Season 3, Episode 3: "The Chains of Freedom" Essay
The Old Ball and Chain
This episode revolves around the ways loving relationships can trap us or set
us free. There are countless ways that relationships, psychologies and
attachments to peoples or behaviors or places keep characters stuck. Even more
intriguing, many characters choose to allow themselves to remain trapped, for
the sake of their relationships.
For the first time, during the officer's strike, we get to see the
interrelationships between the prisoners as they would freely establish them
(when they are confined within a closed environment with limited resources
available to them). Big Brother is always there, even without any officers
trolling around. When the prisoners all take care of their own, with Yvonne
keeping an eye on things, restricting the worst behavior, the prisoners do get
to experience a modicum of freedom. But they also become the enforcers. Yvonne
plays screw more effectively than the screws, complains Denny. The cell search
by Barbara, Nikki, Denny and company is less violent than the cell search after
the Babes Behind Bars scheme is uncovered, but it's still invasive. Yvonne comes
down hard on Denny and Shaz because she doesn't want them causing mischief and
ending the "good thing" (their relative freedom) they've got going on the wing.
In a way, this freedom serves as a metaphor for the fact that all human beings
are confined and restricted by outside pressures/forces, even when they feel
relatively free. More importantly from a thematic perspective, all human beings
make choices about how to handle their relationships in order to maintain the
level of confinement that they find bearable.
This intertwined liberation and imprisonment from those closest to you plays out
throughout the wing. It's the prisoners themselves who are responsible for their
fellow cons being locked up or being free. Early in the episode Yvonne yells at
Dockley through the cell wall, blaming her for the fact that they're all stuck
in their cells. Later, Shell shouts out to the cavorting prisoners that it's her
they have to thank for the fact that they're free to run around the wing. In
this symbolic way, Shell has the key to keep the prisoners trapped, and to let
In a humorous parallel, Nikki points out that a prisoner might offer Yvonne the
key to her liberation from sexual frustration. But for Yvonne, turning "lezza"
goes too far. No matter how hard-up she feels, no matter how much Nikki tries to
convince her a woman has the right "tackle," Yvonne will stay celibate rather
than seeking love or sexual solace from another woman.
The other person with the more literal key is Helen, and in relation to Nikki
she also embodies the ways relationships subtly enact liberation and forms of
imprisonment. She's the one who suggests the prisoners can manage the wing
without officers around. Helen's attachment to Nikki serves as inspiration for
this idea, for two reasons: her inherent dislike of the idea of Nikki locked up,
and her trust that Nikki will keep things from spiraling out of control. When
Helen asks Nikki to "play prefect" she both frees Nikki (by letting the
prisoners out unsupervised) and confines her (with her personal plea for Nikki
to take charge).
Josh grapples with similar imprisoning pressures caused by his romantic
relationship. The episode opens with a little exchange between Denny and Josh
about his "institutionalization." At first glance, a very cute, throwaway scene.
Shortly thereafter, we learn that Dominic has found true love in Greece and
won't be returning to Larkhall. Josh is back at Larkhall because he has to
support Crystal. Dominic has escaped because he's met the person of his dreams.
In both cases, a loving relationship serves as the decisive factor, in Dominic's
case freeing him, and in Josh's case locking him back up again.
Like Josh, Julie S experiences the imprisoning pressure from a relationship as
well. She wants to leave Larkhall to see David's play, and spend his 16th
birthday with him. But Julie J desperately wants her to stay. Begs her in fact.
Julie S is rightly appalled at this. How could her best friend want her to stay
in prison when she has the chance to get out? She says to Julie J: "I can't
[stay] and you shouldn't be asking me to neither." In reply Julie J expresses
one of the most fundamental emotions of all: "I need you."
The Julies have a companionate love relationship which has replaced the more
traditional romantic, sexual pair-bonding which occurs in society outside of
prison. Their closest relationship in the world is with each other. They talk
about living together when they get out. This fantasy of a future life together
precludes either one of them being in love with a man, or marrying a man,
because then their loyalty to each other would be divided. That's why Julie S's
pursuit of a relationship with Trevor, more so than her release from Larkhall,
is a betrayal of her relationship with Julie J.
Trevor offers her a life beyond Larkhall, with a husband and father to her son.
But Julie feels caught between that opportunity and her loyalty to Julie J. At
the end of the episode, when Julie S races back to Larkhall following her
premonition that Julie J needs to be saved, Trevor tries to convince her not to
go. He tells her "Prison's behind you. You've gotta let it go!" He declares he
wants to get back together, but she's not interested. She's too consumed with
her loyalty for Julie J, and willing to accept confinement because of that
While Julie J's efforts to keep Julie S tied to her are troubling, Di's mother
engages in even more horrific manipulation. In one upsetting sequence, Di is
mooning over Dominic in her bedroom. Her mother calls out to her, and Di, unable
to handle her mother's emotional demands, runs downstairs and beats her mother.
Di can't free herself, she's completely emotionally trapped. But unlike Julie S,
or even Nikki, she can't tolerate the situation, and so she fights back the only
way she can, in a disturbing and disturbed act of violence.
The classic folk song "Scarborough Fair"
reflects the potential for destruction and betrayal in relationships, providing
an echo of every character's experience in this episode. Shaz, in an
uncharacteristically touching display, sings the song as Nikki, Shell and others
listen, contemplative. The melody is hauntingly beautiful, but also the lyrics
are quite provocative, and even hostile. The singer is a lover who has been
betrayed, describing all the impossible tasks her lover must complete to win
back her love. On a less literal level, the singer is lamenting the
impossibility of betrayed love ever healing and recovering, as much as two
lovers might want it to. This impossibility reflects the state of Helen and
Nikki's relationship, with the still-ringing echoes of Nikki's accusation of
cowardice. Without emotional courage, can Helen be a "true love" of Nikki's? The
song's melancholy and emotional isolation and distance, become a powerful echo
of Nikki's abandonment. And how difficult love is.
More than Helen and Nikki, the song is intertwined with Julie S and her
relationships. The two Julies suffer the same as the lovers in "Scarborough
Fair." The voice of the betrayed lover is Julie J, needing Julie S to do the
impossible to win her love back: to choose to stay in prison when she has the
opportunity to be free. We see Shaz singing the song directly after
Trevor departs Monica's halfway house after visiting Julie S. He has just made
the comment to her that he feels like an underachiever, relative to the success
she has achieved. Julie is left with the guilt of having lied to him, of
wondering whether she's a true love of Trevor's, or whether he'll stay faithful
to her after learning her true history.
The yearning for love, even with the risk of betrayal or emotional imprisonment,
is a powerful yearning. Each character is establishing his or her limits. Di
lashes out physically at her mother when her mother's demands overwhelm her.
Dominic has freed himself completely, while Julie S has accepted imprisonment as
a byproduct of her intense loyalty and love for her friend. Helen and Nikki fall
somewhere in the middle, trying to recover from rash behavior and find the right
This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki
and Helen board. Thanks to the following people who participated:
ekny, aj57, invisicoll, Lisa289, richard, Just Another Mad Bad Fan,
badgirlnuts, microsofty, Cassandra, yankeelady, BlueDogBlues, Jeanna
Thanks to Just Another Mad Bad Fan for this analysis of Julie's guilt
regarding her lies to Trevor, and how they are echoed in the song.