Season 2, Episode 1: "Tug of Love" Essay

Love and War
—Richard B. and Jennifer T.

Helen's presence haunts the wing from the opening of this episode until she reemerges in person, her uncharacteristically calm and serene expression serving notice that she has changed. The problem is that Larkhall hasn't. The interplay of positions of relative power play out; the official, ostensibly even-handed hierarchy is distorted by informal interrelationships, official favoritism, and prisoners' attempts to subvert it. These power plays serve to suppress and sometimes destroy any potentially loving relationship in their path. Only the least powerful characters, with no power to lose, are able to prioritize love over control.

Stubberfield, while officially in charge, also typifies the informal power plays which dominate at Larkhall. He effusively welcomes Karen and Fenner in his office, offering them drinks, diminishing Helen's importance by asserting that she's gone AWOL. The trophy case, [1] so visible behind Stubberfield in this scene, embodies his power and victories, like the one he is about to enact. Stubberfield rigs the system to get Karen Betts transferred in on promotion from Newby (Stubberfield's old prison), to be his new Principal Officer, proposing Fenner be confirmed as Wing Governor. Stubberfield's underhanded, insider strategy relies on Helen's disappearance: if she returns, he has no way to oust her, since she's been inflicted on him by the official prison hierarchy, Area Management.

Stubberfield's new carpet provides a rich metaphor of the problems inherent in his official authority. The carpet symbolizes Stubberfield's particular gross vanity: he is at the height of official power, and relishes the trappings of office. However, in the context of Helen's return, Stubberfield's official power is proved empty. Not only is he unable to oust Helen, but his official power and authority is at odds with Helen's real power and moral authority. Yvonne's acquisition of her prison cell rug from stolen carpet remnants further emphasizes this subversion. By taking the carpet, Yvonne subverts the official award of status, both the status awarded Stubberfield as head of the prison, and the status awarded prisoners who earn duvets and curtains. Stubberfield's carpet also symbolizes the way so much can be swept under the carpet—hidden from public visibility—in the media, and even from his own superiors. It foreshadows Fenner's fate, as Stubberfield 'trusts the instincts' of his disciple, ignoring all evidence of Fenner's abuse of inmates.

Helen's return, like Yvonne's scraps of carpet, thwarts Stubberfield and Fenner's power play. Simply through her physical presence, she stamps her authority over Fenner the moment she swings through the door, lipstick (obtained from the trash can where Fenner had previously relegated it), car keys and her letters on her desk. By returning his cigarettes, his one possession still in her territory, and with her immortal line—'nice suit'—Helen nails both his ambition and his humiliating relegation back to the uniformed position of Principal Officer.

Despite Helen's territorial return, her control and authority remain vulnerable. Stubberfield gives her an official warning for overstaying her doctor's certificate of sickness for one day and maintains Fenner at the same hierarchical and salary level as Helen, thus reinforcing Fenner's informal authority.

Most importantly, this complicated tension between Stubberfield, Helen and Fenner provides the underlying subtext for so many of the emotional conflicts which arise, because they threaten the delicate power balance which all three are invested in preserving.

Helen seems quite ready to tolerate her vulnerability with Stubberfield and Fenner, but her interactions with Nikki threaten to overwhelm her. Helen maintains the official upper hand in this relationship. Nikki is aware of this, and tries to respect it as much as she can. She calls Helen 'Miss Stewart' in public when she first comes back on the wing, only referring to her as 'Helen' in private. But Nikki isn't willing to respect Helen's power and authority when it comes to emotional matters. She knows power and authority only hinder and destroy love.

Nikki attempts to take control of her relationship with Helen on two occasions. When Helen returns to announce Zandra giving birth, Nikki comes up to Helen and asks to speak to her. At the end of the episode, after Helen rescues Zandra, Nikki tells Helen she's in love with her. Helen rebuffs Nikki both times. And both times, Nikki and Helen are both filmed literally standing behind bars, each imprisoned from feeling and expressing emotion openly. In the final moment of the episode, as Helen walks away, Nikki remains behind bars, imprisoned by Helen's rejection of their mutual feelings. Nikki can't give Helen much, but she can give her love, even when she's locked up, her liberty denied. But Helen needs to be able to accept Nikki's love, and she can't, without relinquishing the small amount of power and control she has mustered. This Helen is unwilling to do.

These two overtures by Nikki provide bookends for Helen and Nikki's discussion in Helen's office, a discussion that highlights how love can't thrive in an environment dominated by power struggles. Helen wants Nikki's support in her career endeavors, while Nikki wants Helen to reciprocate the love she freely offers. Helen's struggle is so painful. Viewers root for her to give in and tell Nikki how she feels and that she wants to be with her, but after Helen's meeting with Simon, and her deep awareness of her professional vulnerability, there's no way she could. Helen could get fired at this point, with just one wrong move. Nikki, meanwhile, is operating from a position of utter powerlessness. She's locked up, told where to go, what to do, and when. Her emotions are the only place where she has any modicum of control and power. Nikki manages to coax an emotional declaration of sorts from Helen ("You do mean something to me"), which is the most Helen can allow herself to admit at this moment. Helen's awareness of her own vulnerability and powerlessness make her hyper-aware of Nikki's lack of power, and of the impossibility of any romance occurring: "Look, while it's my job to lock you up, there's no way we can be equal, Nikki.”

Zandra is another character, like Nikki, desperately trying to prioritize emotional bonds over power and control. As a mother, she's been granted certain privileges not normally afforded to a prisoner. Bodybag (after some nudging by Dominic) treats her as a human being. The nurse in the hospital insists that Zandra's handcuffs be taken off "while she's in my care." And most importantly, Zandra is given a place in the Mother and Baby Unit to raise her newborn infant. All of these small things support Zandra in her effort to build a strong emotional bond between herself and her newborn son.

However, Larkhall—and Zandra's position in it as a prisoner and former drug addict—conspire to prevent Zandra from maintaining her tentative maternal bonds, or her romantic bonds with her baby's father Robin. Her baby is born addicted to drugs, and Zandra feels incapable of being the perfect mother, in comparison with the other blissfully breastfeeding mothers in the Mother and Baby Unit. Her strained patience in dealing with the stress of a crying, unsoothable baby leads her to give in to the temptation of drugs. Although she ultimately resists that temptation, her fight with the drug dealer gives Robin an opening to demand custody of the newborn. Zandra had unwisely trusted his emotional loyalty, believing the two of them had a chance as a real couple, and as parents to their child. Instead, Robin inflicts his status and control as a free man, a member of the upper class, denying Zandra both her emotional bonds. To Robin, Zandra has "nothing to give him [their baby]." In his mind, as he tells Helen, "she'll never be a fit mother."

This kind of choice is nothing new for Robin; he's consistently chosen social status over his relationship with Zandra, allowing his parents to pair him with the socially acceptable Chloe. Even after Chloe rejected him, he couldn't summon up the courage to make contact with the pregnant Zandra. Like Helen, his place in the social hierarchy is more important to him than any romantic connection.

Helen's relationship with Zandra is further complicated by her identification with Zandra's powerlessness, and her (perhaps unconscious) awareness of the parallel between herself and Robin. Helen also has an instinctive antipathy for Robin: his self-righteousness recalls memories of Sean. Robin, like Sean, is 'weak' but 'totally sure of himself.' In her simultaneous identification with and hatred of Robin, and her identification with Zandra, Helen is motivated to put herself on the line for Zandra, to do what Robin should do for Zandra, in a way that she can't (or won't let herself) put herself on the line for Nikki. Helen recognizes Zandra's despair originates with her feelings of powerlessness, her inability to love her baby enough to overcome the power asserted against her. Helen reminds Zandra that she hasn't already lost her baby, that her maternal love hasn't been defeated. There's still hope. Helen's own experience of fighting from a place of powerlessness, of disadvantage, makes her particularly aware of what Zandra needs to hear in order to go on.

There's one other character, who like Zandra and Helen, has also lost her support from the prison hierarchy, and must fight back to preserve her authority within the prison. Shell Dockley's power is being undermined from every direction. She's resentful that Fenner beat her up, that Helen's return will neutralize any advantage Fenner gave her, and that Nikki will gain at her loss. Like the other characters struggling for power, she exploits a romantic relationship, rather than nurturing it, using her past relationship with Fenner to victimize him and his wife. While it's hard for the audience to imagine why Fenner thinks Nikki Wade is writing the letters to Marilyn, his dimness reflects his complete inability to love, or to understand the effect love (and its partner, heartbreak) will do to a person like Shell. More than anyone else in this episode, more even than Zandra risking her infant's life, Shell combines the emotional intensity of love and heartbreak with the motivation of power-hunger, to incredible effect. It's the worst of both worlds, in complete synergy.

In this power-hungry and power-starved environment of Larkhall, care and love can barely exist. This episode name's allusion to the most primal of children's competitions, tug of war, indicates the inseparability of love and war in Larkhall, no matter how strongly characters feel the tug of love. Even those who want to give it, like Zandra and Nikki, have no positive productive outlet for it. In the small moments when they do, it's because the power hierarchies are upended, when a nurse stands up to an officer, when a prisoner refuses to be silenced in her expressions of love.



This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, Just Another Mad Bad Fan, badgirlnuts, For some odd reason, poedgie, ekny, Nikkhele, solitasolano, invisicoll, microsofty, aj57, lisa2007, Mad Maggot, liusi44, Cassandra, Washuai, popstalin, LahbibLover,

[1] Thanks to ekny for noticing the prominence of the trophy case in this scene.


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