Season 3, Episode 11: "Battle Lines" Essay

Child's Play
—Jennifer T.

Communication, in the broadest sense of the word, creates a great deal of anxiety in this episode. Characters struggle to speak and understand each other's words, but they also struggle to 'speak' and understand each other's emotions, behavior, and relationships.

This episode is teeming with characters who can't communicate through language, and therefore attempt to communicate in other ways. Most obviously, no one can understand Femi. The other prisoners try to "get through" to her, as Nikki puts it to Helen, but they can't. However, despite this insurmountable language barrier, the prisoners are able to understand Femi emotionally. They've figured out enough of her background and observed enough of her behavior, and have a really clear sense of the extent of Femi's suffering. Femi could be completely isolated, left alone by her fellow inmates, but she's not, and they don't.

Femi isn’t the only new character whose words can't be understood. Al's Scottish accent is completely incomprehensible. However, when Shaz mocks her for it, Al's violent response isn't incomprehensible at all. She makes herself heard, loud and clear, and not in a way which inspires the other inmates to care about her. Femi also reacts violently to the experience of not being able to communicate, when she attacks Sylvia in her effort to phone her family. Nikki later narrates this moment by describing Femi as someone who's "depressed and lonely and makes herself heard the only way she can."

For Al and Femi, and the other inmates as well, there's nothing more terrifying and upsetting than the feeling of not being heard. The other inmates will do almost anything to avoid this feeling. Later in the episode, Caroline plays on that fear to convince the rioting inmates to give up the knives: she reminds them if they stab an officer they'll be stuck down in solitary where "no one can hear you scream." Fear of being this isolated, of not being heard, convinces the prisoners to drop their weapons.

While the prisoners are hyper-aware of the barriers to communication that affect them, the officers disregard or dismiss these barriers. Sylvia insists that Femi actually understands more than she lets on. Right before Femi gets beat up for trying to use the officers' phone, Sylvia starts throwing bureaucratic language at her: read this sign, talk to your personal officer, etc. Sylvia speaks to Femi as if Femi actually reads and understands not only English, but also Protocol. Protocol is really another layer of meaning which is imposed upon language. Without seeming to realize or care, Sylvia is speaking a foreign language within a foreign language to Femi.

Helen, now in her new position as Governing Governor, also uses the formal language of protocol with the inmates, especially Nikki. When Nikki first approaches Helen about Femi's struggles on the wing, Helen doesn't make Nikki feel heard. Although Nikki introduces the subject with quite a soft energy, when she feels like Helen isn't hearing her, like she's speaking a foreign language, Nikki starts to get hostile and insistent. Like for Femi and Al, the experience of not being heard is deeply upsetting and infuriating. But the person who is really speaking the foreign language is Helen. She is concerned about Femi,[1] and yet she keeps Nikki at a distance with OfficialSpeak, rather than sharing her emotions and concerns with Nikki.

It's hard to understand why Helen, of all people, doesn't communicate better in this episode, particularly with Nikki. At the start of this first scene between Helen and Nikki, Helen thinks she knows what Nikki is asking her about: the appeal. But Nikki says no, "it's not about me." By the end of the scene, when Nikki is furiously going off about Femi's sentence, Helen shouts back at her "I don't make the bloody law Nikki!" Both of them are distancing themselves from identifying with their own side. Helen is in law enforcement, and yet she completely divorces herself from any culpability about its effects. Nikki stands up for the underdog, and yet she thinks her interest in Femi isn't about her own self. It seems as if their struggle to communicate, and to understand each other, stems from their inability to understand themselves.

Despite her comments to Nikki, Helen isn't totally estranged from her role in Femi's situation. After she's has been down to solitary and then spoken with Femi via the translator (a scene which is such an utter relief, because of the degree of tension the earlier lack of communication has created), it's clear that Helen is extremely upset. She's feeling deeply guilty and responsible and at least somewhat powerless to fix anything. When Nikki comes at her with more demands about Femi, Helen raises her defenses immediately. Watching Helen's reaction to Nikki is the antithesis of watching Helen and Femi finally able to speak to and understand each other. Helen and Nikki might as well be on different planets, speaking as different languages as Sylvia and Femi.

Sylvia's treatment of Femi and Helen's treatment of Nikki both illustrate the violence of not hearing someone. Both Sylvia and Helen use rules and regulations in their deafness. When Sylvia says things to Femi like "Can't you read? Don't you know the rules?" it's violent and hostile. Clearly Femi can't and doesn't, but she can understand Sylvia's hostility. When Helen feels the need to protect her new position in the hierarchy from Nikki's influence, she dismisses Nikki's concerns about Femi, an emotional rejection of someone she formerly treated as a partner in her prison reform efforts.

As the communication chasm between the inmates and officers grows ever wider, the inmates reinforce their relationships and loyalty to each other. Maxi reminds Tina and Al that they have to stick together if they want to take charge of the wing, Julie J fantasizes about the life she and Julie S are going to have together when they're released, and Yvonne mothers and protects Charlotte and Shaz. Nikki takes this loyalty one step further, with her feelings of obligation to Femi as a fellow human being, an obligation that others like Yvonne do not feel.

These feelings and communication of loyalty between the inmates is vitally important because the prisoners are very limited as to what they can actually do for each other. We see this visually, when Nikki is trapped behind the fencing during the officers' attack on Femi, unable to intervene. We also hear it explicitly, when Nikki demands things, and is told she doesn't have the right to make those demands. Nikki demands to see how Femi is down in solitary (a presumptuous demand on the part of a prisoner if there ever was one), and demands to know that Femi is all right and that things are being done to help her. Helen tells Nikki in no uncertain terms that she has no such rights, rendering Nikki nearly as powerless and victimized as Shaz and Femi.

Nikki isn't used to being this powerless and victimized. Over the previous months she's been in Larkhall since Helen's arrival, she's learned judicious self-control and mastered the rules and language of prison to her own advantage. While in S1E1 she rants that the officers involved in Carol's miscarriage "should all be sacked" now she insists that the officers who attacked Femi should be "disciplined," suggesting some level of belief in the efficacy of the prison disciplinary system which she did not have back in S1E1.[2] The similar staging between the wing meeting in S1E1 and the conversation between Helen and Nikki during the riot emphasize the contrast between season 1 Nikki and season 3 Nikki, while also demonstrating how little any prisoner can gain. Even with her knowledge of the protocol and language of Larkhall, Nikki can't do or say anything to change the way Femi is being treated. No matter how much the prisoners understand and use OfficialSpeak, they're still not truly heard, and can't use OfficialSpeak to effect.

All of the violence which erupts in this episode results from characters who, having attempted to use words, see violence as the only remaining option to make themselves heard. An epidemic of violence results from the inefficacy of words, starting with small moments (Al attacking Shaz, Yvonne attacking Al, Femi attacking Sylvia, the guards attacking Femi) and culminating in the riot. Nikki starts the protest because she believes her conversations with Helen have been ineffective, and her peaceful protest escalates into violent mayhem. Helen tries to talk the prisoners down from the third floor landing by telling them what they want to hear (that Femi's been taken care of), but then when they want more information, Helen refuses. She refuses to communicate any further until they stop the violence and return to their cells. But her refusal to communicate just provides an opening for more violent action, with Maxi capitalizing on an opportunity for mayhem by pouring the cup of water on Helen. Soon most of the wing has been shattered into pieces.

Maxi's leadership, reinforced by the way prison treats inmates, inspires most of the prisoners on the wing to descend into child-like behavior. Children act out when they can't speak, or when their words are not taken seriously. The episode is full of images of childhood. Early on in the episode Sylvia instructs Tina to spit out the gum into Sylvia's hand, a quintessential parent-child moment. All three of the Peckham girls are in effect kids without a parent, with their long history of institutionalization. They've graduated from being "Y.O.s" (young offenders) into the adult prison system, but without having truly graduated to adulthood. How could they, having grown up within the institutional life of the prison system? With its systemic obstacles to communication, the prison system guarantees that its charges will descend into communicating the way children do: with tantrums, by acting out, by abusing others.

In addition to showing children without parents, this episode gives us Femi, a parent without her kids. And she's not the only mom away from her kids, as Yvonne points out. Yvonne has taken on a parental role with some of the other orphans in the prison to fill her own void (and theirs). She gives Charlotte the most loving send-off you can imagine, she reprimands Buki every chance she gets, and she protects Shaz. All of these kids respond to Yvonne as they would to a mother, Charlotte telling Yvonne that her time in prison has "been an education," and Shaz hiding under her "mom's" bed, just like any kid would do who is scared of a monster. And her "mom" takes on the monster and defeats it.[3] 

But in the world of prison, where inmates aren't allowed to be autonomous adults, the whole notion of adults and children becomes conflated and mixed up. Thomas tries to communicate with Femi by showing photos of himself as a kid, with his family. Then he turns their meeting into a kindergarten drawing lesson, with Femi drawing a sketch of her family. In this moment Femi isn't the mother, she's the kid. Buki later mocks Femi's drawing with reference to the kid's show: "Give her a Blue Peter badge!" Meanwhile the episode also contains two references to younger characters' fertility, their potential to become mothers. Maxi makes a rude comment to Sylvia about being on the rag, and after Al attacks Shaz, she tells her "Last girl I attacked with one of these [a plastic fork] couldn't have babies."

Yvonne suffers the most from these mix-ups, when her obligations as mother to Shaz force her to beat up the school-yard bully Al. Yvonne isn't a kid anymore, and she's not interested in solving problems the way children do, even if it means sacrificing her ability to be a mother to the inmates. She's realizing how impossible it is to be a reliable mother in the world of Larkhall. Even more than Yvonne, Femi is the embodiment of the experience of all prisoners, unable to be a mother, relegated to a child-like state, having been rebirthed, in essence, in Larkhall and finding it a bewildering experience with its own language and rules.

Even the prisoners who learn the language and rules aren't truly permitted to speak it, or change anything within or outside the rules. Like any child never permitted to speak, the prisoners throw the most disruptive tantrum they can manage: a riot.


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: ekny, Cassandra, liverpoolkiss, microsofty, Lisa289, popstalin, richard, solitasolano, Washuai, metasin girl

[1] In a scene shortly after this exchange with Nikki, Helen complains to Thomas that she's got 101 things to think about. The very first one she mentions, the #1 item on her list, is Femi. It's evident that she's already started investigating the problem, given how much more info she has now than what Nikki told her.

[2] Richard is the one who noticed the contrast in Nikki's language in these two scenes, and he credits Helen for inspiring this change in Nikki, pointing out that Nikki now sounds a lot more like Helen than she did back in season 1.

[3] Thanks to microsofty for pointing out this image of Shaz hiding under mom's bed, and for helping flesh out all of the ideas related to parents and children in this episode.



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