Season 3, Episode 7: "The Great Escape" Essay

All The World's A Stage
—Jennifer T.

In this episode we get to watch characters struggle to act, in both senses of the word. Characters choose to perform (or not) for the documentary film crew. They also choose to take action (or not) towards their friends and enemies. Acting, no matter what kind, is a struggle for many characters. It's not easy to get the things we want, due to internal and external forces.

The episode is overflowing with characters struggling to make decisions, to get where they want to go. The television crew jokes about the lack of security getting into Larkhall, comparing it favorably to getting through a supermarket checkout. Some things are easy to get through, and others hard. Obstacles can be physical (eg strip searches), but others can be psychological or bureaucratic. Karen has been hesitating about moving in with Fenner, and when she finally tells him she's ready she says "I haven't jumped the gun, have I?" Similarly, Denny is unsure she wants to escape with Shell because it will mean leaving Shaz. But Shaz jumps right in and seizes the day, making Denny feel like the whole thing will be easy as pie. The escape itself is fraught with starts and stops, first when Shell can't get the car started because she doesn't realize it's in park, and the second when Shaz falls out of the truck and can't escape with Shell and Denny because her foot is literally tied to the truck.

In the midst of all these smaller moments, one character suffers most deeply from the difficulty of taking action: Helen. She has a few attempts in the opening few minutes of the episode. She tries to lock the gate between herself and Fenner when he approaches her to apologize. She tries to gauge from Karen whether Karen will be sympathetic and supportive if she reports Fenner's assault, but decides Karen will dismiss her. She then sees Nikki in the yard, and yet, starting from the moment when Nikki spots her and calls out to her, Helen cannot unlock the gate. Her lover waits on the other side, expressing concern, and Helen's key is just not working. She cannot open that door and allow herself to be close to Nikki. After she finally gets through, and Nikki convinces her to confess what happened, the rest of the scene is Nikki urging action: Nikki wants to kill Fenner! (Helen says that wouldn't be a good idea). Nikki says do something! (Helen fantasizes about siccing Shell on Fenner). Nikki says go to Stubberfield and get Fenner fired! (Helen acknowledges, and Nikki is aware, that this probably isn't going to work). And then the two of them stare at each other helplessly. There are two types of solutions, official channels and violence, and neither one is an option. Helen is paralyzed.

Nikki, however, unlike Helen, is constitutionally unable to just let things lie. She's the opposite of paralyzed, and she stalks Fenner, looking for her opportunity to take action against him. Gina thwarts her first attempt, out on the wing, but then she sees her chance when Fenner is alone in the office. Her whole strategy is a brilliant combination of acting without acting. She goes to the edge, she puts her hand near the bottle, but she doesn't touch it, and she doesn't touch Fenner. She's playing a part, pretending all she's talking about is prison paperwork, but in reality she's taking aggressive psychological action against Fenner. When Helen reacts with outrage, Nikki defends herself with "I didn't touch him!" to which Helen replies "No, but you wanted to." As always with Helen, there's no separation between thought and deed.

In this weird way, Helen seems to almost value her own paralysis, her own inability to take action, as a triumph over her baser desires. She, Helen, also wants to kill Fenner, as she acknowledges in the previous scene with Nikki. Arguably, the reason Helen tells Nikki about the assault is that she subconsciously wants someone to stand up for her at a time when she's incapable of standing up for herself. Helen tells Nikki as much when she said the only thing she could think of to do to Fenner was lock him in a cell with Shell Dockley.[1] This communication between Helen and Nikki follows the same pattern they've had since season 1. Helen communicates desires to Nikki that she is not aware of. Nikki responds to those desires. Helen is upset and astonished. Helen values her ability to repress her own anti-social desires, refusing to acknowledge the ways she transfers those desires onto Nikki.

Helen's attachment to her own paralysis, her sublimation of her desire to act, is something she has to overcome. Nikki knows this, which is why, when Helen says "There are ways of going about things other than violence" Nikki retorts "Yeah? You just haven't thought of one yet."

Buki, like Helen, is desperate for a way to channel her rage. For the second time we see her cutting herself, but in this instance she actually describes her motivations. She talks to Stubberfield about wanting to release the rottenness inside her, which she describes as storm, rage and anger. Violence against herself is her only option to get it out, because she can't commit violence against the people who have harmed her, nor can she inspire those who love her to take action on her behalf. So she actually has gone so far as to feel and enact anger and violence against herself instead. This is the tragedy of abused women, and in this episode it reads as a cautionary tale, a potential path Helen could head down. Nikki fights against this fate, on Helen's behalf.

Fenner's plan to help Shell escape symbolically echoes Buki's cutting. He's trying to expunge himself of his fear and rage by releasing its source. He comes up with the plan, gets Shell to fake the diary, creates the keys, plants the evidence, and hopes to get rid of two enemies at once: Shell and Helen.

Shell's escape introduces the idea of the power of teamwork in taking action, making changes. Helen insists to Nikki that each of the two of them should fight their own battles: "This is my battle. You concentrate on fighting your own." But Helen is way off base, as the rest of this episode demonstrates. Shell's escape requires teamwork. She needs help from the Julies to create a distraction so she can get out of the chapel. She needs Fenner to give her all the tools of escape. And not only that, she doesn't want to be alone when she gets out, so she recruits Denny to join her. Action requires teamwork and support, and that is something Helen is denying herself. No wonder she is paralyzed.

Intertwined with all these characters who can and can't act are characters who do and don't act—in front of the television cameras. So many characters ham it up for the film crew. All of them lie, baldly, to tell a story of how they want others to see them, rather than how they are. All of these performances are so transparent and awkward, it's almost ridiculous to watch, particularly as we see the television crew falling for the act.

These performances are both empowering and disempowering. Acting enables you to act: being able to perform is what enables characters to take action, rather than allow themselves to be stuck or paralyzed. Shell wouldn't have gotten the keys in the chapel if she hadn't put on the show of penitence and walked up to the altar. The Julies put on a show in the chapel to create a distraction. Fenner acts like he didn't know three people would be missing from the chapel.

However, no matter how good the performance, the camera (and, really, the person who is behind the camera, the director) claims ultimate authority. Stubberfield can say "You won't be using this" after his failed communication attempt with Buki. But in reality anyone who lets themselves be filmed no longer has control, no matter how much they might perform the version of themselves they want others to see. Sylvia wanders through the wing explaining "free flow" while the real free flow happens behind her as Shaz and Denny kiss and mug for the camera.

Two characters won't allow themselves to be filmed: Fenner and Helen. Fenner is the biggest actor of them all, but he knows he loses his mastery if he allows himself to be capture by the camera. Helen, on the other hand, is such an authentic person, she can't possibly perform in this way. She asserts her authority in the Lifer's meeting by not allowing Fiona to film.[2] But unlike Fenner, Helen doesn't ever quite assert her authority over the other factors that threaten her. Fenner gets Shell out of Larkhall, but Helen doesn't file an assault complaint against Fenner. Instead she asserts her authority over Nikki! She won't perform, and she isolates herself in her battle, leaving her with no productive channel for her anger. As Buki knows too well, kept inside, that anger will transform her.




This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: Lisa289, richard, msalt, ekny, popstalin, solitasolano, microsofty, Cassandra, Mad Maggot, Just Another Mad Bad Fan, badgirlnuts, orlando, Norfolkpoodle

[1] Thanks to popstalin for suggesting Helen's (un)conscious motivations here.

[2] Thanks to richard for conceptualizing this action of Helen's as her staking claim to her authority





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