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The Terminator Franchise Became Iconic By Completely Reinventing Its Heroine

Sarah Connor took levels in badass, at the cost of her sanity.

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Tri-Star Pictures
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Sarah Connor was never the savior of the world, but she was destined to give birth to him.

The Terminator introduced Sarah (Linda Hamilton) as an unassuming waitress who suddenly finds herself the lynchpin of an impending apocalypse. In James Cameron’s 1984 classic, Sarah is part-damsel in distress, part-Holy Mother. Her unborn son, the enigmatic John Connor, is destined to lead a human resistance against an army of ruthless machines controlled by Skynet, an artificial superintelligence that will grow sentient and seek to destroy mankind.

Sarah learns all this from Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), who’s been sent from the future to protect her from the T-800 killing machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Ironically, Reese will also father her child, but when he’s killed by the T-800, Sarah is left to fend for herself. She also becomes the only person alive with any understanding of what’s coming, which brings our heroine to a point of no return and molds her into one of the most surprising action heroines in sci-fi history.

The Terminator’s first sequel, Judgment Day, delivered a bombshell by reintroducing the T-800 as a protector, but Schwarzenegger wasn’t the only character returning with a few upgrades. In the 11 years that passed between Terminator and its sequel, Sarah Connor honed herself into the ultimate weapon. Judgment Day is fast approaching, meaning Skynet will soon become self-aware and move to destroy mankind in a nuclear holocaust. Sarah’s done all she can to prepare for the inevitable, schooling herself in the art of war and training her tween son (Edward Furlong) in the ways of leadership. She’s even made a few attempts to prevent Judgment Day, but her efforts aren’t appreciated by everyone.

When we finally catch up with Sarah, she’s been locked in an asylum after a failed attack on a nameless computer corporation. Even behind bars, she’s anything but idle: she’s reintroduced as a grisly inmate doing pull-ups on an overturned bedframe, taunting her orderlies and biding her time before an inevitable escape. She’s a far cry from the hapless Final Girl we met in The Terminator, but it’s a choice justified by the narrative and spurred on by Hamilton herself.

Bringing Sarah back as a hardened warrior was Linda Hamilton’s idea, and it’s one of the franchise’s best.

Tri-Star Pictures

When Cameron first approached Hamilton for a Terminator sequel, the actress had one condition. “I called her and said, ‘Hey, we're thinking of doing another Terminator,’” Cameron told Yahoo Entertainment in 2019. “And she said, ‘I want to be crazy.’”

For the record, Sarah’s not completely crazy, but she’s not entirely sane, either. Sarah has survived an ordeal that no one believes, and for good reason. The concept of a cyborg assassin sent from the future to kill feels like the product of a fever dream, and the idea of a machine intelligence rising up to smite us felt similarly far-fetched. It’s hard to convince the world you’re a messiah.

Though Sarah is later able to thwart the apocalypse with the help of the T-800, she spent years fighting her crusade alone. John Connor eventually became the savior he was always destined to be, but it wouldn’t have happened if his mother hadn’t paved the way. It’s through Sarah that the Terminator franchise develops one of its core tenets: there is no fate, and only we control our destiny.

Sarah Connor wasn’t alone in the fight against Skynet, but she remains one of the most valuable players.

Tri-Star Pictures

At the time, this felt like a direct challenge to the ideas presented in The Terminator, the very nature of which seemed to hinge on destiny and causality. But even Kyle Reese, the harbinger of Sarah’s fate, insists the future isn’t written in stone. Sarah finally begins to believe that when she takes matters into her own hands in Judgment Day, and the sequels that follow developed that concept further.

Sarah is largely absent from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation, having passed the baton to her son John. But in Terminator: Genisys and Dark Fate, Sarah becomes the hero of the story. Or maybe she was always the hero. Either way, she became more than just a vessel when she chose to take her fate into her own hands, and the franchise is at its best when it defers to that brilliant choice.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is streaming on Netflix.

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