Season 2, Episode 10: "Family Plan" Essay
It's a Jungle Out There
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,
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.
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.
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