Close Up: Helen's Coming Out
by Jennifer T.

The climactic conclusion of Helen and Nikki's relationship in Bad Girls takes only a few minutes (four and a half, to be exact). It's the culmination of more than 30 hours of angst-ridden passion, heart-wrenching misunderstandings, tumultuous battles, and loving forgiveness. While the sequence feels far too short for many viewers aching to see Helen and Nikki happily united, it's packed with psychological depth, visual metaphor, and textual allusion. This essay addresses each in turn.

The Scene



Psychological Analysis

This scene contains more than a few ambiguous lines and actions. Most of Nikki and Helen's thoughts and feelings are left unsaid or unexplained. The few lines of dialogue and behaviors have been discussed extensively by fans online and off. They are all a challenge to analyze in any conclusive way; the text is too ambiguous, the emotions too complex. That ambiguity and complexity is part of the charm and realism of the sequence. If it were easy to put these thoughts and emotions into clear and definitive words, love would be much less of a challenge for all of us.

Overview

No matter how much I parse every line, every look, every laugh of this sequence, I'm still left with the question of why the sequence is fraught with misunderstanding after misunderstanding. Nikki doesn't notice Helen when Helen first enters the bar. Helen thinks Nikki is back with Trish. Nikki thinks Helen is still with Thomas. Nikki can't imagine Helen is interested in her, let alone that Helen has finally come to terms with her sexuality. And all this from a couple who (when they're not fighting) can zero in on each other from across a prison yard, a couple that has benefited from some of the most intuitive, unspoken ease of communication and understanding imaginable.

The whole communication breakdown in this sequence can be read as symptomatic of this estranged stage of their relationship. Following the riot, they've both actually managed to convince themselves that the other doesn't love them anymore. They start being very dishonest about their feelings for each other, something they haven't done since they got together at the end of S2E2. When Helen visits Nikki in her cell once Nikki knows about Thomas, Nikki says "Don't worry 'bout me. I've got a whole new life waiting for me once I get out." When Nikki tries to convince Helen not to quit, Helen says "You've got to forget about me," and Nikki's response, about Helen being her "hope," is not even close to being a real explanation of why she is so heartbroken that Helen is leaving Larkhall.

Their not-seeing and not-understanding each other in and outside of Chix demonstrates how not-connected they are, how much they need to overcome to be together now, after everything they've been through. The mis-reading, the inability for Helen and Nikki to just instinctively see each other feels painful and disconnected and stressful and just Not Right. By establishing this painful tension, the final sequence manages to balance showing the power of Helen and Nikki's connection, and also how much they have to (re)build together. They're really just starting the beginning of a relationship.
 

Why does Helen come to the bar?

This is a deceptively simple question which raises a number of complex issues. It's pretty clear that Helen is heartbroken after her dinner with Thomas: she now realizes she loves Nikki and wants to be with her. It's hard to know whether she thinks she still has a chance to win Nikki back. Then she watches Nikki's courtroom speech on television, and is inspired to go find Nikki and at least congratulate her, and if possible, maybe try to win her back. She shows up at the club, and she's about to tell Nikki something, we're not sure exactly what. Perhaps she intends to confess that she split up with Thomas (at least) and perhaps she wants to tell Nikki that she's still in love with her. Unfortunately she's not able to say any of these things, finding herself at a loss for words as Nikki assumes Thomas is waiting for her. Then Helen spots Trish, thinks Trish and Nikki are back together, and so she leaves without saying anything, trying to give Nikki the chance for happiness.
 

Why does Helen wait outside the bar after leaving?

If Helen truly thinks Trish and Nikki are back together, then what is she going to accomplish by waiting? It only makes sense for her to wait if she thinks that Nikki might still want to be with her. But if so, then why doesn't she say something inside the bar?

One possible reading is that Helen exits the bar intending to leave, never to see Nikki again. But then she just can't bring her feet to move, once she's left the bar. Nor can she go back in, because she would feel like a bit of a fool. So, she's stuck outside—can't walk away from Nikki, can't go back to try to win her again. She may not even be sure of Nikki's feelings at this point; she has Nikki's speech on one hand, and Trish's possessiveness on the other. Neither piece of evidence is particularly conclusive. So she's paralyzed until Nikki comes after her. Perhaps she's working up the courage to go back in, and is thankful (and slightly embarrassed) when Nikki comes out to find her. Her line "Well, I figured if I waited long enough..." is actually a joke to cover her slight embarrassment that she is standing outside the bar waiting for Nikki. [1]
 

Helen: I've been such an idiot Nikki.
Nikki: I know what you're saying.

This exchange between Helen and Nikki is perhaps the most complex and ambiguous exchange in the entire scene. From a television viewer's perspective, Helen's line is relatively clear. She's realized her feelings for Nikki, and is apologizing for her delusional relationship with Thomas, amongst other rejections she's inflicted on Nikki in the past. However, from Nikki's perspective, Helen's meaning is heavily veiled. She hasn't seen Helen with Thomas, she hasn't seen Helen watching the result of her appeal. She knows only the following facts:
1. A few days ago Helen thought she was serious about Thomas
2. A few days ago Helen wanted Nikki to forget about Helen and their relationship
3. Today Helen and Thomas are no longer together

Based on this incomplete information, when Nikki says "I know what you're saying" she's trying to cut Helen off, trying to stop Helen from saying more: Nikki is using the phrase to suggest a whole cluster of things, and, at the same time as conversational filler, a shorthand for let's-not-talk-about-that-whole-cluster-of-things. [2]

Nikki's emotional state provides the key to understanding why she would want to stop Helen from sharing her thoughts any further. Nikki blames herself for Helen having to leave Larkhall, and she thinks that Helen blames her too. If she hadn't escaped and gone to Helen's apartment, Fenner wouldn't have been able to blackmail Helen, and Helen wouldn't have had to quit. Not only that, but Helen would have been able to force Fenner to resign. Nikki's grappling with this intense guilt even while she's happy about being out of Larkhall.

In this state of mind, Nikki can imagine all kinds of things Helen might want to say to her. Nikki might have thought Helen meant that she had been "such an idiot" to come to the club and see her again, that she'd made a mistake in doing so and this was the reason she had left so suddenly, as she had suddenly realized her error. In this interpretation, Helen's idiocy stems from her regret at giving Nikki the wrong impression about her intentions. [3] Even though Helen has said that she and Thomas split up, Nikki might still fear that Helen came to the club on a rebound kind of impulse, and then thought better of it (and hence exited the club rather than trying to win Nikki back). Or she could fear that Helen wants to complain about her relationship failures, her questionable taste in men. [4] Nikki might truly think Helen now identifies as Straight, capital S. Nikki hasn't seen the interactions Helen has had with Thomas, and therefore she doesn't know how much Helen struggled throughout the relationship, how much ambivalence Helen had around expressing herself, around being perceived as "normal."

No matter what her exact thoughts, it's clear Nikki can imagine all kinds of reasons Helen feels like an idiot, and none of them have to do with Helen realizing she's a lesbian and wants to be with her. Nikki is still in the mindset of: I fucked up Helen's life and career, not the mindset of: I opened up this woman to true love and intimacy. That guilt affects her ability to see why Helen has shown up at the bar, or to know what Helen wants to say to her.

Nikki's meaning is primarily emotional, not denotative, which makes it very hard to pin down. Emotionally, Nikki probably feels she can't stand one more rejection from Helen; she's at her limit. Her body language communicates more than her words: her eyes are downcast and then flick away; her head swivels fully to the side as her face expresses pain and disappointment; her whole body seems to deflate as she tries to bring her head back then looks down again, trying to control her expression. Her line, "I know what you're saying," is neutral, it's not angry or confrontational, impatient, not even disappointed, really, just low and even-toned, as if Nikki is trying to make things easier for both of them. [5]

Nikki can't see how Helen's subsequent statement can lead to anything other than an endless loop or spiral into self-recrimination, blame, doubt, reworking the scenarios in their heads. So Nikki's trying to spare them this, at least. Because the Helen she knew the last time they said goodbye has already said everything she could say: Helen's said I love you, she's said I want you, but, from Nikki's perspective, she's said them as a straight woman making an exception. Nikki has no way of knowing Helen has had a life-changing realization about her sexuality, and that realization (and her uncertainty about Nikki's interest) is why Helen's looking stressed and anxious. [6] From Nikki's perspective, there's nothing new left for Helen to say, and that's why she thinks she knows what Helen is saying.

Helen: No, let me say it.

With this line Helen finally claims her own voice, stating her own desires rather than allowing Nikki to do it for her as she has so many times in the past. Having others speak for you has been a repeated motif between Helen and Nikki, starting with their first fight on G-Wing after Carol's miscarriage in S1E1. When Nikki anticipates Helen making excuses for the officers' negligence, she prefaces her own antagonistic remarks with the line "No, let me say it for her." [7] In that first episode, Nikki knows what Helen is going to say because Helen is going to toe the party line. Helen is not going to break free from her role as prison governor and admit what she truly thinks about the situation with Carol.

In this final scene, 39 episodes later, Helen needs to speak for herself because she isn't following any path any longer. She's broken free from her proscribed heterosexual role and finally admitting her true feelings. Only when Helen truly speaks for herself is she liberated from social and professional expectations.

Helen: Thomas is gorgeous. He's everything you would want in a man. But I want a woman.

There has been much debate about what Helen means when she says "I want a woman." Does she mean she just wants Nikki? Is she saying she's a lesbian or something more ambiguous, more bisexual? The writers have indicated that they intended Helen's declaration to be her coming out (not coincidentally also the title of the episode). However, to some viewers these lines of Helen's still contain significant ambiguity. What did Helen mean by this line? Is there a way to read between the lines and come up with something more definitive?

The first part of the line reflects her certainty. She gave it a go with the ideal man, he's everything one would want. But not everything she would want. He's everything some general "you" person would want. That's not what she wants. She's distancing herself from this desire for Thomas, defining it as completely separate from herself and her own desires. The second part of line has a missing but implied phrase which is vitally important to understanding Helen's newfound lesbian identity: "He's everything you would want in a man. But [I don't want a man,] I want a woman." The way the line is written, that phrase I've inserted is there, just as if it had been stated explicitly. The whole structure of the sentences implies its presence. The record may have skipped over it, but the listener can still hear it. Without saying it explicitly, Helen is still declaring her sexuality and desire with complete certainty and clarity. It's not just Thomas she doesn't want, but the category of men in general.

Nikki: We'll take things slowly.

Again, Nikki is a well of mystery in this scene. Now that she knows Helen is in love with her and wants to be with her, why would she say that she wants to take things slowly? She's been waiting two years to be with the woman she loves.

Her meaning becomes clearer when considered in the context of Helen and Nikki's entire relationship. Nikki was always pushing Helen, pushing the relationship further than Helen was comfortable going. From when she grabbed Helen's hand and put it on her breast in the potting shed, to the first kiss, to the escape, Nikki always added momentum to the relationship, barreling through Helen's boundaries, escalating their relationship. Nikki knows this pattern, and by suggesting they proceed slowly she's telling Helen how different things will be now that she is out. The relationship can now progress at its own pace, at a speed that both of them are comfortable with, that they decide on together ("we'll take things slowly").

Nikki's line reflects a level of trust and comfort in the relationship which Nikki hasn't demonstrated since that night in Helen's apartment (and only very occasionally before that). Nikki doesn't need Helen to be risking and sacrificing everything to prove her love—Nikki now knows it's there. In a way, this is possibly the most caring thing Nikki has said to Helen in a very long time, because she's telling her newly-out lover that she's not going to make her uncomfortable anymore.

Helen: Yeah, dead slow.

On a surface level, Simone Lahbib's delivery of this line makes Helen's meaning obvious. She's flirting. She doesn't want to take anything slow, except perhaps their lovemaking. Things have already been plenty slow between these two, and Helen is ready to get things started.

However, like Nikki's offer to take things slowly, Helen's line has added significance because of the deep contrast with most of her previous reactions to Nikki's overtures. In the past when Nikki pushed, Helen retreated. She never responded to Nikki's declarations of interest right away, but instead offered repeated rejections until ultimately giving in. Before this day, every time Nikki held up a mirror and let Helen see her desires she made Helen "uncomfortable" [8] as Helen complained in S1E9 when she found Nikki in the library as she was searching for Monica. Given this context, Helen's jokey, flirtatious semi-sarcasm demonstrates her complete acceptance of herself and her desires. She isn't in terrified retreat. Finally! 

Visual Symbolism

Confinement versus Freedom

The staging of this sequence is extremely deliberate. The sequence transitions from the dark world of the nightclub to the light world of a London street in the afternoon. It moves from a private, gay space into an open, public, straight space.

   

This transition represents Helen's own journey from straight to gay, and her ability to finally declare her feelings and desire and identity, not just in the privacy of her own home or Nikki's cell, but to the world at large. This journey also parallels Nikki's transition from the confinement of Larkhall Prison to the real world. Just as Nikki has been confined, so have Helen's feelings, and Nikki and Helen's relationship. Their feelings and relationship no longer need to be hidden; they can be declared and lived for all to see, in the daylight outside, without fear of punishment.

This freedom from confinement also generates some challenges for Helen and Nikki to come together. In this final scene, Helen enters the bar and doesn't immediately see Nikki, and when Nikki chases her outside, she looks in the complete wrong direction. We don't even see Helen see Nikki as she exits the bar—we just hear her call out from off screen. This is a huge contrast to all of the scenes where Helen enters G-Wing and we see them see each other—it's like they can just sense each other's presence. These near-misses represent the myriad of possibilities of the outside world, in contrast to prison life. In G-Wing, Helen only enters from one direction. Nikki is always where she's supposed to be: in her cell during lockup, in the servery during meals, etc. But now Nikki and Helen can be anywhere. It takes "detective work" for Helen to find Nikki at all, and then Nikki has no way of knowing in which direction Helen has retreated.

To Be Continued

Helen and Nikki's final moment employs a traditional cinematic technique: the iris.
The iris is defined as "a transitional shot showing the gradual disappearance of the image through a contracting mask (iris-out). Common in silent film, irises today usually evoke nostalgia for the period when they were in vogue." [9] This nostalgia posits Helen and Nikki as a romantic silent film couple, epic and timeless. It's a politically subversive moment: just as Helen and Nikki have claimed public, heterosexual space to demonstrate their love and commitment, they've now claimed the traditional imagery of cinematic romance, a space dominated by heterosexuality.

In a show about prison, it's possible to interpret the iris out on another level as well. In Larkhall the officers frequently look through the peepholes of the prisoners' cell doors. The peepholes, and the view through them, represent the utter lack of privacy for the inmates. The iris evokes this imagery of the peephole, as if looking out of a Larkhall peephole on two people finally free from confinement. [10] We audience members have been observing these two through the peephole of our television screen for three seasons, and now that peephole is closing. No longer confined, Helen and Nikki have the luxury and liberty which comes from privacy, free from spying eyes looking through peepholes.

The imagery of the iris provides another context for the words which appear on the screen as Helen and Nikki fade out. "To be continued" has many meanings. It's most commonly used on television to tell viewers that the plot line will continue in the next episode. This is confusing in the context of Helen and Nikki, whose storyline on the show concludes in this moment. In silent films the words that would have appeared with (or after) the iris would have been "The End." However, this moment isn't the end for Helen and Nikki as a couple. "To be continued" can be read as an alternative to "The End" meaning "Not the end, a beginning!"

Textual Allusions

Music

The original broadcast of S3E16 includes some very revealing music underscoring this last sequence between Helen and Nikki.[11] All three of the songs playing in the club revolve around ideas of lovers struggling to come together, finally accepting and expressing their desire. They echo the inner thoughts and feelings of Helen and Nikki as they struggle to come together on the outside.
 

  During the exchange between Nikki and Trish, 'Spinning Around' by Kylie Minogue is playing. While it's difficult to determine exactly which part of the song is playing during the scene, the most resonant lyrics are included here:
 
I'm breakin' it down
I'm not the same
I know you're feelin' me cuz you like it

Mistakes that I made givin' me the strength
To really believe
And no matter how I take it
There's no way I'm gonna fake it cuz its gotta be real

I've got nothin' left to hide
No reason left to fight
cuz the truths given me a new freedom inside
Gettin' rid of my desire
Do you like what you see?


This song seems to have equal resonance for Helen and Nikki. Helen has made a mistake trying to be with Thomas. She's made a mistake trying to repress and avoid her feelings for Nikki. And most importantly, although Nikki doesn't know it yet, Helen has "nothing left to hide" and a "freedom inside" because she's not fighting her desires any longer. Similarly Nikki is experiencing a "new freedom" now that she is out of Larkhall, and definitely has "no reason left to fight" away from Jim Fenner.

  When Helen enters, 'When We Are Together' by Texas (a Scottish band) is playing. The song addresses the nourishment and sustenance love provides, something that is planted and grows in the presence of the lover. Like 'Spinning Around' the lovers in this song have suffered from their mistakes.

Love started making sense
I always make mistakes at my expense
Love has placed a seed
And you're the sun that shines down upon me

Yeh when we are together
And when we are apart
There is no space in our hearts
I've got these feelings


Even more striking is the imagery in the song's second verse, which seems to describe exactly the scene between Helen and Nikki in Season 1, when they accidentally bump into each other in the servery.

It's been too long since I've tried to take the time
So now I'm fallin' fallin' into the sublime
When you brush against a stranger
And you both apologise
And when you see in them something you recognise


  When Trish tells Nikki that Helen is interested, and urges Nikki to chase after her, 'It's Not Unusual' by Tom Jones is playing. Unlike the first two songs, this song most parallels Trish's emotional state, as she watches her ex-lover be loved by someone else.

It's not unusual to be loved by anyone
It's not unusual to have fun with anyone
But when I see you hanging about with anyone
It's not unusual to see me cry,
Oh I wanna die
[...]
But if I ever find that you've changed at anytime
It's not unusual to find out that I'm in love with you
 
Alternatively, it's possible to interpret these lyrics as a reflection of Nikki's state of mind, unsure as she is about Helen's interest in her. As far as she knows, Helen and Thomas are happy and falling in love. Moreover, her hope is to find that Helen has "changed" and therefore might finally be available to her.


Romeo and Juliet

The first three seasons contain frequent references to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In the first season Helen actually stumbles upon Nikki reading the play, a scene which concludes with Nikki's first overt flirtation with Helen. Nikki frequently stares out her cell window awaiting Helen's arrival at the prison, as Juliet waited on her balcony for Romeo to appear. And on a narrative level, the parallels are apparent. It's hard to imagine two groups with a more "ancient grudge" or more "civil blood" between them than prison officers and prison inmates. Helen and Nikki are certainly "star-crossed lovers" in this most traditional sense. Like their love story in general, this final sequence between Helen and Nikki contains some archetypal patterns, familiar to audiences who have seen Romeo and Juliet, or any of the countless stories which have been based on or inspired by this classic, epic romantic tragedy.

The final sequence of Romeo and Juliet centers around a risky plan. Juliet drinks a potion which will make her appear dead for a period of two days. Dead, she will be freed from her family's confines and expectations for her marriage to a man other than Romeo. Romeo will rescue her from her tomb, and they will escape together, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, Romeo doesn't get the news of the plan. He instead hears the news that Juliet is dead. He disregards his enforced exile and rushes to Juliet's tomb. Once there, he sees her body and drinks poison to join her in death. Juliet awakens, finds Romeo dead, and kills herself as well. The sequence, like Helen and Nikki's final scenes, is a series of near-misses, but with tragic consequences. Had Romeo received the letter from the Friar, he would have known of the plan. Had Juliet awoken just a few minutes earlier, Romeo would have realized she was alive.

The staging of this final unification scene with Helen and Nikki follows a very similar pattern to Romeo and Juliet. Imagine Nikki as Juliet, drinking poison (ok, beer) in her tomb, the nightclub. Helen/Romeo has heard that Nikki is there: she's watched the news report, she knows the trial's verdict. But when she arrives, Helen thinks Nikki is unavailable, reunited with Trish, just as Romeo thought Juliet was dead. Helen leaves, and Nikki wakes up (emotionally-speaking), and chases after Helen. Luckily for her, Helen hasn't drank poison, but is waiting nearby, very much alive and (although Nikki doesn't know it) very much available. After a series of mis-starts and miscues (discussed above), Helen and Nikki finally declare themselves. Their relationship, which both had considered dead, turns out to be very much alive.

Of course Helen and Nikki's ending has some significant differences from Romeo and Juliet. Juliet has been "killed" while Nikki has been liberated (although, Juliet's fake death is actually a means to her liberation and her chance to be with Romeo), but in the final scene Helen chases after Nikki just as Romeo chases after Juliet. And Helen misunderstands Nikki's availability (she thinks Nikki is back with Trish), just as Romeo misunderstands Juliet's (he thinks she's dead). The sequence seems written to follow this pattern: Helen/Romeo goes to find Nikki/Juliet, thinks she isn't available and leaves/dies, and Nikki/Juliet wakes up and follows Helen/Romeo. In Nikki's case she follows Helen outside, in Juliet's case she stays in the tomb and follows Romeo to the grave.

It's also possible to read Helen and Nikki in the reverse roles, with Helen as Juliet and Nikki as Romeo. In this reading, Nikki thinks Helen is still with Thomas and therefore lost (akin to Romeo thinking Juliet is dead). Nikki starts to drink from the bottle of beer (phial of poison) wanting 'to get blasted' but Trisha stops her and pushes her into chasing after Helen, averting a tragic end. In this reading, Nikki/Romeo avoids jumping to conclusions about Helen/Juliet's vitality, and rather than killing herself, waits for Helen/Juliet to awaken and chases Helen/Juliet out of the tomb. [12]

Ultimately, with this kind of role-switching, the story of Helen and Nikki subverts the Romeo and Juliet story not just by having a happy ending, but by breaking down the very barriers of the narrative. Either one of them can be Romeo, when needs dictate, and either one of them can be Juliet. By basing this final sequence on such a familiar and age-old romantic tragedy, the writers create an enormous amount of urgency and anxiety for their viewers, and then posit Helen and Nikki's freedom and flexibility, embodied in a same-sex relationship, as the key to resolving this urgency and anxiety with the happiest of endings.

 

 


[1] Thanks to Cool for suggesting the Helen's Embarrassment theory.

[2] Thanks to both Cool and ekny for suggesting Nikki is trying to avoid rejection in this moment, and to ekny for the in-depth exploration of the use of this phrase as filler.

[3] Thanks to Just Another Mad Bad Fan for the idiocy=Helen's regret at leading Nikki on theory.

[4] Thanks to mercy23 for the idiocy=Helen's failure with men theory.

[5] Nikki's always most polite and on her best behavior when she feels truly defeated and hopeless. She demonstrated this when Trish breaks up with her in the first half of Season 1. Only when she's convinced she's lost Helen, when she finds out about Helen and Thomas, is she able to behave in a gracious, emotionally-controlled way.

Thanks to ekny for the wonderful exploration of Nikki's emotional state in this moment, and how it is depicted on screen. Most of the ideas in this section come from her.

[6] Thanks to ekny again, this time for the idea of the self-recrimination loop, and the fact that Nikki can't possibly imagine that Helen has anything new to tell her.

[7] Thanks to GeauxGurl for pointing out the parallel between these two lines in scenes which are 39 episodes apart.

[8] It's impossible to list every instance, but here are a few examples: the potting shed, the first kiss, the first declaration of love, the library confrontation mentioned above, even the second season art room scene when Nikki wants to make love and Helen wants to talk about her anxieties.

[9] This definition is from http://www.tagg.org/teaching/mmi/filmtrms.html#I

[10] Thanks to yankeelady for the wonderful iris-as-peephole theory.

[11] Thanks to Just Another Mad Bad Fan for identifying these three songs and finding the lyrics. Here's the complete lyrics to each one.

[12] Thanks to Cassandra for pointing out how the Helen-as-Romeo and Nikki-as-Juliet roles could so easily be reversed in reading this scene.



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