How to solve a problem like Helena?

This post will contain spoilers for Orphan Black seasons 1-3, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 3-9 (yes, including the comic book continuations to a point), and Angel seasons 1-4. And, it turns out in the writing of it, Being Human series 1-3 (the UK version).

I had originally planned to write this blog after the penultimate episode of Orphan Black season 3 (“Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow”), but I watched it too late in the week and so I waited until I’d seen the finale. The finale doesn’t change much of what I have to say, although it does provide a fun quote and some additional material. What I have to say is this: Helena is becoming a problem. Here is why.

In the first season of Orphan Black we are slowly introduced to characters who would later become the focus of the show: we begin with Sarah, who leads us (briefly) to Beth; Sarah next encounters Alison over the phone, who leads her first (again, briefly) to Katja and then to Cosima. In continuing to take on Beth’s identity, Sarah then encounters Helena – the mysterious assassin who killed Katja and several other clones. When Helena is introduced in the tellingly titled “Variation Under Nature”, her experiences and life have made her completely different to the other clones – or so it seems. Her violent behaviour and ruthlessness in dispatching her fellow clones, whom she has been raised to believe are soulless monsters (like her), is completely at odds with the behaviour to the rest of Clone Club, who are just struggling to keep themselves alive.

One of the key ideas Orphan Black expects its viewers to think about while watching is epigenetics, or nature versus nurture. When we meet the woman who gave birth to both Sarah and Helena she explains how she hid her children: one for the state and one for the church. Helena’s upbringing among abusive nuns, before she was adopted by the particular cult which sent her after her “sestra” clones, is presented as the reason why she behaves as she does. She has closer affinity to the clones of Project Castor, raised to be soldiers, than the Clone Club of Project Leda, raised in civilian life.

Rudy: “Do you remember your childhood?”

Helena: “Every minute.”

Rudy: “I remember sleeping, my brothers breathing in unison. We’d sleepwalk out of bed and then pile up in the corner like puppies.”

Helena: “When I was nine I was made to shoot puppy.”

Rudy: “We’re just like you, Helena.”

Orphan Black, Season 3, Episode 10: “History Yet To Be Written”.

Unlike Helena, few of the Castor boys are given much of a chance to redeem themselves. Perhaps this is because the others in Clone Club see too much of themselves in Helena. Despite lacking Helena’s abusive background, Alison manages to stand by while Aynsley Norris chokes to death right in front of her. Sarah tries to kill only one person – Helena herself – and fails, and perhaps it is guilt which leads her to fight to preserve Helena in the future. While Cosima isn’t known to have killed anybody, she helps design the contraption Sarah uses to stick a pencil in Rachel’s eye – and Rachel herself can be ruthless towards the other clones. compound these actions with the revelation that the original genetic material used to create both Castor and Leda clones comes from a person convicted for aggravated homicide and the conclusion that in the world of Orphan Black violent behaviour is genetic seems almost inescapable.

Helena remains the worst offender. As Paul points out while Sarah and Helena are in Castor’s captivity, she’s a violent murderer and should not be trusted. And every time it looks like she’s out of that life – that she “walks a different path” – she gets pulled back in. Killing Henrik Johanssen and burning the Prolethian farm to the ground. Killing the drug dealers who threaten Alison and Donnie’s children. Then, rather than settling down to think about how Helena might need help, the Clone Club uses her as bait to occupy Rudy, fighting and wounding him before he dies of his illness. In fact, Donnie’s response to witnessing Helena murder four people is to find the boy she once met in a bar and bringing him home to meet her. There’s something almost comically irresponsible about the character’s relationship with her sestra – Helena is the show’s comic relief, who occasionally violently murders people (indeed, before killing Pouchy and friends in season 3 episode 9, “Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow”, she has largely provided jokes).

This unwillingness to confront the consequences of murder on the murderer feels like a common theme in pop culture, particularly SFF. Take DC’s decision in the 1940s that none of their superheroes would kill – particularly relevant to Batman – despite the fact that a lot of the violence they do would almost certainly kill real people. The decision was made over fears about the impact violent comic books would have on children, but one wonders if depicting the actual consequences of violence might not be a better tactic. Oliver Queen/Green Arrow has provided something of an exception to this rule, particularly (I am led to understand) in the television series Arrow, where Queen is an unrepentant killer – at least to begin with. In the BBC’s supernatural show Being Human there was a similar inability to deal with characters who are murderers, repeating their actions, and what friends should do about them. Their solution was ultimately that the vampire had to die.

But my main purpose was to compare Helena’s arc to the same story done better. There are two examples of the repentant killer in the Buffyverse, but Faith is a much better example than Angel. Angel has killed for centuries, but his actions are changed by the application of a soul. Faith always had a soul, and thus (by Buffyverse logic), is capable of redemption (as explained in Angel, season 1 episode 18, “Five by Five”). The soul is metaphor, not metaphysics – it represents willingness to stand up and be a good person. Furthermore, Faith’s character development parallels that of Helena and the rest of Project Leda (particularly Sarah): she begins as “the road not taken” by Buffy, the Slayer who makes all the wrong decisions. She’s not quite a clone of Buffy, but she shoulders the same responsibility. And she kills, twice – once accidentally and once on the instructions of her evil boss, the Mayor of Sunnydale.

The problem presented by Faith is first solved by violence: she and Buffy fight, and Buffy stabs her. After falling off a building onto a truck, Faith survives (she’s a Slayer) but ends up in a coma for eight months. When she awakens, she’s angry and alone – she has some fun at Buffy’s expense, before running off to Los Angeles where she is hired by evil law firm Wolfram and Hart to murder Angel. Several options preset themselves for dealing with Faith: the Watcher’s Council of Great Britain wants (first) to take her into custody for re-education, before resolving that murder is probably their best bet; Cordelia opts for killing Faith, with which Wesley first disagrees (she has a soul!) but then comes around after Faith spends some time torturing him (and speculating on whether his influence turned her bad, which seems unlikely). When Buffy shows up, she’s quite clear: jail (although she probably means prison). Angel doesn’t seem to know what he thinks, but he certainly has an idea about what Faith is going through. He basically sits down with her, encouraging her to question every decision and how she wants her life to be. When Faith turns herself in it’s her decision – and it has to be. What kind of prison could keep a Slayer against her will?

Faith was a pretty major character in the Buffyverse, despite appearing in only twenty episodes of Buffy and a further six of Angel (Helena has already appeared in more of Orphan Black). She had to be brought back for the finale, and we are shown how useless a prison was at keeping her when she realised that she was needed outside. This need is extremely unlikely in the real world, of course, as is a prison break as spontaneous and easy as Faith’s; but ultimately there was just more to do with Faith as a character than had been explored in her arc thus far. For someone with Faith’s powers and responsibilities, sitting in prison wasn’t really redemption, even if it was punishment. Whether or not there was enough material for the proposed Faith spin-off we’ll never know, but I certainly believe that her story is the one most worth telling in the expanded Buffyverse. While Buffy’s role is largely as a leader who makes the right decisions (not unlike Sarah in Orphan Black, except that Buffy is better at it), Faith has made serious mistakes and is the one who tries to help others not make those mistakes – or help get through them when the do make them. Put simply, Faith has done things and experienced things which have made her grow and develop as a character. Her need to resist violence and her decision at the end of No Future for You to forgo it in favour of helping other damaged young girls is important. Helena has not had this opportunity. Or, at least, it has never been presented as such.

No-one in the Buffyverse besides Angel and occasionally Giles ever seems to trust that Faith can redeem herself. It’s not a new experience for Faith that no-one has any faith in her. For Helena, there are almost no dissenting voices and where there are – Paul and Mrs. S – their views are  presented as being in the wrong, or at least unfair, and are unconsidered by the rest of the Clone Club. Sarah spends the bulk of season 3 looking for Helena, before being betrayed by her (albeit temporarily); Donnie is briefly annoyed that it’s his and Alison’s turn to look after the “psycho”, but bonds with her over soap-making and, uh, crime; when Mrs. S takes some time to actually interrogate Helena over how she plans to raise her science baby, Mrs. S still comes across as the bad guy, despite the fact that she and Paul have largely been right. While their views perhaps come a little too close to the Watcher’s Council (take her into captivity, get her out-of-the-way), Orphan Black has no Angel to seriously sit down with Helena and try to figure out what is best for her. Even soap-making hasn’t taken her away from killing people. But the other Leda clones still seem to think that the best way forwards is to keep Helena with them, to protect her, rather than helping her or stopping her – indeed, they exploit her by getting her to do their fighting and killing. They have too much faith in her.

One wonders how Helena’s story can pan out in the next season of Orphan Black. Her arc in the first two seasons was actually quite interesting, and it is only as it goes on and on that it becomes clear that no-one seems to know what to do with her. One of the problems with the show is its frenetic pace – how can anyone spend any time thinking about Helena when they have all that running around to do? But I hope that in the future the Clone Club spend a little more time thinking about how to help their sestra, and a little less time facilitating her brutality.


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