Season 3, Episode 4: "False Identity" Essay
All the World's a Stage
From the very first scene of the very first episode, Bad Girls has played
with the motif of performance. From that scene of Shell in a brunette wig
rehearsing for the fashion show to this episode in season 3, Bad Girls explores
the myriad ways people perform in their day to day lives, and the importance of
the audience's point of view,
whoever that audience might be, in understanding those performances. This
episode shows layers of fantasy and reality, and the ways that reality is
defined by the point of view of those who are bearing witness.
Di's conversation with her mother the morning after she abused her establishes
the layers of performance which will pervade this episode. In an appalling,
creepy, and overall gross scene, Di acts as if she didn't attack her mother the
previous night. She's play-acting the role of dutiful, caring daughter. This
performance disturbs us viewers, and destabilizes our own grip on reality. For
most of the scene, it's hard not to wonder whether Di actually believes the
story she's telling, her performance is that convincing.
This play-acting opening sets the stage for the rest of the major plotlines in
the episode, all of which revolve around romantic relationships. Within
the first few minutes of the episode, the four major romantic performances are
- Gina chats on the phone with her boyfriend. While this is the one
genuine relationship in the episode, we don't actually see Gina with Mark,
so her phone antics and bawdy dialogue serve as our only clues to the
relationship. We only see the relationship as she performs it for the other
- Yvonne has her rendezvous with the gigolo. A gigolo is inherently a
fantasy figure. He's playing at being a lawyer, and then he's playing at
being a lover. He fulfills being a lover, but only in a transactional way.
It's a paid performance.
- Di invents, for Josh's benefit, a fantasy relationship which has just ended.
She does this to explain the truth of her distraught emotional state. We know Di
is lying about the literal details (there is no boyfriend, after all), but she
does feel betrayed by Dominic, and so on an emotional level, she's actually not
lying. Unlike us audience members, Josh, who is also Di's audience, has no way
to discern the falseness of her story.
- Barbara is sued by her step-children, accused of bigamy and murder. It
now seems possible that Barbara lied about her marriage, and played at being
in love in order to get rich.
Barbara's storyline exposes the struggles of an "audience" (in this case
Nikki) who isn't sure whether what they're seeing is real or a performance.
Nikki angrily condemns Barbara for being a liar (the "best one I ever saw"),
and in Nikki's mind, being a liar is the worst thing a person can be. To
Nikki, authenticity is vital. She needs to be able to know who is
play-acting and who is not, what's real and what's not. Nikki is the
stand-in for us audience members: we are also aghast (in hindsight) at
Barbara's vehemence when she says she's going to hire a private detective to
find her ex-husband and prove she's divorced. She doesn't seem like she's
lying at all, and when we look back on that scene knowing the truth, her
sincerity is bewildering and upsetting.
Barbara's performance is more than upsetting, it's damaging to the people
close to her. This is because her performance begets other performances, such as
the crazy Julies' intimidation campaign against Barbara stepchildren. In all the
letters and phone calls to the stepchildren, all the cons are sort of joking or
play-acting criminal behavior. Shell threatens to tear out the stepdaughter's
fingernails. The Julies laugh about scaring the stepson with the prospect of
winding up in a concrete overcoat. Obviously (to us viewers) the Julies aren't
that type of criminal. Arguably Shell is the type to tear out someone's
fingernails, but regardless the intimidation campaign is a performance: there's
nothing they can actually do other than make threats—there's no chance of
carrying them out. But to Barbara's stepchildren, the threats feel very real,
and the Julies and their fellow conspirators suffer the consequences: although
they don't realize it, they are performing not just for the stepchildren, but
for the prison officers as well, who catch them in the act.
Other characters also struggle with how to discern the truth from a
performance, to differentiate what is authentic from what is make-believe.
Sylvia obsesses over Yvonne's "lawyer," convinced he isn't a real lawyer. Yvonne
is smart enough to play the part during the visit, holding off on consummation
so that Sylvia is thwarted in her desire to prove her suspicions. But Sylvia
won't give up, and is determined to catch Yvonne the next time around. When
Yvonne has another lawyer visit, Sylvia's certain that the whole thing is a
"pantomime" as she calls it when she bursts in with the DST. But of course,
Sylvia was totally wrong—the second lawyer is real. And Sylvia wasn't the only one who thought the
lawyer was playing a part—Yvonne did as well.
Di is also fooled, although in her case she fools herself: She can't
differentiate between her own emotional experiences and reality. She experiences
her obsessive crushes as real relationships, and she experiences Josh's sympathy
as romantic interest. Josh doesn't realize Di's interest in him is far from that
of a friendly, encouraging colleague. Di's fantasy of Josh feels dangerous: like
the Julies' terrorizing of Barbara's stepchildren, Di's fantasy of Dominic and
Josh's resulting sympathy has begat another, more virulent fantasy. As Nikki has
made clear to Barbara, being around a liar, being emotional intimate with one,
is a very dangerous thing.
This theme of performance pops up again and again on Bad Girls because
prisoners are always being watched and interpreted. By prison officers, by
judges and juries, by the public. In prison, private communications, such as
the Julies' harassment or Yvonne's conjugal visits, unavoidably become
public performances. Just as we might view the Julies and Yvonne's escapades
with sympathy, the general public (as embodied by Barbara's stepchildren)
does not. As Nikki says, we don't see characters like Barbara, or even the
Julies, as "real criminals."
The political viewpoint of the show sings out loud and clear at this
moment. While judges and juries may have considered the inmates at Larkhall
to all be real criminals, whether they are or not depends much more on your
point of view. With everything we television viewers have seen, deranged
characters like Di seem far more deserving of a bed on G-Wing than many of
those residing there.
This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki
and Helen board. Thanks to the following people who participated:
Lisa289, richard, ekny
I'd argue that's why they didn't include any Helen-Nikki moments in this
episode, because they are a couple which you would not want to tie into a
theme of "playing" a fantasy or false relationship.
Thanks to richard for tying in the theme of surveillance.
Charlie's lawyer shows up to request Yvonne do some play-acting of her own,
to lie about the 20 kilos of cocaine they found at the Atkins' residence.
Yvonne seems to be willing to play this part at first. By the end of the
episode, it's not clear whether she's going to play the role Charlie wants
her to play, or the role she wants to play for herself.