Terminator's Sarah Connor, Mothering at the End of the World

Terminator's Sarah Connor, Mothering at the End of the World

Ever since I had a kid, I can’t stop thinking about Sarah Connor, the heart of the Terminator franchise.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has traditionally been the face of this series, since, after all, he’s the terminator. First, in 1984’s Terminator, he was a relentless killing machine sent from the future by Skynet, the AI devoted to eliminating humanity, to kill the unsuspecting Connor so she couldn’t give birth to the future leader of the human resistance, her son John. Then, in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, he played another version of the machine, reprogrammed by future John and sent back in time to protect young John. Arnold is back in the latest installment, Terminator: Dark Fate, but who cares? Because more importantly, actress Linda Hamilton is back, reprising her character Sarah as a hardened, grizzled, gray-haired ass-kicker.

Sarah Connor looms so large in my understanding of the Terminator movies that sometimes I forget the first two installments are absolute cultural classics of the long Reagan era, and that Terminator 2, in particular, is deeply invested in tough-guy heroism and establishing John, the boy whose all-important existence powers the franchise, as a savior figure with budding leadership skills, when he’s not even a teenager yet. (His initials are literally J.C.) At one point in Terminator 2, when John, Sarah, and the T-800 are explaining to the creator of Skynet (aka the AI that will go rogue) why it has to be destroyed, Sarah begins to rake the scientist over the coals for his and his team’s arrogance in thinking they could create artificial life, telling him he doesn’t know anything about creating actual life, feeling it growing inside you. John cuts his mother off, telling her she isn’t being helpful.

The entire Terminator franchise is deeply invested in the idea of individual saviors, first John, and then, for the 2019 reboot, Dani Ramos, the protagonist of Terminator: Dark Fate, the latest installment, and future leader of the human resistance against our new horrible computerized future, Skynet having been dispatched. Dark Fate has subbed out the heroic men for heroic women, but retains the same structure for how humanity gets saved—by a savior. What makes Sarah interesting to me is that she is not special. She’s a vessel for somebody special. She’s just a rando caught in a time paradox where she ends up pregnant with the future of humanity. She can’t believe it in the first film when Kyle Reese attempts to explain why he’s been sent to 1984 to protect her, except that there’s a relentless machine from the future clearly chasing her all over town. But that’s also the experience of motherhood in essence: we’re all just randos with a sudden, life-altering responsibility that feels cosmically important, hyperaware of your child’s vulnerability and the limits of your ability to protect them.

Spoilers ahead.

Sarah Connor, as realized in the movies where she appears, is an archetype, or at least the inversion of an archetype: the Virgin Mary. Terminator: Dark Fate is keenly aware of this, and it’s even explicit. John is killed in the first few minutes of the movie as a horrified Sarah watches, cradling her dead son like a pieta featuring anti-aging CGI; it turns out that Skynet sent many T-800 models back to the past, and Sarah has been traveling ever since, killing the terminators that appear and drinking until she blacks out. Sarah automatically assumes that Dani’s role is as the mother to a future leader, telling Dani she’s a threat because of her womb and at one point griping, “Let somebody else be Mother Mary.”

But she’s also a Mary who has been sent completely around the bend by the experience of knowing what’s going to happening and finding herself solely responsible for keeping the future savior of the human race safe, even as absolutely nobody believes her. Where Mary is imagined as infinitely caring, perpetually gentle, a figure of holy warmth, Sarah is snappish even on a good day. She doesn’t bake cookies or dole out hugs; she stockpiles automatic weapons. When Sarah and John are reunited—he has just busted her out of a mental institution—she first checks him for injuries, then yells at him for risking himself. (Which seems fair, honestly—the future aside, he is 10 years old.) This is what Linda Hamilton explicitly asked for when director James Cameron asked her to sign on for Terminator 2. She told him she wanted Sarah crazy, and “I wrote it to the hilt based on her directive,” Cameron told the Times. But she is also the type of dedicated mother who will, when the T-1000 pushes his shiny knife-finger against her head and demands she call for John, reply: “Fuck you.”

Dreams are part of Sarah’s problem in Terminator 2, part of what has transformed her from a somewhat hapless but perfectly stable young woman into a screaming Cassandra. Specifically, a constantly recurring nightmare about watching herself as the carefree, dress-wearing mother of a young toddler, John, happily enjoying a sunny California afternoon at a playground surrounded by laughing children. She begins screaming a warning, but nothing comes out of her mouth. The playground is then incinerated by the nuclear blast that heralds the arrival of Skynet.

Where Mary is imagined as perpetually gentle, Sarah is snappish even on a good day. She doesn’t bake cookies or dole out hugs; she stockpiles automatic weapons.

This scene terrified me when I first saw it, sometime in the 1990s, because I was an anxious child terrified by the prospect of nuclear annihilation that still loomed large even after the Soviet Union fell and an entire generation of adults decided that history itself was over and it was all smooth sailing (or would be once we’d gotten everything properly deregulated). Rewatching it, I wasn’t particularly worried about robots or even nuclear war. All I could think about was California engulfed in flames, the harbinger of our future under climate change. So often when I scroll through pictures of California engulfed in apocalyptic fire, I think about Sarah Connor.

The prospect of the AI uprising in Terminator 2 feels almost quaint in 2019. Terminator: Dark Fate is trying to be more engaged with our current problems in a realistic manner, beginning as it does with robots replacing humans on the assembly line and following its heroines across the US/Mexican border and into a Border Patrol prison. (The latest generation of Terminator spends a lot of time in disguise as a Border Patrol agent.) But the prospect of an AI consciousness overthrowing modern society now seems like a relatively straightforward battle—if only it were that easy, instead of a terrifying combination of unchecked corporate power, ecological collapse, and advancing authoritarianism. How many of us are walking around, feeling like we’re in a dream, gripping a chain link fence, screaming?

I’m not interested in making Sarah Connor into a metaphor, or a symbol of feminism, or some sort of guiding light. The character herself would be the first person to glare in derision through her untrimmed bangs. Instead, watching the movies, I catch a glimpse of something, glimmers of a future that it will take immense strength to escape or, barring that, survive. I’m afraid we’re all Sarah Connor now.

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