Season 2, Episode 8: "Babes Behind Bars" Essay
Mothers and Medicine
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