Season 1, Episode 6: "A Big Mistake" Essay

Letters and Literature
—Jennifer T.

Writing and reading as a means of building relationships drives nearly all the action in this episode. Most prominently, every single scene between Helen and Nikki revolves around reading literature. Helen recommends Sophie's World to Nikki and offers to loan her a copy. Helen urges Nikki to take a literature course from the Open University. Helen and Nikki flirt over Romeo and Juliet, and Nikki ups the ante by offering Helen a copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for her perusal. In all of these scenes, both characters are using literature to bond, to build a connection, and even to communicate subtle meanings about romance and sexual interest. Literature becomes the transmission medium for the emotional energy developing between Helen and Nikki.

In a parallel storyline, Denny and her estranged mother Jessie begin to connect via the written word as well. At Nikki's urging (can this be a coincidence?) Jessie writes Denny a letter explaining why she gave her up to foster care. But Denny can't read—a practical plot point, but also a metaphorical one. At this point in her life, Denny has very little ability to form any true emotional connections with anyone. And the person she has the opportunity to emotionally connect with has perhaps less ability than she. But by developing a relationship with Jessie, and taking literacy classes (which she puts to use entirely to correspond with Jessie), Denny becomes a person who is aware of the limitations inherent in the mother she has been given, but who can also love and be loved.

Not only does writing and literature provide fertile ground for the development of romantic and familial relationships, but for the development of friendships as well. In particular, Denny and Zandra's friendship begins to blossom in this episode, as Zandra reads Jessie's letter aloud to Denny. Zandra becomes the conduit for the Jessie-Denny relationship to develop, and by being the conduit, the reader, she joins in the building of emotional connections herself. Through this practical and emotional favor, Zandra and Denny begin to experience an understanding and connection, and support each other in their respective isolations. Denny offers Zandra drugs as a gift, and in a particularly moving scene, each cries in her own bed, lonely but not alone, with the other feeling the same sadness and desperation.

Perversely, writing also serves to reinforce antagonism in relationships. Upon her return from vacation, Helen demands written reports from Jim about the three weeks that she was away. What seems at first to be simply a petty punishment (creating work for a detested subordinate, on a very short deadline), actually contributes towards another sort of relationship: one of hatred and loathing between Helen and Jim.

It's the written communications at the other end of the spectrum, the ones which happen outside the prison bureaucracy, outside official channels, which have the most impact. They are unregulated, more freely communicative. Jessie's first letter to Denny is an informal note, written in the unregulated, private space of the loo and passed directly to Denny. Zandra blackmails Lorna Rose to send a letter to Robin, an illicit letter offering the most direct form of communication available—they can't be intercepted by Robin's parents the way phone calls and officially mailed letters can. And, most deliciously for the romantic lesbian viewer, Helen sneaks her copy of Sophie's World into Larkhall for Nikki, flouting the regulations on staff bringing in items for inmates.

Written language may be the medium, but it's the romances themselves which anchor this episode, and which capture the viewer's imagination. In the foreground, Helen and Nikki. Helen, the straight woman, but also the pursuer. In every scene, Helen makes all the moves. She teases, she flirts, she expresses interest in Nikki's reading, in Nikki's intellect. Nikki is generally shy and hesitant in her responses, carefully gauging Helen's potential interest. Only in the final scene in the library does Nikki respond actively, taking a true step toward Helen, when she questions whether Helen has ever been in a romantic relationship with a woman, and offers her a copy of the iconic lesbian memoir, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

In the background (romantically-speaking) are Denny and Jessie. Although their relationship is that of a mother and daughter, it is dramatized with many of the tropes and imagery of romance. They have misunderstandings and reunite. Denny learns Jessie's limitations the hard way—Jessie is not the woman she always fantasized about when she thought of her mother. Despite this lack of perfection, passionate Denny concocts a plan so they can run away and be together. The scene where Denny tries to convince Jessie to go along with her escape plan is cross-edited with Nikki's sexually suggestive comments to Helen, ratcheting up the romance-associations in the relationship between Denny and Jessie.

Writing therefore provides a means of connection and transformation, and a channel toward romance. Connection between characters, transformation for themselves as individuals, and transformation of their relationships. The burgeoning trust between Helen and Nikki starts to metamorphize into something else entirely. Denny feels loved and cared for for the first time in her life. And while Zandra may not succeed in winning Robin back, she does win a new friend.



This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, ekny, richard, COOL, For some odd reason, munky


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