Season 2, Episode 8: "Babes Behind Bars" Essay

Mothers and Medicine
—Jennifer T.

Two preoccupations provide the core of this episode, and they just happen to be two of the main preoccupations of Bad Girls in general: drugs and mothering. At first glance, the two seem unrelated, but their pairing in this episode emphasizes some strong parallels between them. Both drugs and mothering can be harmful, and both can be curative. Both can be legal and official, and both can be illegal and unofficial. And for those who are thoroughly damaged, the best that either mothering or drugs can do is provide palliative care. By drawing this parallel, this episode is able to create an expanded, morally complex view, about both mothering and drugs: the importance of having them, and the steps human beings will take to get them.

The episode's dueling storylines, Babes Behind Bars, and Shell confronting her mother, contrast good mothering and bad mothering. The bad mother, of course, is Shell's. From the moment she comes on screen, she's absolutely horrid, and horrifying. Shell's derangement becomes instantly comprehensible, the mother responsible for the child's emotional suffering and damage. Shell's mother berates Shell, assumes she's been drugged, and seems to be incapable of offering any empathy whatsoever. Everything she says to Shell is exactly the wrong thing, and provides absolutely no support or emotional reinforcement to Shell, to a terrifying degree. Meanwhile, in the art room, the Julies and Yvonne teach Denny how to work the sex line. Denny's sweet naiveté in this scene is incredibly endearing: she draws out the maternal instincts of the three mothers in Larkhall, and the three of them start teaching her everything they know about phone sex. The sexual content of this mothering provides an ironic contrast with Shell and her mother, because Shell's mother also taught her about sex, but unlike Denny's phone-sex ed, Shell's too-early sexual education destroyed her.

Lucky for Shell, she has a foster mother guiding her in this episode: Karen. Since Karen arrived at Larkhall, in the midst of the Shell-Fenner scandal, she's taken a particular interest in Shell, providing sympathy and advocacy beyond what anyone else at Larkhall has ever offered. The importance of this good (foster) mothering is highlighted during Shell's meeting with her real mother. Prior to Karen's arrival at the meeting, Shell essentially sits there dumbly, absorbing her mother's criticisms and negativity. Once Karen enters the room, Shell is finally able to confront her mother. Shell needs the good mother behind her before she can confront the bad one.

This struggle between the influence and pressure of the good mother versus the bad one is played out within Shell. After confronting her real mother, Shell chooses to have her children removed from her mother's home and put into foster care. Providing her own children with a good mother is the only way she can mother them, by herself letting them go. Mothering her own children properly this one last time enables her to her bounce back from the recollection of her sexual abuse. Once she rips up the photos of her children, symbolically freeing them from the damage of her mothering, and her mother's mothering, she's able to fantasize about the wonderful life they will have. As she voices this fantasy, she's dressing up and putting on makeup. She's becoming herself again by being a good mother, not by getting back at Fenner, the embodiment of the abuser who caused her suffering in the first place. Of course, Shell becoming herself is not a full cure—the damage of the abuse will always be with her.

Karen doesn't offer the only the positive example of alternative mothering, or, more generally, alternative families providing desperately needed solace and support. Zandra has no friends or family left on the outside, and even though she's dying of brain cancer, she chooses to spend her final weeks in prison, surrounded by the family she has created during her time there. However, for her to have this family around her, some rules need to be bent and stretched. Karen's idea to get Zandra released on temporary license sets the context for the idea that sometimes drastic (and potentially illegal) action is required for families to be together and provide support for each other. Zandra turns down the option to be released on temporary license, and Crystal chooses her prison family (Zandra) over her potential traditional family (Josh), who is eagerly awaiting her release. To make this choice, Crystal must do something illegal, must break the rules to get her sentence extended. She won't let her future husband, nor any prison rules, get in the way of her standing by her friend.

Crystal's journey toward choosing to be part of the alternative family rather than the traditional one is encapsulated in her evolving feelings about drugs. At the start of this episode, she considers them the tool of the devil, as she has since she arrived at Larkhall. Crystal's view of drugs is overly simplistic, because just as the episode provides a myriad of alternative examples of mothering, it provides a myriad of interpretations of drugs. Barbara "Mrs. Middle England" Hunt points out that marijuana was formerly legal, and thinks it should continue to be, particularly for those like her late husband and Zandra, who are suffering extraordinary pain. Shell's mother sees drugs as a tool to keep the prisoners passive, and blames them (not herself) for Shell's sorry state. Both Barbara's and Shell's mother's feelings about drugs are intertwined with their loving, nurturing feelings—or lack thereof. Barbara supports marijuana use because it reduced her husband's suffering. Shell's mother criticizes the prison's use of drugs because she can deflect her own emotional incapability onto the drugs. Even Nikki's changed perspective about drugs (she's giving up the marijuana stash) boils down to the same issue: she's getting rid of the drugs for Helen's sake, to improve her chances of being released on appeal. Before Crystal can help her best friend Zandra, she must recognize the inseparability of drugs and nurturing. She goes from being a person who thoughtlessly throws out marijuana, to someone who smuggles in painkillers for her drug-addict best friend. That's a pretty remarkable evolution towards a more complex moral viewpoint on everything, particularly drugs and families.

This episode epitomizes Bad Girls' positions on mothering, suggesting that good mothering creates productive members of society, and heals those who have been destructive members of society. But sometimes the healing of good mothering comes too late, just as for Zandra, good medical care arrived too late. In cases like Zandra's and Shell's, the drugs and nurturing provide only palliative relief, not healing, and not a cure. And each of them only receive this palliation due to the extraordinary caring of the non-family members around them, caring which is predicated on the willingness to bend or break whatever rules get in the way.




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


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