Season 3, Episode 4: "False Identity" Essay

All the World's a Stage
—Jennifer T.

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,[1] 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.[2] Within the first few minutes of the episode, the four major romantic performances are laid out:

  1. 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 officers.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.[3]

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.[4] 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

[1] Thanks to ekny for clarifying how the audience's interpretation adds another layer to the interplay of reality and performance.  Her idea informs this entire essay.

[2] 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.

[3] Thanks to richard for tying in the theme of surveillance.

[4] 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.

 

 
 

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