Questions of Identity in Dollhouse and Orphan Black

Leads of Dollhouse and Orphan Black
Leads Echo (left) and Sarah Manning (right) of Dollhouse and Orphan Black

Who am I? This fundamental question has persisted since primitive man first grunted at his reflection in a body of water. It plagues Jean Valjean of Les Miserables as he stands before his imprisoner, Javert. It elicits paranoia and chaos in sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It launches off Julia Roberts’ shallow attempt to “find herself” in Eat Pray Love. One might be hard-pressed to name a narrative which does not explore identity in some capacity. The list of stories that tackle this question come off the tongue faster than Renes Descartes can say, “Cogito ergo sum.” For television series Dollhouse and Orphan Black, however, “Who am I?” serves as a beating heart.

The similarities between these two shows are striking. Both require versatile lead actresses capable of slipping into a wide variety of roles. Both concern the control corporations exert over individuals and their bodies. There are also of course the broader resemblances: gray areas in morality and science, hints of a bleak dystopian future, and the age-old subject audiences and creators gravitate towards again and again – identity.

Dollhouse Chair
The chair used to imprint dolls with new identities.

For those not in the know, Dollhouse, created by Joss Whedon, is a sci-fi series about a secret establishment that hires humans (dolls/Actives) out to wealthy customers. Dolls are imprinted with personalities and skills designed to match the needs and requests of clients, whether romantic, criminal, or otherwise. Once imprinted, they assume the identity programmed for them – memories, allergies, talents, fears, and other qualities unique to an individual. Actives do not play roles or pretend – they become the individual mapped into their brains. Head of the Los Angeles division Adelle Dewitt explains this phenomenon to a potential client seeking love. In her pitch, she says, “If you engage an Active, he or she will see you and totally, romantically, chemically fall in utter and unexpected love with you.” After an engagement, they return to the Dollhouse, their memories and personalities wiped as they emerge in blank, infantile slates.

Sarah Orphan Black
Sarah Manning witnesses the suicide of her clone, Beth Childs.

The premise of Orphan Black, created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, while just as intriguing, is much easier to explain. Since the series is ongoing, viewers do not yet have all the answers. Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), a crafty hustler, witnesses the suicide of Beth, a woman who looks identical to her (surprise, Tatiana Maslany). She assumes Beth’s identity and begins to unravel a treacherous mystery involving clones and human experimentation.

The shaky moral ground Dollhouse operates in regards to identity is evident from the beginning of the series. Dolls voluntarily sign their lives and identities over to the Rossum Corporation for five years. In return, they receive a solution to difficult problems in their lives as well as a vast sum of money at the end of their contracts. Once they leave the Dollhouse, their original personalities are returned to them and they retain no memory or knowledge of their five-year stint. Protagonist Echo (Eliza Dushku) is a glitching doll who possesses a unique ability to remember pieces of her various engagements, even after her mind is wiped. Throughout the series, she becomes gradually cognizant and self-aware as she attempts to restore her original identity, Caroline Farrell.

Echo’s memory of her multiple engagements and identities leads to a sense of fractured self. Who is she? She is Rebecca Mynor, wife to an internet billionare. She is Taffy, an expert criminal vault cracker. She is a midwife, a spy, a hostage negotiator, an assassin, and more, each with their own histories and personalities. Caroline Farrell’s earlier sentiment in a video yearbook bears a strong element of dramatic irony when she tells the camera, “What can I say? I want to do everything.”

Echo imprinted as an assassin.
Echo imprinted as an assassin.

The Dollhouse’s artificial approach to personal identity leads to further questions. Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), lead programmer of the Dollhouse, constructs personalities based on facets of existing persons and saves them on a hard drive. Caroline condemns his actions, saying, “You can’t program people. We’re not frigging computers.” Topher responds, “Not that different. Our brains are natural motherboards. Everything we think, feel, do – electrical impulses fired by the brain.” If the state of our very being can be designed and reduced to a binary, just how special is the notion of human identity?

Whiskey as Dr. Claire Saunders
Whiskey as Dr. Claire Saunders

The character of Claire Saunders becomes one means of exploring this question. A doctor at the Dollhouse, Claire undergoes a severe identity crisis upon discovering that she is actually a doll named Whiskey. The imprint of Dr. Saunders is based on the personality of a deceased male physician, with certain alterations added by Topher. In spite of her revelation, Claire shies away from learning about her true identity, saying, “I know who I am.” However, the idea that this identity is not entirely her own continues to haunt her. Claire expresses her agony to Topher, saying, “I’m not even real. I’m in someone else’s body, and I’m afraid to give it up.” To tweak Descartes’ famed phrase into a different direction, “I think I am someone, therefore I am.” By finding out the person she is has been artificially constructed, the reality Claire perceives has been shattered. The technology of the Dollhouse complicates her dilemma further. Claire does not fully live in an illusion – she has the traits, skills, anxieties, and other attributes of Claire Saunders. In her attempts to remain blissfully ignorant, she is Claire Saunders – it is the only life she knows.

Orphan Black explores identity by broaching the subject of nature versus nurture. The clones Sarah discovers of herself grow up in vastly different environments and have a wide variety of personalities. Sarah Manning is a rebellious punk. Beth Childs is a detective. Alison Hendrix is a soccer mom. Cosima Niehaus is a biology geek. Helena is a trained killer as well as Sarah’s twin sister. The divide between Sarah and Helena becomes especially notable in presenting the classic twin studies of environmental and genetic influences on identity. Although she has an estranged relationship with her foster mother, Mrs. S, Sarah is raised in a relatively normal household. Meanwhile, Helena is kidnapped by a religious extremist named Tomas and trained to kill her clones. As we uncover her origins, the reasons for Helena’s erratic and psychotic behavior become increasingly clear.

Sarah with clones Alison and Cosima
Sarah with clones Alison and Cosima

The program also explores what it means to take on a new identity. In order to uncover the mystery of her clones, Sarah Manning infiltrates the life of deceased clone, Beth Childs, adopting her accent, living situation, and career. Unlike the actives of Dollhouse, she is playing a part and retains the memory of her ordeals. Several conflicts within the series arise from the risk of Sarah’s facade being discovered. In her subterfuge, Sarah quickly becomes invested in her role, engaging in sexual encounters with Beth’s boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce) and developing relationships with her clone’s friends and co-workers. The problems Beth escaped in her suicide now catch up to Sarah instead. As Beth, Sarah is subject to an investigation in regards to the shooting of a civilian named Maggie Chen. The various components of Beth Childs’ life that begin to surface lead Sarah to gain a deep sense of respect and understanding for a woman she has never truly met. After discovering Sarah’s masquerade, Beth’s partner, Art (Kevin Hanchard), is able to appeal to the once selfish con artist’s sense of duty for the truth: “Sarah, my partner killed herself and I didn’t see it coming. Help me. Help Beth. I know you care.” In roleplaying a cop, the streetwise hustler grows into a more responsible woman. The identity she assumes has influenced her own.

Sarah Manning as Beth Childs
Sarah Manning as Beth Childs

The implications of cloning itself raise further discourse concerning identity. The clones have each carved out their own unique lives and personalities. However, the fact that they are biologically and genetically copies of one another disrupts their perceptions of self. The Clone Club (a group of Sarah’s clones seeking answers) formulates the following code: “Just one, I’m a few. No family, too. Who am I?” The identical fragments of their DNA partially link the clones in terms of identity. “I’m a few.” To be Sarah is to be Beth is to be Cosima and so on. Where are the lines of the individual drawn? As a fully cognizant Echo says in regards to her multiple identities, “We’re not anything. We’re not anybody because we are everybody.”

Orphan Black‘s approach to cloning, however, does allow for variance in portions of the clones’ genomes. Cosima’s analysis of their genetic makeup leads her to discover distinctive tag numbers in these genomes as well as the patents placed on them by their creators. The notion of identity as a synthetic construct appears yet again. While the nature aspect of the clones is currently uncharted territory, the patents and tag numbers in their bodies certainly indicate something artificial. Questions of how much their natures have been preplanned by their creators serve as ripe material for the show’s second season. If this is the case, we may find echoes of Topher’s brain-mapping and programming from Dollhouse. Shots of the office headed by clone Rachel Duncan are already reminiscent of Dollhouse‘s Rossum Corporation.

Topher Brink driven mad by the consequences of his technology.
Topher Brink driven mad by the consequences of his technology.

Orphan Black‘s bleak filming style and storyline shows hints of approaching the unsettling future which unfolds in Dollhouse‘s “Epitaph” episodes. “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two” jump forward to a point in time where individuals must protect their identities at all costs. In the face of uncontrollable mind-wiping technology, the survivors of this apocalyptic wasteland struggle to retain who they are. Forming “birthmarks,” they tattoo their names on themselves (“I am Priya Tsetsang,” “I am Iris Miller,” etc.) in order to distinguish themselves from those imprinted with artificial identities. The “Neolution” cited on Orphan Black runs along the same vein of Dollhouse‘s technology by pushing similar legal and ethical boundaries.

While the identity horror of Dollhouse‘s endgame has been shown to us, the future of the Orphan Black universe remains uncertain. What could be the consequences and implications of this cloning technology? These scientific advancements are not far off from the real world, where the controversy on gene patenting rages on. (Look no further than recent Supreme Court case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, in which gene patents were ruled invalid.) Meanwhile, consider the study by Susumu Tonegawa in which a false memory was planted in a rat’s brain. Tonegawa and his team controlled brain cells in the mouse hippocampus by exposing them to blue light, a process eerily similar to the epifluorescent chair used by Topher in Dollhouse.

The allegorical nature of Dollhouse and Orphan Black delves into the roots of society’s fears and anxiety in regards to the self. These shows explore the loss and alteration of identity, deconstruct notions of individuality, and operate in universes that threaten self-ownership. Now the fundamental questions begin to shift. What does it mean to be you? What does it mean to say the words, “I am…”? The answers may be murkier than ever.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Suzette Sparrow

    Just finished watching the two seasons of Dollhouse on netflix and loved it. Thought the concepts were great and original. Can anyone recommend other movies or tv shows or books, with similar themes / concepts? I am still to watch Orphan Black.

    • Roberge

      George Alec Effinger wrote some books in the late 80s and early 90s where people could get an implant that allowed them to plug in modules that would give them specific skills (like a foreign language or accounting) or a completely different personality (you could be James Bond for example). They are called When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss.

    • Gunslinger Girl – Anime/Manga – Discusses programmed child assassins and incorporates elements where their bodies are artificial and drugged to give them better abilities but shorter lives. They have handlers like in Dollhouse and the concept is quite dark.

    • Darker Than Black is an excellent anime, in which there are characters referred to as Dolls. Just as in this show, they are people who have had their original memories wiped and are reprogrammed. The main doll works with the characters on the show as sort of their spy, who has eyes everywhere in the form of “surveillance spectres”. I’ve always thought Whedon possibly took the idea from that show and sort of expanded on it, especially considering the main doll, Yin, slowly begins remembering things from her past and is considered broken, much like Echo.

    • Omer Melton

      The legendary sci-fi book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is titularly about a similar concept of programming the brain through video/audio input, although much of the book deals with other stuff.

    • Some of C J Cherryh’s works explore the idea of “memories” and skills being acquired by way of a kind of programming which is described in a wiki* as “a computer-controlled combination of conditioning and biofeedback training”.

  2. It’s really a shame that you have to search for good TV instead of being presented it to you. I keep trying to get my friends into both Dollhouse and Orphan Black but every one of them is anxious because they “haven’t heard of it.”

    • Gutierrez

      I started the pilot of Orphan a few months back and watched the entire show in two days! I tried to get others to watch it as well but because they’ve never heard if it many decided against it. They’re missing out. I managed to get one to watch and he really enjoyed it but never go passed the second episode because I wasn’t with him to watch it. It’s so sad people just don’t give it a try.

  3. Johnny Robbins

    Started watching Orphan Black and can’t say enough good things about it. I always discover good shows late. With Fringe, I was going through a hectic time in my life during most of the years it played on regular TV. I heard it was good, but just didn’t have the time or energy to get into it. With Battlestar Galactica, I’d heard it was good since the very beginning, but I got so behind with it that it was confusing.

    It was on my ‘to watch’ list for a long time and I finally decided to go for it. It’s almost like reading a 1000 page novel. Since every episode directly leads to the next one and little is resolved until the end, it is very addictive when you have accesss to the whole thing.

  4. Darcie Coffin

    I like the premise of Dollhouse. Its fantastic story is entertaining and some of the actors are just incredible. The actor who play Victor is on par with Marlon Brando, he is just that good. But it has the Joss Wheldon effect over it – the same I noticed in Firefly. You are never afraid of people dying or someone getting hurt. It feels like reading a comic book. You just think it’s entertaining when someone gets hurt.

  5. kendrick

    The writing in Orphan Black need improving. Some of the dialog is good, but generally only between Felix and the clones. Also some of the bitchy female cops lines about being interested in cadavers are pretty good. But the rest is everything but good.

    • EffieMulligan

      Dialog is hardly everything. The show writers created interesting characters, and not just one of them either, situations pregnant with possibilities, great twists and above all, wrote a smart show about identity and pre-determination, the complexity of ethics in science and what makes us who we are as individuals.

  6. Brandon

    I love the epitaph episodes of DH.

    It’s believable that the dollhouse technology could result in the near-total collapse of the human race.

  7. Robert Humphrey

    In one of my university classes, we took an academic look at Dollhouse. We discussed some of the issues you brought up here. On top of it being a good show, there’s a lot of rich material there to look at in depth. Orphan Black is brilliantly amazing. I’m anxiously awaiting season 2.

  8. PerkAlert

    Very well-written article! It reminded me of a favorite quote, “Freedom can be taken away, but not knowledge” (something like that) from the movie Count of Monte Cristo. This line doesn’t exactly relate to your article, but it goes along with the idea that your identity can be taken away. I loved how Dollhouse explored this idea (and in such a unique way!! Kudos to the brilliant Joss Whedon), and I’d love to watch Orphan Black now too. I wonder if you could take this analysis a step further and reflect on East vs. West identities. The Western culture has such ‘individual’ identities, while the East focuses on the community identity. What if you thought of the Dollhouse as the East/the “community” versus the actual identities of the dolls (the ones they’re trying to escape), aka the West? Where should the balance be? I’m probably talking nonsense now, so I’ll just stop. But great article! Oh, and I had no idea about experiment with the blue light and the rat! CREEPILY IRONIC.

  9. Interesting article!

    I’m a big fan of both shows, and I hope that Orphan Black never has to face going through cancellation like the brilliant Dollhouse did. I definitely have to applaud Tatiana Maslany though. Her performance and portrayal of many different clones with many different personalities is just so brilliant that sometimes I forget it’s all one person!

  10. Dollhouse was a terrific series that grew on me by Season 1, ep. 4 and became must-see for the remaining episodes, Season 2, and both Epitaphs. I’m late to Orphan Black but have managed to complete Seasons 1 & 2 within two weeks and started to draw parallels between the two shows right away—both shows deal with the unethical use of science guiding concepts of self. And I’ll just say the reveal during OB’s Season 2 finale was what I suspected all along.

    Where DH had the absolute brilliance of Enver Gjokaj, OB has the stellar performance of Tatiana Maslany. (Victor imprinted with Allison would be a fine performance indeed.)

    Great post! Onto OB Season 3…

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