Season 3, Episode 14: "Standing Up" Essay

Allies in War
—Jennifer T.

Loyalty and alliances drive most of the action in this episode. Many alliances form and are tested: Shaz and Yvonne, Shaz and Dionne, Fenner and Virginia, Fenner and Karen, Helen and Thomas, Helen and Karen, Helen and Yvonne, Helen and Nikki, Gina and Mark. These alliances are vitally necessary in the face of the dangers and emotional loneliness of an isolated existence. But any alliance, any relationship, puts characters at the risk of betrayal. Each character navigates this tenuous balance of risk and reward as best they can.

Many characters attempt to get others to fight battles on their behalf. Shaz wants Yvonne to protect her from the Peckham girls, and she's furious that Yvonne isn't doing it. Fenner tells Karen about Helen's accusation against him, and gets Karen to confront Helen and threaten to lodge an official complaint against her. Helen allows Thomas to join in on her Fenner stalking adventures.

But Virginia is the most striking example of this phenomenon. She's got Fenner picking up money from one of her massage parlors, she's got the Julies bringing her food, she's got Barbara and Tina packing for her, and she's got Tina wheeling her to her new cell. We even see Fenner wheeling her around at one point. In the previous episode we may have thought her reliance on others was a medical necessity. Now we know, in no uncertain terms, that her wheelchair—on the surface symbolizing her lack of power and mobility—is actually the source of her control and authority.

Like her use of the wheelchair, Virginia's relationship with Fenner is much more complex. Yes, he's out there taking care of her business on her behalf. But, he has control over her: he takes his share rather than waiting for her to pay him; he makes a copy of her book of clients; and, most importantly, he can give her the single cell she wants. It's a quid pro quo situation, where each has something over the other, and will give things and expect them in return, constantly re-negotiating the balance.

These relationships and alliances are so necessary because of the vulnerability of isolation. Shaz embodies this vulnerability, physically and emotionally. She laments to Crystal about how much she hates being on her own: There's too much time to think. She misses Denny desperately. But Shaz isn't the only one suffering from loneliness. Gina is similarly distraught, and when she is finally convinced by Josh to make amends with Mark, her first question to Mark is whether he loves her. His mistakes don't matter: at this point, as long as he loves her, she can trust his loyalty.

The most isolated character in this episode, though, is Helen. It's easy to view all of the other storylines as providing commentary on her particular struggles. Shaz's loneliness and isolation in her cell, her agonized scream of Denny's name, is cross-edited with Helen and Thomas in Helen's office, when Helen confesses to Thomas about Fenner's assault. Shaz seems to represent Helen's repressed unconscious emotions, where Helen could be screaming "Nikki!" (if she let herself feel the agony of losing Nikki) rather than speaking in a normal tone of voice with Thomas. Even after she's agreed to let Thomas help her against Fenner, the edit cutting to Shaz—cowering blockaded into her wrecked cell—suggests another level to Helen's emotional state. The frozen emotions, the mess of the cell, the furniture in front of the door: all of these are Helen's heart and mind, physically manifest. This scene with Shaz reveals the part of Helen who desperately loves Nikki and can't handle not having her.

Nikki's presence haunts this scene between Helen and Thomas, not just because of the cross-editing with Shaz, but because of the many parallels between this scene and the scene in a previous episode in which Helen told Nikki of the assault. These parallels reveal the ways Helen is still hung up on Nikki, despite her growing connection with Thomas. First, while Helen verbally told Nikki about the assault, she hands Thomas a written report, mediating the experience with the written word rather than opening up to him directly. Second, as she did with Nikki, Helen tells Thomas that this is her own battle to fight. She's swinging back and forth, like a pendulum, between isolating herself and reaching out. She pulled the same thing with Nikki, but with Thomas, she ends up swinging back the other way, toward allying with him, rather than toward isolation. Third, when Thomas comments that Helen has kept this to herself for so long, a tiny flicker of guilt and secrecy flashes on Helen's face. Of course she didn't keep it to herself. She told Nikki. Nikki is on her mind in this moment, even if she doesn't let Thomas see it.

Helen and Shaz both use similar strategies to solve their loneliness and isolation: they create an alliance with someone on the same side of the bars. Thomas sees both their needs so clearly, and tries to satisfy each of them. He finds an inmate, Dionne, who "will be a good influence" on Shaz. Dionne isn't just someone who will fight her battles for her when necessary. She provides an example for another way for Shaz to live her life, with seriousness, understanding and maturity. It's Thomas's bringing Dionne and Shaz together which inspires Helen to ask him out on a date. And on this date, just as Shaz agreed to meet Dionne where she is (in the gym, with seriousness and focus), Helen agrees she agrees to meet him where he is, the dog races.

Despite Helen's willingness to enter Thomas's world, their date is full of images of disconnection and ambivalence. First, immediately after she kisses him in the car and thanks him for believing in her and being a good man, she transforms their upcoming excursion to the races into a competition. She bets him that she'll win more at the races, immediately setting herself up in opposition to him. Second, the early shots of them on their date (in the car, then in the stands at the track) are remarkably dark, particularly in contrast to the brightly lit race, with which their faces are intercut. Third, when they're back at Thomas's apartment, Nikki is like a third character in the scene, as Thomas rambles on about shaking up the world a bit "even if it's just their own." He then teases Helen about whether she would ever "do something out of character, cross the line." Of course, we know she has, and we know what (and who) she's thinking aboutóbut she's not sharing that with Thomas. She's not letting Thomas in, even the littlest bit. Fourth, when she senses things are about to escalate, after she's been talking marriage, she tries to escape. She suggests they have a drink for the road, and then knocks over the bottle before confessing that she wants to hear what he has to say "maybe too much." Again, Helen's pendulum swings between the kiss and the competition. By turning the races trip into a bet, Helen is trying to externalize the chaotic internal battle which threatens to overwhelm her. Finally, as if there weren't enough ambivalence within the scene itself, the cross-editing of the fight between Di and Gina which leads to Gina's miscarriage, provides another layer of pessimism, hinting that Helen and Thomas's seemingly happy heterosexual union is also going to miscarry.[1]

Helen's fear of growing close to Thomas reflects the danger of being close to anyone, of having loyalties. Helen knows this danger well, following her relationship with Nikki and the riot. She warns Karen that the reason Karen can't see Fenner for who he truly is is because she's "too close." That's the danger: being too close to someone will prevent you from seeing and judging a situation clearly. It's Karen's misplaced loyalty to Fenner, her too-closeness, which causes her to see Helen's concerns about Fenner as a personal attack on her. Helen wants Karen's loyalty, but Fenner's machinations keep her from earning it let alone trusting it.

Yvonne is also wary of loyalties. She's pulled away from protecting Shaz because she's not sure she's going to be able to fulfill the obligation. She's worried that she's lost her strength, and she's concerned about the connection she sees between Fenner and Virginia, seeing it as another threat to her control over the wing. But Yvonne also knows, even with the risks of betrayal and depletion, that loyalties are important for her own emotional and physical survival. In a very quid pro quo way, similar to Fenner and Virginia, she reaches out to Helen to help her bring down Fenner, and she wills herself to protect Shaz in her cell when she thinks Shaz is being beat up. Her eyes are full of fear and apprehension as she approaches Shaz's cell, but she takes those steps toward the cell despite that fear.

By the end of the episode, Yvonne isn't the only one who's finally ready to fight her enemies and defend her friends. Helen is on the warpath, stalking Fenner at the brothels. Gina attacks Di for the final betrayal, the manufactured story Di told to Barbara. And Shaz is shouting out onto the wing to the Peckham girls to come and get her. But as all the characters learn, there's a balance between fighting your own fight, and having others to support you and back you up. For Gina, Mark's interference in her fight against Di leads to tragedy: an injury and miscarriage. For Helen, the outcome of her battle against Fenner isn't knowable. But we've had a bit of foreshadowing, thanks to Dionne's words of wisdom to Shaz: "Sometimes the best way to win is just to walk away." Fighting someone like Al (or in Helen's case, Fenner) can take away a part of you. Helen is at risk of losing a part of herself too—whether her integrity, or Nikki—in her battle against Fenner.



This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: richard, microsofty, ekny, solitasolano, Cassandra, ladder, Route66, invisicoll, DontUWish

[1] Thanks to ekny for pointing out this connection between Gina's miscarriage and Helen and Thomas's liaison.




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