Season 2, Episode 12: "Facing Up" Essay

Fear and Forgiveness
—Jennifer T.

This episode, with its high quotient of emotional pain, offers an examination of love and forgiveness, through a variety of imagery and relationships. More than most episodes, this one spells out a progressive philosophy of crime and punishment.

The episode opens in the garden, and throughout includes a noticeably large number of close-ups of flowers, often a symbol for love. The first scene between Helen and Nikki takes place in the garden, echoing the scene from the previous episode where Helen found Nikki in the potting shed and told her a lawyer was interested in her appeal. But this time the emotions are completely different; unlike in the previous episode, Nikki is refusing to be in tune with Helen. The flowers, with their beauty and color, feel incredibly incongruous with Nikki's rage and rejection. By taking the symbolism of flowers as representing love, an emotional context and meaning underlies some of the episode's literal exchanges. For instance, Dominic asks Nikki where she's going to plant the flowers and she says she doesn't know. And at this point, she really doesn't know where she's planting and fertilizing her romantic loving impulses. More striking is the horrible moment after fighting with Helen, when Nikki impales her hand with the trowel, her self-inflicted wound a physical manifestation of the pain and harm that can come from loving.

The other visual representation of love (and its obstacles) in this episode is the physical barriers which come between people, or which people erect to protect themselves. The most obvious example of this occurs in the scene between the widow and Helen, before Shaz comes in for the visit. The widow doesn't want to meet with Shaz with glass between them, and that desire is a precursor for the emotional candor the widow is going to offer and demand during the visit. There are many other examples of barriers during the episode which expand on the connection between physical barriers and emotional ones. After meeting with the widow, Shaz locks herself in the toilet stall, and Denny knocks on the stall door asking Shaz to let her in. It's a physical and an emotional request. There are countless scenes between various officers which take place behind bars, or with bars in between the two people talking. Helen and Karen stand behind the G2 gate when they're talking about Shaz's general amoral attitude. Fenner is behind another gate after asking Dominic to go with him for a drink. Right before their almost-kiss, Karen and Fenner are walking up the hallway and at least part of the scene occurs before they open the gate, with them filmed behind it. The most broadly destructive example is Fenner shutting himself in the officer's room when Di needs his help controlling the prisoners.

These physical barriers embody the emotional barriers which can occur in all relationships, but which are epitomized in this episode by Nikki and Helen. Through most of this episode, Nikki has shut Helen off, erected a type of mental barrier—jealousy—between them. Nikki's jealousy, like all jealousy, is not rational, and there's no explanation from Helen which can cure Nikki's suspicions. Her jealousy has overwhelmed any potential for trust, so any explanation Helen provides has no value, because it could be a lie. Nikki's gone crazy—she doesn't know anything anymore, especially anything about the genuineness of Helen's feelings, and she can't believe Helen's explanations of what has occurred with Dominic, or see clearly how much Helen loves her. In contrast, Helen does attempt to be open and honest for much of the episode, to not raise barriers until the moments when Nikki pushes her too far. Helen, in fact, takes the major step of actually telling someone about Nikki, stepping out from behind the privacy barriers which she erected back many months before.

However, despite Helen's attempts at openness, the very state of flux of her sexual identity also acts as a sort of barrier, preventing Nikki from fully knowing Helen, or relying on the relationship. Nikki complains that straight women "don't know what truth means" and in certain ways she is correct. The transition from a straight identity to a gay one is challenging for everyone, and Helen is not immune. How can truth mean anything when feelings are constantly growing and changing? We see a physical embodiment of Helen's emotional struggle and transition when Dominic leaves her apartment after Helen has revealed her relationship with Nikki. He looks back and sees her through the frosted glass of her front door. Helen's outline is blurry, and framed by the door and the screens of our televisions, two levels of mediation suggesting not only her struggle to find clarity around her own identity, but her struggle to allow others to see her clearly.[1] 

This imagery of barriers between people, introduced by the widow of Shaz's victim, is inseparable from ideas of crime and forgiveness. The central questions of this episode are whether it's possible to forgive others and forgive yourself. While it's potentially risky to equate Nikki's jealousy with crimes which can get people locked up in prison, Nikki behaves in an extremely ugly manner. Not just lashing out at Helen, but treating Dominic with hostility as well. She even comes very close to revealing her relationship with Helen to Dominic before she knows that he's aware of it. Like Shaz, Nikki is punished, emotionally when Helen comes onto the wing to see Shaz and turns away from Nikki, refusing to acknowledge her), and physically by wounding her own hand with a gardening trowel.

The connection between Nikki's action and Shaz's crime, and both their struggles for forgiveness, is further emphasized with the juxtaposition of Shaz's meeting with the widow and Nikki's first request for forgiveness from Helen. Shaz's meeting with the widow explores the idea of regret (Shaz is only sorry for herself, not her victims), of taking responsibility for ones own actions (Shaz blames her boss, her abusive father). The widow points out Shaz's avoidance of true regret or responsibility, and then tells her "I hate what you did, I don't hate you." Then, Nikki arrives, in a cringe-worthy intrusion, and she does everything the widow has just insisted Shaz do: she expresses regret, she takes responsibility, she apologizes sincerely. But Helen isn't ready to forgive Nikki; she's too hurt and angry. She says "You're too late. You said things I can't forget." And adds, in a chilling condemnation, "Go fall in love with someone else." While Helen serves as the conduit for this meeting of forgiveness and understanding between the widow and Shaz, when it comes to her own personal life, she struggles to live by the same principles.

That's the essential struggle of forgiveness, the difficulty, or near-impossibility, of the victim forgiving ugly and hurtful behavior. We've seen Nikki's treatment of Helen, we've perhaps even shouted out in frustration at our television screens to get her to stop. And so we understand Helen's hesitation at forgiving Nikki. Helen has erected a barrier between them, one which she's not ready to let down. At the end of the episode, she waits before picking up the phone when Nikki calls, but she listens to Nikki leave a voice message begging again for the chance to fix things, and does pick up to talk to Nikki, although it's a moment too late. It's the message itself that weakens Helen's resolve, and gives her the feeling that she can forgive Nikki, a feeling she didn't have earlier in the day. Helen listens to the message a second time, to make up for not speaking directly to Nikki, and to reinforce the re-awakening of her loving feelings for Nikki, the door of forgiveness cracked open the tiniest bit.

Helen and Nikki's conflict makes the theme of forgiveness for crime more universal. We can all relate to the feeling of having done things which make us no longer worth loving, as Shaz insists in the bathroom to Denny, now that she's aware of the horror of her crime. Denny tells her to "do something to make up for it" serving as the voice (along with the widow) of the idea of redemption on Bad Girls—if you do something bad (kill someone, treat your lover cruelly), you're not a bad person, you did a bad thing, and now you must take action to make things right. Through this storyline the show advocates for the reparative model of justice (where the offender is confronted by her victim and has to take action to repair the damage caused) and rejects the punishment model (where the offender goes to prison to rot because she's a horrible person and good riddance!).

But all forgiveness must occur on the most personal level, which is why the episode concludes with a number of characters trying to reconnect with those who feel hurt by them: Crystal writes to Josh, Nikki calls Helen. Both Josh and Helen at this point have built up some walls for protection, and Nikki and Crystal, like Denny, are knocking and asking to be let back in. However, there's always a risk in the reparative model of justice: those who don't deserve to be forgiven might trick their victims into believing their sincerity. Sickeningly, Fenner accomplishes just that, finally seducing Karen only a few episodes after she thoroughly mistrusted him and wanted to get him fired.


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, richard, ekny, invisicoll, orlando, Just Another Mad Bad Fan, badgirlnuts, Mad Maggot

[1] Thanks to orlando for the idea of Helen being in flux, and ekny for pretty much every idea in this paragraph related to Helen behind the glass door and her journey of sexual identity.


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