What do you think of when you think of a female monster?
“I also had pleasant day. I went working and shopping," Helena says to an imaginary companion across the table, midway through season one of BBC America’s Orphan Black. She’s alone in the kitchen eating contraband chicken. The effect is blisteringly funny and winds back around to sad. We forget, for a long second, that we’re watching a serial killer.
Helena is the "twin clone" of Orphan Black's protagonist Sarah Manning: Legend has it the embryo split in their surrogate mother's womb and they’re mirror images of each other. (Helena’s heart is even on the “wrong” side.) This might at first seem to place her in the tradition of the Evil Twin in fiction, and sure enough, she’s been stalking and killing her fellow clones in Europe. Prior to killing a target, she dyes a Barbie’s hair to match the victim’s and beheads it. (Choosing the most reproduced doll in America to represent her clone sisters is pretty brilliant.) She’s terrifying. BUT what’s surprising is that she’s also funny, wishful, and guileless. She strays from the confines of malevolence; She might be a murderer, but she loves Jell-O and wants you to take her to lunch.
Orphan Black is known for its slick plotting and tornado speed, but Helena's complexity is the show's most interesting innovation—she is that rare species, the Redeemable Female Monster. Helena's male counterpart is relatively common in our fictional wilds — Frankenstein, Edward Cullen, Shrek, the Beast in Beauty and The Beast, and the Phantom from the The Phantom of the Opera all qualify as sometime evildoers capable of redemption. But instead of female monsters we tend to get languishing victims, saints, witches, and the Kill Bill–style avenging fury. Though there’s been a recent fad of sympathetically retelling witch stories —Maleficent, Elphaba in Wicked, the witch in Into the Woods — those reclamations work by downplaying the qualities that made them scary. We don’t get female Stringer Bells or Walter Whites.
This is a symptom of a broader tendency to force female pop-culture figures into easy categories — most notably the Strong Female Character. At first glance, Helena might seem too extreme to be a part of the usual conversations about manic pixie dream girls and ice-queen businesswomen and sassy best friends. But within the horror genre, she's doing her part to counteract the feminine conventions we're used to seeing onscreen.
Feminine horror is often depicted as a function of feminine trauma—Carrie in Carrie, or the revenge-seeking ghost of Mary Feur in What Lies Beneath— and the early episodes of Orphan Black seem to fit this pattern. After Sarah stabs Helena in the abdomen, for instance, Helena sort of “unrapes” herself by pulling the phallic bar out and sewing herself up in a parody of a (conventionally feminine) seamstress. This is the kind of familiar symbolism that makes you think you've got a handle on Helena. (There are other familiar horror devices too: the cutting, the shrieky soundtrack, the jump scares, the jealousy over who gets to be the Original.) But she’s also weirdly unsexualized. Unlike The Exorcist, which has Regan masturbating with a crucifix, or American Horror Story: Coven, where Zoe liquefies men's brains through sex and Madison wreaks revenge on her rapists by using her powers to overturn the bus, neither Helena's obsession nor her revenge is sex-based. She spends a lot of time covered in blood, her own and others’, but it's never (for example) menstrual blood — kind of amazing for a show built around the trilogy of technology, religion, and female reproduction. There are no vagina dentata here, no fetishized virginity.
Neither is Helena reducible to the story of her abuse — she's a Laura Palmer who refuses to die. Yes, she’s been raped, cut, stabbed, and shot. Her lips have been stitched shut. She has lived in a cage. Her eggs have been harvested. She cut a tail off a man and killed her mother and sisters. And yet the show — while recognizing her monstrosity and fully realizing her potential to inflict terror — doesn’t place her beyond hope. Her superpower isn’t her femininity but her ability to occupy both sides of the horror script: monster and victim.
In horror, once a person has been cast as a victim, a victim they remain — or at best, a deeply damaged survivor. In Orphan Black, the victim becomes the monster becomes the victim again with bewildering and humorous ease. Just when you think you’ve settled, the camera cocks its head, says “don’t be baby,” and refuses to let things be so simple. The camera confounds our relationship to Helena by seesawing the horror script, and in doing so, makes us rethink what a female monster can be. You're forced to shift your sympathies on a shot-by-shot basis.
To see this in action, let’s start with Helena’s boots. Helena often gets shot boots-first, and it almost always signifies horror. We see her army boots, and then we see her doing something awful: stitching herself up, or stalking someone, or about to attack.
But the most interesting boot scene starts in a hospital corridor, after we thought Helena was dead from Sarah’s gunshot:
There’s blood on the soles. We hear the Helena soundtrack, and then we get the monster-Helena shot: She’s an actual zombie:
But then she falls and the camera goes rogue. It literally slides up from her boots, the icons of Helena horror — there they are in the foreground — to her face.
AND THEN THE CAMERA GOES INSIDE HER EYES. We see what Helena sees: first the blur of a helpful nurse, then a man walking down the hallway. Her gaze focuses, and then, horror.
BOOM. Helena is the victim in the horror flick instead of the monster.
It would be cool enough if this were a permanent flip from “bad” to “good.” If Orphan Black were interested in redeeming a monster or making the tired point that monsters are people, too, that would be fine, though it’s been done before.
But that’s not what the show’s doing: Helena may be redeemable, but she’s never permanently redeemed. The camera keeps flipping perspectives and the lens won’t let Helena rest in non-monstrosity.
Take the scene when Grace — a foil for Helena, also raised to hate clones for religious reasons — tries to kill her. Helena fights briefly and pretends to die. Grace walks away from dead Helena in a shot we’ve come to recognize as the beat before a jump-scare, and sure enough, Helena chokes her from behind, grinning. The monster is back, but not for long: Once Grace tells Helena they’ve both been impregnated by Hank, the camera repositions her again. Here she is, brooding (pun intended). This is a big moment — the clones are famous for their impulsivity, and we don’t often see them thinking. It’s a deeply sympathetic shot, gently lit. It could be a Dutch painting.
Compare its flavor to this other incredible shot of Helena, at another point in her captivity:
The second shot is from before we knew her. We see her back, we see her wings, we see her pain. The light is blue and painterly, but in another style entirely. It bears no relation whatsoever to the image before it, which shows us not a sacred body in torment, the female figure in pain, but a thoughtful, intelligent, distressed human face.
That these are both shots of the same incredibly complex character in a show that has already set itself the task of differentiating one actress into several different clones testifies to Orphan Black’s ambition. And it works: Helena is both of these images, but because she is both, she’s also neither. She slips out of the tethers we associate variously with rape victim, monster, avenging fury and becomes something else entirely.
“Do I look like I’m trying to be funny?” she says to Hank, whom she’s strapped into the very stirrups he used to inseminate her and Grace with his offspring.
“How do they make babies?”
And then she anally inseminates her rapist.
As her victim screams, she laughs delightedly. It's horrifying, but this isn't the evil cackling villain trope. She sounds happy and we're invited to be happy with her. Helena has suffered more than any of the other clones, and it’s key to her character that she — over and above the other clones who have more to fear and more to lose — has fun.
If Helena’s a symbol, she’s a symbol whose weight crashes the system out over and over again because her guiding principle keeps reducing, really improbably, to fun. She’s a Madonna who shushes you as you slip in her bloody footprints, a Huck Finn trying every drink for the first time, an avenging bride who grins as she strangles and laughs as she rapes. She’ll also — and without the slightest sense of contradiction — offer you chicken, sing “Sugar, Sugar,” and improvise endless schemas of hope, of “pleasant days,” of “working and shopping.” If she were raised to be a myth — the "original" clone — now she raises an eyebrow at every superstition we try to saddle her with: bloodier than Carrie, freakier than Norman Bates, she swaps a vibrant belly-laugh for Laura Palmer's dead-girl smile.