Season 3, Episode 16: "Coming Out" Essay

Bearing Witness
—Jennifer T.

This episode is entirely about witnesses providing testimony. This idea of testimony operates within the episode's broader look at trials, judgment and punishment, but it's the testimony aspect where the power struggles play out.

This episode focuses on Nikki's appeal, so it's almost facile to say that trials and judgment are a theme of the episode. However, the episode juxtaposes the informal judgments of the inmates with the formal judgments of Nikki's appeal. The episode opens with Josh standing above Crystal, looking down on her in judgment. But in this opening, Josh's judgment is followed by Virginia coming out of her cell, seemingly for the first time since she was locked up after her "miraculous" recovery. The entire wing jeers at her, enforcing its own form of judgment. Later in the episode, Crystal, victim of Josh's judgment, gets to return the favor when Di asks for her for forgiveness and Crystal condemns her as "evil."

In the face of this type of judgment, standing up as a witness is a very risky thing to do. Tina remains loyal to Virginia, standing up for her as a witness against the entire wing. Maxi punishes Tina pretty immediately, beating her up thoroughly for her betrayal. Sally Ann Howe dropped her rape charges against DS Gossard because she was threatened with professional retaliation if she testified about what happened. When she gave in to the intimidation she fared no better than Tina: she was pushed out of the police force anyway. Virginia suffers the ultimate punishment for her willingness to testify. When Fenner discovers her willingness to "drop [him] in it" she winds up murdered. [1]

Not only do characters risk punishment for testifying, but they also risk inefficacy, because their testimony is so rarely believed. It's not surprising that no one believes Tina when she stands up for Virginia. But some people also seem to not believe Sally Ann Howe about Gossard raping her. The prosecutor at Nikki's appeal questions the value of Sally Ann Howe's word, implying her word on its own is worth nothing. Testimony needs to be corroborated with evidence for it to be believed.

The reason testimony is so rarely trusted is because it's often pervaded by deliberate lies. Even Helen, a model of honesty, stands strong against Fenner at the start of the episode, seemingly willing to allow Barbara to lie on her behalf. She only gives up this idea when she realizes that Nikki's appeal is at risk. [2] Virginia treats the bible with the same respect perjurers do: witness the many scenes of her pretending to pray in thanks for her miraculous cure. Crystal, the Christian, concocts and stands by the story of her immaculate conception in order to save Josh's job. Fenner manipulates Karen back onto his side after Helen's accusations, telling Karen "you can see right through me" and then sealing the deal with a marriage proposal.

But as this scene between Karen and Fenner demonstrates, it's not just the outright lies but people's failure to see the truth of what is happening around them. Karen is unwilling to see things clearly when it comes to Fenner. In fact, even those who aren't sleeping with Fenner seem unable to see the evidence of Fenner's many transgressions. In the car on the way to Nikki's appeal, Fenner pulls Nikki's hand onto his thigh and, when Nikki expresses her anger, Di reprimands her. Nikki retorts "Oh when will you open your eyes?" All of the potential witnesses against Fenner have their eyes closed, and can't or won't see what he's doing.

Despite the potential negative ramifications for being a witness, characters do it because of the strength and power which can come from testifying. Yvonne testifies with perhaps the most efficacy in the entire episode when she tells the entire wing over lunch about Virginia and Fenner's little deal to run Virginia's brothels. Even though Sylvia silences Yvonne with a threat of that pesky Rule 47, with this testimony Yvonne manages to back Virginia up against a wall, furthering her goal of bringing Fenner down. Fenner accomplishes something similar with Thomas by informing him of Helen's relationship with Nikki. Fenner is wildly wrong about the details, but Thomas believes him regardless. Nikki also testifies against Fenner, in the only way she can. Her moment in front of the television cameras provides her with the opportunity to be a witness, not about her crime, but about the horrors she's seen in prison. She speaks to the press, perhaps the only potential jury for the crimes of the prison system, and bears witness against Fenner, and for Helen.

Unlike Nikki and Yvonne, Helen spends most of the episode avoiding giving testimony. Like Yvonne, she's eager to testify as much as she can against Jim Fenner. She takes her last opportunity in Karen's office. As if in a courtroom, she must provide her testimony in the presence of Fenner, the accused. She reminds Karen that Jim is a "misogynist bastard" and how hard she's been trying to get Karen to see it. Later we find out she has prepared a sort of affidavit, a written testimony of Fenner's attack on her. She can be a witness against Fenner now that she's got "nothing to lose." But despite having nothing to lose, she still tries to avoid being a witness against herself. When she tells Thomas she's quitting, he demands honesty from her about her reasons, and she refuses to tell him. She's worried about how he'll react, how he will judge her, and she gets defensively hostile the more he pushes her. She can't tolerate his judgment for quitting seemingly without a fight, but even more than that she can't tolerate his judgment for having an affair with Nikki, so she'll settle for being judged for the former. Even once Thomas knows about her and Nikki, Helen still avoids telling him any sort of truth. She obfuscates, babbling on about choices of who she wants to be with, talking about how things get "twisted" in prison, "it's its own little world."

Thomas can see that Helen is hiding things from herself, and by hiding her feelings from herself, Helen is trying to avoid being not just the witness, but also the judge and jury on herself. For three seasons she's been deeply uncomfortable with her moral weaknesses in relation to Nikki, her flexibility with her principles. Whether she's ever been comfortable with the idea of being in a same-sex relationship is almost besides the point, because she was so uncomfortable not being perfectly upright, not playing by all the rules, that she (and we) can't possibly judge her comfort with her sexuality. Self-judgment, in its way, is the most effective silencer, even more than fear of punishment.

In order to be with Nikki, her true love, Helen must overcome this self-judgment, her unwillingness to testify about her own feelings and actions. Therefore, testimony drives the action of the final sequence between Helen and Nikki. When Helen first arrives at the bar, she avoids revealing anything, following her same pattern of this entire episode. When Nikki asks if she's got someone waiting for her, Helen's response is silence followed by absence. Trish serves as the witness for both Helen and Nikki, refusing Nikki's half-hearted advances by pointing out that Nikki doesn't "make speeches like that for all the girls." Trish has observed the evidence and doesn't mind voicing it. She goes even further by insisting to Nikki after Helen leaves the bar that "of course she's bloody interested." Nikki chases after Helen, and Helen confesses that she and Thomas split up. In this moment, Nikki tries to protect Helen from the dangers of testifying, to give Helen an out, to allow Helen to continue her avoiding silence, saying "I know what you're saying." But Helen is finally ready to testify about her feelings and desires. She needs to stand up for herself as her own witness. She presents her evidence in quite a logical manner. "Thomas is gorgeous" but he doesn't do anything for Helen. She doesn't want him, she doesn't want a man.

While we like to remember the closing of this episode as the romantic sight of Helen and Nikki kissing outside the bar, the other moment which concludes the episode is far more chilling. Fenner stands over Yvonne as Yvonne gets carried down to solitary. His face and body tower over her, filling the screen. It's an echo of Josh's view over Crystal in the opening of the episode, and also implies a very god-like or at least judge-like presence. It's the physical manifestation of what Fenner pointed out to Yvonne earlier in the episode: "No one is going to take your accusation seriously. Not now that soppy Stewart is gone." There's a new judge, and it's going to be far less likely that anyone's testimony is going to be believed. Helen and Nikki are lucky they got out when they did.

 


Author's Note: Thank you to all the readers who have made it to the end! The only thing which has been more fun than writing these essays is the discussions which led to them in the first place. I don't know what I would have done without all the other Bad Girls fanatics out there who were willing to dissect every detail of the show.


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Cassandra, richard, ekny, Mad Maggot, solitasolano, invisicoll, BlueDogBlues, voila, DarRoberts, badgirlnuts, msalt, microsofty, Buttons, yankeelady, Lisa289, Route66, Jeanna, Lizi, DontUWish

[1] Fenner's responsibility for Virginia's murder doesn't become clear until Season 4, but he was behind both the murder and the effort to frame Yvonne for that murder.

[2] In this scene, Helen stands up to Fenner's attack, looking pained but resolute at the thought of Barbara lying about the diary. It's only when Fenner threatens Nikki's appeal that Helen gives up the fight and decides to resign. She later leads Nikki to believe that her entire decision was based on her aversion to the idea of having Barbara lie for them, but it's easy to understand that Helen might have hesitated before telling Nikki something like "I resigned my job and gave up my career to protect your appeal. See ya later, I'm going off to be with my boyfriend now!" Either she's hiding her true feelings from Nikki so Nikki doesn't try to revive their relationship, or she's hiding her true feelings from herself (as Thomas later posits).

 

 
 

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