Season 1, Episode 7: "Playing With Fire" Essay

Connections Shatter
—Jennifer T.

This episode explores how difficult it is for prison officers to control the inmates in their charge. The confined world of the prison and the history and relationships which inevitably develop between officers and inmates lead to complex entanglements, both professional and emotional. The officers' authority and control, even with the support of the prison rules and regulations, can thus become more and more tenuous.

Helen wants Nikki moved up to Enhanced to reward Nikki for her good behavior over the previous two months. However, we know (even if Helen does not) that she is motivated by her emotional connection to Nikki. We saw evidence of this connection in their flirting in the previous episode (as well as in the opening sequence of this episode, but more on that later). When a prison officer has a personal interest in an inmate, promoting that inmate to Enhanced is the primary way, within the rules and structure of the prison, for them to demonstrate that interest, to offer the inmate something valuable while still maintaining a controlling upper hand. Fenner in particular always made sure his inmates (Rachel and Shell) had private cells on G3.

However, this entire incentive system, rewarding inmates for good behavior, is inherently infantilizing. This aspect of the system is emphasized when Nikki is moved up. Sylvia snidely comments that Dominic will win a gold star for supporting Helen's desire to move Nikki to Enhanced. Later Nikki jokes to Helen that she will be good and say her prayers. Both gold stars and children's prayers are techniques to control the behavior of children.

But unlike children, adults can only be controlled so far. Nikki and Shell both have sexual feelings for the people who have gotten them onto Enhanced, and there's nothing less childlike than sexual desire. When she falls in love with Helen, Nikki doesn't stay within the behavioral guidelines which have been set up for all the prisoners—just be a good little girl and you'll get your early release. Instead, she's living as an emotionally free adult, and Helen's emotional equal, free to confront Helen and try to make her aware of her feelings. This freedom is the antithesis of the prison system (as represented by the infantilizing incentives and rewards program), whose ultimate aim is to control.

Nikki's electrifying action in the potting shed dramatizes her independence, but even so, Helen doesn't see Nikki as an emotionally autonomous adult. Helen tries to continue treating Nikki as a child she can control by regarding Nikki's interest in her as a crush, nothing more. With comments like "Find another focus for your attention....Don't waste your time on me," she dismisses Nikki's very ability to fall in love with her. That dismissal suggests that Helen believes that Nikki hasn't fallen for her in the deepest sense of soul mate love, but that Nikki is simply infatuated with an authority figure who is kind to her, just as a child would be.

Helen conceptualizes Nikki's interest in her as an insignificant crush in order to diminish and contain Nikki's interest, and the power of her own response to that interest. Diminishing and containing their mutual interest is vital for Helen to preserve her authority and control as Wing Governor. However, preserving authority and control is easier said than done. Even in her effort to unconditionally reject Nikki, she subtly reveals the repressed depths of her feelings for Nikki. The lady doth protest too much when she insists, "even if I were attracted to you, which I'm not, there's no way we could have a relationship." Nikki's eyes lift up after that first phrase, in the most subtle but clear reaction, a sort of "Ah hah!"

Helen is not the only character in this episode who tries to establish boundaries and control. Helen struggles to protect herself against Nikki's romantic interest, to preserve her control and her ethical standards and moral conduct. Lorna tries but fails in her attempt to prevent Zandra and Shell's blackmailing efforts, thus relinquishing any authority she once had on G Wing. She (along with Fenner) finds herself aligned with the prisoners rather than her fellow officers. To protect her job, she has to protect Shell and Zandra from suspicion for using or dealing drugs. Similarly, Fenner must protect Shell for fear of incriminating himself for his sexual involvement with her. But neither Fenner nor Lorna manages to protect Shell from Dominic's suspicion. Their alignment with Shell means that her downfall leads to their own decline in power and authority over the wing.

This idea of alignment between otherwise oppositional characters informs some of the striking editing in this episode. The opening sequence flows between Helen and Nikki both getting ready in the morning, conflating the two characters whose intimacy has begun to develop. Dominic tells Nikki to get ready for her shower, and then rather than the camera cutting to a reaction shot of Nikki in her cell, the camera instead cuts to Helen in her home having just gotten out of the shower. Helen rubs her eyes in preparation for putting on makeup, cut to Nikki putting on eye makeup. And so on. The consecutive flow, a moment for each building on the other's moment, shows how Helen and Nikki are one, are connected.

Just a few minutes later, when Denny is leaving her literacy class, the camera follows her and Shell down the hallway, and then Nikki and Monica enter from a perpendicular hallway and the camera changes direction and follows them, all in one long take. A similar long take occurs slightly later in the episode, when Zandra chases after Lorna who is leaving the wing at the same moment as Monica returns from her visit with Spenser. In this case, the camera follows Zandra as she chases and then as Monica enters the camera turns 180 degrees and follows Monica up the stairs to G2 where Nikki is standing watching her. The long takes, the lack of cuts, emphasize the way all these characters flow into each other, the way the "goodies" (Nikki and Monica) are not separate from the "baddies" (Denny, Shell and Zandra), and the prisoners are not separate from the officers, physically, emotionally, and in the power dynamics at play.

This editing makes it clear that Helen, emotionally speaking, joins officers like Fenner and Lorna in having a deeply entwined connection with a prisoner. Helen doesn't yet fully realize the dangers of this kind of emotional entanglement. In fact she even takes action to further entwine her personal life with her management of the prison when she invites Sean to teach the gardening class. However, once Nikki learns of Helen's engagement and physically expresses her desire for Helen in the potting shed, Helen can no longer ignore the instability inherent in her emotional engagement with Nikki. Nikki's move shatters the flowing connection between the two, the emotional intimacy that could exist as long as Nikki remained in her proper place and Helen controlled the relationship. Helen returns to her office after Nikki confronts her, and we see another sequence that cuts back and forth between the two. However, they no longer flow into each other as they did in the opening sequence. Instead we see short edits in close-up, each character either dead center in the frame, or on opposing sides from the other. The feeling is static and choppy, full of conflict, the burgeoning unity broken. Helen is left with the choice that will plague her for the next three seasons: should she pursue the intimacy she can't deny, or preserve the authority she must maintain?




This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, Dakinisbreath, BGEp1,2&3, ekny, orlando, For some odd reason, richard, munky, badgirlnuts, msalt


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