Season 3, Episode 2: "The Turn of the Screw" Essay

—Jennifer T.

In the previous episode, both Nikki and Shell took drastic liberating actions. Nikki escaped from Larkhall to be with Helen, and Shell stabbed Fenner in the gut. They disregarded every limitation imposed on them, as if no rules existed. This episode brings both of them, and every other character, back to reality. And on Bad Girls, reality is prison. Rather than ignoring regulations, our heroines (and villains) return, resigned, to their imprisonment or confinement, and come up with a variety of strategies for surviving and resisting that confinement from within.

Some of these images of confinement are subtle, but they are shown through the stories of every single character. When Josh and Crystal discuss Crystal's life post-Larkhall, she muses about finding a job in a shop. She quickly acknowledges that a shop wouldn't be likely to hire "a shoplifter." Josh immediately replies "Ex-shoplifter." But Crystal knows this isn't true—shoplifting isn't just something she did, it's an identity, a compulsion she can't (or doesn't want to) shed. At this moment, Crystal feels her imprisonment so strongly, it's almost as if she agrees with Sylvia's assessment about prisoners: "by the time they get to you, they're beyond changing."

Nikki's feelings of confinement are far more explicit and ongoing. She has lost all hope of getting out or being anything other than what she is: a lifer. When Barbara tries to give her hope by reminding her she still has her studies, Nikki's despondent reply is "What's the point?" Even Helen sees how much Nikki has lost her fight, lost her will to be free. She visits Nikki in her cell to give her hope about her appeal and their future together. One of Helen's final lines in the scene is "We're going to go everything to get you out of here, whether you like it or not." In past episodes, it would have been laughable to suggest that Nikki might not like to get out of prison. But in this episode, the line has the ring of truth.

The staging of this scene also illustrates Helen's struggle to survive within her own confinement. She loves Nikki, but can't allow herself to continue the relationship while Nikki is still a prisoner. This touching scene between them is filmed so that Helen is held back, or trapped, by the top bunk. She can see and speak to Nikki only through a relatively narrow space. It's a wide enough space for her to reach out and touch Nikki's arm (a touch which happens beyond the confines of the camera's frame), but she's still being held back from truly connecting with Nikki. That connection is going to have to wait, because Helen's own inner moral code, as well as the rules of her job and the laws of her country, dictate it must be so. Helen accepts those dictates, but preserves Nikki's hope and their loving connection. It's the only way she can survive.

Helen's acceptance of her own confinement comes hand in hand with her revival of her career ambitions in this episode. She takes on the investigation of Shell's attack on Fenner, her first step towards getting involved again with the administration of Larkhall. For the first time, this involvement has empowered her, not disempowered her. She gains the upper hand over Stubberfield when he tentatively suggests Shell should be shipped out to Ashmoor: Helen reminds him that, as head of the Lifer's Unit, such a move would have to be cleared with her. In a private meeting, Helen shuts Stubberfield down when he tries to persuade her to avoid exposing any embarrassments she uncovers in her investigation.[1] This scene may be the first between Helen and Stubberfield where Helen is in the power position—behind her desk—and Stubberfield is in the position of supplicant, in the visitor's chair across the desk. At the start of the scene, the staging actually hides which one of them is behind the desk and which of them is in front of it, but by the end of the scene it's very clear Helen is behind the desk. She's the one in charge. But even in charge, her power comes from the hierarchical structure, and to maintain that power, she must operate in a way that will guarantee area management's support: she can't condemn Fenner without proof. That requirement is one of the severest constraints of all, but it's one Helen is prepared to endure.

If Helen can succeed within the limits of Larkhall, Shell is absolutely extraordinary in her ability to survive in the most destructively confining of situations. In her first scene she's down the block, lying through her teeth to Helen. And she's getting nowhere—Helen sees right through her. We may have thought that solitary was as confining as it gets. Nope. Thanks to Sylvia, Shell is off to the Muppet Wing, and locked in a cell with mad Tessa Spall. Tessa proceeds to control Shell's every move. She's got Shell cleaning the floor, giving up her chocolate, allowing Tessa to brush her hair, and singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful" eight times. Shell doesn't want to do any of these things, but she has no choice. Even when she sleeps she's not free. Tessa is in bed with her, watching her. This is worse than being locked in a cell. She's not just physically confined. All her behavior is being controlled. But amazingly, Shell manages to charm Tessa. She even survives Pam Jolly's attack in the shower—a scene filmed to emphasize the confined space, and Shell curled up in it, unable to move without assistance and protection. Despite it all, Shell is a survivor.

Helen's involvement in Shell's continued confinement throughout this episode seems far from accidental. Both characters have become suddenly and severely confined, albeit in completely different ways. And Helen is (at least in part) the instrument behind both their confinements. She is depriving herself of a relationship with her true love, and she's keeping Shell locked in the Muppet Wing until Shell gives her truthful information useful to the investigation. But the parallels extend even further. When Shell finally confesses to Helen, she describes her reason for attacking Jim: "I couldn't have everyone knowing what I done." At its essence, this is the very same reason (or, one of the reasons) Helen broke off her relationship with Nikki in the previous episode. Both Helen and Shell have taken extreme action to try to hide their past sexual behavior. Helen keeping Shell locked up can be interpreted as a form of projection, a way of insuring she's keeping herself (and her feelings for Nikki) locked up too.

While Helen and Shell manage to create some amount of control within confinement, there are a few characters who manage to find power and liberation by using the very instruments of their confinement. The Julies, with Barbara and Nikki's assistance, begin the process of freeing themselves on the electronic tagging program. They do so within the strictures of prison procedure, demonstrating that theirs is inescapably rules-based freedom.

Jim and Sylvia are even more successful at using the system to achieve their own ends. Jim is stuck in the hospital (another form of confinement) and lying about what happened with Shell as if his life depends on it. Lying to Marilyn, to Karen, to the police. For him, lying is the only way to get his life and his job back. Sylvia, rising to Jim's defense, is more proactive and effective than we've ever seen her. She conspires with Dr. Nicholson to get Shell sent to the Muppet Wing. She physically attacks Shell. She convinces Di not to rat her out. She manipulates every prison procedure and bends her every aggressive impulse towards her goal of punishing Shell and her supporters. The only person who stands up to her with any effectiveness at all is Helen, both during the scene when Helen reveals she's leading the investigation, and then at the end of the episode when Helen gets Shell moved back on the wing, much to Sylvia's fury. Even then, Sylvia refuses to admit defeat. She takes action, leading the officers on strike, the only remaining action available to angry workers who don't control their working conditions, and aren't in the position to quit.

Jim and Sylvia are relatively successful in achieving their goals. Jim survives the investigation without the stain of scandal, and Sylvia makes Shell (and Helen) suffer. But if Nikki and Shell's experience is any guide, it is impossible to sustain resistance against confinement or oppression in order to satisfy personal desire. Any impulse or action winds up being momentary or short-lived. The best most of the residents and staff of Larkhall can hope for is to follow Shell's example surviving the Muppet Wing: make the best of the restrictions life has dealt them, and to eek out tiny pleasures and hopes until the nightmare is over.




This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, invisicoll, ekny, msalt, richard, liverpoolkiss, badgirlnuts

[1] Thanks to richard for pointing out Helen's professional power in this episode, and all the ways it manifests itself.

And thanks to E. Kline for overall help sorting out the thesis for this essay.



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