Season 3, Episode 12: "Tough Love" Essay

Outside and Inside
—Jennifer T.

This episode is preoccupied with selfishness. In a world where characters are motivated by selfish interests (like prison), it's incredibly challenging to live by any other motivation. The challenge is two-fold: it's inherently hard to put someone else first, and selfless motivations will always be questioned and doubted. Differentiating between selfish behavior and selfless behavior is a huge challenge, but not being able to differentiate leads to enormous dangers.

Three very telling moments open this episode. Caroline walks in on Nikki washing up at the sink, sans shirt. Maxi marches into the screws' office and starts going through the prisoners' files. And then Nikki asks Caroline what she's in for. All three are moments of unwanted exposure, of characters attempting to peel back other characters' protective layers to see what's underneath. Everyone participates in this process of discernment, or differentiation, a process which pervades so many interactions in Larkhall. Characters try to figure out where others are coming from, what's motivating them.

It's clear that Caroline and Maxi are particularly good at this process. Maxi has been observing and conniving since her arrival, evaluating who's in charge, planning strategies to wrench power from Yvonne and Nikki. Caroline has been quietly observing Nikki for weeks. She knows Nikki's crime, her relationship status (when Nikki says she's "spoken for" Caroline responds: "That's not what I've heard. Not what I've seen either"). Caroline has been watching and learning. She's chosen Nikki to be her protector, and she's going to seduce Nikki to secure her protection.

Caroline and Maxi both are motivated by completely selfish interests in their discernment efforts. Caroline's sinister and selfish motivation is far less blatant than Maxi's, emphasizing the importance of discernment. Caroline appears to be generous, but she's out for herself. Maxi can see right through this façade, and uses it to her own advantage. She harasses Caroline, making her aware of her façade:
Maxi: Embezzlement. So like, deception?
Caroline: I conned a few people, yeah.

With folks like Maxi running wild, it's impossible for those who aren't selfish to control anything. Selfishness is required to resolve the riot. Helen knows that some of the prisoners don't care about Femi, as Gina points out when the officers are congregated in the library. Helen ignores the selfish prisoners so that she can address the non-selfish prisoners. However, those selfless prisoners no longer have the advantage in the balance of power on the wing, and Helen's integrity and trust doesn't achieve her goal of ending the riot. Instead, Nikki must convince Yvonne that it's in her own interests to help bring the riot to an end. Yvonne finally helps Nikki, but only once Nikki has reminded Yvonne that if Maxi Purvis takes over, the wing won't be a very pleasant place. Yvonne embodies the central conflict around selfishness. She wants to act only for herself because it's easier than feeling an obligation to take care of everyone. It takes an enormous amount of ongoing strength to fulfill that obligation.

After the riot is over, after selfish interests have seemingly triumphed, the two primary storylines demonstrate how difficult it is to identify selfishness (and selflessness) accurately, and how destructive it is when characters can't. Julie J has a romantic fantasy of sharing a cottage in the country with Julie S, no man around to spoil it. Julie J doesn't know that Julie S has some selfish interests: when they get out, Julie S is hoping to reunite with Trevor. Julie S spends most of the episode keeping this information close—she doesn't want Julie J to know she is being selfish. Although Julie S's motives are understandable (she wants to form a traditional family) her secrecy and betrayal turn her impulse to be with Trevor into something troubling and selfish, a betrayal of her best and most loyal friend. And Julie J remains mostly oblivious.

Helen and Nikki, in contrast, overcompensate in the other direction, having become almost hyper-sensitive to the other's potential for selfishness. Helen is furious with Nikki about the riot. She's angry Nikki didn't trust her to resolve Femi's situation effectively. She's angry Nikki made her first weeks as Governing Governor much more difficult. She's angry Nikki risked her appeal (and by extension their relationship) by instigating violence on the wing. She thinks Nikki is being selfish, or at least more concerned about herself and her fellow inmates than she's concerned about Helen. Intellectually and professionally, Helen knows that the Peckham girls were the cause of the riot. But emotionally and personally, she can't differentiate between Nikki the prisoner and Nikki the lover, nor can she see outside herself and her own interests to understand where Nikki was coming from. Later on, Nikki herself makes the same mistake about Helen: she thinks Helen is acting out of self-interest regarding Caroline, when in fact it's the opposite. When Helen intrudes on Nikki and Caroline in the library, the care and concern and pain on Helen's face is so evident, but Nikki just can't see it. She's full of pointed rebuffs: "You don't give a shit about me. Fine." At the end of the episode, when Caroline's ulterior motives are revealed by Maxi, Nikki realizes how wrong she was, seeing selfishness in Helen where there was really only caring and love.

Distinguishing between a person's intent or motivation and their actions is part of what making running a prison (or living in one, or loving in one) so difficult. Every character in this episode confronts that difficulty. Maxi is the one exception: she whips through the prisoner files and quickly sees which ones are going to offer the greatest strategic benefit. Those files themselves are about differentiating the inmates, accurately assessing them by identifying ringleaders, psychopathology, and learning disabilities. These files contrast with the officers' actions following the riot, when all the prisoners are treated the same, including Nikki. All are locked in their cells, all lose their personal spends and privileges, and all of their cells are searched. No differentiation, despite Helen's previous beliefs that the motivations of the prisoners differed. The Julies complain about this to Josh a little later, claiming they were "banged up when it weren't our fault." Of course, in prison, differentiation of punishment is nearly impossible—to quell a riot, immediate and clear action and punishment are necessary, not weeks of hearings and tribunals to decide who is to blame. The same inability to differentiate occurs in the opposite direction: Femi is terrified when Gina enters her cell in solitary. Femi can't distinguish between the officers who attack her and those who want to help her. They are all worthy of fear.

Caroline's drawing class assignment provides an interesting image which encapsulates this differentiation. She needs to visually depict inside and outside, and she chooses Nikki's potting shed, because it's outside, but inside.[1] This image conjures up layers of concealment, as well as layers of loyalty. Caroline seems to be inside, a fellow prisoner like Nikki, loyal to Nikki and the others. But in fact Caroline is deep inside, not prison, but the closet. Not closeted about her (homo)sexuality, but closeted about her (patho)sexuality—her pedophilia/child-sex-related crime. This closet keeps her far outside when it comes to true loyalty to Nikki. Similarly, while Helen actually seems outside, no longer loyal to Nikki, in fact, she still cares deeply for Nikki, and wants to protect her. Not only that, but as an employee of HMP, she's not outside at all, but instead is deeply imprisoned by her ambition and her job, hiding her love for Nikki as deeply as she ever has.

There's another layer to being "out," to being authentic and open and truthful. At its essence, being out is actually about letting people in: a person who is out is open about their thoughts and feelings. Caroline appears to be "out" but is in fact keeping her feelings and motivations extremely close to her chest—she's not letting anyone in at all. Helen appears to be keeping information close (she doesn't explain why she's warning Nikki, or why she has Caroline shipped out), but unlike Caroline who hides her secrecy, Helen is out about being in: she tells Nikki that she's "way off" about Helen's motives, but refuses to say anything more about it. Only at the end of the episode does she fully out herself, letting Nikki know her only goal was to protect her.

Helen's inability or unwillingness to be fully out, to be fully open about her feelings and motivations, is an inability or unwillingness that so many other characters share. In an insular, inside world, being open is risky, and being selfless is risky. So selfishness and dishonesty reign supreme, and characters struggle to really understand what's going on around them, floundering in a sludge of mistaken interpretations.

 

 


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: richard, ekny, microsofty, solitasolano, Route 66, Xenaclark, popstalin, Cassandra, ladder, yankeelady

[1] Thanks to Cassandra for kicking off the analysis of inside/outside as a theme for the entire episode, and microsofty and Cassandra together exploring the idea of the closet in relation to inside/outside, particularly the closet as it relates to Helen and Caroline.

 

 
 

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