Season 2, Episode 13: "Oh What A Night!" Essay

Romantic Respectability
—Jennifer T.

This episode, with its focus on a wide variety of romantic couples, depicts the complicated intersection between private romantic relationships and broader society. Relationships don't exist in a vacuum. They are influenced by friends, colleagues, social norms, and by anxieties about all of those things. Through these relationships the episode reinforces the social agenda of Bad Girls, normalizing and championing marginalized relationships and people.

Love, with its potential for betrayal, involves huge risks. Early on the episode introduces a theme of wounds and scarring. Shell goads Yvonne about Renee's knowledge of the scar on her husband Charlie's penis, and Nikki cuts open her love-wound, the gash on her hand. At the end of the episode, when Yvonne finally realizes she's lost Charlie, she tosses red wine at his photo, spilling his "blood" in the only way she can. This theme of love's wounds, both physical and emotional, cuts through the five primary romantic relationships in this episode: Sylvia and Bobby, Yvonne and Charlie, Karen and Fenner, Crystal and Josh, and Helen and Nikki. All five relationships swing between intimacy and estrangement, and sometimes back again. Love, it seems, can cut deep, and even if those cuts heal, a scar is always left behind.

The harmful potential for love means that for people to flourish in love, they need support—from their friends, community, society in general. However, as this episode establishes, certain relationships episode are sanctioned by society, and others are not. The most sanctioned relationship, of course, is Sylvia's and Bobby's—they're celebrating their 30th anniversary, a celebration of a long relationship stamped with society's approval. Meanwhile, Helen and Nikki (and to a lesser extent, Crystal and Josh) have the least sanctioned relationships. Rather than being celebrated, these relationships need to be hidden, for the sake of careers, moral standards, potential appeals, and in the case of Helen, the potential judgments of family and friends regarding her sexuality.

Not only do Nikki and Crystal's relationships need to be hidden, but they are inextricably intertwined with illegality. Both Crystal and Nikki engage in illegal behavior in anticipation of reconnecting with their loved ones. Crystal's theft of the clock, while not a direct action uniting her with Josh, is a symptom of her anxiety over her relationship and her release. She's nervous about when she's going to get out, whether Josh will be there waiting for her. Her criminal compulsion provides a way to reassure herself that she still has some control over herself and her surroundings, and illustrates how she and her relationship are deprived of society's approbation. Meanwhile, Nikki must actually escape prison to be with Helen, an act which represents the most extreme form of rule-breaking, of not obeying society's restrictions. Nikki's impulse to reject social restrictions seemingly knows no bounds, as evidenced by her idea to flee the country rather than return to Larkhall with no hope for her appeal. Helen points out "What kind of life will that be for us?" to which Nikki retorts "Better than if we wait for bloody justice." Nikki is willing to engage in the least socially-sanctioned relationship possible. Not only is it a lesbian relationship, not only is a relationship between a prisoner and an officer, now it's going to be a relationship of two people on the run, hiding their identities, living isolated lives. It's hard to imagine a relationship more dramatically contrasted to a 30th wedding anniversary celebration, but in Nikki's mind, it's her only option.

Of course, the socially approved relationships aren't as happy, peaceful and non-transgressive as they might seem at first. Sylvia and Bobby start out the evening with a nice intimacy, with Bobby standing up for Sylvia against Karen, but they end the evening in a tiff, a very public one, when Sylvia refuses to leave with Bobby. All of Bobby and Sylvia's accumulated gripes and grouses came to the surface released by the ecstasy tablet.[1] With this ecstasy tablet, the episode subtly supports the rejection of society's rules and standards. Just as Helen needed Nikki to escape prison in order to finally express her love physically and verbally, the transgression of the ecstasy is required for the truth and authenticity of Sylvia and Bobby's relationship to come out. It's amusing that the ironically-named ecstasy unleashes such hostility and rage between Sylvia and Bobby. But perhaps there is a form of emotional ecstasy in Sylvia finally being free to express her feelings, no matter how ugly or socially distasteful they may be. The irony is that, unlike for our secret, socially-condemned couples, Sylvia and Bobby must air their conflict in public, with an audience. A public relationship, with social validation, is always at risk of suffering social judgment.

This fear of social judgment can be broadly damaging. It pushes Karen to try (and fail) to keep her relationship with Fenner under wraps. She's sleeping with him but doesn't want anyone to know it. He thinks she's ashamed, and she probably is. But despite Karen's best efforts, like Sylvia and Bobby, Karen and Fenner have witnesses. As much as Karen refuses to dance with Fenner, she can't hide what's going on, either to Yvonne and Shell, or to Fenner himself. Her desire to continue hiding the relationship makes her seem untrustworthy, to both Fenner and Shell. They channel their resulting anger at Karen by falling into bed with each other, both with different fantasies of revenge.

Shell's anger at Karen's betrayal demonstrates the inextricability of platonic relationships and romantic relationships. Karen stood by Shell through Shell's accusations against Fenner and her revelations of sexual molestation. In Shell's mind, Karen has betrayed her by sleeping with Fenner, by no longer believing her allegations Fenner. And this betrayal has deprived her of much-needed support. Crystal, on the other hand, benefits from Denny's support. It's Denny's phone call to Josh telling him where Crystal is, and how much she misses him, which enables the two to reunite. A more abstract (and slightly disturbing) example is Di and Sylvia's dance at the end of the party. In this pseudo-romantic pose, Di is serving as a surrogate for Sylvia's husband, providing the support which Sylvia has rejected from Bobby.[2]

Unfortunately for Helen and Nikki, Helen suffers from an extreme lack of support, either of the social validation variety, or the supportive friend variety. Without any support, she has a low tolerance for an extra-societal, transgressive relationship. Confined within the walls of Larkhall, where she can dictate the terms, Helen can enjoy her passionate connection with Nikki. But Nikki's complete disregard for any boundaries, her lack of need for any social sanction, drives Helen in the opposite direction: towards extreme obedience of the rules—a 999 call to the police. Her action serves as a counterpoint to Fenner, who is desperate for public demonstration (and by extension, approval) of his relationship with Karen. When he doesn't get it, he commits a breach in the opposite direction to Helen's, by falling back into his most violating behavior.

This intertwining of romantic couples and outcomes seems to suggest that everyone might be better off if they could let go of their need for social approval of their relationships, and be able to reach out to their friends and community for support during the tough times. Unfortunately that's not possible at Larkhall, nor in society at large.



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

[1] Thanks to richard for articulating this idea.

[2] Ekny is to blame for planting the idea of this romantic pseudo-lesbionic pose between Di and Sylvia.  She also pointed out that (in case we weren't already disturbed enough) these Di-Sylvia moments are intercut with some of Helen and Nikki's most romantic, passionate moments.


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