Trauma, Resilience, and Hope in the ‘Terminator’ Franchise’s Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton and Natalia Reyes in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019). Paramount.

In this proto-dystopian moment, The Terminator franchise’s Sarah Connor is an emblem of hope, survival, and strength amidst a rapidly changing landscape. The series’ dark science fiction world excels when it is immensely personal, particularly when influenced by the impending doom of Judgment Day and the war with the machines. The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) effectively form a trilogy of Sarah Connor-centered films within the same canon, with Connor portrayed by Linda Hamilton for all three films. Dark Fate ignores the alternate continuity narratives of the other films and acts as a direct sequel to T2, and also bringing Sarah’s story back into the spotlight.

Situational trauma, anxiety, and grief are direct conduits to very intimately and deeply exploring Sarah’s place in the series, turning from a hapless and helpless woman burdened with a fate she can hardly understand into a brazen and hardened protector carved by worldly responsibility. Each film depicts a vastly different stage in Sarah’s life, yet they all reflect her response to trauma and the ways in which coping with grief drives her motivations and narrative.

In The Terminator, which takes place in 1984, Sarah plays a multitude of roles, beginning as the damsel-in-distress, fulfilling her place as the “mother of Jesus” character by conceiving John Connor, and ending as the Final Girl. When Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) arrives to protect her from the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Sarah is at first afraid of the life she’s being forced into but then slowly begins to realize the reality of her situation. During the climax of the film, Sarah is forced to adopt a more independent approach when Kyle is injured, pushing away her fears to go on the offensive. 

Linda Hamilton in The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator (1984). Orion Pictures.

She then reveals more conclusive signs of who she would become by luring the T-800 into a hydraulic press and starting the machine, effectively accepting her fate as the protector of humanity by saving herself — “You’re terminated, fucker!” By doing so, this action of pressing the start button ultimately also starts her journey into becoming the Sarah Connor of T2 and the Sarah Connor that the world needs. As she drives off to her new life, she begins to undertake the necessary preparation with zero guidance in order to prevent an apocalyptic future.

In T2, which takes place in 1995 — 11 years after the events of The Terminator — the effect of trauma is immediately apparent upon Sarah’s first appearance. Having been arrested and taken to a mental institution, Sarah’s transformation is immediately recognizable in her physique, her posture, her actions — which all stem from taking her role in The Terminator as her new life motivation. T2 gained success for its novel usage of CGI, and yet, the portrayal of Sarah’s resilience amidst grief, trauma, and absolute futility stands as a marker of the film’s true triumph. 

The dark, unforgettable imagery that accompanies Sarah throughout her life comes alive onscreen and returns once again in this film. All of her preparation between 1984 and 1995 does not prepare her for meeting the spitting image of the T-800 11 years later, inseparable from the memories of being mercilessly hunted as well as killing the father of her child. In a five-minute sequence of escaping the hospital, she’s unerringly determined in her mission, doing whatever it takes to get out. However, the moment the T-800 emerges into the corridor, fear and terror racks her face unlike anything else and she tumbles backwards, fleeing and only able to shriek monosyllabically. 

Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). TriStar Pictures.

The lingering trauma from the events of The Terminator stay with her for the entirety of the film as she remains suspicious and is initially unwilling to work with the T-800. Beyond the memories that the figure of the T-800 brings back, Sarah is haunted by dreams of a nuclear apocalypse that centre on her self-perceived inability to save John and thus, the world. In her dream, she’s trapped behind a fence and cries out but is unable to warn the children on the playground, blissfully unaware of the impending explosion that will burn them alive. However, the vision centres upon herself as she watches another version of herself playing with John, a reminder of the burden she bears as well as the lost years, Sarah having abandoned any possibility of a normal childhood with John by focusing her primary efforts on destroying Skynet before it starts. This image is perhaps the best metonym for Sarah’s trauma and resilience, embodying her fears of both the future and the past as well as the responsibility that dangles over her head to save humanity. She is also the only one burdened with the knowledge of the potential future, making her job even more difficult to carry out as she prepares for what’s to come as well as attempts to stop it.

Despite every method she uses to attempt to disable Skynet, Dark Fate reveals that this apocalyptic tech dystopia is inevitable. First taking place three years after the events of T2, Sarah’s worst fear is realised when Kyle is killed by a Terminator. Although Kyle Reese — and the franchise — repeatedly functions on the mantra that John Connor must be protected in order to ensure the future of humanity, Dark Fate contemplates the idea that it is Sarah all along who cannot die. The death of John Connor enraged many, but it ultimately bows to the true heart of the first two films and completes the trilogy, when the franchise fully embraces Sarah’s place as the true protector. This act of violence hits closest to home for both immensely personal reasons as well as more universal reasons, with Sarah left in a liminal space where her efforts could potentially be for absolutely nothing.

Linda Hamilton and Mackenzie Davis in Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019). Paramount.

The film’s primary events take place 25 years later, in 2020, and she becomes an expanded version of Kyle’s character in The Terminator. Armed to the teeth, extraordinarily suspicious, and unflinching in her pursuit, she’s even more hardened and scarred than in T2, having lost much of that key piece driving her forward — hope that the future might be better. Sarah now bears the guilt and grief over not just being unable to protect her own son, but the fate of humanity. Although mostly offscreen, Sarah has now made it her life’s mission to destroy all Terminators sent back in time. Once she discovers that artificial intelligence known as Legion instead of Skynet dominates the Earth, her determination is, in part, restored — she can continue what she does best and thus returns to her role to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) with the help of the cybernetically enhanced Grace (Mackenzie Davis).

Yet once the group comes face to face to the T-800 that killed John, now having become self-aware and physically aged significantly, Sarah once again has a visceral reaction to it.  She struggles with this knowledge, having primarily seen it as a machine more so than anything remotely close to the human, complicated by the T-800 being the clandestine informant in Sarah’s missions to hunt down all Terminators. Sarah never fully overcomes this fear and pervasive hatred of the T-800 but is instilled with a new sense of responsibility by protecting Dani, someone to whom she can pass on her years of acquired knowledge and skill in the way that she couldn’t with her own son. The film — and the entirety of the cinematic canon — ends with Sarah continuing her mentor role with Dani and protector role with the young Grace, who she swears to save like she wasn’t able to with John. This end marks a renewed sense of hope for both the viewer and Sarah, who has survived against all odds to work with a new partner akin to her young self, coming full circle.

by Olivia Popp

Olivia Popp is a culture and entertainment writer with a love for speculative fiction and techno-thriller film and TV. You may also find her devouring mac and cheese with a similar passion. Find her on Twitter: @itsoliviapopp.

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