Season 2, Episode 5: "Mistaken Identity" Essay
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.
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
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
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
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