Season 2, Episode 9: "The Leaving" Essay
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
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