Season 3, Episode 8: "Uninvited Guests" Essay
Blame and Punishment
"Uninvited Guests" is about blame, the shadow side of responsibility: how
various characters try to avoid it, and how they behave when they blame others.
The disturbing nature of this episode's central storyline serves to
acknowledge and legitimize the audience's own human need to assign blame to
criminals for what they've done.
The extended scenes of Shell and Denny humiliating, beating, and ultimately
torturing Sylvia Hollamby and her husband, Bobby, make for difficult viewing.
They're supposed to; of all the episodes this is in many ways the most baldly
didactic. It's there to remind us of some very basic, unpleasant facts: that
prison, however red of tooth and claw, still serves a necessary function in
society, namely to lock up people who shouldn't be out on the streets. Bad
Girls, with its ongoing message of rehabilitation, is honest enough to
remind us here particularly that some people cannot be helped or saved.
The episode uses investigations as one motif to explore the assignment of
blame and the damaging effects of that process. Within the prison we see Area
Management as well as the police launch independent investigations to determine
how three convicted felons (Shell, Denny, and Shaz) managed to escape, and we
see the repercussions for convicts and screws alike. With the exception of
Helen, all the parties involved with the various in-house investigations are
primarily focused on assigning blame, rather than preventing similar events from
happening in the future, or showing any concern about the effects of the escape
on the remaining prisoners.
We will see that the details of the episode's subplots offer a more nuanced
exploration of the idea of blame. The prison system is inherently about blame
and punishment: although there are characters within the system, like Helen, who
want to move beyond its basic framework of blame and punishment to a model of
reform, the system itself is fundamentally resistant to and in many ways
incapable of supporting such structural changes.
The prison system's unavoidable focus on blame and punishment filter into
every aspect of its operations, down to the smallest interactions between cons
and screws. Screws are on the hotseat for the escape, but the prisoners
themselves are on lockdown. The cons blame the screws for their treatment, and
are treated, in turn, as if they are to blame. When guard Gina goes to fetch
Nikki's cellmate Barbara to make tea for the officers, Barbara (evidently
channeling Nikki) demands, "Just tell me why it is when the screws screw up, the
prisoners have to suffer." "Because," Gina replies, "you broke the law and we
didn't." In the broadest sense, Gina's exactly right: that's what prison is
about. Specifically, however, her response is profoundly unhelpful—it's about
effects, not causes. The righteousness of her attitude perfectly embodies the
impossibility of moving beyond the entrenched idea of punishing those who are to
blame for crimes. The prisoners have already been punished: Gina's response
leaves us nowhere to go.
Another prisoner, Buki, goes back to cutting herself, saying to Gina, "Look!
Look what you done to me!" as she holds her arm out of her cell when Gina
delivers lunch. Gina's reply, as before ("I ain't done nuffin to you. You done
that yourself you soft cow") is again accurate, but hardly empathetic: it doesn't
address the core issues around Buki's cutting. Yes, Buki has taken the blade to
her own skin, but the lifetime of abuse and exploitation she's suffered demands
a more engaged response. Neither Gina nor the prison system she represents is
able to provide one. No one seems to know, or care, who is or should be
accountable, much less for what.
Fenner and Helen provide the clearest contrast between the uncaring,
unthinking side of the prison system and the desire for reform. Fenner (who's
responsible for engineering the prison-break in the first place) and Helen
(who's the secondary target of Fenner's machinations) stand at opposite ends of
the accountability scale. Fenner muddies the waters wherever possible, works on
engaging Karen's sympathies to persuade her that he's the victim here, and
maintains an everyman's veneer of sullen neutrality when it seems strategically
best to do so: informed that the investigations of Area Management and the
police have "moved on" to use forensic tests to determine the authenticity of
Shell's diary, he confines himself to remarking "I thought Area Management were
here to investigate an escape. [...] that [forensic tests] sounds like a good use of taxpayers'
money." When in doubt, Fenner parrots the values of system he works within: he's
never prepared to have his statements questioned (his poor performance in front
of Area Management, for ex.), and the unthinking nature of this bureaucracy
almost always works in his favor. The very unwillingness of those around him to
consider what the rules and regulations mean—why they work, or don't—gives
Fenner a constant advantage.
Helen, on the other hand, maintains an impressive level of objectivity about
events which seem to threaten her job. She picks apart the weak threads in the
prison escape with relentless logic, pointing out to Area Management there's no
reason to leave a bar of soap lying about when the pattern for the key has been
struck outside the prison, and also questions the fact as well as the contents
of Shell's 'diary,' thus causing the scope of both the in-house and police
investigations to be widened. Helen's the only one who thinks about the system
she works for analytically; examines it, looks for flaws, looks for ways to
improve it. The difference between Fenner (indeed, all the screws to greater or
lesser extent) and Helen points to the primary flaw of the prison system: its
entrenched, unreflective acceptance of its own operations. Unreflective
acceptance is the only possible result of a system that exists to assign blame
and carry out punishment.
Even characters as generally sympathetic as Karen (discounting her
inexplicable attraction to Fenner) are partially motivated by a fear of being
blamed for something—being found wrong, wanting or lacking in their performance.
Karen, though more experienced than Helen, plays by the books as often as
possible; she's not inspired to do more, much less innovate. And her involvement
with Fenner colors her perceptions around everything he touches—which is to say,
pretty much everything.
An almost incidental exchange between Karen and Helen nicely summarizes the
problems within the prison's administrative structure around making even the
simplest decisions: Karen, after phoning the police (to ask them to swing by
Hollamby's house), says 'I'm sure [the officer] thought I was a complete wally.'
Helen says, 'Don't worry, I'll take the blame' to which Karen replies 'Anyway,
the police are sending a car around on the off-chance.' Which may or may not
mean "thank you" but certainly neatly sidesteps Karen's own issues around taking
responsibility (and her fear of looking incompetent). Even after Helen's
presumably explained her conversation with Shaz to Karen and convinced Karen of
the potential gravity of the situation, saving face is important to Karen. It's
not important to Helen: she offers, quite sincerely, to take the blame; in this
case it's a verbal shortcut to soothing Karen's anxieties about matters that
shouldn't interfere with professional decisions—but do. In this episode, no one
in the prison service save Helen seems remotely able to prioritize between
professional goals (getting to the bottom of the escape) and self-interest
(protecting their own jobs).
For two-and-a-half seasons' worth of shows, Stubberfield has embodied this
warped prioritization. His only concern throughout his run as Governing Governor
has been to minimize his own workload, enjoy the trappings of power (his fussing
over his new carpet, incessant golfing, etc), and deflect responsibility away
from himself for anything problematic around the daily management of the prison.
His refusal to take responsibility is ultimately corrupting and destructive—and
it defines the operation of the prison from the top down to the most minute
Stubberfield's inability to see his weaknesses or own his mistakes makes him a
terrible leader, and will bring him up short against the last word in blame:
he's about to lose his job. He's bought his own hollow politicking, and can't
tell that Area Management isn't the least impressed with his empty performance.
In this way, Fenner and Stubberfield see the investigation in exactly the
same terms: self-interest. Fenner tells Karen they're looking for a scapegoat,
and Stubberfield, running into Fenner after being fired, says to Fenner, "This
is how a man looks when made to fall upon his own sword. Area Management needed
a scapegoat and I'm it." Even after being fired, Stubberfield's incapable of
seeing how his actions (or lack thereof) influenced the decision that ends his
career. Helen will be rewarded for her committed, responsible approach by being
promoted temporarily in Stubberfield's stead—but the show has already made clear
it would be nearly impossible for anyone whose priority was reforming the prison
service itself to stay in such a position for long.
In the action outside the prison, we see the same battle going on between the
human impulse to assign blame and punishment, and the impulse to avoid blame as
much as possible. Shell Dockley has no doubts about how to assign blame—or
scruples around how to enact revenge. The episode makes it clear that Shell's
rage against Sylvia Hollamby is justified (though of course Shell's expression
of it is not). Like any other member of society, Shell wants to see Hollamby
punished. After enduring years of petty abuse, with the memory of a beating at
Hollamby's hands after Fenner's stabbing likely still fresh in her mind—and
fresher still, Hollamby's acts of retaliatory 'justice' on Fenner's behalf
(sending Shell to the Muppet Wing; throwing an inmate even more violent and
crazy than herself, Tessa Spall, in to share a cell with her; and engineering another
inmate's attack on Shell while Shell's in the shower), Shell has no question
about who's wronged her. "Thought it was clever, did you? Chucking me in a cell
with Mad Tessa, getting me beat up by Podger Pam? Have a good laugh, did you?" Hollamby is the sole focus of Shell's rage and her acts of vicious retribution.
As Helen Stewart observes to Area Management, "Shell Dockley keeps grudges, not
diaries." There's nothing wrong with Shell's emotional response to Hollamby; it is her actions that are unacceptable, and unredeemable. In many
ways, the episode is Shell's swan song: although she briefly returns in Series
5, Bad Girls' pending conclusion around her troubled character stands:
she's one of the lost.
Shell's rage is even more comprehensible because we've seen it backstopped by
almost three years of Sylvia Hollamby's awful behavior. Hollamby never
acts in any way other than as a mean-spirited, morally sanctimonious, vindictive
(and deeply lazy) skiver: she does as little as possible, complains as much as
possible, and is genuinely nasty to the prisoners—all of them—as often as she
can get away with it. She's at least as unsympathetic as Fenner, and in some
ways more dangerous: her foolishness makes it easier to overlook her petty
cruelties, which are tailored to work within the prison service. Her faults are
However, the balance of the Shell/Denny-Hollamby scenes go, of necessity, to
making Hollamby more sympathetic—but it's situational. Of course we feel badly
for someone being tortured, but it's difficult to believe, given what we know of
Hollamby, she won't come back to work twice as spiteful, once the immediate
danger is past. As with Shell, the attitudes and habits of a lifetime often
don't change, even after a crisis.
If there were a central scene meant to feature any message of redemption,
reform, even some small but significant change in viewpoint, surely it would be
found in Hollamby's apology to Shell. But it's hollow and unconvincing. "You
know, life's so different away from that place, isn't it? ...I mean, what I do
there, it's just a job. I have to do what I'm told. You understand, don't you?
...I don't enjoy any of it. I mean... I just want to say—sorry." Her fear is
very real, but that only means it's an 'apology' under duress. More than that,
we've heard exactly what to make of this excuse with Helen's response to Fiona
in the previous episode: "I was only doing my job," blusters the filmmaker. To
which Helen dryly counters, "Not historically a great excuse."
However sincere Hollamby's feelings at the moment, a lifetime of habitual
blindness to her own callousness means Hollamby is the character most in need of
the ability to analyze her own behavior, most in need of taking even the
smallest measure of responsibility for actions that have to some extent brought
this disaster upon herself. And sadly, like the prison system itself, Hollamby
is, by definition, least equipped to do so.
Helen, who knows (along with the audience) that she's not guilty of
anything, acts to deflect blame from herself rather than expend extra energy
in pointing fingers or worrying exclusively about how the fallout might
effect her professionally; in doing so, she also frees her attention to more
immediate problems at hand, such as trying to get information from Shaz
about where Shell and Denny might have gone. She takes responsibility, in
short, for matters no one else is paying proper attention to—and in doing so
likely saves the Hollambys' lives. (Not that anyone notices; Helen's
successes are rarely acknowledged or recognized as such by her colleagues.)
Thanks to Jennifer T. for this observation.
Wilson, David and O'Sullivan, Sean. "In Praise of Bad Girls: Parody and
Purpose in a Contemporary Women's Prison Drama": "Sylvia’s attitude
to her job is intended to carry more meaning than Fenner’s deviousness and
plotting. Sylvia consistently displays old school attitudes, which lead to
the unsympathetic treatment of inmates and which cause a lot of the problems
in the prison...."