Season 3, Episode 10: "Chapel of Love" Essay

Powerful Hunger
—Jennifer T.

Characters struggle for control and power in this episode. With imagery ranging from food and hunger to imperial battle to romantic alliance, the episode explores all of the manifestations and destructiveness of power. These themes of love, hunger and power intertwine as characters constantly reassess their priorities and desires for each in an attempt to achieve some kind of happiness and security.

So many characters in this episode deny themselves food. At the outset, Crystal has been on a hunger strike for five days, protesting her positive drug test during the previous episode. Gina complains about her weight, wanting to lose a few pounds. In a more subtle example, Helen dines on diet-worthy salad while a voracious Thomas gobbles up a charmingly infantile peanut butter and jelly sandwich across from her. For all three their deprivation is a temporary tactic they use to achieve another objective: Crystal would like someone to believe that her drug test was false. Gina would like a more svelte figure. Helen's objective is less clear.

That is because Helen's salad is evidence not of a physical diet, but of an emotional one. While Thomas is completely in touch with his inner child, utterly satisfying his hunger exactly as he wants to, Helen survives on very grown-up, very polite, and very responsible food. But she's not filled up. She's denying herself, not for peanut butter but for her emotional hunger for Nikki. While Nikki is still in Larkhall, Helen's won't allow herself to have her; it would undermine her moral standards for herself. When Claire shows up to interrupt Helen and Thomas's lunch, she's arriving with the message that very soon Helen is going to be dining on a sumptuous feast: Nikki's appeal has come through. And Helen is hungry for that feast. That's why she grabs Nikki's arm, that's why she comes dangerously close to kissing Nikki in her office.

Crystal and Gina's diets have an emotional component as well, further reinforcing this connection between physical starvation and emotional starvation. Crystal's hunger strike is for the benefit of Josh more than anyone. She can't stand that he doesn't believe her when she denies any drug use, and the hunger strike is her only tool to make her voice heard. Gina, meanwhile, is absolutely the most sexually voracious character on the show, especially now that Shell's gone. She's constantly flirting, going on about her boyfriend, and knocking Di as being prudish. Even more revealing, Gina's weight gain is actually due to an unplanned pregnancy, the logical and natural result of her romantic and sexual satiety. If only Crystal and Helen were so lucky.

In contrast to the three dieters, Di associates her emotional life not with food but with bodily waste. Complaining about her ailing mother and the drama around Crystal's drug test, Di laments that her life has turned into a piss test. In the context of hunger and eating, piss (or, bodily waste more generally) is the unavoidable yet distasteful result of consumption. If food consumption represents the satisfaction of romantic desire, then Di's piss-filled life epitomizes her dysfunction when it comes to relationships. She embodies a twisted version of romantic desire, with her aggressively destructive pursuit of Josh. Di binges on food with no nutritional value, hopping from one romantic obsession to the next. None of these men are interested in her, so her hunger can never be satisfied. It just goes right through her, again and again.[1] Rather than finding love and being satiated, she's just left with stink and waste.

For Crystal and Helen, their diets pay off in this episode, with the romantic unions they desire. Despite Di's machinations, Josh and Crystal manage to have the ultimate feast of love: a wedding. Their wedding parallels the scene where Helen and Nikki find out about Nikki's appeal. Both couples scheme secretly, with a little help from their friends. Josh and Crystal find a way to have their wedding and Helen and Nikki, via Nikki's appeal, appear to have found a way to be together on the outside. Both of these celebratory moments are at risk of disruption, from Di (who fails to thwart the wedding) to Thomas (who succeeds in cutting short Helen and Nikki's elation). The parallelism of these two sequences establishes Nikki's appeal as a sort of engagement for Helen and Nikki, but it's a tenuous one, as evidenced by the ease with which they are interrupted. Like Helen and Nikki (and all gay couples) who must make do with the least official of commitments, the non-legal wedding between Crystal and Josh establishes the idea that the most important thing is that they "feel married" not that they actually have a legal marriage.

The informal, emotional marriages for these two couples serve another purpose, in additional to satisfying emotional hunger. Marriage historically has played a significant role in the establishment and preservation of fortunes and empires. On an emotional level, Josh and Crystal use this ceremony to rebuild their alliance. Crystal had complained to Josh that she didn't want to have to prove herself to him every time he didn't believe her about something. With Josh's mistrust about the drug test, these two have a lot to repair—the formal declaration of a wedding was required. Fenner, it seems, has similar motivations in pursuing Karen: by solidifying the G-Wing Governor as his ally, he protects himself from Helen's antagonism and Stubberfield's demise. Helen is hedging her bets, celebrating with Nikki while building an alliance with Thomas, an ally on the right side of the bars.

Power imagery in this episode extends far beyond these romantic storylines. The episode is full of overhead shots, suggesting that certain characters think they have control and power, but in fact, they don't.[2] There is someone higher up, looking down on them, observing, reading, knowing. When Helen walks into Larkhall as Governing Governor, the camera pulls back and up a bit on the entrance and holds that point of view for a moment. Later when the Julies, Yvonne and Crystal are planning the wedding on the wing, they are shot from above, and then the camera reverses and we see Di looking down on them, uncovering their scheme.

The whole opening sequence connects Helen and Crystal, contrasting both of their attempts to seize power. First, Helen. She's got that secret glee on her face, thrilled she's finally won the keys to the top of the "shit heap." Second, Crystal. Right after Helen's entrance, we learn of Crystal's five-day hunger strike. She's at the bottom of the shit heap. A hunger strike, the tool of the disempowered is the only option available to her to try to control her fate, and make herself heard. In fairly short order, Helen and Crystal are both belittled for their efforts. Stubberfield tells Helen she's just the "pretty face" Area is using before they "pick their man." Di tells Crystal "You'll be dead and buried before anyone takes any notice" of her hunger strike. These two moments are chilling, because in both cases, it seems that the underminers could be correct. We just can't be sure.

These attacks against Helen and Crystal and their power tell us that this episode will be full of skirmishes, battles and wars for power and control. Fenner comments early on when he sees Helen on the wing that she is surveying her "empire," and Stubberfield remarks that Helen has been handed a "poisoned chalice," a medieval reference originating in Macbeth,[3]  a play about power hunger and its destructiveness. These images come with the connotations of the political intrigue and assassination, age-old elements of empire-building. Yvonne, the queen of picking and choosing battles, doesn't understand why Crystal is on her hunger strike, because she just doesn't see the point. But once Crystal's second drug test comes back, Yvonne stirs things up by revealing that Di knew Charlotte was going to test positive. Other characters can't pick and choose so much. Josh is fighting for his life against Di, particularly at his apartment when she finally breaks down and admits what she's done. Intercut with this battle between Josh and Di is Fenner bolstering his alliance with Karen against Helen, planting the idea that Helen will trump up a sexual abuse charge against him. Karen thinks Helen is straight as an arrow, but the doubt is seeded. The worst battle of all, though, is between Di and her mother. The abuse scene is absolutely horrific, because of the cruelty of absolute power. Di is monstrous in her fight against her invalid mother who has kept her trapped at home. Just like in her hungry behavior with men, Di is overly aggressive in enacting her desires against her mother, transforming herself before our eyes into a character who seemingly can no longer be redeemed.

Fighting battles exhausts and destroys. Strategizing, alliance-building and power plays have the potential to explode into all-out violence, as it has for Di. While characters like Helen and Crystal seem to have used the tools at their disposal to get to a secure and protected place, the experiences and behavior of Di and Fenner suggest that security may be short-lived.

 


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, Cassandra, popstalin, Washuai, richard, ekny, microsofty, solitasolano, invisicoll, badgirlnuts, Mad Maggot, rotezora, yankeelady, Jeanna

[1] Thanks to microsofty for this idea of Di as a binger and purger in her romantic life.

[2] For an exploration of Bad Girls' less traditional use of high and low camera angles, check out the essay "Camera Angles."

[3] Thanks to Cassandra for identifying the source of this reference, in a way that turned out to be so satisfying, given the other references to Macbeth in season 3 of Bad Girls.

 

 
 

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