Season 1, Episode 8: "Falling Apart" Essay

Emotional Imprisonment
—Jennifer T.


While this episode is entitled "Falling Apart," the episode really focuses on characters' struggles to hold their emotions together.  Two central characters, Monica and Helen, struggle to maintain control of their increasingly out-of-control circumstances and relationships. For Helen, this places her in direct opposition to Nikki, who has always embraced open emotional expression. 

Ever since Nikki breached the rules of their burgeoning relationship, Helen has struggled to maintain her control in relation to Nikki.  As the episode opens, Helen is entering the prison yard, at ease in her interactions with various members of the prison staff.  She seems very confident, comfortable and in-charge, something we've rarely seen before. However, as she steps into the yard, she looks up to Nikki's cell window, and catches the eye of Nikki who is looking down for a chance to see Helen as she enters the yard.  With this upward glance, Helen, perhaps unconsciously, loses her calm and control, spilling coffee on her wrist.  Nikki is the one aspect of Larkhall she hasn't mastered.[1]  Helen tries to overcome her lack of mastery and control regarding Nikki by avoiding relating to Nikki directly.  During this period of avoidance (which carries through most of this episode), their shared relationships with other people become the connective tissue between them, allowing their relationship to continue to grow and evolve even after the Rubicon has been crossed in the potting shed. After the potting shed, Helen had insisted that a relationship between them isn't possible, that it will never grow. She's wrong: it does grow, but indirectly, via shared concern for Monica, and shared loathing of Fenner. Helen's conscious mind won't allow it to grow directly.[2]

These shared relationships also become the battleground for Helen's struggle between maintaining control of her growing feelings for Nikki, and her desire to give in to feeling those emotions, as Nikki has urged her to do (and will continue to) time and again.  When Helen breaks the news to Monica about the death of Monica's son, Spencer, she immediately asks a nurse to give Monica a sedative.  A sedative, emotional sedation, is a form of imprisonment, a way of denying Monica  any emotional sensation or experience related to her son's death.  Helen wants to provide Monica some peace and relief from suffering.  But Monica doesn't want to be sedated.  She wants to "talk to people," to tell friends and family about Spencer's death, to stay active and engaged.  But Helen doesn't listen to Monica's wishes; she considers Monica to be in shock, to not have her full judgment capabilities.  However, Helen's action, in effect, helps Monica repress her emotions, rather than allowing her to work through them.  In contrast, later in the episode Nikki urges Monica to feel her emotions rather than repress them: "You've got to give in to it and let yourself cry.  It doesn't do you any good just bottling things up."

The Julies' wine-making hijinks serve as a counterpoint to this emotionally moving and dramatic storyline, demonstrating the prisoners' freedom to resist the control of the prison and the officers. The prisoners conspire on something totally against the rules yet totally harmless, thwarting the regime just to prove that they can. The beauty of this particular endeavor is the way they triumph over the obstacles they are confronted with at every turn: how to get the instructions to make wine, where to get the ingredients, how to keep the brew warm while it ferments, how to get the watering can filled with the wine back into their cell, how to even drink the stuff because it tastes so bad! The best efforts of the prison officers, both the hapless Bodybag and the clued-in Fenner, can't uncover the plot—unlike the grieving Monica, the Julies' winemaking is immune to prison (officer) control.  Sheer determination and teamwork is the key, not just in wine-making but in freeing oneself from any prison, particularly an emotional one like the one in which Helen has locked herself. 

Helen's enforcement of Monica's emotional prison reflects her own struggles, her own refusal to feel her own emotions for Nikki.  The only scene where Helen and Nikki speak directly and openly to each other turns into a fight.  Helen reaches out to Nikki to ask her to support Monica, and Nikki erupts with anger about Spencer's death.  Helen agrees with her but doesn't want to turn it into "a debate"—a real and open exchange of beliefs and feelings. She just wants the conversation to be in control, she wants Nikki to agree to help Monica and not bring up any of the messier issues. After this confrontation, every later scene between Helen and Nikki is staged with some physical obstacle between them or in front of them: when Nikki asks Helen's permission to bring flowers to Monica, she and Helen are standing behind wire fencing; during the "Goodnight" scene when they start to connect just the tiniest bit, they are each standing on opposite sides of Nikki's cell door.  Nikki won't let Helen ignore her feelings, and Helen can't deal with them, so she has to insure there is something protecting her from Nikki.

This "debate" scene also highlights a specific form of emotional imprisonment: being separated from the person who loves you the most. Spencer "was serving a prison sentence too" when Monica was in Larkhall. And Helen, by extension, is imprisoned, as long as she continues to deny her feelings for Nikki. She's become completely emotionally separated from her fiancé, choosing to accompany Monica to Spencer's funeral rather than joining Sean for a meal with his family to announce their engagement.  During this scene where Helen tells Sean she won't be attending the dinner, the two of them are sitting miles apart on the couch, with the camera close-up on Helen while Sean is blurring and blabbering away about the wedding in the background. This wonderful visual representation of Helen's emotional state shows how her fiancé is merely a blur in the back of her mind compared to the women at Larkhall.

Helen's trip with Monica to Spencer's funeral dramatizes a shift in Helen, her new understanding of the need to experience and express emotions.  When they first arrive, Helen follows the rules by handcuffing Monica's wrist to her own, despite the vocal disapproval of Monica's sister.  During the service, however, Helen unlocks the cuffs, symbolically unlocking Monica's ability to express her grief, realizing this is more important than following any rulebook.  Monica expresses herself in dramatic fashion, throwing herself into Spencer's grave and sobbing uncontrollably.[3] 

The shift inside Helen which enables her to free Monica also changes the way she experiences and expresses her own emotions, as she reveals in her subsequent interaction with Nikki.  When Helen returns Monica to her cell after the funeral, she hears Nikki shout out to Monica.  She goes over to Nikki's door to tell Nikki Monica needs some time alone.  Nikki reacts somewhat bitterly, with sarcasm tingeing her responses.  When Helen suggests Monica needs to be alone, Nikki retorts "What, in this place?" and in response to Helen's very honest and emotionally open "So do I" she says in a quite biting manner "You have Sean to go home to". It's not until the very final line ("'night Helen") that Nikki lets up a bit, and responds in an emotionally open and vulnerable way—something Helen has been doing for the entire scene.

The pattern of this scene mirrors almost every Helen and Nikki scene we've had since the second episode: Helen reaches out to Nikki in an up-front and open way. Nikki responds hostilely (or, to be more benevolent, semi-hostilely). Helen gets angry and storms away. Except—the end of this scene is different. Helen doesn't storm away or get angry as she usually does, and because of that they share this tiny final intimate moment, where Nikki calls Helen by her first name for the first time. Helen knows on an emotional level (although perhaps not on a conscious level) how connected she is with Nikki, how much she is known by Nikki.  Helen's still emotionally imprisoned, however: this scene takes place with a door between them; face-to-face it might never have occurred.

Immediately after Helen wishes Nikki goodnight, as she is walking out of G-Wing, Sylvia calls her "ma'am" and Helen mutters to herself "Helen," correcting Sylvia for the umpteenth time, but also drawing the contrast between the staff members who will never see her for who she truly is, and Nikki, who sees and understands Helen in a very fundamental way. And more importantly, Nikki wants Helen to know that she understands her—that's why she calls her Helen.  In addition, Helen is naming herself. It's not just that Sylvia doesn't "know" Helen or acknowledge her humanity, but until this moment, Helen doesn't really know herself.[4]

 

 


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: ekny, coolbyrne, richard, For some odd reason, Lisa289, Jules2, munky, Jeanna, liusi444

[1] Thank you to For some odd reason for noticing Helen's glance up at Nikki and her subsequent coffee spill, something that had escaped the rest of us, even after many repeated viewings.

[2] Thank you to Richard for this observation.

[3] Another big thank you to For some odd reason for pointing out this connection between Helen's action of releasing Monica from the handcuffs and Monica's resulting emotional expression.

[4] Thank you to For some odd reason for this interpretation of Helen's response to Sylvia.


 

 
 

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