Season 3, Episode 8: "Uninvited Guests" Essay

Blame and Punishment
—E. Kline

"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.[1] 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.[2]  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 levels. [3]  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 literally systemic. [4] 

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.

 

 


 

[1] Thanks to Jennifer T. for suggesting this point.

[2] 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.)

[3] Thanks to Jennifer T. for this observation.

[4] From 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...."

 

 

 

 
 

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