How 'Orphan Black' Spent 5 Years Fighting The Patriarchy, According To Star Jordan Gavaris
Resistance isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. Right now, we're living through emotionally exhausting events and facing the increasing popularity of ideologies we'd hoped were on the way out. Hope is necessary to keep on putting one foot in front of the other, and so, the series finale of Orphan Black could not have arrived on TV at a better time. (Spoilers ahead.) During its Aug. 12 ending, the BBC America sci-fi series refused to kill off any of its core Leda sisterhood, and while this relatively happy ending may have taken by surprise Clone Club members who were fearing the worst, Jordan Gavaris, who plays Felix Dawkins, says that the show's thesis has always been that Orphan Black's women "are stronger than that of the oppressive hand that was holding them."
"Given the nature of the storytelling throughout the series, we have a lot of death. And we definitely had some very Grecian tragic moments," Gavaris explains, speaking over the phone a few days before the finale. "But I think ultimately, the whole idea was that these women were freeing themselves from this quote-unquote patriarchy, and the message is that it is possible, that you can come out from underneath the shadow of the oppression, and that there doesn’t have to be collateral damage."
"The show is politicized too. It just became a part of something that was bigger than us."
In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Melinda Marshall wrote about a narrative trend they observed in the film Black Swan, and elsewhere: "that ambition will cost a woman all her meaningful relationships; it will push her to the breaking point; it will twist her priorities, pervert her desires, and betray her dreams." Nina's ambition in that movie is to be the best ballet dancer in her company; the ambition of Helena, Alison, Cosima, and Sarah on Orphan Black, meanwhile, is to keep one another alive. But the fact reminds that fictional women are often asked to give up everything in order to achieve a single, meaningful goal. Because of that, Gavaris hopes that the women who watch Orphan Black will come away emboldened by another possible outcome: that they "don’t have to fall on the sword just to prove a point either."
"These women managed to make their point and take a stand without having to open a vein, so to speak," he says of the sestrahood.
Much blood has, of course, been shed over the course of the show, and the Leda clones themselves have not been spared the danger. (The whole series began when Beth took her own life.) But somehow the violence of Orphan Black avoids the icky gratuitousness that some other shows, like Game of Thrones, have been criticized for. Gavaris gives credit to a team that includes Orphan's female writers and star Tatiana Maslany for identifying possible issues stemming from the violence that is shown on-screen. While GoT, for instance, might cloak sexual violence in the trappings of prestige TV, and network procedurals rack up voiceless female victims, Orphan Black allows its women to hold onto their agency even when they're in peril.
"It’s just a question of, well this is happening. Women are being murdered. And women are victims of misogyny and are victims of terrible crimes, and what is the difference between exploiting it versus documenting it or telling stories about it or creating awareness about it?" Gavaris asks. "It’s a very fine line, but I think it’s one we treaded very well and very carefully throughout the show. We were all very conscious of that."
As the actor is undoubtedly aware, Orphan Black has had an impact not just on its fanbase, but also the world at large. So many of its themes — the ownership of women's bodies, free gender and sexual expression, and even living on the "fringe" of society — were germane in 2013 when the series premiered, but couldn't be more timely today, with Donald Trump in the White House.
"The show is politicized too," Gavaris says. "It just became a part of something that was bigger than us. It was bigger than the stories we were telling. It was bigger than — it was just bigger than acting in a television show in general. It became something important. And that’s not to say that we’re curing cancer with the show, but we just happened to tap into something that was a serious global conversation."
Starring on the show was as transformative an experience for the actor as it was for his character. Audiences first met Felix as Sarah Manning's slinky, outspoken foster brother with a passion for painting in the nude, but as Sarah uncovered the truth about her past, Felix became an ally both for her and the other clones. His relationships with Helena, Cosima, Alison, Krystal, and even Rachel were all meaningful in their own ways, and though Felix never let go of his own dreams — to make art, to meet his biological sister — he, like the rest of the male allies on the show, took the crimes committed against these women seriously and personally. Felix was the first male member of Clone Club, after all, and that all rubbed off on Gavaris.
"The show inspired me to be more politically outspoken and more human rights oriented and more aware. It woke me up a little bit. Because I’ve always been pro-female, but I don’t know that I necessarily would have called myself a feminist five years ago," he explains. "I didn’t really even know what that was... I did not understand to the extent of why it was important. And now I do. And now I do call myself a feminist."
This new identity will stay with him, and Gavaris is fine if Felix hangs around for a little bit too. The actor, who publicly came out as gay earlier this summer in an interview with New York, says that while there is a "reflex" to take on wildly different roles post-Orphan, he is "not going to shy away from [Felix]." Without the question being asked, Gavaris brings up that flawed assumption that there is not as much range within the scope of gay characters as there is within the scope of straight characters.
"If every character I play from here until the end of my career happened to be gay, just so long as they were interesting and compelling and complex, that wouldn’t make any difference to me," he says.
While Felix contributed more than his fair share of the comic relief to Orphan Black, especially early in the series, Gavaris and the writing of the show always honored his own complexity. In the "Guillotines Decide" episode of Season 5, Felix hit a professional milestone, all while immersed in this fight next to his mother and his sisters. It's another reminder that there are more potential gains in standing up for what's right than are losses.
To mark that moment and the character's appreciation for these women, the actor was handed the challenge of delivering one iconic monologue: that devastating "galaxy of women" speech. Felix was thanking the women in his life "for the nurture," but Gavaris was also doing the same.
"I had to just focus on the fact that I’m in this art space and I’m talking about this artwork and about what these people in my life — Tat [Maslany], Maria [Doyle Kennedy], these characters — what the show has meant to me, not what it means to the zeitgeist," the actor recalls.
Saying goodbye to this period of his life has been "weird," he adds. But he wants you to know he's not checking out of Clone Club completely. There's a trip to Ireland being planned in Orphan Black cast group chat ("We can just stay in Maria [Doyle Kennedy's] attic or something," Gavaris says), and he may drop a hint or two that a movie could be on the horizon. But it's up to the fans to keep the inimitable spirit of Orphan Black alive through the connections they formed.
"It wasn’t just about feminism and women empowerment, even though that was really important," Gavaris sums up. "It really did create a community of people that felt maybe disempowered and that could turn to each other. It was women turning to each other to feel stronger, and that's cool that they didn’t turn to, I don’t know, a man."
At the end of the show's reign, fans can be satisfied that Orphan Black stuck to its optimistic roots. Battling the patriarchy won't be ever be easy, but it's a hell of a lot more rewarding if you it with your sestras — and, if you're lucky, your sestra-brothers, too.