Close Up: Suit-burning
by E. Kline

Sean's suit-burning gesture in Series 1, episode 10 of Bad Girls is a powerful image with rich and widely varying possible meanings. The scene is largely played without dialogue between Sean and Helen—in fact, Sean doesn't speak at all after he's reentered the grounds of Larkhall. He slips in silently: Helen is informed by a prison officer that he's in the garden, and runs out to find him. She asks what he's doing, and Sean doesn't answer (or need to). He's burning his wedding suit, complete with boutonnière. The marriage is off.

The psychological meaning of the gesture itself is clear: Helen has just told him she can't marry him because she doesn't love him; Sean is angry and hurt—and his response is to humiliate Helen in public, at her job. Some viewers see this as a revelation or exposure of Sean's weakness of character, something that's been in him all along. It's also possible to view such an act as something that's potentially in all of us: relationships end; in our rage and sadness we behave badly (and usually regret it for a long time afterwards).

Whatever other emotions make up Sean's reaction, he clearly feels humiliated—and he's going to humiliate Helen right back. He finishes buying the suit even after Helen has left the shop and declared the marriage off: Sean uses the suit as a prop to express his feelings to Helen, in technicolor. The gesture is effective dramatically because it requires no further translation—as a gesture.

While Sean is probably not thinking he'd like to make a grand symbolic gesture, the strength of the burning suit purely as an image (and a spectacle) is impossible to ignore. It's the biggest and most obvious symbolic image the show has offered to this point. Its positioning at the end of the first season further emphasizes the import of this moment.

As an image, it's also a bit odd, or at least unusual, and this oddness—combined with the image's impact as the culmination of ten hours of storytelling—invites exploration. The image is both 'unspoken' and visually quite striking: these two elements contribute to its somewhat indeterminate status. No single conclusion can (or need) be drawn: part of the power of the image of the burning suit is that it gathers its strength from a number of possible cultural or visual 'echoes'.

One interpretation of the suit-burning is that it represents an act of self-immolation. Self-immolation is usually performed for reasons of "political protest, devotion, renouncement etc." [1] In a way, all three of those apply here, to Sean's faux-immolation. He's showing both his devotion to Helen (the wedding suit) and his denouncement of her (the fact that he's burning the suit, throwing the house keys)—and he's protesting her over-involvement with Larkhall by staging this whole scene in the yard for the entire wing to see. [2]

The suit-burning also evokes a historic echo: that of the straw man. A straw man is a fallacy, a false argument where an opponent is set up with an untrue claim or argument, in order to knock them down. Historically, different cultures do literally burn men of straw in association with various rituals; Guy Fawkes night [3] might be the association nearest home for UK viewers. (Druids set up wicker men and lit them up for sacrifices; also, Guy Fawkes night is close on the calendar to Samhain.) One step further down the rung of associations would be to female straw figures at country fairs: people threw things at them and set them ablaze.

A straw man is without substance, all façade. Sean is making what is ultimately an empty gesture about an empty gesture: he is burning his unused wedding suit (which he no longer has need of), over his anger at the loss of a wedding (a formal gesture) which was never going to happen, to cement a relationship that was going nowhere.

What we're looking at on the screen isn't literally a straw man, of course, but a suit of clothes: an empty suit, which stands in on many levels for Sean himself. However, the idea and imagery of the 'suit' provides a visual and thematic link to Helen as well. She wears suits throughout the first series of Bad Girls; Sean never does, to the point that he jokes about this fact with Helen when making plans to shop for the suit. Helen is the professional here, the one with the 'real' job, the serious job (Sean's landscaping work holds no potentially life-affecting responsibilities for himself or his clients), and in this scene Helen is wearing a suit remarkably like the one Sean is burning.  

Visually, there's another parallel beyond that of the burning suit and the suit Helen has on: Sean's suit has a boutonnière (a 'buttonhole' in the UK), marking it as a wedding suit; Helen is wearing a white I.D. tag in the same position on her jacket. [4] Sean wanted to be married to Helen, but the echoing of these two images underlines the idea that Helen is married to her job—which has been a point of contention between Helen and Sean since the start. Sean never seems to grasp the importance of Helen's work to her, and though he makes supportive noises often enough, they're more placatory than helpful. In this last scene between them, Sean's actions suggest he might well believe Helen has sacrificed their relationship, their marriage, a future, happy home life with children and so forth, in favor of her job. [5]

This is reinforced by the fact that Sean is not communicating directly and personally with Helen, but instead has literally staged this scene almost as if it were a play, one intended for a very specific audience: Larkhall and the women of G-wing. The suit-burning is set up in the garden facing the Wing where the maximum number of prisoners (and screws) are likely to see it: it's meant to be very public. In addition to humiliating Helen, it outs her private life and makes it fodder for the prison rumor-mill. Some viewers have suggested Sean has Nikki in mind as potential viewer for this scene, but there's no clear indication of this. The shots featuring Sean looking up at the Wing suggest he's hoping/making sure he has his audience; the reaction shots from various characters are about their characters and how each responds to this drama: thus Fenner's reaction is about Helen, and typically malicious ("Oh dear, oh dear"); Julie Johnston is angered by Sean's action and indignant on Helen's behalf ("Oh, very classy!"); and Nikki is simply worried/concerned for Helen's welfare. (Nikki then runs to another portion of the Wing to call out to Helen, perhaps to offer some sort of wordless support, but there's little else she can do at the moment.)

The repercussions of the suit-burning further demonstrate how Sean is burning Helen, not himself. Just as Sean's job keeps him insulated from certain responsibilities, his staging of this act keeps him from its long-term consequences: he sets the suit alight and walks away. It is Helen who will be most adversely affected both emotionally and professionally by Sean's retribution. Through this gesture, Helen's personal life has been fully exposed— overexposed—and is no longer her own: it becomes everyone's business. Cons and screws alike watch the scene play out with a full range of responses—some of which extend into the next season. When Helen returns after a leave of absence, she receives an official caution from Stubberfield for no very good reason other than his bureaucratic small-mindedness—but clearly this incident, which Helen brings up during their conversation in order to put it to rest, is still in play. (As it is for Nikki as well, who raises the subject during her first chance for a private talk with Helen.)

Sean's other gesture—throwing the house keys at Helen—is more personal (and far more contemptuous) than the suit-burning. He doesn't throw them to her, to catch—he throws them at her (they land at her feet). The gesture tells us he knows there's no coming back from this, and he doesn't care. They're the keys Helen probably duplicated for him when he moved in with her, so this part of Sean's actions speaks more to what ails them personally: they are a symbol of what's gone wrong with the couple on the domestic front. Helen has allowed him into her life and her home, but only so far, only on the surface. Emotionally, Sean's been locked out, and his angry return of the keys to Helen is thus bitterly appropriate. They never worked in the first place; they're worthless to him. [6]

In contrast to the informality and intimacy of the key-throwing, the burning of the suit (instead of its 'proper' use in a wedding) is still a formal, dramatic gesture—but it's final, the last gesture Sean can make. Ironically, by staging this little drama within the larger drama of the show, Sean has taken himself off the stage permanently: he's the director, and only secondarily, a bit-player who's been made redundant, both by Helen's refusal of him and the pettiness of his own retaliation.  

  Sean’s lack of involvement in his own actions and their aftermath is also emphasized by the camera. The camera doesn't catch Sean in the flames: he takes a wide angle off to the right to pick up his jacket, and walks around and past them on his way out of the garden and off the screen of Bad Girls forever. It is Helen we see framed through the flames, caught in them as we look past the suit towards her as she gazes back at the Wing: Helen burning.



This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board. Thanks to the following people who participated: abuzg, invisicoll, Lisa289, microsofty, richard.

[1] Thanks to Wikipedia for this definition.

[2] Thanks to abzug for this exploration of the tradition of self-immolation and how it relates to this scene.

[3] From Wikipedia: Guy Fawkes Night, November 5th, also known as Bonfire Night, celebrates the downfall of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a number of conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

[4] Thanks to invisicoll for this observation, as well as noting the parallel imagery of Helen's and Sean's suits.

[5] Thanks to abzug for the idea of Sean's anger at Helen's sacrificing their home life for her marriage to her job.

[6] Thanks to abzug for her thoughts about the keys as a domestic symbol.


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