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
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."
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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,
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.