Season 1, Episode 10: "Love Hurts" Essay

The Rules
—Jennifer T.

More than any other episode, the season 1 finale seems obsessed with the rule book, the formal rules which every prisoner is told to obey, and which every prison officer is told to enforce.  But any rule book is also informed by the broader social world, both within and outside of the prison, which offers a more implied set of (equally restrictive) rules.  This episode examines how characters flout the formal and informal rules, either by pretending to play by those rules, or by abandoning them utterly.

Yvonne demonstrates the most strategic touch with the rules at Larkhall.  As was mentioned in the S1E9 essay, Yvonne has no fear of official or established authority, nor much regard for any rulebook.  Throughout this episode, she is quoted the rules at nearly every turn: Dominic opens her cell for morning unlock and reminds her she's supposed to be up and dressed.  Helen goes over the rule book during her entire induction meeting with Yvonne.  And nearly every interaction between Yvonne and Sylvia ends with ineffectual Sylvia sputtering and spouting some rule or other.  But Yvonne has an artfully opportunistic regard for the rules. She distributes her cigarettes to her fellow inmates, in direct violation of the rule prohibiting inmates from giving away their belongings.  She buys Dominic a motorcycle.  But Yvonne's coup is the famous Larkhall Tabernacle Gospel Choir.  She spots a unique loophole in the rulebook which allows prisoners to have guitars as an "in-cell hobby."  She points out this rule to Helen and asks "Does this mean that every prisoner can have a guitar?" to which Helen replies "It means exactly what it says."  Helen doesn't define what that rule says or means: to Helen rules are black and white.  In contrast, to Yvonne, rules are infinitely flexible and creative mechanisms for achieving her own ends.  And so she has 12 guitars delivered through the Vicar (another clever trick), and the members of the Tabernacle Choir begin strumming their off-pitch "Kum-bah-yas" with the express purpose of torturing the officers.

The Tabernacle Choir's success in getting Sylvia to sign the prisoners' petition to end closed visits demonstrates the limits the rules place on the prison officers as well. This idea pervades the episode.  How can Dominic awaken Yvonne when she's got ear plugs in and a face mask on, when he's not permitted to touch the inmates?  And although when Sylvia sees the delivery of the guitars she insists the inmates will receive the guitars "over my dead body," she's actually helpless in the face of Yvonne's strategic game-playing.  The letter of the law says the inmates are allowed to have the guitars, and Sylvia can do nothing to stop it.  The officers' hands are tied by the rules almost as much as the prisoners are confined by them.

Yvonne is not the only inmate with a more intelligent grasp of the rules than the officers.  When Helen brings Nikki into her office (ostensibly to talk about Nikki's upcoming exam), thus ending a period of cold-shoulder treatment following the kiss she shared with Nikki in Nikki's cell, Nikki demonstrates an "acute grasp of official-speak."[1] She can quote the rules chapter and verse, both the written and unwritten ones, and choose to ignore their precepts when she doesn't agree with them.  She knows Rule 47 prohibits disrespecting the Wing Governor, and when she quotes that rule she plays the role of the rule-breaker.  But more importantly, Nikki knows she didn't really break this rule.  She didn't disrespect the Wing Gov; if anything, she did the opposite, showing Helen deep love and respect in Helen's moment of need. 

Even Helen is aware that Nikki has done what she (or part of her) wanted Nikki to do, no matter what rules might be broken in the process.  She doesn't reprimand Nikki with words like "You will speak and behave towards me in line with prison rules."[2] Instead, she accuses Nikki of "taking advantage"—which is really an emotional breach, not a legal (or illegal) violation. By accusing Nikki of taking advantage, Helen is acknowledging her own violation of the rules; she made herself emotionally vulnerable to Nikki (an inmate) because she trusted her.  Helen never says she didn't want to kiss Nikki. Consciously or unconsciously, she's wanted to break this particular rule that Nikki kindly broke for her. 

In this exchange with Nikki, Helen begins to realize the extent to which Nikki will disregard both the written rules, and the implied ones, in order to love and care for her.  Nikki's disregard for the rules arises again when Nikki goes to Monica's cell and finds Monica in a drug-addled state.  Nikki calls in the Julies for reinforcement and then begins her attempt to revive Monica.  Helen walks in on them just after Monica has vomited up the pills, and realizes almost immediately what has occurred.  She's furious at Nikki, mystified as to why Nikki would take such a risk with Monica's life, why she wouldn't call in the prison medical staff, why she wouldn't have used official channels.  Nikki's response floors her: "I did it to protect you."  Nikki knows Helen is vulnerable in her job, and another suicide attempt could mark the end of her term as Wing Governor.

This moment represents a turning point for Helen, unleashing her from the social rules which have bound her.  She tells Sean a convoluted narrative about Nikki trying to kiss her, describing the kiss almost as an assault.  Not only is she lying about what happened (not typical for the moral and upright Helen), but she's also, in a perverse way, confessing to her fiancé that she's involved with someone else.  Later, she breaks up with Sean in full public view in a clothing shop.  She's tried to convince him to go somewhere more private where they can talk, but when he refuses and forces the issue, she forges ahead, nothing stopping her now from liberating herself from this socially-acceptable but emotionally-deadening relationship.

Helen, Yvonne and Nikki are not the only ones who don't allow rules (of any sort) to control their actions.  Monica attempts suicide, breaking that central precept of life which requires that we all keep on living as long as we can.  Later, when she is released on appeal, she gives a moving speech to the press, praising the women she met in Larkhall, and condemning the prison system.  For a woman of Monica's class, this is a strong statement.  She doesn't ignore the press entirely, or speak to them with shame, wanting to put the whole experience behind her.  Fenner, per usual, has no regard for the rules whatsoever.  However, it is significant that his physical attack on Shell is motivated by her flouting of their informal agreement to not turn each other in.  Shell has attempted to assert control over Fenner by disregarding all written rules and unspoken agreements between herself and Fenner.  Shell's tactic contrasts with Yvonne, who controls the officers from within the rulebook—and Shell's tactics are far less successful.  In fact, her action pushes Fenner a step further into more aggressive power enforcement than we've previously seen. Like with Helen and Nikki, one's rule transgression inspires the other's.

And at the conclusion of the episode, Sean also disregards the social rules of behavior, but in a far more destructive manner than even Fenner.  He renounces Helen through his faux self-immolation, creating a symbolic protest of her devotion to her job and the women in the prison.  The symbolism of this moment is incredibly complex,[3] but there is no denying it reflects Sean's anger at Helen's rebellion from the traditional norms which guide the lives of heterosexual woman: get married, have a family, don't care too much about work.  He is trying to punish her for breaking these social norms, the most inviolable rules of all.




 

This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, richard, invisicoll, For some odd reason, ekny, badgirlnuts, Texex, orlando, xanalex, Nikkhele, msalt, solitasolano, microsofty

[1] Thanks to Richard for this particularly astute phrase for describing Nikki in this scene.

[2] I mention this specific phrase, because Helen does use it with Nikki later in season 2, so it's notable that in this case she does not.

[3] This suit-burning moment deserves an essay of its own.  We hope to have one here one day soon.


 

 
 

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