A Very Loose Meditation on the Nurse's Jacket Thing (S3, E15-16)
by E. Kline
Many viewers expressed dissatisfaction with the machinations leading to part of the plot resolution for Helen's time at Larkhall: it was simply not credible that Helen would have hidden Nikki's escape costume in her filing cabinet, and Nikki saving her bus ticket from that night was just as problematic. In one of the Q&As between fans and Shed (Bad Girls' production company), the producers said:
"...the script of Ep15 Series 3 specified that Nikki's nurse's coat was hidden in a plastic bag in the bottom of Helen's cupboard, not filed under "D" for disguise in the filing cabinet. If you've winced at the like, be sure we've winced before you."
Series 3 Q&A with Ann McManus & Maureen Chadwick
Because Shed admitted the business with the bus-ticket/nurse's jacket was
'sloppy screenwriting', we've been excused from the painful duty of thinking about it. So, repeatedly, I let myself gloss over this embarrassing little tidbit to move on to more Worthy matters.
No doubt the jacket is a clumsy plot device, awkwardly planted and poorly
motivated. It's different in tone from almost every other element in the
Nikki/Helen story, which feels organic and tightly scripted. It's very easy to dismiss. It's a little too easy to dismiss: just because we can, because Shed's admitted it's a place where they dropped a stitch... should we? Perhaps there's still material worth considering.
Certainly if you try to get logical about the nurse's jacket, much less that
silly bus ticket, the plotting gets a bit tragic—does a Patsy Kline and falls to pieces. At the very least you can see the seams: it's completely unclear how the bloody thing migrated to Helen's office in the first place. Nikki left it in the car after hiding under it in the back seat during their return to Larkhall, and then Helen... what, took it back inside? Uh, why? Similarly, Nikki's been scrupulously mindful of keeping her relationship with Helen secret, but she holds onto a bus ticket with a time- and date-stamp for her little excursion?
So there are plenty of reasons to ignore the entire subject. But in a way,
that's just as careless as anything Shed thinks they did wrong. Despite Shed
stating for the record that they recognize and freely admit the jacket thing was messy, it's in there, part of the text: for that reason alone, it shouldn't be passed over. If we try to look at it for just a minute without automatically saying, Yeah but... it sucks! is it possible to glean anything from this too-convenient bit of props-tinkering?
First we need to get over our embarrassment. Yes, it's like watching an
attractive, well-dressed woman walk out of the john only to note she's got
toilet paper stuck to her heel. If it's the worst thing to befall her (or us, in watching her), she's led a pretty charmed life—and so has our show.
Next, we should strip the onus from that blasted coat: it's necessary to admit what might also have embarrassed Shed was the implication Helen had some kind of fetish. Why else would anyone in their right mind have kept the damned thing? Weaknesses in a text create different sorts of opportunities for exorbitant interpretations as readers try to work through unworkable material. A more sympathetic reading, of course, is simply that Helen and Nikki kept the jacket and bus ticket, respectively, for sentimental reasons (unlikely as that still would be, since they're incriminating). In either event, keeping these tokens is poorly motivated, so the reasonable response is to shrug it off: their story was ending; the writers were rushed; their solution was awkward.
However literally infeasible, the props can still be approached metaphorically; viewed thus they actually makes a surprising amount of sense—especially the nurse's jacket. Why would Helen keep it? Denial and fear are a substantial part of what Helen's battled with all series long. And the nurse's jacket reads quite clearly against that emotional backdrop, either way: Helen didn't get rid of it because that would mean acknowledging what she was doing with it in the first place; to acknowledge that means Acknowledging that. The nurse's jacket embodies some of the dilemmas that have plagued her from the start.
She's nearly torn it from another woman's body in her haste to have sex with
said woman. Said woman was also, ahem, technically speaking a convicted
murderer, escaped from prison. Bit problematic. Without the pejorative of
assuming Helen's action in keeping the jacket was motivated in this unintended way, as fetish (and assuming fetishes aren't inherently 'bad'), there's nothing odd about it: who hasn't held on to some kind of
artifact from a beloved? The fact that it's a tacky, butt-ugly garment which isn't Nikki's in the first place, however, is definitely... well, stupid: it's not really even Nikki (or Armani) by proxy. And again we find ourselves in the same loop: Helen's failure to remove it from Larkhall's premises doesn't quite play, much less that she 'hid' it in such a half-arsed place. That's primarily what Shed was apologizing for, in my view, but I'm headed in the opposite direction: I'd like to suggest Helen's hiding evidence from herself.
Looked at from this angle, her actions around the jacket play out very legibly: she's doing what she's been doing all season. The nurse's jacket neatly encapsulates her half-blinkered double-vision thing. She's not-looking at the jacket (as viewers rather cringe past it); she's engaging in a kind of magical thinking where if she puts her hands in front of her eyes, poof! the jacket—and everything it represents—is gone. She's shoved it in the filing cabinet under C for Complicit or D for Denial or E for Escape or N for Nikki...Now? Never? etc. The jacket she can't get rid of because she can't get rid of it. It's synthetic, it sticks, it's all macbethy.
Consider: she can throw it out or keep it. In either case, she has to be able to imagine herself dismissing what the jacket means. She has to imagine taking it home and washing it as if it's important in and of itself—and it's not, Rational Helen knows that—and anyway, she's still kept evidence linking her to a crime for no logical, good reason. Of course she can't do that. Or worse, she has to imagine shoving it in a bag, smuggling it outside the prison—still removing Evidence, still another crime! compounding crimes, more rule-breaking—and then chucking it into a bin somewhere, as if it meant nothing, as if the sex/lovemaking were something to be ashamed of, more 'evidence' to be hidden, thrown away, erased. She can't do that: she won't do that. Paralyzed either way. No wonder she's not-dealing.
The jacket means exactly what it appears to mean: it doesn't belong there, and in some ways, neither does she, anymore: it's in the wrong place in the system, and so's Helen, our Acting Gov who doesn't believe in a system that locks up pregnant women or miscarriages of justice, yet finds herself increasingly backed into corners where she stubbornly insists things like 'I am the system.' Out of place and crossed all kinds of boundaries, Helen's now got a criminal "jacket" of her own. It represents Helen's dilemma—two horns, two sides, make a wrong move, you get impaled . She's gone to bed with a woman, and she helped a felon break the law. The fact that Helen's too smart to confuse the categories doesn't mean we haven't ample other evidence that in looking for a way to sort them... she can't. Until she can. Until she's forced to. By Fenner, and less urgently, Thomas. Dilemma. Two horns. But the solution she comes up with is her own: that Helen manages to extricate both herself and
Nikki from a classical quandary without getting gored is not only impressive, it's rather
marvelous. (Yes, she resigns from her job, but it's still the best choice, the only good choice, available.)
The positioning of the nurse's jacket also suggests Helen's mind is not unlike a filing cabinet, at least during this part of series 3: you can't see what you've repressed or refused to deal with until you're ready to see it, sort the files, what have you. Her brain's filled with The Rules. Duty. Obligation, ethics, and not least 'the bloody law'. And she's got the girl-jones, it's filled with that too. The locked drawers, the crumpled jacket used for all the wrong reasons (to escape the system). The System she still wants to believe in, the system in her system compartmentalizing her boundaries systematically, which are breaking down all over the place because she can't keep a foot in both worlds, separate worlds, without coming from a clear place herself. Until, finally, at long last, she does. There's really no satisfactory action she can take with this particular jacket until she changes her own system by addressing what the jacket signifies. All Helen's files are right next to each other—they share the same cabinet, after all. You just know it must have been killing her not to have it sorted.