Warning! This article contains spoilers for the first season of Orphan Black.
If you’re an avid reader of the site, a social media maven, or pop culture junkie, you’ve probably heard of Orphan Black by now: our own writer Christina wrote about it for our September On Our List feature; the show’s fandom, Clone Club, has taken Tumblr by storm; and Tatiana Maslany, the show’s star, has rocketed into the spotlight since the show’s March premiere, beating out Emmy award winner Claire Danes to take home the 2013 Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Drama Actress.
If you’ve been inspired by any or all of these things to watch the show—or if you’ve been watching the whole time!—you’re aware that one of the elements at play in its core is the conflict of nature vs. nurture. It’s something that’s manipulated throughout Orphan Black’s 10-episode first season. With the clones alone, for example: Katja and Cosima are sick; Alison may be an alcoholic; Helena is homicidal, but Helena was raised by a church practitioner who, it’s implied, practiced mortification of the flesh; and Helena and Sarah, while both clones, are moreover twins, one given to the church and one to the state. In an age of genome mapping, when the increasing knowledge of our genes has led rise to a new sort of fatalism, who we are as dictated by our genetics is a growing fixation.
This fixation on where to attribute the origins of people’s traits is a discourse Orphan Black’s writers—some of the best in the business—have taken great care to integrate into the show. It affects the characters too, resulting in implications for all of Maslany’s seven-plus clones. One of them, Cosima Niehaus, identifies as bisexual, but rather than define Cosima’s storyline by her sexuality and the question it presents with regard to the other clones, Orphan Black describes sexuality’s place in the nature vs. nurture debate simply. “As a scientist,” says Delphine Cormier, Cosima’s love interest, “I know that sexuality is a spectrum. But, you know, social biases … codify attraction contrary to the biological facts.” This is all there is to be said on the matter.
Instead of her sexuality, Cosima’s storyline focuses in part on her relationship with Delphine. It’s a relationship in which the primary concern is not that it’s between two women, but that it’s complicated. Their relationship is oft celebrated amongst the show’s viewers, and in some ways rightfully so. A big part of last month’s LGBTQ Issue was the importance of visibility, and in a show like Orphan Black, whose name was so heavily circulated this past awards season, visibility for LGBTQ-identified women is fantastic.
It’s particularly encouraging because of both Cosima’s bisexuality—bisexual erasure, even in the LGBTQ community, is a huge issue—and Delphine’s willingness to acknowledge her fluidity despite having formerly identified as heterosexual. To see all that in a relationship between two women, especially one whose central conflict isn’t about being LGBTQ? For relatively mainstream media, that’s lightning in a bottle.
It’s easy, then, to understand why viewers are celebrating the Cosima-Delphine relationship. The visibility the show offers and the treatment it gives their relationship is something to be celebrated. Such a relationship’s continuance is something to be desired. However, while the visibility inherent in the Cosima-Delphine relationship is, in the media, something to aspire to, it doesn’t so follow that the actual relationship between the two characters is something to aspire to in one’s own relationship. It doesn’t absolve Delphine either, making her a perfect or even ideal partner. Cosima and Delphine’s relationship is perfectly aligned with Orphan Black’s narrative and greater thematic arcs, but it’s also one around which viewers have constructed their own mythos: that the Cosima-Delphine relationship is the healthy LGBTQ relationship we’ve all been waiting for.
Delphine is Cosima’s monitor. She’s meant to oversee Cosima as a clone and as property.
Even after Delphine rejoins Cosima in the season finale, Delphine is quick to recite “324b21,” or what is, essentially, Cosima’s serial code, as Cosima decodes her own DNA. Even if Delphine has fallen in love with Cosima—the jury’s still out, and will be until Orphan Black’s return—this moment serves as a reminder that whatever the state of their relationship now, it started out as something potentially far more sinister. It started out as Delphine watching over her boyfriend’s property, identifying Cosima not as a person and not by her name but as an object to be owned. What else are serial numbers for?
Monitoring Cosima is Delphine’s first and foremost responsibility. It’s why she meets Cosima, and it’s because of that responsibility that she first pursues Cosima and forges a friendship. We later see her attempt to apologize after Cosima discovers her identity as a colleague of Dr. Leekie’s, but at the core of all true apologies is action. By the season’s end, while we see Delphine presenting herself as Cosima’s ally and assisting in the decipherment of Cosima’s DNA, we never explicitly see Delphine’s departure from Leekie and the rest of the Neolutionists. We have no way of knowing whether or not Delphine’s apology was sincere, because everything we see between Delphine and Cosima post-fallout is what Delphine chooses to show Cosima.
Other monitors have made their allegiances explicit. We’ve seen Paul directly defy Neolutionists, and we’ve seen Donnie directly reporting to Leekie. In the case of Delphine, we’ve seen neither. We’ve simply seen her follow Cosima all the way to a different country after Cosima left after their confrontation, and proceed to help her uncover information about the clones that they would inevitably discover, given the implications of the Neolutionists’ contracts.
Could Delphine be well-intentioned? Certainly. Do she and Cosima have a healthy relationship? No. But neither do Paul and Sarah, nor do Alison and Donnie. The same stands for the show’s non-romantic relationships: Sarah and her daughter, Kira, hardly have a healthy relationship either. Visibility for healthy LGBTQ couples is crucial, but at this point in the show’s development, calling Cosima and Delphine’s relationship healthy is a disservice. So is saying a healthy relationship belongs on Orphan Black.
That the Cosima-Delphine relationship is dubious at best is typical of the show. None of its relationships are clear-cut, and no one individual’s nature is obvious. That Cosima and Delphine’s relationship is included in such ominous company instead of being hung up on the is-she-or-isn’t-she of it all is, for Orphan Black, that real thing we’ve been waiting for. So let’s sit back and enjoy the ride.
Hannah Pingleton is the resident LGBTQ Writer for Girls in Capes. You can find her on Twitter@hannahpings.