Season 1, Episode 4: "The Victim" Essay

Isolation and Redemption
—Jennifer T.

This is a really hard episode to watch. Every time I watch it I ask myself, why am I forcing myself to watch this? And that's not half as bad as it felt to watch it the first time when my stomach was gripped with dread, fearful about what would happen to Rachel. The danger of Shell and Denny, the evil of Fenner, and the incompetence of Dominic and Helen are palpable and horrifying. But the true essence of this episode, the reason it is simultaneously difficult to watch and achingly powerful is because it depicts the ravages of loneliness and isolation.

During the course of this episode, each of the three central characters (Rachel, Zandra and Nikki) realize how totally alone they are in the world. Rachel's mother cruelly gives Rachel's baby into foster care. The narcissism of Rachel's mother suggests that even if Rachel weren't in Larkhall, she would be just as alone and abandoned, and in fact she has been her entire life. Rachel also discovers that Fenner is not protecting her at all, and his cruel rejection of her towards the end of the episode is at least partly to blame for her despair and suicide. Zandra tries to win her boyfriend Robin back with news of her pregnancy, risking everything to escape and see him. But she gets nothing at all from the person who supposedly loved her best. And Nikki is dumped by Tricia, her girlfriend of nine years. Like Zandra, Nikki is left utterly alone by the person who supposedly loved her.

Prison is the ultimate isolation for everyone at Larkhall, but particularly Nikki and Zandra. Both are stuck in prison while their respective partners, who were involved in their crimes are still free. Robin was Zandra's drug companion, Tricia the rape victim protected by Nikki, but it's Zandra and Nikki who suffer the entire burden of the crime. They are wrenched from their lives, from their romantic relationships, from their friends, jobs, homes. While Tricia demonstrates far more integrity and caring towards Nikki than Robin does towards Zandra, both characters are free go on living and leaving. Nikki and Zandra are not.

Helen, Dominic and Monica all attempt to offer support and solace, but they are so naive as to be useless. Their hearts are all in the right place, but none of them have enough experience or judgment to be able to offer Rachel, Zandra or Nikki what they actually need. Helen can tell there is something going wrong with Rachel, but in her attempts to help her, Helen misses the boat: Helen encourages Rachel to not be standoffish when the person she is standing off from is Shell, the bully who is torturing her. Helen puts Rachel back on the dorm, thus putting her back into the danger she most fears. Dominic is uncharacteristically impatient with Rachel, depriving her of a sympathetic ear, and Monica and Helen are too obsessed with Nikki's heartache to recognize that Rachel is the one in real danger.

Although none of the prisoners or officers at Larkhall are able to save Rachel, in a way, her death saves them. As the episode concludes, we hear the nightcalls of the prisoners locked in their cells for the night. The irreverence and lack of respect is chilling. One inmake jokes about who Rachel might run into in the afterlife, another responds that Rachel might run into her nasty uncle. Crystal, in dismay, begins singing "Amazing Grace," silencing the inmates, leaving each to her own thoughts and feelings. In the most literal reading of the scene, the hymn has stopped the inmates from making a mockery of the death of one of their own. But the religious imagery of the song makes it feel as if the hymn has saved the inmates, in some small way. Saved them from devaluing Rachel's life and her death. Saved them from avoiding responsibility for that death.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.
[…]
Through many dangers, toils and snares...
we have already come.
T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far...
and Grace will lead us home.


The song is about the "dangers, toils and snares" of life, and how God's grace will save a person from all of the above. The song is hauntingly beautiful and effective, highlighting the universality of the loss amongst the inmates. No matter where Rachel has wound up in the afterlife, the irony is that she wasn't saved from any of this, even with the best efforts of her captors and their god-like power over her.

Instead it's the other characters, the ones who are left behind, who were "blind" but can now see. They see a little more clearly the repercussions of their actions, and their isolation and desperation. Almost everyone was complicit in Rachel's death in some way, and they can't avoid confronting that complicity in themselves. Shell, Denny and Fenner played the most active role, but Nikki told Shell that Fenner was sleeping with Rachel, Dominic got impatient with Rachel, Sylvia showed no sympathy or understanding of bullying whatsoever, and Helen didn't figure out a way to get Rachel to confide in her. The essence of community responsibility.

At this moment, through this song, the other inmates experience the grace of God. This song provides the turning point in the show, between the horror, desperation and isolation of the first four episodes, and the beginning of the community and hope which infuses the second half of the season, with the humanization of characters like Denny, and the possibility of true love blossoming in such an arid environment.

 


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, aquarius68, richard

 
 

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