Season 2, Episode 10: "Family Plan" Essay

It's a Jungle Out There
—Jennifer T.

At the start of the episode, when Barbara and Yvonne are talking about Barbara’s attack on Shell in the previous episode, Barbara laments that she had behaved "like an animal." Yvonne replies: "Welcome to the zoo." As Yvonne’s glib statement suggests, all of the major storylines in this episode revolve around this metaphor of the prisoners as animals in a zoo.

First, we have the Julies. Their scheme to get Julie J pregnant is, at its essence, a breeding initiative. Nothing about love or romance here, just sperm. It's actually cringe-inducing to watch Julie J come on to Dominic and then the Vicar. Then Julie J comes up with the scheme to use her phone sex client John as the sperm donor. Interestingly, when ironing out the details, Julie S insists that science has nothing to do with it--"it's nature, innit?" Yes, breeding and reproduction for their own sakes, without love and companionship, really are nature, of the animal sort.

In a parallel storyline, Denny and Shaz are engaging in the opposite--not breeding but an elaborate courtship and mating ritual. The two are drawn to each other immediately, instinctively. Their nighttime antics work on two levels: first, they are animals escaped from the cage, having their run of the place. Second, the escape serves as a metaphor for sex, analogous to the censored movies of the 1940s and 1950s where characters danced with each other to symbolize lovemaking. When Shaz and Denny arrive back in their cell, they're huffing and puffing as if they've just had a very athletic and passionate experience. Denny calls it a "wicked night" and Shaz affirms "we're going to have a top notch time you and me Denny."

But the animal imagery really takes off with the arrival of the evil Renee Williams. We know she's an animal immediately upon her arrival at intake, because Dominic doesn't like her or feel a whit of sympathy for her, and then she lashes out at the brief touch of the other officer who comes to take her to the intake dorm.  Like a feral cat, she then pulls out her claws, in the form of the razor blade she had hidden in her mouth. Renee's also uses the language of animals every chance she gets. When she's told she moving to G Wing she says "A shower, that's what I want. It smells like a jungle in here." Later she refers to Shaz and Denny as monkeys.

From the moment she arrives on the wing, it's an instant turf war between two alpha females, Renee and Yvonne. Renee throws down the gauntlet a few times, once by showing Yvonne her razor blade when the two are in an isolated spot in the courtyard (intimidate your opponent) and then by informing Yvonne that she was having an affair with Charlie. On the animal level, there's nothing more aggressive and territorial than breeding with your opponent's mate.

The officers, meanwhile, are simultaneously working to suppress the prisoners' most animalistic instincts, while also engaging in rather animalistic behavior of their own. Dominic is incredibly strong and in control in response to Renee, and Karen starts out the episode by insisting that she won't tolerate violence on the wing. But of course, there's very little she or anyone can do to control the violence, or the "mating" either, as Karen points out to Sylvia when Sylvia wants Denny and Shaz separated. And while Sylvia and Dominic wind up protecting Yvonne from Renee's razor blade, they do so unawares: they are zookeepers, but ineffective ones.   More importantly, the officers engage in brutal, animalistic activity themselves. The cell search after Julie J is caught in the visiting room is one of the most violent ever on the show: pounding music, quick edits, very violent movements, with mattresses overturned and inmates shoved out of the way.

This imagery is rife with political implications. While certain characters are clearly acting out of desperation (Julie J for instance) and therefore making decisions which don't seem to reflect normal human judgment,[1] there is something troubling in this metaphor. No matter how much you qualify the metaphor by emphasizing how the Julies, Yvonne, Denny and Shaz are all driven by human needs (for love, out of fear etc), and that the officers also behave in animalistic ways, prison inmates are still being depicted as animals. In fact, the episode seems to be implying it is impossible for them to behave otherwise: Barbara is really the only character who attempts to act in what could be described as a civilized way, by owning up to having attacked Shell, and being willing to accept the punishment.[2]  But her attempt is thwarted by Shell herself. As in any animal pack, Shell needs to protect her reputation for strength and dominance or risk losing her status. This imagery seems to contradict the political agenda of this show (to humanize female offenders) by suggesting that the only way to survive the hell of prison is to behave, at least a little bit, like an animal. The writers might be making the point that, in fact, this animalistic behavior is the unavoidable result of an overcrowded system and abusive treatment of women.  Either way, this metaphor literalizes something that's been implicitly clear from the start, making the episode somewhat metaphorically redundant, without providing any additional meaning or insight.[3]





This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa 289, richard, Lizi, Nikkhele, ekny, invisicoll, badgirlnuts

[1] Julie's desire/need to procreate overwhelms her rational thought process. Similarly, Yvonne is on the defensive against the very dangerous Renee.

[2] Note that both Crystal and Nikki do not appear in this episode. In a way, it would be impossible for the writers to explore this theme (the idea that prison by necessity turns people into animals) because both Nikki and Crystal are two of the characters who have resisted that pressure the most strongly. They've retained their humanity and loving nature, sometimes at a high cost to themselves. Barbara is the only other character amongst the prisoners who could be categorized this way, but of course it's her attack on Shell which triggers the whole transition of Larkhall into a jungle.

[3] Thanks to ekny for the idea of the metaphor as literalizing.


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