Season 1, Episode 1: "Them & Us" Essay

Performance
—Jennifer T.

The very first episode of Bad Girls establishes a theme of performance, of play-acting.  The program opens with a fashion show rehearsal, featuring a brunette Shell dancing as if in a real nightclub.  The audience is shocked when the lights are turned on and Shell’s wig torn off.  Reality intrudes: we’re not in a nightclub at all—we’re in a prison.  Shell is a blonde, not a brunette.  Characters are performing, rather than being, themselves.

This theme of public and private selves pervades Bad Girls.  When introducing a character, the show often filters that character through another character's experience or testimony.  Most notably in this episode, we meet Denny through Rachel's experience of her: as a bully.  Of course, this reveals one side of the character only, and the show waits until later to offer a more complex, three-dimensional depiction.  These character filters wind up leaving us with so many question marks about so many characters.  Are we to believe that Nikki is in a sexual relationship with Carol?  Shell suggests as much with her "goodnight kiss" comment.[1]  Are we to believe that Nikki is a troublemaker (as Fenner suggests) or a heroine?  The first episode suggests the latter interpretation: Nikki's dignity, her willingness to speak out against injustice are signs of a heroine.  But by leaving many of these questions never definitively answered, the show highlights how all of the characters on Bad Girls (and more generally, we human beings) are so much more than what others perceive us to be, or accuse us of being. 

The use of the ensemble cast as a Greek Chorus[2] (most notably during Helen's wing meeting after Carol Byatt's miscarriage) further emphasizes the way the characters' selves are unavoidably defined by the audience for whom they are performing.  In all the crowd scenes, the background characters are staged so that the reaction shots can be captured without an edit—all the director needs is a focus shift in order to switch from Helen to Sylvia and Lorna, or from Helen to Jim.  The visual emphasis is on lack of privacy, of intrusiveness, of a lack of freedom for the characters to say or do what they want, without having others watch them, control them, or control the perception of them.  The idea that the camera just has to move slightly to capture an entirely different point of view, rather than having to cut to the opposite angle—that is very telling: everyone's all on top of each other, no one has the privacy to establish their own identity or goals.

Helen is the most vulnerable to this intrusion.  She's the heroine of the episode (and the series) and from the get-go she's always performing a role, implying that women are forced to play roles to succeed in patriarchal environments.[3]  The audience sees two different Helens in this episode: a public Helen and a private Helen.  In private, with her boyfriend Sean, she's flirtatious and jokey.  In public, at Larkhall, she's serious and critical.  Our first glimpse of Helen is her driving her car and putting on makeup simultaneously, in an effort to make it to work on time.  Two powerful pieces of symbolism define this scene.  She's at a red light, facing oncoming traffic, an image which highlights the extent to which Helen will be driving upstream in her efforts at work.[4] Makeup suggests a metaphorical mask, a false self which Helen presents for public viewing. This separation becomes more upsetting when we observe Helen's private reaction to Carol's miscarriage, her frustration at Sylvia's mismanagement of the situation and at the suggestion that Carol herself is to blame.  This private reaction, so similar to Nikki and the other prisoners' frustration, provides a sharp contrast to Helen's public reaction to the miscarriage, where she echoes Fenner's assessment that the miscarriage occurred due to "a tragic set of circumstances."[5]  This disconnection is all encapsulated in the first image of Helen: she's running late and rushing to cover up her real self, almost not having time to do it, doing it wrong (the smudged mascara), not expecting to be recognized (by the guard), not even recognizing herself,[6] and being late because of it.  With this first scene, Bad Girls is establishing the need for Helen to make a journey towards becoming a more authentic person, one who knows herself, and who won't be delayed anymore because she no longer needs to wear a mask. 

Complementing this imagery, the show begins outlining Helen's mask and its relationship to her sexuality.  When her boyfriend Sean is introduced, he is figuratively an intruder, as well as a partner.  In his first scene he calls when Helen is stressed preparing for the big wing meeting. She's somewhat friendly to him, but then rushes him off the phone in a harried manner.  Later, in their first scene together in their apartment, a very strange flirtation ensues, where Helen pretends to be mad at him for bringing his work home with him, and then, in a very flirtatious manner, pretends she doesn't want to sleep with him. The words (which, in their explicit meaning, indicate a lack of sexual interest) don't mesh with Helen's actions and attitudes in the scene (which are flirtatious), but of course with hindsight we know it's the words which are true, and the actions and attitudes which are false, just a cover up, play-acting.

In contrast, Helen's interactions with Nikki are striking in their emotional honesty, from their confrontation on the wing, to Helen's request for assistance when Nikki is down in solitary, to Helen sharing her joy and triumph after the success of the fashion show.  When the fashion show went well, when Helen thought she looked good in her boss Stubberfield's eyes, she raced to thank Nikki, to share her satisfaction with Nikki. She's not really sure why of course, and this is where the unconscious desire to have some sort of connection with Nikki begins. It's subtle, not overwhelming, but it's there.  And then Nikki blows her off, replying "I didn't do anything for you, Miss."  It's the first time we see Helen pursue Nikki, and in hindsight I think this is where her fascination with winning over Nikki begins, not in the initial confrontation on the wing, and not when she goes to see Nikki in solitary.  Although Helen may be trying to co-opt Nikki to gain control of the wing, in this final exchange, Nikki offers complete honesty to Helen, and demands it in return—and Helen likes honesty being demanded of her.  But of course, this is prison, and no matter what Helen hopes to be able to communicate to Nikki in private[7] (in this case, her joy and thanks), someone (in this case, Shell) will always be watching over them, making any authentic and open interaction, any non-performance, a very risky endeavor indeed. 

 


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: ekny, Lisa 289, campgrrls, Jules2, sunshine, keli, bluesycat, For some odd reason, BadGurl, aquarius68, richard, roadsterponygirl, Nikkhele

[1] Thanks to For some odd reason for pointing out this trick with Carol and Nikki, and the way the show trusts the audience to filter through the unreliable information offered at various times

[2] Thanks to ekny for linking this phenomenon with the idea of a Greek Chorus and thus tying it in to the theme of performance

[3] Thanks to campgrrls for highlighting this political message and its relationship to the theme of performance in this episode

[4] This insightful elucidation is entirely bluesycat's

[5] Thanks to richard for pointing out the similarity between Helen and Nikki's reaction to the miscarriage

[6] Thanks to ekny for pointing out how Helen doesn't see what she expects to see in the mirror after putting on her makeup

[7] Thanks to ekny for pointing out this desire for privacy when Helen pursues Nikki to thank her, and Shell's observation of the entire exchange

 
 

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