Season 3, Episode 3: "The Chains of Freedom" Essay

The Old Ball and Chain
—Jennifer T.

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 them out.

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 loyalty.

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"[1] 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.[2] 

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 limits.




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

[1] From "Scarborough was known as a town where suspected thieves or other criminals were quickly dealt with and hung on a tree or ŕ la lanterne after some form of street justice. This is why a 'Scarborough warning' still means 'without any warning' in today's English." The association with Larkhall and Helen and Nikki is tantalizing, with crime as a cause of the separation of the lovers.

In addition, the original folk version of the song has some additional verses, which provide encouragement and hopefulness to the unfaithful lover, verses which really change the tenor of the meaning. When listening to Shaz, do we think of the popular Simon & Garfunkel version? This melancholy rendition eliminates every bit of encouragement, and really winds up sounding quite bitter and cruel. Or do we think of the longer traditional version, with its sense of the impossible, and the importance of trying, because in the context of how difficult love is, trying is often enough?

[2] 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.



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