Archetypes: Television: Review: Feminine Archetypes in ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ (2017)



Families bequeathe their most valuable possessions to subsequent generations to preserve legacy. In HBO’s fact-based dramatization “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” based on the book by Rebecca Skloot, an item as dear as gold is gifted to the world and bypasses the offspring.

The story focuses on what’s medically known as the HeLa cell line, living cellular matter so miraculously hardy that it can reproduce outside its point of origin: the malignantly cancerous cervix of Henrietta Lacks (Renée Elise Goldsberry, in flashback), a black woman and mother who died in 1951. Without the informed consent of either Lacks or her family, the heirs never received any monetary compensation for the medical breakthroughs – in diseases from polio to AIDS – that came about through HeLa reproduction.

That all changes when Rebecca (Rose Byrne) – who wants to write a book about the largely unknown Henrietta – pays a visit to Henrietta’s youngest child Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), now middle-aged, who’s keen to know about her mother. In the way are some fractious siblings and family members, as well as the often volatile Deborah herself.



In its 95-minute run time, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” directed by George C. Wolfe, is archetypally rich in its Venusian and Lunar Feminine focus, with three women – Henrietta, Deborah and Rebecca – at the story’s core. The disease is female-centric, tied to a reproductive organ and, therefore, motherhood, the domain of the Moon. The HeLa cells have produced millions of offspring, and those patients cured by scientific advancements through these cells are themselves a sort of family of survivors. They’re the large-scale parallel to Henrietta’s children, impoverished and without the bequest they rightfully deserved.

Even greater is the contrast between Neptunian chaos and Saturnine order. The HeLa cells are both examples of Saturnine self-mastery – they control their own fate – and the unpredictability of driven unbridled growth. The deceit and subterfuge of cancer that fuels this cellular matter is also Neptunian. That is, until Rebecca puts Saturnine order and organization at the forefront to tell the story of this rampant HeLa life force which is also a resounding Plutonic death machine: manipulative big pharma that operates at the expense of the Lacks.

Arguably the most moving scene in the production arrives towards the end, when Deborah is ecstatically bathed in the light of her mother’s cells – death in life and life in death – as her wish to embrace the mater familia is finally fulfilled.

Archetype: Cancer. Death. Resurrection. Legacy. Immortality.

Astrology Archetype: ☽ ♀ ♄ ♆ (Moon, Venus, Saturn, Neptune)

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