Season 2, Episode 5: "Mistaken Identity" Essay

Differentiation
—Richard B.

While it's tempting to read this episode as a simple action thriller, a closer look at the context of this episode's interrelating events reveals a deeper meaning. Larkhall is an environment ripe for collective misjudgment. People collude with others to deceive, act out of character, or behave radically differently from their outward appearance. Meanwhile others make mistaken judgments, either because they rely on face values, or they're deprived of vital information in critical situations. At Larkhall it takes a rare talent to break away from or challenge accepted wisdoms.

The arrival of Tessa Spall provides the most vivid example of the ways appearances can deceive. Like the characters on Bad Girls, we viewers can't distinguish between the real and the fake Barbara Hunt, and therefore don't initially see 'Barbara Hunt' (eg Tessa Spall) as dangerous. Shell thinks that 'Barbara Hunt' is a timorous inoffensive woman who is safe to bully, until 'Barbara' suddenly snaps and shows her true psychotic nature, easily turning the tables on Shell's attempt to intimidate. Nikki makes the same mistake as Shell: she suspects Shell intends to bully 'Barbara', and when she hears sounds of distress from the other side of the cell door, she mistakenly concludes that 'Barbara' is in danger, not Shell. [1]

Sylvia also lets her stereotypes and surface judgments mislead her in dealing with Tessa. When confronted by one shrieking woman confined in a claustrophobic space and another quiet 'non troublemaker', Sylvia works from her universal labeling perspective in judging how she expects a 'mad woman' to behave, cutting corners in feeding the real Tessa Spall the answers to her questions, pushing out of the picture anything that contradicts her assumption like the recorded date of birth of 'Barbara Hunt.' Dr Nicholson similarly adds medical authority to this misconception. Later the 'old school' PO culture ignores Nikki's opinion when she tells the POs that the woman was a head case. Her reputation as a hothead supersedes her reputation as a responsible caretaker, and her input is temporarily sidelined. Only Karen really knew Tessa's capacity to conceal her true nature. Even though she had warned Sylvia to take care with Tessa Spall, her seclusion with her budgets means that her knowledge is too late to stop the crisis happening.

The episode explores the struggles of the prison staff to accurately distinguish the psychopath from the other inmates, via a subtle comparison drawn between Tess and Nikki. Nikki, a caretaker for so many of the women on the wing, is echoed in the depiction of Tessa's 'protectiveness' of Debby, rescuing Debby after being decrutched (as Nikki did for Zandra in season 1), her feelings of being 'someone who nobody wanted to be stuck with' (as Nikki felt when Trish broke up with her).

She even describes how she was 'trying to keep her nose clean' (a very Nikki turn of phrase) until her 'head went pop' in being separated from Debby (as Nikki's did when she and Trisha broke up, and as Nikki will do when she and Helen go through relationship rough patches). Nikki's fiery nature is well known yet she will only blow her top if she has tried reason and has been rebuffed. This is the dividing line between the violent sociopath and the 'normal person.' Tessa is in the first category; Nikki is definitely in the other. But Larkhall is the kind of environment where the staff don't make these distinctions very easily.

This inability to distinguish, and the mistakes that follow, don't just occur in personal interactions, but in the official procedures of the prison. What is truly shocking is how the array of procedures, bolts, bars and official training can so easily let near disaster happen. This episode pitilessly dissects the selfish and destructive 'old school' PO culture where Newby Prison (where both Karen and Stubberfield come from) unloaded their problem prisoner on Larkhall by abusing the 'temporary transfer system' ( '28 day lie down') in not sending the paperwork, depriving Larkhall prison of a visual identification of "Tessa Spall." In turn, Fenner's Newby friend grasses that prison up by tipping him off, Sylvia drawing the cynical and accurate conclusion.

Tessa, with her psychopathic inclinations and tendency for violent, explosive behavior, offers a striking example of the danger of making assumptions about people in a place like Larkhall. More than any of the other inmates (and officers) Tessa has that dangerous special ingredient of the clever psychopath who doesn't look dangerous and exploits the situation. The person to fear is the one who will suddenly switch to violent anger and assault with no 'build up.' This can happen either if that person suddenly switches or deliberately uses that sudden switch. The potential for that switch to be flipped, combined with official misunderstanding, magnifies the scope for disaster.

This disaster ensues once the truth about Tessa begins to surface. Dominic finally puts two and two together, realizing the true Barbara Hunt is in solitary after she exclaims 'you didn't even know my name.' Combined with Nikki's assessment of the situation, Dominic is able to piece together the evidence and break with the collective mindset. While Dominic persuades Nikki to share her insights into Tessa, Tessa's vindictiveness against Karen forces Karen to reveal the more unbearable fact of Debby's rejection of Tessa rather than Karen splitting them up. All at once, every character knows the truth about Tessa, including herself. But insight doesn't stop Tessa from seeking her revenge; it only gives others the tools they need to stop her. In a world which holds so tightly to mistaken impressions, the most effective action comes when those impressions, for just a moment, drop away.

Tessa isn't the only example of danger resulting from the exposure of the truth behind the façade. The first truth which starts to boil to the surface is Shell's history with sexual abuse. Shell has engaged in numerous antics in group therapy, pretending to have an embarrassing problem to get a laugh at the therapist's expense, and focusing on officer-prisoner conflicts, rather than her own psychology. However, she can't protect herself against the insights of the psychologist and the therapy setting, and her persona begins to crumble during these meetings as the therapist digs beneath the surface of her outwardly aggressive comments. This crumbling proves extremely difficult for Shell to handle as time goes by.

More than Shell or Tessa, Yvonne is skillful at creating false impressions. She allies with Fenner in order to get private visits with her husband, Charlie. Their alliance begins with a very public, fake staging of Yvonne's bereavement. She and Fenner fake news of Charlie's cancer, thus insuring a private visit. Fenner's corrupt alliance with Yvonne, driven by financial greed, takes place in the most respectable of locations: the golf course. However, rather than socializing with his boss, Stubberfield, as he had in previous weeks, he's now receiving bribes off Charlie. Yvonne presents a similar false façade with Sylvia, tempting her with the offer of a 'shit hot lawyer' for a compensation claim for her neck injury. Yvonne wins Sylvia over in that one action, and Sylvia temporarily changes her tune about Yvonne in a meeting with Karen (to Karen's cynical amusement).

Even Yvonne, a master of façade, winds up falling victim to it. Although she protects herself against Fenner's disloyalty with the photos of him receiving the bribe, and uses those photos to hatch an escape strategy, she's dependent on Charlie, and therefore vulnerable to his betrayal. While Charlie proclaims that 'love conquers all' to Yvonne during his visit, we will learn shortly that he has been cheating on Yvonne. Her fears about him being unfaithful weren't paranoia and insecurity, but the reasonably skeptical perspective of someone who knows the power of deceit.

While characters like Yvonne and Tessa create successful façades, this episode offers the strange turn of events where Fenner for once had the opportunity to seem like a hero and be a hero. He deals with the Tessa Spall crisis once it is spotted, organizing the game plan of Di, Dominic and Ken to deal with the crisis after his first confrontation with Tessa fails. His mania and rage are put to good use in confronting Tessa with the hosepipe. He operates in the right cause (as opposed to beating up Shell in her cell), demonstrating his professionalism and competence. However, this moment of authenticity doesn't carry beyond this episode. Instead, he later puts up a front of false humility when offered a medal for his actions, thus further propagating his heroic persona.

The other character who unexpectedly behaves in a completely authentic way is Zandra, although no one believes her authenticity. She is suffering headaches, but her former drug use prevents anyone, even Dominic, from seeing those headaches as a symptom of a serious health crisis. Dominic puts Zandra's headaches down to drugs until she collapses. Dr No No, who could have known better, doesn't believe Zandra's protestations that that she was off drugs for recreational purposes because she was dodging the 'drugs test'. In reality she was self-medicating painkillers because of Dr No No's failures to diagnose her brain tumour. But unlike Fenner, who gets credit for his real heroism, Zandra's suffering is ignored until it is too late.

In an episode where a drug dealer and a sadistic prison officer can behave authentically, and a middle-aged Christian woman is mistaken for a psychopath, it's hard to miss the power of false impressions and the danger and destruction when they are revealed. Di Barker provides some wise words when advises the deceitful Tessa, "Be very careful who you trust 'round here. Things aren't always what they seem." As is often the case at Larkhall, it's much easier to say something than to do it.

 



This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, coolbyrne, ekny, badgirlnuts, abzug, invisicoll 

[1] In turn, Tessa is deceived by her first impression of Nikki (besides calling her a 'nark, 'head prefect') as a mild mannered fairly posh woman she can push around, not knowing how angry and physical Nikki can get.

 

 
 

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