Season 2, Episode 2: "Shit Happens" Essay

Truth Telling
—Richard B.

Truth challenges people in two ways: (1) it is difficult to know, and much easier to ignore or repress, and (2) it is difficult to use compassionately. In a closed institutional environment like Larkhall, knowing the truth is particularly difficult in the face of the prison hierarchy's commitment to 'official history'—a lie everyone has agreed to agree upon. This episode epitomizes one of the themes of Bad Girls, Series 1 – 3, as characters fight an uphill battle in their struggle for authenticity within themselves and their relationships. For so many characters the truth is oftentimes unbearable and potentially destructive.

This episode is full of minor lies, all part of the day-to-day activities of most characters. First off, Sylvia playfully presents flowers to Fenner deceiving him 'as if from a secret admirer' when they were really Charlie's gift to Yvonne. Secondly, Yvonne resents Josh's extortionate £100 charge for smuggling underwear. He claims the price is fair, blaming (half in jest) 'overheads' and 'market forces' when in reality he's charging as much as he can to cover his very real risk of losing his job. Thirdly, in an act of self-protection, Fenner lies to Karen about his relationship with his wife, describing his marriage as 'rock solid.'

In this world where lies are so habitual, caring and kindness is only occasionally demonstrated. Dominic expresses his concern for Zandra, showing her the reality of her lack of self esteem. Dominic's honest and open communication with Zandra about his fear of her dying, and his joy that she didn't, finally softens her up and frees her. Yvonne is equally compassionate in her gift of money to Jessie. She knows Jessie is destitute and needs the money to set her life back up, but Yvonne fatally ignores the reality of Jessie's alcoholism and the inevitability that the money will cause her to sink back into alcoholism. Compassion without a clear view of the truth of a situation can be as destructive as cruelty.

Other than these small attempts at caring and kindness, most other character use truth (or the denial of it) as a weapon. Staying true to her vindictive nature, Shell exposes the suppressed truth about Fenner's marital infidelities, but does so only out of selfish motivations, so that she can victimize Marilyn Fenner and get back at Fenner. Shell uses Fenner's paranoid suspicions of Nikki for her own ends, planning to get revenge both against Nikki and Fenner. To get back at Fenner for assaulting her, Shell writes poison pen letters and makes phone calls to Marilyn. Shell entices Fenner into her cell using her mobile phone to set him up to unknowingly reveal his true feelings about women: his wife is just his wife and other women are 'whores.' Like any good sociopath, of course, Shell's relationship with the truth is extremely malleable—she doesn't hesitate to lie about the phone calls later, even when telling the truth to Helen about her relationship with Fenner.

The truth is a weapon in Helen's hands as well, but in her case it is her denial of the truth, not her desire to expose it, which is so destructive. Helen represses the truth of her sexual interest in an inmate, but with the selfless goal of not compromising her position as Wing Governor to operate for the 'greater good.' As Helen enters Larkhall at the start of the episode, she blatantly ignores Nikki, just as she is trying to blatantly ignore her attraction for Nikki. She's punishing Nikki for her open and truthful expression of love the previous night. In repressing the truth of her emotions, and trying to repress Nikki's expression of them as well, Helen treats Nikki in a cold and cruel manner, pushing Nikki into the emotionally raw condition which leads her to lash out at Fenner and Dominic during their search of her cell. [1] Later in the episode she uses her career to deny what she feels: she actually defends Fenner when Nikki makes accusations against him, even though she knows he's not all that saintly. Given their long history, it's hard to imagine Helen actually believed Nikki had drugs in her cell; instead she used Fenner's accusations as a way of getting Nikki out of her hands. [2]

Nikki falls victim to Fenner's dishonesty as well. While Nikki is dragged away, Fenner talks vaguely about a drugs bust so Dominic is kept in the dark about Fenner's real reason for searching Nikki's cell (to find the mobile used to harass his wife). Fenner uses both position and situation to get Dominic to relay the complaint to Helen. This creates Helen's worst nightmare where her affection for Nikki and her need to punish Nikki's bad behavior are forced against each other like two icebergs colliding, leading to her disastrous treatment of Nikki.

In contrast to Helen, Fenner, and Shell, Nikki serves as a model of authenticity and loyalty. She'd had an unspoken agreement with Helen that if she was 'treated like a human being' and with justice, she would act with moderation and restraint. In this situation, she was having a quiet read, gets picked on for no reason and is hauled off down the block. She's angry at Helen for not seeing through Fenner, and uses the relative privacy of solitary to expose the truth of her own feelings (both her love for Helen and her anger at Helen's treatment of her); and the truth of Fenner's fundamental dishonesty ("Fenner's as bent as they come and you know it"). The result? She's shipped out, Helen's final attempt to repress the expression of the truth.

In the climax of the episode, no one is able to avoid the truth any longer. Shell's manipulation of the truth finally blows up in her face as, unknown to her, Nikki had been shipped out, and Fenner realizes Shell is the mastermind behind the mobile. With an unnerving calmness and viciousness, Fenner enters Shell's cell, finds the phone, and in a chillingly methodical manner, beats Shell up. Karen sees the immediate aftermath of this assault and sits in on Helen's interview of Shell, both Helen and Karen finally hearing of the truth of Fenner's relationship with Shell and also the truth about Rachel Hicks' affair with Fenner. Helen's long-held suspicions are converted to solid fact.

In the final confrontation scene between Helen, Stubberfield, and Fenner, Helen reaches out for the power that this knowledge of the truth gives her. Unlike the earlier scene in Series 1 Episode 5 when Helen was sidelined in the discussions after Rachel Hick's death, Helen uses all of her strategic power and determination to make sure the truth about Fenner comes out. Despite Fenner's 'official report', the all-time lie of Shell 'headbutting the floor,' and Stubberfield mouthing the right words as a preparation for a cover-up, Helen finds Stubberfield's weak spot, complaining over his head to Area Management. Helen is masterly in asking the right questions to get at the truth, leaving Fenner and Stubberfield reduced to exchanging sidelong glances and negating the authenticity of the 'written report.' She reduces both of them to relative silence and scores over both of them. When Helen is on her own with Stubberfield, she superbly turns all his devices back on him. In his final attempt to pull rank and enforce a cover-up of the truth, Helen storms back with a furious and unforgettable "Well, I don't like it."

Shed's subtle bit of writing was to deploy this anger so that Helen actually lets go emotionally, just the smallest bit, which leads to her emotional floodgates crashing open. She can't suppress the truth about her own feelings for Nikki any longer, not to herself, and not to Nikki. Earlier in the episode when she caresses Nikki's photo gives us a great deal of information about her feelings—she's literally fetishizing the mug shot, which is rather a passionate, lustful thing to do—but she still won't let herself caress the real Nikki.[3] By bringing Nikki back after learning the truth of Fenner's cell search, she has already tried to correct the harm done to Nikki due to her own emotional repression and Fenner's lies.

Whatever actions Helen takes to make things up to Nikki, she's still not ready to fully embrace the truth of her feelings. She resigns, unwilling to continue to participate in a regime riddled with dishonesty, but she is still confronted by her own habitual repression. When she goes to talk to Nikki, she doesn't mention any of the issues she's been dealing with up in Stubberfield's office, and talks only about her hypocrisy as her reason for quitting. Helen chooses very carefully what to reveal and what not to reveal. And it's not always (or even usually) about being emotionally open and vulnerable with Nikki and emotionally guarded with others. Helen is guarded with everyone—she never really shows all sides of herself. It's no accident that she only shares her feelings and desires with Nikki at a moment when there is no danger of their relationship going any further. The truth of her feelings for Nikki are still very dangerous to her, and can be expressed only when they can be contained.

This finale shows how far Helen and Nikki are from the way relationships take place in normal situations, where 'the truth should set them free where they can love each other.' In an insular institutional world, the truth is more likely to leave people destroyed and alone. The truth sees Nikki abandoned and Helen walking away. The truth Helen finally sees is that in her current position she is powerless to change anything in Larkhall, from Fenner's abuse of women to her feelings for Nikki.




This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, Nikkhele, poedgie, Texex, ekny, coolbyrne, badgirlnuts, invisicoll, suchfun, solitasolano, Mad Maggot, orlando, aj57 

[1] Thanks to abzug for pointing out how Helen's brush-off led to Nikki's violent reaction to Fenner and Dominic.

[2] Thanks to abzug for describing this particular avoidance strategy of Helen's.

[3] One more thanks to abzug for the idea of Helen's emotional floodgates opening.



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