious engagement with bioethical issues in real life. It’s not hard to share that cynicism: popular religious discourse about stem cells, end-of-life care, and abortion doesn’t highlight a lot of careful thought, even though in reality, of course, there are those on all sides of these debates who bring in more nuance. But even if it’s lacking elsewhere on TV, Orphan Black suffers when it shies away from those same issues, particularly when it is so eager to show us the bigots and hypocrites that permeate religious fundamentalism.
Some hesitation is to be expected when addressing religious ideas like the sanctity of life in this context; it’s easy to find yourself accused of writing an unintended pro-life allegory of some sort. But Orphan Black misses a chance to dig in and debate the questions it raises about the definition of a human life, about the ethics of risky experimentation when lives hang in the balance, and about the limits of our control over our own bodies. Ignoring religious thought weakens the theological crisis at the center of the show’s world: what do we do when humanity gains the powers of the gods? Even if it doesn’t like the answers that may come from nuns and pastors, the show owes it to itself to engage with those voices. It must finish the conversation it started when it let the Proletheans in.