But What We Make: The Iterations of Sarah Connor

I love the Terminator saga with a sincerity often reserved for critically acclaimed or independent film. The first two installments are cinematic marvels that inspired genres and resound throughout pop culture: a stunning pair that played the long game, subverting expectations through evolutions in technology and character. But what I love is the story taken as a whole—each film and TV episode, with their disparate quality and myriad directors, writers, actors, genres, tones, and takes on what can be called the canon. I love them all because of a woman named Sarah Connor.

Sarah is often and accurately referred to as a strong female character, but she doesn’t impress me because of what she can do or is forced to endure; she resonates because of the decisions she makes. In her story, caring for a young person is a radical act. Victory comes from never doubting what you knew to be true, while having the humility to accept help from unexpected sources. The measure of her success is that others can carry on without knowing of her unimaginable triumphs.

We know many things about Sarah. She was born in 1959, or 1965, or 1966. She has a son, or doesn’t. She died of leukemia in her thirties, or another form of cancer, or will live through middle age to see her son become a senator and have a child of his own. When she is a mother, she is doting and protective, or she is focused and cold. In relationships, she is passionate and vulnerable, or transactional and detached. She will live in service to her future-leader son, or she will decline to conceive him.

The Terminator universe involves warring factions that travel back through time to identify and prevent the inception of the other’s primary weapon. I view the Terminator saga, taken as a whole, as a series of scenarios and iterations within that premise, with each installment providing another view of the potential and possibilities within one woman.

This is intellectual property with many masters, whose works have created alternate timelines and reconcile only through generous readings that might incorporate a multiverse theory. To many, only the first two films are worthy of intellectual discussion; and later licensed projects are effectively well-funded fan fiction. This is in part because those first films can be attributed to a sole creator. James Cameron, writer-director of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, famously sold the rights to The Terminator to producer Gale Anne Hurd for one dollar. After this, it expanded into a franchise that spawned five feature films and one television series to date, in addition to multiple video games, comics, and novels.

In this piece, I focus on the film and television works, and on Sarah Connor specifically. And I submit that the addition of each successive piece has created a far richer experience than if Sarah were written and directed by one creator or with a strict adherence to canon. She has evolved beyond the product of a single imagination; and the collective body of work serves as a series of meditations on what Sarah Connor might have done in each situation. Rather than disjointed, the result is a more complete vision of one woman than a single narrative and definitive—albeit nonlinear—timeline could offer.

Each view of Sarah—and especially the deep treatment of the series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles—provides more insight into ways in which fighting fate would be exhausting. Evading capture and surviving, yes; but also identifying and convincing allies, evaluating new technological threats, maintaining relationships, and practicing self-care and introspection.

While the later treatments of Sarah come from different writers and directors, each film and series provides some variation on this: Sarah learns about Judgment Day, Terminators, Skynet, and the Future War from those who have lived through it. The time travelers bring—or send through their refurbished Terminators—a bleak narrative of endless battles, oppressive weapons, resistance fighters, and the hero who gave them hope. They work from limited perspectives and an understanding of history, not omniscience. They can see a future—their lived existence—in which their every move is reactive to the machines’ advancement. Their only hope comes from a Great Man theory of leadership.

And the full Terminator saga provides us with various simulations showing what this woman might do with the information given. Because Sarah’s lived experience is distinct; she is not only the potential mother of resistance hero John Connor, but also an ally who has known a world without nuclear war. One who has the hope to fight for a future that has not yet been rendered out of reach.

The first two films introduce us to Sarah as she repeatedly fights her way out of situations created and controlled by men. When we meet her at 19, she waitresses, lives with her roommate, and goes out on weekends. She’s light-hearted and independent, driving a scooter (at night) and taking herself out for pizza when a date stands her up. Then she is stalked by two obsessed, heavily armed men. One eventually proves himself to be correct about future technology and, by extension, likely her role in an impending apocalypse. The other eventually proves himself to be a cyborg and murders her mother, roommate, women who precede her in the phone book, and dozens of bystanders and peers in his relentless attempt to eliminate her.

The first man is Kyle Reese. He protects her, trains her, and motivates her to fight. He is the angel who tells her she will bear a son, who will save mankind. He is the love of her life and, impossibly, the father of her child. And after his death, Terminator 2 shows her institutionalized and gaslit by those who had once rushed to help her. In an asylum, she is beaten, tased, sexually assaulted, disbelieved, and prevented from seeing her 10-year-old son. Sarah was incarcerated because she tried to destroy the technology that would lead to Skynet and thus to Judgment Day itself. Her attempt to prevent a nuclear apocalypse that would kill three billion people ended with her child being placed into foster care and Sarah being labeled criminally insane.

This was a profoundly dramatic arc that stunned me as a young woman and resonated more personally once I became a parent. When Terminator 2 played in theaters, I remember my own mother remarking on Sarah’s breathtaking shift to a physically sculpted, shrewd, tactical genius. Now 26 years later, I read the character’s creator deem Sarah a terrible mother, crazy, and complicated. This take confirms that Sarah always had the capacity to become greater than Cameron knew.¹

Going in, the expectation is always that the mother of the resistance leader will do everything within her power to ensure the continued safety of her child. And in each Cameron-helmed movie, she does. In Terminator 2, ten years after the events of the first film, Sarah is a single mother turned ballistics expert who understands the tech and has tuned her body as a soldier. We learn through John’s exposition that before she was arrested and institutionalized, she spent his life teaching him to survive by any means necessary, brokered primarily through relationships with men who can provide security and pass along valuable skills. We see her briefly partner with a Terminator who proves that he can provide that same protection and assistance.

In the alternate ending to Terminator 2, her efforts are enough. She prevents Judgment Day with the help of John, a Terminator, and Miles Dyson (the empathetic architect of the tech in question), and lives to old age. But the cinematic ending is more ominous. The third film shows a different world: one where Sarah dies from leukemia after seeing the anticipated date of Judgment Day pass without incident, not knowing that doomsday would still occur years later. And the farther future of Terminator: Salvation features John at war with machines despite it all, with no specifics on how or when Sarah died.

But we are not left with Sarah’s health only as a footnote. The series The Sarah Connor Chronicles shows her living as a woman who knows she may have a terminal illness, traveling forward in time with her son to destroy a perpetually nascent Skynet before it comes online and within her life expectancy. Here, we get to witness Sarah parenting a teenage John, trying to give him stability while protecting him and every human on Earth from extinction. We see her and John work together, believe each other, and love each other. And while previous works focused on Sarah’s devotion to John above all else—including her own well-being—in the series we see her also grapple with the fact that, for all her strength, savvy, and determination, she might be dying.

In every version, Sarah strives to maintain her humanity. In Terminator 2, she plans to kill Miles Dyson, almost perpetuating the violence that has defined her adulthood: a preemptive strike against an oblivious player in a future war. But instead, she convinces him of his role in an otherwise unforeseeable calamity, providing them both with a measure of redemption. Sarah is for the first time believed, understood, and aided by someone in a position of power; and Miles sacrifices his greatest achievement and his life to save multitudes. The Sarah Connor Chronicles, then, presents Sarah fighting to maintain her son’s innocence so that he can live without ever having to kill.

Sarah continually takes the tools she acquires through messengers from a bleak future and fights for a better one. She forms unexpected alliances. She is always stronger than she thought she would have to be, but never so proud as to forego aid. She is always protective. She always holds onto hope, even when there is no indication that anything will save her or the world. We see her committing fully to the mission, the resistance, and in most scenarios, her only child. We revere her and acknowledge her as inextricable from the revolution even as she pushes to obviate its necessity.

Interestingly, the first opportunity to show Sarah’s innovation and eagerness did not make it into the final cut of The Terminator. A deleted scene shows Sarah as the first person to suggest, or seemingly even speculate, that she and Kyle Reese might simply forestall the apocalypse:

Sarah: Think it through. We can prevent the war. There’s nobody else. If we go to somebody official, we end up in jail again, and he’s got us again. We’ve got to do it ourselves.

Kyle: …That’s not my mission.

Sarah: Listen. Understand: I’m not a military objective; I’m a person, and you don’t own me.

Later, in the same deleted scene, she says the phrase that will come to echo throughout and define the saga: “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves, right?”

Yet while the saga largely showed Sarah as attempting to ascertain and stomp out the origins of what could become Skynet, in every attempt, there was still the assumption that John was important, if only because John already existed. But in the most recent version of her story, Terminator Genisys presents a Sarah who is equipped with the knowledge and insight and chooses to put everything she has into preventing Judgment Day—and also chooses not to become a mother.

In Genisys, Sarah uses every tool at her disposal to achieve her vision, which is not of a dark world in which only her child can win, but one in which he doesn’t have to. One in which a young Kyle Reese and others can prosper and have childhoods. Which highlights another common thread in Sarah’s character arc across the series: that she is loving and selfless, demonstrating the nobility of caring for later generations even if she gets no credit.

A new Terminator film is slated for 2019, with James Cameron returning to the helm and Linda Hamilton reprising the role of Sarah Connor. It is pointedly set after the events of Terminator 2 and intended to retcon successive works. Purists will certainly feel relief. But I have no desire to invalidate decades of sequels and derivative works; I only look forward to another permutation. The character of Sarah Connor has created a deeply fulfilling subgenre: a portrait of a woman that continues to expand beyond its frame. A woman who, when faced with an imminent apocalyptic threat and her potential role in the resistance, accepts the things she cannot change, is brave enough to change the things she can, and is not satisfied until she knows the difference.

Footnotes

¹ Sarah has come into recent discussion in part because Cameron publicly criticized the 2017 Wonder Woman film, remarking that Diana was “a step backwards” for female protagonists, in contrast to Sarah Connor. In these interviews, he characterizes Sarah accordingly: “She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.” And later, “There was nothing sexual about her character. It was about angst, it was about will, it was about determination. She was crazy, she was complicated.” There is ample room and a strong need for diverse representations of women in media, and thus no need to pit Diana of Themyscira against Sarah Connor. Cameron’s commentary reveals how we are limited both by attempting to have one woman define an archetype, and by having one person—one man—define that woman in his pursuit of this.

Karlyn Ruth Meyer

Karlyn Ruth Meyer is a former singer-songwriter with a career in legal education. Her scholarship regarding video games and copyright law has been published in legal journals, including Thomson Reuters’ Entertainment, Publishing, and the Arts Handbook. She spends her dwindling free time as a community organizer, volunteer, and speaker. Other passions include game design, friendship, and learning new things with her endlessly curious kid. She tweets @karlyn_darlin.

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