In recent movie history, one mother has muscled her way through more borders than most. From walking womb to queer icon, from “last girl” victim to the last line of defense, Sarah Connor strides across screens locked, loaded, and ready to defy convention. She both strengthens and subverts stereotypes of what a “good” mother should or could be. One woman behind mirrored sunglasses reflects our many anxieties of motherhood, our questions about where individuality gives out, and how protections can sometimes harm. In so many ways she represents a kind of slow sacrifice for someone – something – else. Sarah Connor is a messy kind of icon of motherhood.
Who is Sarah Connor?
The Terminator franchise always came with a built-in flexibility; time-travel and thwarted fate make for a chaotic canon. So we have several Sarah Connors: a myriad of mothers. In the short-lived-but-commendable The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the great Lena Headey attempts to protect an older John while facing her own mortality. But for many of us, the “true” Sarah Connor will always be embodied by Linda Hamilton. Hers was a depiction forged over nearly four decades: from the 1984 adventure The Terminator (‘T1)’ to the 1991 epic T2: Judgment day (‘T2’) to the coda of 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate (‘Dark Fate’). (In the Genisys reboot Emilia Clarke’s Sarah has a different backstory, so we’ll politely set her aside).
And Hamilton’s Sarah has many faces and transformations. Three films craft a character of conflicts and contradictions, myths, and martyrdom: a story of the many sacrifices made to be the Mother of John Connor, leader of the post-apocalyptic resistance against The Machines.
The “Hysterical” Mother
There are plenty of reliable ways to introduce a mother on film. Put her centre-stage in the busy rush of a domestic kitchen, multitasking breakfasts and packing lunches and expositing loudly. Have her push a stroller down the street, graciously accepting compliments. Watch her paint the nursery walls.
T2 gives us instead a close-up of muscle, sweat, and grind. A figure of raw, simple lines, doing pull-ups off an upturned bedframe. The woman eases herself down, turns to her visitors, offers an inquiry to her last victim: “How’s the knee?” From her cage, a predator smiles. In a few short moments, Sarah Connor’s body and behavior remake what movies think a mother is. She transcends and queers the categories that seek to bind her.
So, of course, she must be mad.
Mothers and madness have a long and brutal history. Diagnoses like ‘hysteria’ – which one philosopher linked to the ‘organic mendacity of woman’– were highly gendered and used to regulate the emotional, post-natal, and sexual experiences of ‘difficult women’. Hysterical neurosis was only removed from the DSM psychiatric manual in 1980. In T2, Sarah is incarcerated in a secure psychiatric facility, surrounded by abusive (male) orderlies and a doctor (Earl Boen) who delights in what he calls the “delusional architecture” of her impregnation and persecution.
Sarah realizes the only escape is to become the sort of inmate, patient, woman, and mother the doctors will deem “safe.” She softens her voice, sits meekly, and talks of how dearly she wants to see her son. The doctor accuses her of being manipulative and lying. Sarah’s motherhood is beyond his comprehension.
Is Sarah traumatised? Did she lose her mind in becoming John’s mother? Not in the way the doctor thinks, but there are signs of some staggering on her way to becoming a single-minded warrior. Why, after she is arrested, didn’t she stay silent? Why did she allow herself to be filmed as a raging Cassandra, spouting details of judgement day and the Terminator to disbelieving institutions? Even her son John (Edward Furling) thinks her “a complete psycho…a total loser.” Sarah’s first sacrifice as mother is losing her sanity – or, at least, the perception of her sanity. In the end, they amount to the same thing: being alone with one’s truths.
The Distant Mother
There’s a moment in T2 where Sarah rebukes young John for his heroic efforts to break her out from the hospital. A boy shamed for not considering his mother expendable, detachable: “I didn’t need your help. I can take care of myself.” Only the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) registers the boy’s tears, Sarah unseeing or uncaring of the emotional whiplash. The silence between them screams of a lifetime of misconnection.
To be a mother, Sarah must sometimes be absent, in body or spirit. The most powerful sacrifice Sarah Connor makes is the minutiae of mothering: the day-to-day presence, the showing up, the humdrum stuff of just getting to know your kid. Little moments, lost. Or…reimagined. Sarah cannot build John a home or a yard, but she can build him a mission. She can’t show up to PTA meetings, but she can train him to lead a cause. When incarcerated she can strive towards a reunion, but when she finally sees him her words will not be ones of comfort or inquiry, but the simple declaration “I’m out!”, passing her weapon back to him to reload wordlessly. Instead of a hug, her touch is a clinical check for injuries. When this Sarah tucks her son in at night, instead of a kiss on his forehead, she buries him under layers of bulletproof vests.
Does Sarah wish she could have been a different kind of mother? Watching John play with the reprogrammed (and therefore safe) Terminator she speaks of the ‘impossibility’ of a parent who can be perfectly present and yet provide perfect protection: perhaps only the machine can ‘measure up’. She has taken the measure of herself, at least, with nightly regularity. A dream of judgment.
Each night Sarah Connor walks in her military fatigues to a playground, fenced off and unheard from the mother she could have been: an attentive mother, her pink waitress uniform returned with her smile. This type of mother – the mother of slides and swings and sandpits – is a failure. She cannot protect her son. Sarah wakes, stares at the ‘no fate’ she has knifed into the table before her, and abandons her son without a word, certain in her decisions.
The Single Mother
Sarah’s motherhood is a lonely one. John is the product of the ultimate one-night stand: his father dropping in from the future to both save and change Sarah’s life all in a couple of days, before meeting the epitome of an ‘untimely’ end.
So far, so tragic. But Sarah’s all-consuming motherhood seems to quash all future chances for further love, connection or desire. In T2 John suggests that, bar maybe one exception, all his mother’s liaisons were calculated only to serve her son: “she’d shack up with anybody she could learn from”. Where there was one hint of connection, it fell apart as soon as Sarah tried to share her reality. And still, this is all off-screen. Across three films we only once see Sarah pursue her own desire, and that’s with John’s father, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). From being stood-up by answerphone in T1, to the isolation of middle age in Dark Fate, Sarah is not permitted any kind of romantic or sexual connection.
Fair enough; maybe that’s not what she’s after. Perhaps it’s not even a sacrifice: perhaps the one thing Sarah gets to keep is her own secrets here. Maybe, behind those dark shades, it’s none of our business if and where her gaze falls.
Connection comes in many forms beyond a partner, of course. Is Sarah ‘doomed’ to a life of loneliness? What about found family, alliances, someone to ‘see’ and support her – as a person, as well as in her parental role? Sarah’s own mother is killed (off-screen) by the Terminator in T1 during the hunt. It’s a subtle plot point never really picked up again, apart from the inference that John ends up in foster care for lack of any suitable family support. We never learn how Sarah feels about being the cause of her own mother’s death…
By T2, Sarah sees fellow humans as ‘walking dead’, unlikely to survive the coming apocalypse. The apologetic, flustered waitress now has no problem threatening a man with a syringe full of drain cleaner. If this is the world she lives in, what room for trusting someone else to share in your child’s safety, or care? At a certain point, the only other guardian she can trust is a machine. Yet for the final T2 assault, Sarah must rely on a motley crew: a found family of necessity. A Terminator, the boy who will programme him, and another parent ready for sacrifice (for if Sarah is the mother of the resistance, Joe Morton’s Miles Dyson is the father of the apocalypse). Is this a unit, a team, or a family? It is what it has to be.
There’s a moment in T2 which tests Sarah’s ability to connect to humanity – to individuals, to her own nature. On a mission to assassinate Miles Dyson – the scientist whose tech will lead to Skynet and the end of the world – Sarah must choose whether or not motherhood means becoming the Terminator she once feared. The parallels are carefully curated. We watch the Dyson family’s terror as their domestic safety explodes in gunfire, just as we once watched Sarah’s apartment ripped to shreds. We watch Dyson cower down in terror behind his desk, as Sarah once hid in a police station as shot after shot brought the first Terminator closer and closer.
Now we watch another desperate mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) shield her son with her own body. Sarah Connor calls her a bitch. Tells her to shut up. Stands with a gun pointing at the child’s father who is uncomprehending of the vision of hell above him: Sarah Connor, in all her vengeance. She is become the nightmare Reese once warned her of:
Sarah does stop. Crucially, she stops herself. She collapses, coming to the end of all her certainties, all that she knew and had become. John arrives to hold her, to comfort and reassure her. Somehow, along the way – even if by its absence in his own life – he has learned tenderness.
Together, as a family, they will find another way. Being a mother may mean not always having all the answers. Sometimes, saving a child means more than survival: it’s remembering to show them what being a person should mean.
The Mother of all Humanity?
A rebellion needs its heroes; a resistance, its compass. Individual soldiers need their dreams. Sarah’s role as mother goes beyond John’s individual protection and training – she is more than the catalyst for his greatness. Kyle Reese speaks her name with awe. He has been taught to see her strength in John’s, her thinking in his. Soldier Reese carries a photo of her like an Icon, her gaze a sanctuary for him in the midst of war – a square of faded sun, grace, and curious sadness.
In Dark Fate Sarah speaks dryly of this ‘Mother Mary’ role. The biblical parallels – mother of a new messiah, a ‘miraculous’ conception in circumstances beyond normal comprehension – cement Sarah Connor as an abstract idea of motherhood: something entered into myth and holistic devotions. Reese loves her for what she is, and what she created, and for him, those two may be the same thing. Is Sarah’s ultimate sacrifice her owed flawed individuality, at the altar of an icon? Is she nothing ‘but’ a mother?
If so, what happens if that role is taken away? If John’s fate is remade? In Dark Fate Sarah confesses that she has no photos of John. She forsook such simple pleasures so the machines would find no record of what he looked like. She speaks of forgetting his face. It seems in the end Sarah loses even the specificity of motherhood: her unique child is yet more ash on the wind.
“A machine took him from me, and I am terminated” [SC, Dark Fate]
Though when the credits close on Dark Fate we wonder if Sarah’s motherhood persists, even in echo. She can still be a teacher, a mentor. Perhaps Sarah Connor can be Sarah Connor, only because she was once the mother of John.
A New Kind of Mother?
What do we do with Sarah Connor, and all her sacrificing of self? For some that experience might ring true: for others we may consider that deeply problematic. But the twenty-first century asks new questions for all who act as guardians for a possibly doomed generation: what does parenthood need to be in the face of impending climate or political apocalypse? What do we need to give up for ourselves in order to protect future generations? How do we keep our humanity for them, along the way?
The hope is in the tension. For Sarah sacrifices, but Sarah also transforms. She embraces a different kind of womanhood and motherhood than that which the dominant society and culture demanded of her. Bound as she is within her own fate, she also represents a steely resistance that claws to its humanity. Sarah Connor represents a parent’s wilfulness to change the fate of their child for the better, and to do so looking, acting, and choosing to exist in defiance of convention. She – perhaps – asks us to set aside our own binaries, traditions, and assumptions of motherhood. To recognise strength in all its forms, and complicate our ideas of family and what love can look like. To think what we might need to become for each other, as we drive out to the horizon: where a storm is coming, dark and thick and fast.