Close Up: Season 1, Episode 7, Cross-Cutting
by E. Kline

This essay examines the editing of two short scenes from episode 1.7 of Bad Girls. The opening scene of the episode is reviewed, followed by a discussion of some of the themes it introduces. The main body of the essay looks at the transitional scene (Helen in her office, Nikki in the potting shed) which takes place after the famous "potting shed" scene. First, the camera movements of each shot in the transitional scene are broken down, along with the actor's role in the shot. Then the shots are compared and analyzed, with attention to how the editing makes them more meaningful. A summary closes the essay.


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In Series 1, episode 7 of Bad Girls, there are five major scenes involving Helen and Nikki. They run briefly thus:

In the opening scene, Helen is in her apartment and Nikki is in her cell: both women are beginning their respective days.

In the second scene, after the gardening class, Helen introduces her partner, Sean, to Nikki: Nikki had not known until this moment that Sean and Helen had a personal relationship. Sean tells Nikki he and Helen are engaged. Nikki leaves the classroom, upset.

In the third ("potting shed") scene, Helen confronts Nikki: she wants to know why Nikki is upset; Nikki can't believe Helen is being so obtuse. Their exchange escalates until Nikki grabs Helen's hand and brings it to her breast; they tussle briefly and Nikki releases Helen's hand. The scene fades out with the two characters trying to take in what's just happened.

The fourth scene is transitional: Nikki is still in the potting shed, and Helen is in her office. We see both characters reacting to the potting shed scene.

In the fifth scene, Helen has Nikki brought to her office, where she takes Nikki to task for her behavior in the potting shed.

(There is one more short exchange at the end of the episode, where Monica compliments Helen on her efforts to improve things, and calls across the landing to Nikki for confirmation. Nikki is sarcastic in reply.)

The first, introductory scene and the fourth scene are structured by a common editing technique known as cross-cutting—in both cases, between shots of Helen and Nikki.[1] The editing of the first scene establishes the fact of their emotional connection; the editing of the second the fact of the gulf between them—a gulf which will not be entirely bridged until the end of the third season.

Opening sequence: description

In the opening scene Helen and Nikki, though separated physically, are both performing similar actions. Cross-cutting directs us to think of these actions as happening at the same time.

[INT. Larkhall, Nikki's cell] View of closed cell door from interior of cell; flash of peephole being briefly uncovered.

[sound of loud knock] Dominic's voice off-screen: Morning Nikki!

Dominic enters, addresses screen-left (Nikki off-screen): Ready for your shower?

cut to: [INT. Helen's bedroom]

Mirror view of Helen, back to the audience, laying out her clothes for the day. She turns screen-left and walks into view, humming to herself. She pushes other clothes back into the closet, continues screen-left to open the blinds, and looks out.

cut to: [INT. Nikki's cell]

Nikki's view from her cell window; female figure in uniform approaches through main inner gate. We then cut to shot of Nikki, facing screen-left, eagerly waiting to catch sight of Helen. She turns screen-right with a determined expression.

cut to: [INT. Helen's bedroom]

Helen, screen-right, briefly turning to face forward in similar direction as Nikki in previous shot, then bending to a second, smaller mirror on a dressing table in order to fuss with her eyes. Helen stands, tightens her robe, and moves off-screen.

cut to: [INT. Nikki's cell]

Nikki applying mascara, using her own (steel) prison mirror.

The scene ends and the next begins with shot of Sean, backing out of a potting shed. Sean then offers up a distinctly low-key marriage proposal, which Helen avoids answering. Helen goes off to work, soon to encounter another, entirely different potting shed.

Opening sequence: physical parallels

The purpose of the editing in the introductory scene is to show that these two characters, Helen and Nikki, are connected synchronistically: they're performing similar morning-related activities at roughly the same time. Both shower offscreen; both look out their respective windows; both dress and apply makeup; both look into mirrors. The basic physical parallels between the characters' actions (along with the soundtrack—light, melodious) imply that their connection is, for the moment, without conflict.

It is noteworthy that Dominic opens the scene. He is a benign character, one of the few 'good' male prison guards in the show. If it had been Fenner opening the door to Nikki's cell, that would have set a very different tone. Dominic's presence confirms the absence of conflict.

The very first cut establishes the idea that the different physical spaces the characters occupy will be interchanged: after Dominic opens the door and looks screen-left, we expect to see Nikki; instead we see Helen. This pattern of editing is carried throughout the scene. Additionally, in the closing seconds of this first exchange (Nikki herself is not seen), Dominic is seen framed in Nikki's opened doorway: in the next shot, we see Helen both framed and reflected through her mirrored closet door.[2] This kind of blocking, literally framing the characters as it does, underlines the connection between Helen and Nikki; as does the similarity of their physical movements within their respective spaces.

Next, Helen adjusts the (horizontal) blinds covering her window in order to look outside; the blinds suggest bars, a visual theme picked up in the next shot, where we see Nikki's (heavily obstructed) view out to the main gate, which is also barred. The first time we see the scene, we may experience a split-second of confusion until we realize that we have shifted from Helen's point of view to Nikki's.

The opening scene's first twist on viewer expectations, then, is to swap out one physical space/character for another; the second ups the ante by exchanging one character's point of view (Helen's) for another's (Nikki's): they share interior landscapes. But there is one more surprise to come: the mirror shot (discussed in detail below).

In such ways, the editing in the opening scene lays the groundwork for what follows in the transitional scene, where the connections between the characters are more subtle, even as the physical gap between them seems absolute. In the case of the window-shot, the switch in point-of-view might well have had its origin in a simple technical constraint: Nikki literally can't see out Helen's window—at this point in the story there is no circumstance that would allow her to enter Helen's space. The only way to film that shot is to make the transition from Helen's window, her point of view, to Nikki's—not the other way round. Regardless, the result is that a logical, physical constraint in how the sequence was ordered emphasizes the imbalance in their respective situations: Nikki can't share Helen's point-of-view, literally or figuratively—she is a prisoner. Emotionally and symbolically, this transition suggests that Helen not only can share Nikki's view: to some extent, even this early in the show—she already does. Her journey to that point, fully realized, is their story.

Mirrors and mirroring

As well as serving a metaphoric/symbolic role, mirrors function as both icons and framing devices. As literal icons, their presence alerts us to the fact that 'mirroring' is going on in the editing. As framing devices, they make us aware of the difference between our view of a character and their view of themselves.

Our first view of Helen in her bedroom exhibits both of these qualities, marking the motif of mirroring as significant: unless a quick-eyed viewer catches the glint off the beveled glass of the mirror, it is not until Helen turns screen-left and walks into the frame that it becomes clear our initial view has not been of the character herself (the actual person) but rather, of her reflection. The scene is shot using a full-length mirror, and the way the shot is cropped on the DVDs makes it easy to initially mistake for a view through an opened doorway.[3]

The next mirror-shot of Helen shows her rubbing her eyes. This is an ordinary morning activity with perhaps no greater significance, but also (this a drama, not a documentary) at least suggests a possible (metaphorical) interpretation underlining the importance of how this character views things. Helen is making a transition from sleep to waking; she's brushing away sleep (unconsciousness) in order to start seeing more clearly.

The following shot supports this reading: Nikki, too, is readying not just her 'face' for the day ahead, but specifically—her eyes. She is applying mascara (rather than blush or lipstick, for instance). This creates continuity between shots but also emphasizes the eyes and all they stand for. Throughout this scene, gestures and motions carry over from one cut to the next, one character to the other: they contribute to the scene's overall continuity, but also add meaning and emotional resonance.

Motifs involving mirrors have been prominent in film and television treatments of lesbian characters for decades, primarily to negative ends, but in Bad Girls they are used to different purpose and effect. By far the most striking reveal in this scene (and perhaps the entire episode) is the shot as Helen moves away from her mirror: we see Nikki 'behind' Helen, reflected in Nikki's own mirror. This cut evokes—and stands in contrast to—the use of actual mirrors or mirror-like editing traditionally used in cinema to negatively represent lesbian characters and relationships.[4]

Bad Girls does not use the trope of mirroring as a shortcut to indict lesbian identity: the show's use of mirrors is primarily functional, employing them for traditional, practical reasons—to expand or 'hide' physical space. Mirrors widen available space for scenes shot in close quarters, or are used for dramatic effect—to surprise a character (and the audience) when someone creeps up on that character. [5] Mirroring in Bad Girls is neither a substitute for nor a shortcut around the erotic charge between its two primary characters, as subsequent events in this episode and the show proper made uncompromisingly clear. Directorial use of mirrors in the first three seasons is refreshingly literal: shots with Nikki, Denny, and Shaz (all lesbian characters) are simply accurate—they show us roughly the same images as the one the characters themselves would see. As such (and depending on setting), they implicitly argue against pejorative, traditional framings: they suggest that these characters are capable of seeing themselves with reasonable accuracy. [6]

Bad Girls' use of mirror shots, then—particularly as regards Helen and Nikki in the opening scene of episode 1.7—is about each character's relationship to herself. Mirrors provide another means to explore and complicate these characters, not rob them of depth by trivializing or pathologizing their connection to themselves or each other. The connection between Helen and Nikki is a positive one: they are are not (like Shell) psychologically damaged beyond repair. Nikki is a lesbian hero, and Helen—one of the most complicated characters to ever grace a television screen—is also one of the most morally upright. The romantic relationship their connection leads to is, quite simply, what the characters want—there's nothing inherently 'bad' about it. [7] The gaze these women frequently share is mutual: both are desiring, both desired. That component is found in many early scenes as well; the variable is Helen's level of consciousness about what's going on between them.

We learn a great deal about each character's subjective awareness of her own interest in/desire for the other in the opening scene. Nikki is an out lesbian: she knows she's waiting for Helen; she knows she's interested in/attracted to Helen; she dresses and pays particular attention to her makeup likely with Helen in mind.[8] As far as we know, at this point in the story Helen is not aware of her attraction to Nikki (or at least, not in any way she's prepared to acknowledge).

The person we see in Nikki's mirror is the ideal Nikki, the person she wants to present. But we first see this Nikki not from Nikki's point of view but when Helen steps away from her own mirror: the transition is so startling that for a split-second it looks as if we are seeing Nikki in Helen's mirror. This Nikki is the idea of Nikki, the Nikki in the back of Helen's mind, although Helen does not, as yet, realize this. From the audience's point of view, the reversal develops from at first thinking we are seeing the 'real' Helen to realizing we're only seeing her reflection; the second reveal, of Nikki standing 'behind' Helen as Helen moves away from her own mirror, reverses the reversal, flips it to show us what (or who) is (literally) at the back of Helen's mind. The idea becomes embodied. The trope of mirroring is turned upon itself, undone.

The shot suggests the direction for both this episode and this part of Helen's journey; at almost the same instant we see what is right in front of Helen (herself) and the other (Nikki). We see that the image of Nikki in Helen's mind and the 'fact' of Nikki, a fully aware character in terms of her lesbian identity, are one in the same.[9] Helen's ideal actually exists. This is not a 'memory' shot, a case of one character 'imagining' the other; at this point Helen has not acknowledged her desire, so she cannot, and Nikki has, so she does not need to. (Bad Girls rarely employs such devices, and never with these two characters. Julie Saunders' 'Macbeth' scene is the only example that comes to mind in the first three seasons.) This shot takes place in 'real' time: we're seeing Nikki, the person herself. The journey Helen will take, from unconsciousness to awareness, from ideal reflected, then embodied—and enacted—is a journey that is directly opposed to outdated theoretical claptrap positing lesbianism as a form of narcissistic desire. If this were narcissistic, Helen would look at Nikki and see herself. In fact Helen must look into herself and see Nikki. She cannot do this until she acknowledges her desire and all that it implies. For their connection to work, Helen not only needs to see it but to choose it: this is not a loss of self in the image of self, but a discovery of self in the person of the other.

Post potting-shed sequence (Scene 4): introduction [31.06-32.11]

The main scene to be examined, Scene 4, takes place directly after the potting shed (Scene 3), and a short time before the equally important office scene.

The plot is advanced in the second and third scenes between Helen and Nikki. In Scene 2 (inside Larkhall, after Sean's gardening class), Nikki gets new information: Sean is Helen's partner, and Sean and Helen are to be married. In Scene 3 (potting shed), Helen gets new information: Nikki shows Helen her frustration and her desire by pressing Helen's hand to her breast. That inarticulate gesture may not have been Nikki's best or only choice, but it is indisputably clear: Helen is now fully informed.

The transitional scene (Scene 4: Nikki in the potting shed, Helen in her office) is just over one minute of cross-cutting between shots of Helen and Nikki. Both characters are trying to come to terms with what has just happened.

There's a lot more to be gotten from this initial reading: the meticulous editing and expert camerawork of this scene take us under the surface of the characters' agitation. The scene is filmed for the most part in medium close-up, not unusual for this show, and is an especially thoughtful example of cross-cutting. Almost all the shots are roughly five seconds in length, with a remarkable amount of detail and emotional information being delivered through a sequence that is, with a brief exception—like the opening scene—without dialogue. The scene's meaning is of a piece with its editing; examining the editing in greater detail helps further an understanding of the scene both as it stands alone and as an expression of larger dynamic between these characters.

Nikki/Potting Shed, Scene 4, shot 1 [31.06-31.12]

Immediately following the potting-shed scene, the DVDs have a one-second black-screen transition to the sequence being examined. (The original broadcast version cut directly to the next shot, no black-screen.)

Character: We first see Nikki's hands, then Nikki herself; we're in the potting shed. She's pulled up the green coverall that was hanging off her waist in the previous (potting-shed) scene, troublesome mammaries resolutely layered away. She's puttering with soil. At the last moment her head turns screen-left, then back: she's moving a bit restlessly.

Camera movements: The camera pans[10] diagonally from Nikki's hands (lower screen-right) to her face (upper screen-left). Camera movement is unidirectional for the full length of the shot up til the last second, where it pauses just a bit, swivels very slightly to the right to 'hang' on Nikki.

Discussion: We don't know how much time has elapsed since the previous scene, but it can't be much: the scene before the potting shed (with Dominic and Lorna Rose searching Shell's cell) continues on after this one. Regardless, given what's just taken place, there is only one assumption to make about what is bothering or preoccupying Nikki.[11]

Helen/Office, Scene 4, shot 2 [31.12-31.17]

Character: Just as we started the first shot of this scene with a view of Nikki's hands, we open here on Helen's. She's seated at her desk, doing paperwork. Helen's right hand, her writing hand, is still; her left is agitated, she rubs her fingers restlessly. She licks her lips, determined, turns screen-left.

Camera movements: The camera zigzags three times during this short take. First, there is a tiny introductory jostle as the camera moves onto Helen's hands (lower-right to upper-left): then the movement is reversed; the camera begins rotating lower-left to upper-right to bring her torso and face into view.

There are two slightly complicated, almost contradictory camera movements going on throughout most of this shot. For the majority of the shot the camera circles to the right but is also tracking in; almost simultaneously, it begins a rotation to the left to bring Helen's figure face-forward and center-screen. At the end of the shot the camera continues this second reversal in movement for a right-to-center pan on her face.

Discussion: If it wasn't already clear from her gestures, the zigzagging, almost corkscrewing quality to the shots suggests Helen, too, is unsettled. As befits Helen's more indirect and confused emotions, the camera movements around her are more complicated and elaborate than those used for Nikki (though notably moreso in the first half of the scene than the second), such as the combination of directions seen in this shot.

Nikki, Scene 4, shot 3 [31.17-31.22]

Character: Nikki, looking almost composed. Her head turns screen-left. Her mouth parts as if some sort of emotion is rising; her eyebrows knit together expressively. She glances back down as she perseveres with her work, but her brow and general mien show her feelings continuing to surface.

Camera movements: This shot continues exactly from the previous shot, with a gradual push-in on Nikki's face throughout its duration. The camera makes two large changes in direction here as she turns screen-left, then two tiny ones. First, it shifts left as Nikki turns her head, then, mid-shot, it reverses itself, begins to circle around-and-right to bring her face center-screen. It then makes several minuscule adjustments after that, a sort of squiggle (right-then-left).

Discussion: All the back-and-forth camerawork emphasizes the unsettled quality of Nikki's feelings. The camera movements around Nikki here are increasingly small—to the point, almost, of stillness, as they narrow in on her. There's a spiraling quality to them that helps build towards the scene's dramatic crisis, which Nikki's emotions will both precipitate and carry; thus the feeling of calm before the storm is economically delivered.

Helen, Scene 4, shot 4 [31.22-31.27]

Character: Helen in office, continuing from her previous shot, head lowered in determination over her work. Helen purses her lips, brings a hand to her forehead as if to focus better. She pulls her hand away, trying again to concentrate on her work. Helen's face is almost fully front now, center-screen, then we pass that point as she pulls her hand down, still trying to focus on paperwork.

Camera movements: This shot directly follows from the preceding Helen-shot; it is closer in than the first shot (as was also the case with Nikki's second shot). The camera is still moving right-to-left, which will continue to be its direction for the entire shot. Helen is angled screen-left throughout.

Nikki, Scene 4, shot 5 [31.27-31.32]

Character: Nikki lowers her head, then raises it, lips parted and shifting; the shed to her right is dark. Her head abruptly turns fully screen-left as she begins losing the struggle to compose herself; her upset is plain.

Camera movements: Camera opens on an almost still-shot of Nikki, then crabs left very slightly, opening up more space to her right. Camera then steadies on her with a bit of shake. Our view of Nikki moves to center-screen and the camera stills entirely.

Discussion: The camera's stillness creates the sense that whatever combination of feelings Nikki's wrestling with are about to break loose. The contrast between heightened inner turmoil and decreased movement, even stronger here than in the previous shot, builds on the feeling of tension barely contained: Nikki's a physically tall woman in a small space, very much a character embodying a sense of motion and action; such stillness is unnatural.

Helen, Scene 4, shot 6 [31.32-31.37]

Character: Helen: her head, at first still down, here moves up, briefly angled screen-right. She's clearly even more distracted than before. She then turns back to face center-screen; lowers her head and rubs her neck.

Camera movements: Like Nikki's first three shots, this shot also continues directly from the preceding Helen-shot. There are several interesting changes of direction to note here: this is the last time in the scene that the camera will use circular, rotational movements around Helen. Also, this shot starts with a close-up, but now, for the first time, the camera begins to pull away from Helen as it continues to rotate around her figure (in the same right-to-left direction).

Unlike Nikki, who is lit evenly throughout, Helen's face is in shadow for much of this shot (like her others): she's lit from the right, and here in particular, the contrast is striking—it's only when she lifts her head and looks screen-right that we see her face more clearly. Even then, it's still always at least half in shadow throughout the entire scene. As she drops her head and rubs her neck, the motion takes her away from the primary light-source.

Discussion: Once she's made up her mind to take action, almost all of the camera movements involving Helen will be straight-line (horizontal) pans—like Nikki's. Nevertheless, whether it's in rotation around Helen or pulling back from her, the camera will continue to express a distance from this character, consonant with her distance from herself (the distance she's trying to keep from what's causing all the distraction: that bit of business in the potting shed). And until Helen is able to look at the matter clearly, she (her self) will remain in shadow: only partially illuminated.

Nikki, Scene 4, shot 7 [31.37-31.42]

Character: Nikki explodes into action, twice stabbing at the dirt with her trowel, face a mask of angry frustration—then utter distress. After stabbing the dirt, she begins pacing the shed.

Camera movements: We begin this shot with a short left-to-right pan to bring Nikki more center-screen as she stabs at the dirt; pan then tacks to the left twice as she faces screen-left. The camera continues to follow her movements, left-to-right, as she begins pacing. At the end of the shot, when Nikki has again turned screen-left, the camera, lagging behind her movements, is still tracking screen-right. It's the only shot in the scene where the camera isn't essentially moving in concert with this character.

Discussion: As Nikki's emotions have become more volatile (in her agitation, she moves so rapidly that frame-captures are somewhat blurred), her movements have become larger, more visible: they, in turn, determine the camera's movements for the majority of the shot, rather than being described/suggested by the camera. At the end of the shot, she's clearly torn, an emotion expressed not only in Nikki's face, but also by the fact that she and the camera are moving in opposite directions.

As with almost every shot in this scene (with the exception of some small rotational adjustments in Nikki's Shot 3, above), camera movements around Nikki are usually quite straightforward (diagonal and horizontal pans), reflecting the directness of her emotions.

Helen, Scene 4, shot 8 [31.42-31.47]

Character: Helen, continuing from previous: face angled screen-left, hand still at neck: she raises her head, looking determined, and picks up the phone.

Camera movements: Camera movement is still right-to-left. As Helen picks up the phone she again faces screen-right, in opposition to the camera's motion. Once Helen has put the call through, however, the camera movement reverses itself and also shifts left-to-right.

Nikki, Scene 4, shot 9 [31.47-31.52]

Character: Nikki, sniffling, screen-right (facing left). She presses her hand to her mouth and briefly turns face-forward (towards the screen), hand still at her mouth, then again turns to face screen-left, trying to contain her distress. She tries to gather herself; raises her head and sets her shoulders.

Camera movements: Moving diagonally left-to-right, the camera pans in a gradual downward arc for the first time, in keeping with the emotion of the shot. (It should perhaps also be noted, as we draw to the close of Nikki's set of shots, that this is a nice bit of bracketing in that the overall angle here is very similar to, yet reversed from, the angle the whole scene began with.) But in the last seconds of the shot, as Nikki raises her head, the camera, too, follows her motion back 'up', however slightly.

Helen, Scene 4, shot 10 [31.52-32.01]

Character: Helen asks a subordinate to bring Nikki Wade to see her. She thanks the person on the other end, hangs up. She's made a decision about the need to speak to Nikki, and presumably the general tenor of what she'll say as well. She looks down, then her eyes and head begin to turn screen-right. Her expression again returns to one of anxious or apprehensive determination.

Camera movements: Camera pans very slightly 'down', and then a bit to the right after Helen's hung up the phone. Camera movements for Helen are increasingly slight during the last shots of the scene.

Discussion: Whatever action Helen is going to take, it isn't bringing her greater freedom of movement. The decreased range of motion seen in the camera movements around her throughout the rest of the scene suggests her decision is constraining her; she has even less flexibility after making this decision than before.

Nikki, Scene 4, shot 11 [32.01-32.06]

Character: Still looking very woeful, arms either folded or wrapped around herself, but clearly becoming more composed, if no less unhappy.

Camera movements: Static shot, extremely slight push-in.

Helen, Scene 4, shot 12 [32.06-32.11]

Character: Helen, closer in than previous shot. She looks contemplative or distracted, then once more, determined; yet Helen's bowed head and accompanying expression, though still resolute, carry an undertone that looks something like regret.[12] Then her eyes move off, she presses her lips together.

Camera movements: Closer in than previous shot; camera movements are even smaller. They start in a downward direction, crab very slightly to the right, then move a bit downward, again.

Discussion: The scene has ended, and yet... it seems very little has been resolved.

Scene 4: Nikki & Helen: cross-cutting: description & analysis

In the opening scene of this episode, cross-cutting was used to establish connection between the characters. It showed Helen and Nikki taking small, daily actions in a series of clear parallels; it showed that their connection was substantive; and that it existed despite the differences in their situations and the physical distance between their locations. Editing made this possible without a word of dialogue being exchanged between the characters.

In terms of dramatic structure, the opening scene, having established connection, doesn't require any type of direct interaction (or in fact any dialogue beyond Dominic's nominal introduction). The same type of editing will continue to show parallels between the characters in Scene 4; surface parallels having already been established, however, the additional development is that editing is now used to create a scene which plays as if the characters are interacting, thus bringing deeper, psychological parallels into play. Again: this, despite physical distance putting the characters entirely out of each other's sight, and—again—without any dialogue between the pair. The characters are no longer just acting in parallel, but in relation to the other, albeit indirectly and unbeknownst to that other: only we, the audience, are witness to this 'interaction'.

Although physical parallels between the characters have been established (both in the episode's first scene and here too—they are both at 'work'; both opening shots are on their hands, etc.)—unlike in the opening scene, their camera movements as charted by the editing are here anything but complementary. The editing maps out these differences in minute detail as it builds towards the scene's climactic moment, when the characters' physical movements become—briefly—reciprocal. Despite this, the editing underscores a sense of ongoing conflict between the two which will extend well beyond this short scene.

Nikki - shed / Helen - office, Scene 4, shots 1-2 [31.05-31.17]

Nikki is mainly facing screen-left in these first shots—and when the shots are viewed in sequence, screen-left reads as: in Helen's 'direction'. Thus in shot 2, when we see Helen also mainly facing screen-left, her positioning reads as: facing 'away' from Nikki's general direction—or a sort of literal 'turning' away, as suggested by the circling camerawork. (Helen's shot starts with that small left-to-right movement, which follows the general direction of Nikki's shot, maintaining continuity in the editing, but almost instantly begins reversing itself.) In short, they're essentially facing in opposite directions, something the camerawork emphasizes.

Yet the camerawork also suggests a sense of mutual, though conflicted, 'pull'—Nikki's shots are 'towards' screen-left (Helen's direction), Helen's camera consistently angles screen-right (Nikki's direction), even as it begins to circle 'away' (rotate left).[13]

It should be noted that although both women are at work—neither is able to accomplish a thing. Nikki's messing around with soil, and Helen's shuffling papers: neither is being remotely productive. They're literally just going through the motions.

Nikki / Helen, Scene 4, shots 3-4 [31.17-31.27]

The camera movements for Nikki throughout this next shot are less dramatic than those for Helen, but their general overall direction (left - right - left) is the same as in Helen's previous shot, beginning to build a sense in the viewer that Nikki is 'responding' to (or at least echoing) Helen's movements. Here, the camera mainly continues its subtle right-to-left diagonal movement, similar to the previous shots for both characters. It is when Nikki's head turns screen-left (Helen's direction) that we see her feelings begin to come to the surface; as she turns 'away', she tries to subdue them.

Helen's close-up continues from her previous shot. The camera begins this shot still moving right-to-left but this time in a broad sweep, as if the increasingly concentrated, narrowing tremors in Nikki's shot are communicating themselves to Helen at an amplified level, registering on her
internal Nikki-seismograph (the one she's about to insist she doesn't have). The tone of the background music is shifting a bit; minor. Helen remains resolutely turned 'from' Nikki's direction and towards her paperwork for the entire shot.

'Circling', as above and especially in the next shot, suggests the characters' states of mind as they try to negotiate two different, conflicting sets of emotions. Helen and Nikki are already closely related to each other through these parallel movements in the editing, which describes a series of actions and reactions: Nikki's increasing distress will call forth a series of responses (in similarly increasing increments of agitation/drama) from Helen, leading to a decision on Helen's part to take action. (Helen phones an aide to summon Nikki to her office, where she'll try to dispel this connection even as she confirms it.) In a larger sense, this dynamic is carried forth throughout their entire relationship: Nikki is the catalyst for Helen's journey; Nikki's emotions call forth responses from Helen, which Helen in turn reacts to (often, against)—then acts upon.

Nikki / Helen, Scene 4, shots 5-6 [31.27-31.37]

As the camera opens on Nikki, it begins its slow crab left, which will continue throughout most of the shot: this opens up more space to Nikki's right (screen- left, Helen's direction). And it is after Nikki's head turns fully screen-left ('towards' Helen) that we get our first reaction shot from Helen.

Helen: her head, at first still down, with the camera still circling round it as in previous shot, here—like Nikki's—inclines up sharply, angled screen-right: it's the first time she's moved in this direction, 'towards' Nikki. (And it's interesting to note her movement feels involuntary: whatever is distracting her and pulling her thoughts in that direction isn't something she physically has much control over.) For the briefest of instants, it's as if the characters are facing each other.

The entire series of shots has been leading us to this moment (coupled with the pair of shots that follow), dead- center in the middle of the scene: it is
almost impossible for the viewer not to feel that Helen senses the emotional upset coming from Nikki's direction, off-screen. (Helen's smaller movements would seem to confirm this: her mouth opens; her eyes open; and then her head moves sideways, as if listening to something: only after that does her head complete its movement screen-right; her lips then purse together again, as if in reaction to her own reaction.) At the very least, Helen's concentration is obviously shot to pieces: both characters' turmoil is perfectly in sync at this instant.

Both characters' shots—but particularly the first three for each—have apparently been cut from one long take apiece. The camerawork in Nikki's shots communicates her struggle with constant back-and-forth movements. It's a struggle Nikki's aware of. We can't know if—like Helen—part of her struggle is around her wish to resist what her own distress signifies (that is, she doesn't want be upset: to be so suggests her feelings for Helen run deeper than mere attraction)—but unlike Helen, she's not ignoring her own responses. We don't have to guess about Nikki's primary emotions, they're written plainly on her face: she's struggling, torn, and very upset.

The camera movements in Helen's shots, however, rather than bringing Helen to an emotional realization (an 'inward' direction as with Nikki), move her farther from Nikki's direction. Viewed as a whole, the first three Helen-shots take us almost 180 degrees around Helen as she sits at her desk—and she's almost always facing 'away' from Nikki. Her resistance, reluctance, or discomfort in internally addressing the potting shed incident is measured in tiny increments: fidgeting, tightened mouth, and the camera movement itself. The camera's new movement in this shot—away from Helen—begins to suggest an additional layer of meaning as we see her pull back from an instinctive response (her 'reaction' shot) to Nikki's distress. The lighting further suggests her state of mind: at this moment, indecision and uncertainty literally shadow Helen.

Nikki / Helen, Scene 4, shots 7-8 [31.37-31.47]

Next we will see a series of directly opposing camera movements which swiftly escalate. This increases the sense of physical as well as emotional drama. Thus the 'mirroring' throughout this scene is in the editing—where variations in camera movement chart the similarities and differences in the characters' 'reactions' to each other's unseen emotions. Though the characters are situated separately in noncontiguous spaces and are increasingly positioned with physically divergent camera movements, the cross-cutting creates and heightens a sense of emotional relation to that (unseen) other, despite each of their internal struggles to subdue their respective feelings. Helen is trying to focus on her work and not be distracted by her feelings; Nikki is experiencing her feelings—her 'work' is just a distraction from them.

Two sets of dramatic zigzag camera- movements are coupled again in the next two shots. Reading the shots for emotional continuity, Nikki's outburst of feeling can be understood as a 'response' to Helen's turning-away in the previous moment.

Nikki's shot starts with a short left-to-right pan—opposite in direction from Helen's movements in the previous shot. Helen's camera movement (continuing from her previous shot) is still right-to-left for the majority of the shot—opposite Nikki's movement as she paces the shed.

As Helen picks up the phone she again faces screen-right, 'towards' Nikki and in contrast to the camera's continuing left-to-right motion—just as Nikki's camera movements are in opposition to her physical movement in the last seconds of the previous shot. Once Helen begins speaking, however, the camera reverses itself and shifts left-
to-right. In order to fight her feelings, Helen has to acknowledge them in the first place—thus the final seconds of this shot: for the first and only time in this post-potting-shed scene, every aspect of Helen's shot is aligned screen-right—towards Nikki: her body's movement, the angle of her head, her eyes, her speech (thus presumably her thoughts), and the movement of the camera. Nikki is the subject of all Helen's reactions.

In keeping with the scene entire, Nikki's movements and the camerawork that accompanies them still remain straightforward. Ironically it is Nikki, the prisoner, who throughout most of the scene displays greater freedom of movement than Helen, whose movements have a much smaller compass and are more constrained.

It is only during the shot with Helen that the soundtrack picks up markedly—and not, as might be more typically expected in a TV show, in the previous visually and emotionally dramatic moment, when Nikki loses it. We can see—and feel—Nikki's response to Helen; we don't need the soundtrack to tell us drama is happening. The music being ramped up at this point, after Nikki's outburst, suggests Helen's actions, though not visually momentous, are equally significant: this phone call signals an important decision on Helen's part (and heightens audience expectation for the critical encounter in Helen's office that the call is about to usher in).

Nikki / Helen, Scene 4, shots 9-10 [31.47-32.01]

Nikki is stuck: having had an outburst of emotion, she's got nowhere to go with it: unlike Helen, she cannot take further action. The potting-shed scene was definitive, in terms of her range of action for this episode. Meanwhile, Helen is free to take further action. She gets an answer from her subordinate— and her shot sequence picks up interesting nuances, playing as it does 'opposite' Nikki's. Soundtrack volume is lowered for the conversation and begins to resolve—to a degree (minor chords, downbeat).

We start Helen's shot with the camera moving in the opposite direction from
the last seconds of Nikki's shot, panning slightly down (as in the majority of Nikki's previous shot), rather than up. However to do this (move 'down'), means of course the camera started from a correspondingly elevated position: the final seconds of Nikki's shot and the first seconds of Helen's shot are the closest moment to an eyeline-match that the scene offers.

Viewed with the sound off, it looks as if Helen's entire person is
receiving signals from Nikki at this instant: she's suspended here—high enough so that the top of her brow is cut off at the top of the frame (it is in the original broadcast version as well, just a bit less so)—as she listens anxiously for a reply; when she gets that answer from her subordinate, her whole body sinks back down, either in relief or just as a release of tension—or in 'response' to Nikki's invisible, corresponding attempt at calm from sheds unseen, screen-right.

Camera panning very slightly to the right, Helen still angled facing screen-right; she looks down, appears more composed, then her eyes and head start to turn screen-right. Camera is almost still, panning slightly to the right for the rest of the shot, as Helen contemplates her decision—though she continues to turn towards the space that's been opened up, screen-right (Nikki's direction). Her half-smile at the conversation's conclusion slips, and her expression again returns to one of anxious determination. This extended glance in Nikki's direction and her changed expression suggest her dilemma continues, though she may only be partially aware of it: it seems likely that, so far as she knows, her mind is made up—she'll have a word with this difficult prisoner she has befriended and make her position clear. Though the prospect may be unpleasant, it has to be done. But her eyes would seem to suggest the matter's not quite as settled as she may wish. They have a mind of their own, as it were.

Nikki / Helen, Scene 4, shots 11-12 [32.01-32.11]

The previous shots showed Helen angled screen-right, Nikki's direction; here she's still facing in the same direction, but no longer looking 'towards' Nikki. At this moment, we're seeing as much of Helen's face in good light as the entire scene has given us, but she's more distant from us than ever: there's
no way to tell what she's thinking, and the music isn't giving much away.

This is the only truly discontinuous shot in the scene.[14] In a sequence so meticulously edited, this can hardly be an accident. Here, Helen's head is raised again, lips parted, brow smooth and uncertain (still suggesting a sense of ongoing 'response' to this [unseen] shot of a mournful Nikki—or lack of resolve around her own decision).

But the discontinuity suggests something else: a mysterious, matching discontinuity in Helen herself, between what she thinks and what she feels. Whatever emotions Helen has experienced in the intervening gap are not something the audience has been privy to: they're unknown, private. I'd suggest they've been left unseen in this minuscule jumpcut because Helen herself doesn't want to see them (and still isn't really aware of their extent); it's as if the scene has been edited in keeping with the character's decision—but reveals the existence of those feelings in the act of editing them out. Thus this small act of 'editing', an elision, itself perfectly expresses Helen's ambivalence, her denial, the feelings she'd like to ignore.

Clearly, at the very least, Helen's just as unsettled as when last we viewed her, when she'd supposedly made up her mind: if it was fully decided, we wouldn't have needed the last two shots. The scene could have ended after either of the previous Helen- or Nikki-shots.

Instead, Helen once more looks determined as her mouth closes, tightens, head lowered yet again to her work; camera movement is in a very slight downward direction, and the sensation of regret, of options closed down, carries an extra weight here after all we've seen. Then Helen's eyes move off, again drawn screen-right as she continues to think. Her mouth is one of her most expressive and mobile features: she doesn't just clamp her lips together (recalling the start of the scene and bookending it with further emphasis), she practically disappears them. It's a gesture of both resolution—and emotional containment: a bottling-up.

[End scene.]


This episode marks the nature of Helen and Nikki's engagement as plainly intimate. Their closeness is revealed in the introductory scene of crosscut similarities. Then, following the momentous contretemps in the potting shed, that closeness is heightened in this later scene of mutual awareness and resistance on the part of each character to what that awareness may mean. That this all happens despite the fact that each character is out of sight of each other only makes it more powerful. Along with the increased tempo of their burgeoning if awkward friendship (due to restrictions in their respective situations), and the accelerated pace of the flirtation Helen has initiated and Nikki has responded to, the editing here clearly shows us: out of sight of the other, Helen and Nikki are nevertheless already deeply connected.

It's tempting to suggest this scene is a sort of metaphorical conversation they're having; it is not—the possibility of any kind of dialogue between the two characters is the element most obviously excluded here. One way of viewing what happens in this scene might be in terms of a kind of emotional dialectic, wherein a series of escalating reactions from Nikki brings forth decisions and actions from Helen. It's a pattern of involvement and struggle that will continue throughout their entire relationship.[15]

But the pair is a long way from what could arguably be seen as the moment of synthesis (the resolution towards which dialectical struggle aims), Helen's 'I want a woman' statement. As this scene draws to a close, Helen—who has procedure, rules, and the authority and power of her position behind her—makes a decision and makes a phone call. Nikki, who has no power but that of her own feelings, is able to express those feelings (in the limited confines of the potting shed—'outside' Larkhall proper), but is then paralyzed, without further outlet for action. And the office scene which is their final private encounter in this episode resolves nothing: Helen's taking refuge in her position to put distance between herself and Nikki; Nikki's still stuck with emotions that have nowhere to go.

In the first scene, the characters gaze out through their respective windows; they gaze in at their mirrors; and the editing suggests each imagines the other in both of these sets of actions (though Helen is likely not conscious of this): the other is what they desire—outside themselves. For a brief moment, both characters' internal landscapes appear to be untroubled; they are composed, even happy—Helen hums to herself, Nikki looks eager and animated. But the shots introducing Helen position her at triple-remove: our first view of her is outside the screen's frame; with her back to us; mirrored. She's literally seen only as a reflection—a reflection that is, appropriately enough, in the closet (her standing wardrobe).

By the fourth scene, what took place in the potting shed has changed everything. Neither character can continue on with whatever set of assumptions each has had about what their uncertain friendship means. Nikki is immobilized by her emotions and then rendered passive by Helen's response in the office, where Helen retreats back into her role of Wing Governor as she tries to impose rules on two sets of emotions—hers and Nikki's—that are already outside official boundaries.[16] Until the balance is partially restored at the end of the next episode, no further forward movement can take place between them. Until Helen is more herself—knows who that self is—she won't be completely able to actualize the connection that allows her to envision, respond to, and love her other: Nikki.


My thanks to JT, JAMBF, Jeanna, and especially ABL for help in reviewing and restructuring this essay. Special thanks to James, for his invaluable help with the clips.

[1] Cross-cutting: "Editing that alternates shots of two or more lines of action occurring in different places, usually simultaneously. The two actions are therefore linked, associating the characters from both lines of action." —

[2] One of the pictures on the wall behind Helen also features a door. Credit for observing the scene's use of doorways and their echo in Helen's pictures belongs to JAMBF. I'm grateful she brought this to my attention.

[3] This is not the case in the original (broadcast) version, but the DVDs have been significantly cropped on the right- and left-hand sides of the frame. On the DVD version with which fans are so familiar, the right-hand side of the mirror extends to the edge of the frame, making it hard to distinguish between the two: in the original broadcast version, the frame extends well beyond the mirror's right-hand edge—which makes it immediately apparent that we're seeing Helen's reflection.


broadcast version

[4] Historically, cinema has frequently used the trope of 'mirroring' between women to portray lesbianism as narcissistic at best, pathological at worst. Countless films (All About Eve; Young Man with a Horn; and Persona, just to name a few) offer up a variety of such visual shortcuts, including the actual use of mirrors (to show divided self, 'twinning', or narcissism); visually 'framing' female pairs within the mis-en-scene by way of doorways, clothing, bodily-stance; and shots where the faces of characters are melded, reflected, or superimposed upon each other. Framed in these ways, characters whose relationship was coded as lesbian (or having an element of same-sex desire) were understood by audiences, then as now, to convey the additional message that the lesbian attachment being presented (often with ominous musical undertones) was perverted, destructive, infantile, predatory, 'mannish', or just plain unwell.

[5] The first such use (which shows both practices in play) occurs when Fenner appears behind Denny in Series 1, episode 1—both expanding the frame and conveying menace. Another instance is Al's sudden manifestation behind Shaz just before Al beats her up (S3, ep11). And Caroline's silent entrance behind Nikki as Nikki is undressed and washing up in her sink sounds a subtle early warning-note about Caroline's character (S3, ep12).

[6] To find a more metaphorical use of mirroring (here, the idea that mirroring reflects self-image negatively), we'd need to consider a special case: Shell. The fun-house effect when she puts on her makeup during her Series 2 meltdown tells us rather blatantly just how much trouble this character is in. We get a foreshadowing of Shell's breakdown when Denny comes in to check on her in S1, ep10 (after Fenner's beaten Shell up): Denny briefly shares the mirror with Shell—but Denny's reflection is completely normal; it is only Shell's side of the mirror that's distorted.* That this special effect around Shell and mirrors is carried across two separate and distinct episodes underlines that it is specific to her character.

This might also be a small additional expression of how Shed 'normalizes' (see: Didi Herman) lesbian narratives; early seasons rarely portrayed lesbian characters with distorted selves, instead using characters with distorted selves (such as Shell and Fenner, and to a lesser extent, Bodybag) to express homophobic points of view (thus further privileging lesbian characters).** Shed and Debra Stephenson turned Shell into a character of surprising depth over the course of her time in Larkhall, but she always retains something of her 'pantomine' stock-character origins.

* Many thanks to JAMBF for calling my attention to this wonderful detail.
** Thanks to JT for clarifying this point.

[7] By the time the show was hitting its stride, a positive outcome to this prominent, central lesbian relationship was plainly what a large part of its viewing audience wanted as well: both the show's dramatic appeal as well as its early commercial success depended on exactly this.

[8] Nikki's rather unclear status as 'soft butch' or, a description Shed used early on, 'lipstick lesbian' (notably, both are mainly ignored in online discussions among fans) is negligible in such moments: what matters here is that both women dress for the world in a similar way. They're putting on makeup not to improve faces that need no improving, or even to put on a 'game' face much less 'war paint' (their makeup is soft, not hard like Betts'), but presumably for the pleasure it gives them in presenting themselves well—and on Nikki's part at least, perhaps in imagining the pleasure her appearance may give Helen. (Nikki's presentation, the fact the she dresses 'up' a bit every day, is also clearly an expression of her struggle to maintain her self-respect and a measure of dignity within the prison setting.) In fact, it is Nikki's application of makeup and the focus on it in this scene that informs us plainly: whether she's fully aware of it or not, she's in courting mode. There's nothing false about it. It's a girl-thing, not a psychiatric diagnostic category.

[9] Thanks to JAMBF for help with this interpretation.

[10] Pan: "A camera movement with the camera body turning to the right or left. On the screen, it produces a mobile framing which scans the space horizontally. A pan directly and immediately connects two places or characters, thus making us aware of their proximity. [...] [A] pan does not necessarily mean that the camera moves along an horizontal line." —

[11] The lack of transition in the original broadcast version does create a subtle temporal difference in viewing: without the black-screen transition, the scene reads as if it comes right after the potting shed, rather than (watching the DVDs) creating a more vague sensation of 'some time has elapsed'—raising the question of how immediate the producers intended the aftereffects of the potting shed incident to feel. The original broadcast version would seem to make more sense, since the cell-search scene is still taking place. (The black-screen was likely created to give broadcasters a space to break for advertisements.)

[12] What that might signal remains speculative: perhaps Helen's only aware of feeling a bit sorry about what she's going to do, or say. On another, less conscious level, her expression may also be showing a sense of regret about what that might mean to or for her, personally: a flicker of something similar crosses her face at the end of the next scene (Scene 5) in the office, after Nikki's walked out on her.

[13] Many thanks to JT for this observation.

[14] The other minuscule jump-cuts do what they're supposed to: invisibly move the characters' actions forward in sync with their movements. For example, the audience can project that Nikki's pacing in the shed would bring her from one side to the other without needing to see it: she arrives in the expected spot after the appropriate amount of time has ellapsed. This shot is different, in that what it is in response to—what Helen face is showing her reacting to, internally—hasn't been shown (indeed, can't be shown).

[15] Nikki's grab in the shed was a decision that brought forth a pure reaction from Helen. And if Nikki had been able to step back... she'd perhaps have seen that what she wanted was there: any reaction at that point, positive or negative, so long as it wasn't pure disinterest, would have been a step forward. Nikki gets her confirmation in their next scene together, of course—again phrased in terms of a refusal. ['Even if I were attracted to you, which I'm not, there is no way we could have a relationship! For a start I would be sacked.']

[16] Who has the ability (and authority) to name the other is an important feature of the office scene: Helen addresses Nikki by her given name three times in this scene, whereas Nikki is not free to address Helen similarly—she ends the scene by calling Helen 'Miss' with bitter emphasis. It isn't until another episode and some time has passed that Nikki first calls Helen by her given name*, in the scene that begins the rapprochement that will lead to their first kiss.

* Thanks to JT for noting this significant milestone.

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