Season 2, Episode 7: "The Setup" Essay

The Power of Sight
—Jennifer T.

This episode repeatedly employs a single motif: sight. Again and again, characters tell others to "watch" or talk about what they "see" or don't see, or what someone is "looking" for. This sight metaphor is used to indict the prison system in a really chilling and subtle way. Given that prison officers can see (nearly) everything prisoners do, it's tragic and unjust that the prisoners have to rely on their faulty and biased vision: some prisoners are seen clearly by those in authority, and they benefit, while others are ignored by anyone and everyone until tragedy ensues. Sight represents not just the ability to see the truth, but caring enough to look.

First, Helen and Nikki. Of course we all notice The Look, the moment when Nikki sees Helen entering the servery, and their eyes catch and hold. This moment is the first time their mutual gaze is emphasized. Any other time their eyes have met has been with bars and walls between them, Nikki up in her cell and Helen down in the Larkhall entry yard.

This look, however powerful and electric, is just a visual manifestation of something much deeper between these two which this episode explores. When Barbara and Nikki discuss the concept of soulmates, Barbara first describes a soulmate as someone who "sees the world just as you do." And in this episode, unlike the other 38, we get to see Helen and Nikki sharing their own views on themselves, the world, their relationship.

This idea unifies two scenes which some people have complained are jarringly disparate: Helen asking Nikki if she's a cold-blooded killer, and shortly thereafter the two sharing a passionate kiss and a discussion of signposts in the art room. In the first scene, Helen says to Nikki: "I saw the statement you made to the police. [...] Is that what you are, a cold-blooded killer?" Helen is asking for reassurance from Nikki, because Helen fears that she is seeing Nikki clearly for the first time, that she never looked at Nikki's case objectively before she read Nikki's file. Then, in the art room a few moments later, rather than Nikki reassuring Helen about that specific question (Are you a cold-blooded killer?), each gives the other an answer to the more general question which was implied by the specific one: "Who are you?" Helen can't see clearly where her life is going—there are no "signposts" for her to look to for guidance. She wants Nikki to see and understand how disconcerting and bewildering that is for her. Meanwhile, Nikki wants Helen to see her own needs, most specifically her need for reassurance about Helen's feelings. And in a lovely coda to this scene, when Nikki insists that Helen can't make winning Nikki's freedom her job description, Helen responds "Can't I? Watch me."

Of course, Nikki is the only one Helen wants watching her in this episode. She jumps away from Nikki when the two are alone in Nikki's cell, paranoid that someone might be watching through the door. And her paranoia is justified, given how Fenner jumps on her as she walks off the wing, pointing out that she wouldn't want anyone to "make any embarassing discoveries" by spying her alone with Nikki in a compromising position. But as Helen knows, Fenner is the one who needs to be watched, not her. In Karen's office, Helen points out to Karen that there are things she sees about Fenner and things she doesn't. When Karen says that Fenner's been a "model officer" Helen responds "As far as you know" and then urges her "Just watch him Karen."

Of course, Helen is right, Fenner is up to no good, with his deal with Yvonne to arrange conjugal visits with her husband Charlie for a fee. Interestingly, the two big shifts in the Fenner-Yvonne power struggle occur when Fenner sees photographs (the physical evidence or manifestation of being seen). In the first instance, he enters Yvonne's cell and sees the photos of himself taking Charlie's bribe. Instantly, Yvonne controls him. In the second instance, he sees Charlie's mug shot in the paper and instantly he controls Yvonne, catching her in her last-ditch escape attempt. Sight is power, and while Fenner, like Helen, sees the truth very clearly, unlike Helen he only uses his insights to further his own interests.

Unlike Helen and Fenner, a number of other characters in this episode are having a lot of trouble seeing. Bodybag doesn't see Barbara as a Christian because (according to the law) Barbara murdered her husband. Bodybag also can't see past Zandra's drug history to see that Zandra is truly sick, not on drugs. She even goes so far as to search Zandra's cell before Zandra has even had a drug test, so sure is she that she sees the truth. But as Crystal reminds Bodybag, "God sees, he remembers." Barbara says something similar to Nikki regarding her mercy killing: "I knew God wouldn't see it as murder." No matter what God-like authority Bodybag may think she has, the essence of our humanity is that none of us (especially Bodybag) are all-seeing.

Zandra also can't see clearly, but in this case, her lack of sight is both more literal and more tragic. She's wearing her new glasses, but they aren't helping—we see her blurred vision as she tries to read the horoscopes. More significantly, none of the prison officers see her. Bodybag thinks she's still a drug addict. Dr. No No isn't looking for anything other than drugs. Crystal and Barbara both mention this, Barbara hoping that the doctors will "look for" something other than drugs, and Crystal lamenting that people only look for what they want or expect to see, and in Zandra's case, that's drugs. No one is really interested in seeing what's wrong with her, and it causes her death.

When Dr. No No gave Zandra glasses, it was because he assumed that what was wrong with her was that she couldn't see. But the reality was, it was he who couldn't see. This episode offers this disturbing metaphor to represent the plight of prisoners: no one really sees them.

And they know it. Crystal complains explicitly that no one cares what happens to them when they're in prison, and Barbara feels the need to keep her journal, so she can describe what she sees, show outsiders the truth.

The episode concludes with some powerful imagery, highlighting the rare prison officers who do care. We see Karen looking at Zandra when Zandra returns from the hospital, both when they are outside in the yard and then inside G-Wing. Karen is the only one who knows what's wrong with Zandra, the only one who sees. Like Helen, Karen is able to really see the prisoners, in a truthful way, as human beings. Sadly, seeing is not enough. No matter how clearly Karen sees Zandra, she can do nothing to save her from her fate.



This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: richard, bgaddict, Lisa289, ekny, invisicoll, Nikkhele, badgirlnuts, Just Another Mad Bad Fan


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