Season 3, Episode 9: "Common Criminal" Essay

False Fronts
—Jennifer T.

This episode examines the way characters use speech to establish their own personas, and to create personas for other characters. While a persona can sometimes be truthful, more often it's a public image of the self, used to hide secret truths. For these personas, the press serves as the instrument, the loudest form of speech possible, and therefore the most powerful and the most potentially damaging.

The episode opens with a scene which establishes the tension between speech and secrecy. It's nighttime and the press is crowding the prison entrance. There's a push and pull between the attempted secrecy of the nighttime arrival and the exposure of the press. At the intake for this mysterious new prisoner, Gina tries to get it on with her boyfriend Mark. She thinks it's secret, no one will see them, but he's nervous they'll be observed and caught. Both the arrival and Gina and Mark's interaction sketch out this motif of being seen, of what conclusions people will draw about others from what they see, and about the impressions characters give off through their words and actions.

Charlotte Myddleton, beginning with her secret arrival, is the character whose destiny is most affected by personas, by what people think of her, rather than who she truly is. Her father, a well-known and powerful politician, gets her sent to jail because he wants to make an example of her, to not appear as if he's playing favorites. All the guards and prisoners draw conclusions about her, ones that she protests from the start when she tells Gina "You don't know anything about me." The only way people do know about her is via the press, whose veracity is repeatedly questioned in this episode.

Charlotte is defined by her personas because she's given up having any interest in defining herself, in trying to communicate anything about who she truly is. This strategy on her part is further exacerbated by the rules of prison life, which deny prisoners a voice. When Charlotte first arrives, she doesn't yet know that her voice has been taken away. She threatens to report Gina's treatment of her at her intake. But to who? And with what? Gina takes her phone away as soon as she's aware Charlotte has it. Charlotte doesn't see the value in speaking to her fellow inmates (in fact, Buki and Shaz mock her for this fairly quickly): she doesn't see the point in using her voice among her fellow voiceless inmates. But she's off base: speaking isn't just about being heard by those who have authority. There's power which comes from relationship-building, from knowing others and being known. Her silence enforces her isolation, demonstrating her rejection of the community around her, and therefore making her vulnerable within that community.

Charlotte's doesn't invest in relationship-building because she sees her fellow prisoners as sub-human, animalistic, beneath language. Yvonne is initially impressed by Charlotte's insults toward Gina. But, as Charlotte already demonstrated with Buki and Shaz, she doesn't care about impressing or interacting with any of her fellow prisoners, even Yvonne. Yvonne wants to make sure Charlotte is on side, and so informs her "A way with words isn't enough in here." Later, after Yvonne has arranged the theft of Charlotte's clothes, she mocks Charlotte's anger, and her earlier dismissal of her, "You're talking to an animal, remember?"

But Charlotte continues to think speech is only a weapon to engage with authority, rather than as a tool for building alliances. She grasses Yvonne up to Karen, and when Yvonne confronts her about being "a narc" Charlotte snottily asserts her power and status by insulting Yvonne's speech: "You mind saying that in English?" Charlotte believes that status and power come from how she speaks and who she speaks to, not just what she says. She therefore has very little appreciation for Yvonne's own power and authority, which derive more from action, and from Yvonne's nuanced understanding of the relationships between cons and cons and cons and screws.

Charlotte's lack of appreciation for Yvonne's power makes her vulnerable. She's unwilling to be known by the other prisoners, instead relying on her public personas, the false front she creates with her speech. Yvonne at first doesn't realize that Charlotte's words are all an act, and she threatens Charlotte quite violently. These threats, combined with the stress of responding to Buki's blackmail, turn Charlotte suicidal. When Yvonne realizes what is happening and rescues Charlotte, Yvonne apologizes with the confession "I thought you was as hard as you made out." Only now does Charlotte abandon her persona and use words to open up and share her familial pain, and Yvonne mothers her.

Personas or fronts, like the kind that Charlotte creates, are very powerful, and they pervade this episode. Di manipulates both Crystal and Josh into thinking she's a loyal friend, and seducing them into opening up to her. After Crystal's positive drug test, Di suggests to Josh that Crystal's religion is a front, an act. Buki stages the photo of Charlotte using drugs. The idea of a false front is also presented in the Costa del Sol postcard Denny mails Shaz: it is assumed the card is a cover, that Denny and Shell are still in London—when in reality, they are in Spain. Fronts are created in numerous ways through words (Charlotte's mouth), through images (Denny's postcard), through the combination of words and images (the media), and through the manifests of the bureaucracy (the drug tests, Di's role as a position of trustworthy authority).

While Charlotte creates a persona to protect herself, other characters use fake personas to exploit and manipulate others in order to get what they want. Di pretends to be Crystal's ally, fishing for info from Crystal about her relationship with Josh. The creepy music playing in the background insures we see Di's sinister objectives. A few minutes later, a reporter pretends to be a fellow prison officer, gleaning info from Gina and Mark about Charlotte Myddleton. This reporter is much more competent in her fishing expedition than Di, managing to find out the wing Charlotte is on and the name of her cellmate, but both the reporter and Di inflict significant damage on their targets. Later, these two confessors are paired again, when the reporter visits Buki and bribes her for information and photos, while Di sits with Crystal in her cell and convinces Crystal to keep her confidences about Josh a secret from him. These two use personas to elicit information for personal selfish gain, and disregard the destruction they inflict on the lives of others.

These fronts are dangerous because it's so difficult to determine which are authentic and which are not. Everyone assumes Denny's postcard is a fake, but the postcard actually transforms into the real marina in the Costa del Sol, and Denny and Shell are there. In contrast, the media and the prison bureaucracy are generally deemed trusted, but this episode exposes their falseness. We know Di is crazy, and therefore can see right through her efforts to persuade Josh and Crystal that she's on their side and didn't tamper with the drug tests. But from Josh's perspective, drug tests are normally reliable, and why would anyone purposefully taint the results? Charlotte knows that the media is dishonest, and exposes the "front" created by them: the staged photograph, the possibly false quote by Charlotte's father rejecting Charlotte. Should Charlotte believe the quote from her father? He turned her in, he didn't come to visit her in prison, but on the other hand, the media has a history of making up salacious provocative quotes. Drug tests can be tampered with, just as photos can be staged and quotes invented. This leads to quite a volatile mixture of truth and lies, more damaging than just pure lies.

Charlotte and Crystal fight back against the personal destruction of these false personas using a combination of speech and non-traditional power. Charlotte writes an expose to the paper. She knows if she gets it out of the prison, the newspaper will publish it because of who she is, part of the ruling elite.[1] But she can't get her words to the paper without the alternative ruling power of someone like Yvonne, who wields her power from outside the system, rather than within it. Crystal's words, on the other hand, are ineffective without powerful support. As much as she tries, she can't get her own boyfriend to believe in her and trust her, because of his blind belief in the trustworthiness of the bureaucracy. In next week's episode, in desperation, Crystal chooses the most disempowered form of resistance, the hunger strike, but she still needs Charlotte's voice for her protest to be heard.

 

 


This essay arose from an online discussion on the Nikki and Helen board.  Thanks to the following people who participated: microsofty, popstalin, invisicoll, ekny, richard, Cassandra

[1] Back in season 1, Crystal was able to get a letter to the editor published in the Guardian. However, Crystal's ability to use the press to her advantage is still a far cry from Charlotte's. Without Shell's scheming and manipulation, Crystal never would have written the letter in the first place, let alone succeeded in getting it in the paper. More importantly, there's a difference between a letter-to-the-editor, and the kind of feature coverage Charlotte received. Charlotte knew if she got her article into the hands of the press, they would run it. Crystal/Shell just swung for the bleachers and hoped they'd hit a home run, which they did.

 

 

 
 

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