Season 2, Episode 6: "Losing It" Essay
How can a woman's psychological crumbling when faced with the memory of
abuse, a former prison officer's visit to her inmate lover, and a protest over
the lack of privacy in prison life all serve as variations on a single theme?
This episode is about exposure, and the ways in which some people are more able
to control the ways they expose themselves than others are. The episode also
implies a moral conclusion: those characters who are most psychologically
balanced and functional are those who are most in control of their
self-exposure, and in fact, that control signifies each character's emotional
and psychological well-being.
The most obvious storyline on this theme is the protest taken up by some of the
prisoners. Inspired by Shell, the Julies and Denny take a stand in demonstrating
how vulnerable the prisoners are to exposure in front of male officers, and how
they are going to protect themselves from that vulnerability. They block the
peepholes in their cell doors, and then purposefully allow themselves to be
walked in on in a state of undress.
Every other central character in this episode also makes decisions about
exposing herself. From a concrete perspective, Nikki now has a cellmate and now
must wash up at the sink, change her clothes, and use the toilet in incredibly
close proximity to a total stranger. As always, Nikki maintains her dignity; she
is the master of being invulnerable, even when completely naked. On a more
emotional level, Helen is finally ready to come visit Nikki because she's no
longer scared to show other prisoners and prison officers that Nikki is special
to her. Or perhaps she's been missing Nikki so much that the desire to see Nikki
outweighs her fear of exposing herself. And in a more lighthearted storyline,
Zandra doesn't want anyone (read: Dominic) to see her in glasses, even if it
will cure her headaches, primarily because it will expose a side of her which
she isn't comfortable with—the flawed, geeky side.
But the true center of this episode, the true crux of this meditation on
self-exposure, is Shell. She alternates between exposing herself to the extreme
(the barely-there outfit in the group therapy session, the meeting with Karen
where she confesses her history of sexual abuse), and hiding herself (accusing
Dominic of spying on her, switching from her revealing clothes to baggy
sweatpants and sweatshirt). Everything is dysfunctional and inconsistent,
because Shell doesn't really know when it's appropriate to expose herself and
when it's not. It's not appropriate in group therapy, it's not appropriate to
tell Karen she wants to get a knife and stab Fenner, and it's not appropriate to
protect herself from Dominic, the least likely Peeping Tom at Larkhall.
The notion of performance accompanies many of the exposures in this episode.
After all, no one can expose themselves without an audience. Something
significant can happen, power can be asserted, when someone is willing to do
something in front of an audience. Again, the "Peeping Tom" protest serves as
the core, because it's really a staged performance itself. The Julies and Denny
are purposefully not dressed when male officers enter their cells in order to
make a point about male officers' rights to intrude on every aspect of their
lives. But Shell, similarly, decides to expose herself before an audience (the
therapy group), showing something (her history of sexual abuse) she had never
revealed before. Shell's performativity culminates at the very end of the
episode, with her dramatic appearance up on G3, an expression of rage and
protest against Fenner and all abusive men.
This rebellious performance demonstrates the essence of prison: it denies them
an an audience, denies them any power or clout in the outside world. It narrows
their sphere of influence from the world at large to the world of the prison
wing, a place in which the world at large has no interest. This is why prisoners
are sent to solitary when they misbehave. In solitary they no longer have their
audience on the wing, and therefore no longer assert any power. No statement can
be definitive without people to witness it, so no changes can really occur in
isolation. Shell can't undermine Fenner in solitary, and Helen, stuck at home in
her own solitary confinement, can't begin a relationship with Nikki.
This performativity, and the notion of controlled self-exposure, offers a means
for the writers to begin privileging the relationship between Helen and Nikki
above all other relationships and storylines on the program. Helen and Nikki are
the only two in complete control of their exposure, exposing themselves with
sincerity and totally open desire. Helen was hoping to come back to work at Larkhall, yet she still comes to visit Nikki (a visit which she could have
skipped altogether). But that visit indicates to Nikki (and the viewers) that
Helen is willing to demonstrate an intimacy with Nikki in front of an audience.
Helen's willingness enables their relationship to begin.
The show is taking on a specific political agenda here: it's taking something
many viewers might find strange or immoral (a lesbian relationship) and
establishing it as the most normal and moral relationship on the program. The
episode draws an explicit contrast between Shell's dysfunctional sexuality and
Nikki's lesbian sexuality. The scenes of Shell camping it up in group therapy,
reliving her sexual abuse, are intercut with the scenes of Barbara/Fenner's
homophobic confrontation of Nikki. This contrast emphasizes the irony of
Barbara's homophobia, because Barbara is scared of Nikki's sexuality (which has
nothing to do with Barbara, as Nikki so pointedly makes clear: she couldn't be
less interested in Barbara), when we
can see that Nikki's sexual and romantic behavior is quite normal in contrast
to heterosexuals like Shell.
In other ways in this episode, heterosexuality is a source of trauma, while
lesbian sexuality is normalized, highly functional, and enhances lives. Helen's
visit directly follows the "Peeping Tom" protest against the male guards. How
striking to compare the staged exposures of that protest to an actual prison
officer (Helen) who is pursuing a real relationship with an inmate (Nikki).
Helen and Nikki's relationship is not portrayed as perverted, as is the interest
of the male officers in female inmates. In fact, this is the first scene where
Helen and Nikki have a functional romantic dynamic between them, rather than a
battle against Helen's inner conflict. Helen's willingness to be seen, to expose
herself, and her lack of anxiety about doing so, provides a real pleasure for
viewers, and for the first time we fully enjoy this lesbian romance and
acknowledge it, in public, with no anxiety.
This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki
and Helen board. Thanks to the following people who participated:
ekny, poedgie, Lisa289, invisicoll, richard, Nikkhele, coolbyrne