Season 1, Episode 9: "Pay Back Time" Essay

A Father's Approval
—Jennifer T.

A father represents authority, be it familial, professional, or religious.  And approval from this kind of authority, be it a biological father, a boss, or God, is perhaps one of the most elusive of human longings.  This episode offers a complex mix of the three, as characters struggle between the desire to gain approval from an authority figure, or the impulse to reject that authority and seek what they desire outside it.

As always in season 1, Helen's struggle provides the core or foundation for this theme. For the first time, we learn a little bit about her family background, specifically her disapproving father.  Helen hasn't told her father about her upcoming nuptials because, as she tells Sean, "he's never approved of anything I've done in my life.  I can't see this being any different."  Her bitter sarcasm shows that even as an adult, she's not gotten over her desire for her father's approval, nor her anger and sadness at not getting it.  A deeper subtext pervades this exchange, however.  The scene begins with Helen opening the door to her garden and staring out, while Sean, one window over, pulls up the shade.  The visual effect implies each is contained in their own, separate, confining cell.[1]  This visual confirms the distance Helen feels from Sean: she doesn't want to marry him.  Helen is struggling with the difficulty of living with doing the "wrong" thing: she is already living her life in a way her father doesn't approve of, and she's contemplating even more drastic decisions which will make her life even less the kind of life typically approved of by fathers. She knows either way there's no happily ever after.  Even if she breaks free from the constraints of her family and upbringing, it's not easy to just let go of the desire for approval, and of the resentment when that desire isn't fulfilled: "it doesn't actually work like that."

Helen's romantic equivocations are mirrored at work as well.  She wants the approval of her boss, Stubberfield, as well as the approval of her pet inmate, Nikki.  The scene between Helen and Nikki in the library highlights Helen's inner dissension.  Nikki assumes a certain intimacy with Helen from the moment Helen walks in, but Helen is distracted, looking anywhere but into Nikki's eyes.  Nikki comments with annoyance: "You want to be informal but you don't want to be called Helen.  You can't have it both ways."  Helen replies with a vague statement: "This is difficult for me, as I think you know."  But what could Helen possibly mean by "this"?  Nikki is right, Helen can't have it both ways.  She can't look to Nikki (i.e. outside the official prison system) for support and approval while also insisting on sticking to the system's rules and formalities.  But Helen does want both, and that is what's difficult.  She wants approval from both Nikki and Stubberfield (and, of course, from her father).  Which is why she doesn't reply to Nikki's insistent question: "So what do you want?"

Through the remaining 42 minutes of this episode, Helen struggles to resolve the answer to that question, realizing the comforts and supports she gets when she works outside the official system,[2] and the lack of approval when she works within it. She secretly, unofficially, asks Nikki to help her convince Monica to go through with her appeal.  Helen has already exhausted the official channels: Monica's solicitor and numerous other officers have failed in their attempts to persuade Monica to resume her appeal.  Nikki agrees to help, and she ends the conversation by calling Helen by her first name.  This time Helen doesn't object—she knows she's in full breach of the hierarchical rules and regulations of the prison. 

Throughout the episode, Nikki continues to offer herself to Helen as an outlet, an alternative source of support when the traditional systems and authorities are failing Helen.  When Helen goes from Sean's yammering at home to Stubberfield's reprimand regarding Crystal's letter to the Guardian, Nikki tries to interrupt the two, chasing after Helen before she enters the prison for work.  Helen puts her off, not realizing that (perhaps only metaphorically) Nikki is trying to save her from having to face her disapproving boss.  Nikki consistently interrupts or rejects any sort of pre-defined rules or standards of behavior.  She calls Helen at home, even though she knows it's "out of order."  Helen both wants these disruptive advances and doesn't want them.  And when Helen reaches her breaking point, and seeks Nikki out in Nikki's own space, Nikki provides her with emotional reassurance that goes a step too far.  After they kiss, Nikki acknowledges "I shouldn't have done that"—but Helen's search for support and comfort outside the socially and legally acceptable realms has simply arrived at its inevitable conclusion.

Helen isn't the only character breaching authority by seeking agency outside official channels.  Monica is refusing both medical and legal advice.  She's given up her appeal and is hoarding her pills.  She doesn't want official legal freedom; she wants complete freedom from all of life's pressures, and suicide offers that.  As she points out to Helen, "There's no law says I have to appeal."  There is no authority powerful enough to thwart her desire for oblivion, not Helen and not the legal system.  Only Nikki, with her very personal intrusion into Monica's cell, can even get Monica to verbally agree to continue her appeal.[3]

Crystal and Shell offer the most complex juxtaposition of operating both inside of and outside of authoritative structures.  Both of them believe strongly in their respective systems of authority.  As a religious Christian, Crystal believes in God's law and authority, unquestioningly.  Shell is quite content to work within the prison's authority, earning its rewards and approval whatever way she can: her primary goal is to get moved back to Enhanced.[4]  However, in their anti-drugs initiative, both Crystal and Shell strategically employ an alternative authoritative structure to achieve success.  Shell pretends to be religious (religion being the authority to end all authorities) in order to manipulate Crystal into doing her bidding.  Crystal reaches out to the press, one of the more powerful arm of social judgment and authority, writing a letter to the Guardian to complain about drugs in prison. 

When Helen discovers what Crystal and Shell have done, she is furious that they have not worked within the system:

Helen: The way around this is to help one another.  Not go behind each other's backs like you did with this letter.
Crystal: There's no law against writing letters.
Helen: That's not the point....I don't make the laws in this country.  I just have to work within them as best I can....
Crystal: With the law not protecting the ordinary person.  So the ordinary person got to do what they got to do.  Which is why I wrote the letter, innit?

Crystal is right: there is no law against writing letters, nor is there a law which protects her from the indignities of strip searches for drugs.  But Crystal didn't respect Helen's authority as Wing Governor.  Instead, she went outside the prison procedures and used the letter to the press as an opportunity to undermine Helen's authority.  Yet again, Helen finds herself pulled from both sides, understanding Crystal's desire to use whatever unauthorized strategies are available to her, but also feeling her own need to maintain control over the wing.  Not surprisingly, given her religious faith, Crystal still believes in the ultimate dominance and responsibility of those in authority.  She sees the resulting mess from her letter as Helen's fault (the fault of the authority), and thinks Helen will need the help of the highest authority to get out of it: "Only God can sort the mess you got yourself into."  Of course, God is not where Helen seeks help.

The episode concludes with hints of the triumph of those who reject the system.  Yvonne, the gangster's moll, arrives at Larkhall.  Yvonne is the queen of alternative authorities; it's the essence of organized crime.  And even though Stubberfield orders closed visits, and gives Helen no say in the matter, Helen finally actively moves away from seeking the approval from the un-please-able father figures, getting support from Nikki in a way which blows her mind and gives the audience cause for celebration.  The nightcalls reflect this newfound power in anarchy, as the prisoners celebrate Monica's impending freedom, ask Crystal whether she's got more letters planned, and crow over Yvonne's adventures with hitmen.



This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, richard, ekny, For some odd reason, Nikkhele, invisicoll, solitasolano, aj57

[1] Bluesycat pointed out that Helen is frequently filmed behind bars or caging in this episode,  as well as in close-ups in confined spaces.  Scene after scene with Helen visually reflects her emotional and professional confinement, from which she is trying to break free.

[2] Helen has worked outside the system from day one, when she goes to Nikki for help with the fashion show.  But after Nikki's act in the potting shed, she knows the ramifications of stepping outside, so working with Nikki has added meaning, importance, and risk.

[3] When Nikki asks for a drink of water, it seems like a bit of a plot device, because we know Monica's pills are barely hidden behind Monica in the sink.  But it also reflects the comfort and intimacy these two prisoners share.  It's hard to imagine Helen coming to Monica's cell and asking for a drink of water.  Without this intimacy, Monica would not have caved and given in to Nikki's urging to resume her appeal.  And of course, in the subsequent episode, it is Nikki, working outside official channels, who saves Monica from her overdose.

[4] During this episode, Shell engages in a sustained performance as a former drug user and criminal redeemed.  But the various authority figures in her life, in the form of all of the prison officers, don't believe she can change.  Shell laments, "What is it about this place?  Can't anyone change?"  In truth, Shell hasn't changed, but the doubting reactions to her performance of change demonstrate how authoritative structures work to keep people in their place.



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