Season 2, Episode 9: "The Leaving" Essay

Judgment Day
—Jennifer T.

In this saddest of all Bad Girls episodes, the show does something a bit unusual, taking religion head-on, while also counterbalancing the religious themes with more obliquely related matters. The writers employ religious tropes to espouse their progressive political viewpoint, offering an overarching position on the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, not just for prisoners but for human beings in general.

This episode draws a strong parallel between religious redemption and the experience of incarceration. The theme is first introduced when Zandra and Crystal are lying in bed together, and Zandra talks about being scared of dying. Crystal describes her Christian view of death in terms that speak to Zandra: "it's like walking out of prison...leaving the bad stuff behind." Crystal's description establishes a parallel between religious redemption and the redemption of criminal offenders. Just as people who die are taken in by God and go to heaven (even those who, like Zandra, maybe know only the simplest of childhood prayers), so should prisoners who are redeemed/rehabilitated be welcomed back into society.

This motif creates a bridge between some of the disparate storylines, tying them all together to create a general spiritual (or moral) philosophy of forgiveness. The show explicitly emphasizes forgiveness and inclusion throughout the episode. Zandra worries that God will be angry with her for never going to church or praying, but Crystal assures her that God will understand. God forgives, he understands, and he redeems. The Vicar offers a similar message at Zandra's memorial when he describes Jesus telling the criminals who were also being executed on the cross that they would come to paradise with him. God doesn't care that Zandra was a criminal, he insists—she still gets to be in paradise. Zandra takes this message to heart in relation to Barbara. Shell takes the occasion of Zandra's going away party to reveal all of the judgmental opinions that Barbara jotted down in her journal. But when Barbara insists that all of her opinions have changed (other than her opinion of Shell), Zandra welcomes Barbara's presence, and sends Shell away. Even the most hurtful actions can and should be forgiven when a person has forsaken those actions.

This forgiveness is only possible when a certain regressive view of God as critical and judgmental is abandoned in favor of the embrace of forgiveness and redemption. Shell, whose name (Michelle) means "who is like/resembles God," has often thought of herself as the god of G-Wing. When she first meets Crystal in season 1, Shell tells her in no uncertain terms "In here, I'm God. Remember it!" Shell certainly takes this attitude towards Barbara, invading the privacy of her innermost thoughts (as embodied by Barbara's journal), and generally torturing her to the point of inflicting an almost spiritual starvation for Barbara (symbolized by Shell's refusal to give her food), when her competence and confidence are taken away. There's the suggestion that a part of a person's soul (like their body without food) just withers away and dies if that person lives in fear all the time. The judgmental and harmful God, as embodied by Shell, is banished in this episode, not just by Zandra, who demonstrates a strength and dignity in dying and death that she rarely had in life; but also by Barbara, who finally stands up to Shell and triumphs; and then later Denny, who won't allow Shell to abuse newcomer Shaz. It's the first time Denny has truly stepped out from under Shell's control.

Crystal herself has journeyed away from the judgmental, controlling idea of God, as she demonstrates with the comfort and spiritual support she offers Zandra. She arrived in season 1 full of judgments for all the "sinners" around her, from the drug addicts to the lesbians to any of the criminals other than her. Her journey parallels the journey of the viewers, who perhaps started watching the show in season 1 with certain opinions about women in prison. By this point in season 2, the audience wants to cheer when Crystal attacks Dr. No No and tells him he is going to hell, and wants to weep for Zandra and her redemption, even though she's a criminal who broke the law and treated many people (including herself) in an reprehensible way. Both Barbara and Zandra are saying, in essence, I have stopped harming my community, please take me back into the fold. And they are both embraced, Barbara by her fellow prisoners, and Zandra in her death.

In this sense, the episode is providing its own version of Judgment Day, where the truth can no longer be hidden. So many characters in this episode finally speak the truth that they have been avoiding. Not just truth about concrete matters (Barbara fussily wanting to report to Karen Betts on the prisoners' diet), but real emotional truths: Nikki naming Dominic's feelings for Zandra as love, Barbara's opinions on all her fellow inmates as recorded in the diary, even Shell obnoxiously pointing out at Zandra's party that Zandra is dying. But Zandra is not bothered by Shell's comment, because, as she points out, it's true. Zandra appreciates people speaking to her honestly, rather than avoiding her because they don't know what to say. Zandra's truth is unspeakable to many—the truth is hard to say sometimes. But not when you're dying—when you're dying, it's easy, as Zandra says at the beginning of her memorial service letter. When you're dying can say things you wouldn't get away with otherwise. And she then proceeds to say every truth she knows, from Fenner's womanizing to hating Crystal's singing. As we are shown with the closeup on Zandra's eye when she dies: even with her glasses knocked off, in death Zandra is able to see everything as it is.




This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: ekny, richard, Lisa289, badgirlnuts, Baileysqueen, Nikkhele, liverpoolkiss


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