On the other hand, and oh my do I admire this show for not shying away from this, it’s somewhat selfish of Betty to express her feelings at the exact worst time she could possibly choose. Kate is completely cornered. Their respective stories don’t match. Betty’s is one of falling in love and doing all the gallant, knightly things one is supposed to do for a loved one: standing up for them no matter what, protecting them from danger. Kate’s is of running away, both from the very real physical threat of her father and from the part of herself that questions every timid step she takes towards independence and freedom. I think it’s fair to assume that Kate has feelings for Betty, but she is pre-occupied with figuring out who she is, how this new version of her fits in with all the truths she’s been forcefully fed all her life. There are moments when something slips through, when she expresses how she feels about Betty with such surprising candour (because they are both guarded in their own way, and we only really see their guard slips when they are with each other), but mostly, there are too many other grander questions about identity and truth in Kate’s life to really have put words to her feelings for Betty. There really is no other way for this to play out. Betty kisses Kate because she has finally worked up the courage to express her feelings; Kate kisses her back for a fleeting moment, then pulls away violently because every single thing her father has told her, every single lie he’s been telling her since she was a kid, makes her believe that this is fundamentally wrong.
I think it’s also significant where this takes place. Betty doesn’t wait for a private moment in either of their rooms. She doesn’t wait for privacy, for when they won’t be observed by others. It’s a place both of them presumably feel relatively safe in, but it’s a public place regardless. Public and private and the way the spheres used to be coded as male/female are central themes of the show, and the idea of women claiming space where they had none before, always creates tension. I’m still not sure if Betty thinks of herself as gay, necessarily – she thinks of herself as different, and realizes that the way she is different is problematic in the context of society and what is expected of her (and there are subtle hints that she moves fairly confidently in a certain underground subculture in Bringing Up Bombshell), but in the moment, when Kate tells her that singing is a way of expressing her feelings, the kiss isn’t about how she identifies as, it’s about Betty expressing her feelings, finally, publicly, for the person she loves, who happens to be a woman. Betty isn’t aware of how radical, in a way, this extremely personal moment is, because she’s completely caught up in it, and Kate is, too, but only for a bit, until her upbringing catches up with her.
There’s another dimension of the public/private dichotomy as well. All the characters strive towards a version of freedom that is extremely personal – Betty wants to be free to be herself and love who she wants, Kate wants to be free of the suffocating influence of her father, Gladys wants to be free to be equal to James in their marriage so as not to live the fake life her parents lead, Lorna craves things her marriage doesn’t provide any more that historically women weren’t allowed to claim for themselves – and yet, their struggles must take place in the public sphere. In order to be free individually, personally, they must enter into a political struggle for freedom. I love how this conflict also takes place with Gladys’ parents. On one level, they are concerned that their daughter’s decision to work on the floor of the factory rather than the more respectable offices will undermine her chances of marrying James (who has known about the whole thing since the start). On the other hand, on a much more personal level, they fear to lose their only remaining child in a not too unlikely accident.
The struggle is something these characters share, but there are significant differences between them, one of which becomes the decisive cleavage in the episode. Lorna learns that she is pregnant, and in this moment of desperation, of fearing that her marriage and life will be over because there is nothing she can do, Gladys’ mother, with an agenda of her own, offers her a deal. In exchange for firing Gladys and solving their conundrum of how to extract their precious daughter from the situation and not having her blame them for it, she offers to pay for the education of Lorna’s daughter – who strives to be a nurse, but, as Mrs Witham points out, “That’s the problem with you people. You think too small. If your daughter’s drawn to medicine, why be a nurse if you can be a physician?” The scene mirrors the one in the premiere, when Lorna came by to deliver Gladys’ ring to their mansion, because both women are painfully aware of the class difference, of the fact that they could never be friends – that a plot like the one Mrs Witham suggests is oddly the only way they will ever meet, because there are no other connections between them. The idea of class also appears in Gladys’ struggle, since many of the things that she wants – to live with James before they are married, to throw conventions to the wind – are possible for middle and lower class women now, but not for her, not for “our kind of people”, as James puts it.
The whole scene is utterly brilliant. They are crossing lines (which Gladys also does by working the factory floor!), they are, in a way, navigating a hostile territory that they don’t know yet, trying to figure out the vocabulary and what they can offer and demand, and the similarity they find is their mutual love for their children.
In a way, Lorna and Mrs Witham are both fiercely protective of their daughters, and they use the little power they have – Lorna, the anonymous pregnancy test and the fact that society frowns upon unmarried pregnant women, Mrs Witham the power and influence of her family – to shape the future that they want for them (in Lorna’s case, it’s a future her daughter actually wants, in Mrs Witham’s, not so much, but the intention is the same). Mrs Witham knows what to offer, she knows that this is the one thing Lorna can’t refuse because she realizes that just like herself, Lorna would do anything for her daughter. Only it corrupts Lorna, but she’s never really accepted Gladys precisely because from her perspective, Gladys lives in a world of choices that aren’t open to the other girls. After the plan is hatched, Gladys also gives Lorna ample reason to see her in a negative light: she asks for a day off to get married, which results in an interesting conversation about marriage (Lorna warns her because she fears that Gladys will end up in a marriage that resembles her own without knowing that Gladys knows about that fear, that her struggle is about avoiding that very situation by not marrying a stranger, by demanding to be seen as an equal to him).
Gladys: We’re in love.
Lorna: You’re too young to know your own heart. When you get married you have to put your family first. From what I saw of your father’s visit it didn’t seem you were ready to do that.
Gladys: James is nothing like my father.
Lorna: Not yet. But the man who proposes, he’s not the man you marry. They change.
Gladys: I don’t need your permission.
Lorna: I think marriage won’t make you free. It won’t solve your problems. Trust me.
Gladys: Mrs Corbett. I’m sorry, if you hate your life. You ever think that I may have a better one?
Lorna: Take the day, Gladys. Make it special.
And then she brings Vera to the stencil line where she experiences a traumatic flashback and freaks out, endangering the entire factory. When Lorna finally does take the pregnancy test that is now bearing Gladys’ name to Mr Akins, it’s a bitter moment, and one Lorna rues immediately, because she knows that buying a better future for her daughter at that price is immoral, but she does it nevertheless. She takes away the one thing that is more important than anything else for “girls like” Gladys, her good reputation, and in the process, destroys that new thing too, the job that has given her the freedom and the ability to see eye-to-eye with her fiancé. All the things that have come with working the factory floor, the feelings that Gladys learned to express – what Lorna does here is such a tiny thing, but it’s completely destructive act against everything that Gladys is, which would be hard to forgive if it wasn’t for her immediate remorse (“I’m a horrible person. The things I’ve done, the awful things. I deserve this. I thought it was finally my turn. I’d get my life. Now it’s over.”), for the fact that we see both perspectives (and the horrible, horrible fact that sometimes, this freedom the characters want for themselves is bought at the expense of other women).
Then, Pearl Harbor happens. Lorna tells Bob that she needs more than just words, and they sleep with each other. Marco can’t be the father of the child, so he won’t be.
James and Gladys
Pearl Harbor happens. James returns as a soldier, ready to fight.
James: All I could think was, now it’s our fight too.
Gladys: So you let them recruit you?
James: You always wanted me in this war, Gladys.
Gladys: That was before I knew what war was. You said it yourself, you can do more on the home front. We’re all fighting hard.
James: But we’re not winning. They wanna come at us, I’m gonna come right back at them.
Gladys: James, I’m not looking for a hero.
James: When this war is over, could you love me if I was the one man that never fought?
Gladys: It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
It’s the personal and the public again, and the intersection between the two. James needs to go off and prove himself, the parents jump at the opportunity to shape the earlier wedding into what they want it to be (to get rid of the pregnancy rumours), and everything Gladys ever wanted slips away. The only way to reclaim her relationship and not have it turn into a public event, a showcase of something that her mother needs to prove to an unseen audience, is to do away with public events entirely. They drive out into the country, swear their own private vows, and part as equals, fighting their own fights.
Gladys: We are doing this for the wrong reasons, James.
James: The reason is that I love you, gumdrop.
Gladys: You’re not gonna have me. You’ll be god-knows where and it may change how you feel.
James: What’s important it won’t.
Gladys: If that’s true then we have nothing to worry about. I know that you will need something to hold on to over there. As long as you want it, you’ll have it. I promise to love, honour and write you daily.
James: And I vow to have and to hold on to my limbs.
Gladys: I’ll keep my nose clean and your powder dry.
James: In trenches and in stealth.
Gladys: Till peace do us re-join. I’ll be good.
James: Don’t be good. Be amazing. We need stories to tell each other when we’re old and grey.
Vera’s story is also complicated: she’s someone who has constantly been defined and defined herself by her looks, which she has now lost due to the horrid accident in the factory. She decides to return to her parents, a defeat because it would mean admitting that she is nothing but her looks, and therefore nothing without them. Betty rails against the notion (interestingly, because she too struggles against perceptions and expectations about appearance), Marco tells her she is much more than that, even Lorna talks to her; and finally she does decide to stay – but she realizes on her first day back at the factory that she won’t be able to work the floor, and the very same class differences that stand between Gladys and the assembly line are working against Vera, because despite her qualifications, she can’t work in the office.
“They say all cats look grey in the dark. What do you think, Mr Akins? Do all cats look grey?”
All the different kinds of power. Some of them are only gained now by women, in struggles, while others have mastered the one thing traditionally assigned to them to an impressive degree (Mrs Witham and her incredible schemes!), and Vera reclaims the one that she thought she’d lost: she seduces Akins to move up, to transcend the class division between office and factory floor.
Kate and Betty
And then there is Kate, who first thinks she is haunted by ghosts until the very real monster steps out of the shadows and immediately starts working away on her mind, subtly hinting that she is responsible for her mother’s illness, blaming her for all the things she’s been doing to remain free (the photos he tracked down – “evil ends require evil means”.) Charlotte Hegele is incredible in the scene, vulnerable, alone in the empty boarding house but trying so hard to stand up to her father, and then, Betty appears and instinctively puts herself between Kate and her father, fending him off, at least for the moment.
Then Pearl Harbor happens, and Kate practices a song with Leon – “Nothing lasts forever out with the old and in with the new. Be careful what you long for it might just come true.” – and already considers forgiving her father because he is so sorry for what he did, and Leon reminds her that “words are easy, it’s a man’s actions you gotta pay attention to”. Kate immediately recognizes the sentiment – “You’re just like Betty”. She recognizes something she likes in Betty in Leon. It’s just one sentence, one tiny realization, that makes it clear how much Kate cherishes Betty, but she’s just at the beginning of the process. And Betty is still apprehensive and always lurking in the background, checking, but she also respects Leon for what he is and does, because clearly he is a stand-up guy, a good guy, and his hands always remain far removed from Kate so he’s fine.
Leon walks away, Betty sits down, Kate tells Betty that she “used to sing to feel something. Now it’s more like I feel something and I sing.” – and they are so at ease with each other, the way Kate immediately kneads Betty’s shoulder (still sore from the incident at the factory, earlier – “when I saw those projectiles swinging at you, my heart stopped”), their general closeness. All these things Kate sometimes says without really thinking about it, because they are true, because she feels them. Calling Betty a hero, “just the people who matter”, the strange way in which all her songs seem to be directed at her, so of course Betty kisses her hand (the hand that her father crushed in the very first scene we saw her in), but she misunderstands Kate’s “I like you too, Betty”. Kate doesn’t expect Betty to kiss her, because she’s not there yet, and I’ve been thinking about whether Betty should have realized this (maybe, not that it’s not entirely understandable that she doesn’t). The worst thing happens, is inevitable really.
Kate: What are you doing?
Betty: Well you said…
Kate: What do you think I am?
Betty: Nothing. I’m sorry, it’s stupid, I thought…
Kate: That’s disgusting and if you can’t see that then you’re disgusting too.
The “What do you think I am” gets me every time. It’s everything her father ever told her – it’s not “who”. It’s some dehumanized idea of evil and sin (they’ve prayed for her mother but she’s been getting sicker, god sees everything), and Betty has inadvertently played right into Kate’s father’s arguments. He comes back, but now, the one person who stood between him and Kate has lost all her power.
Betty: You keep your claws out of your daughter, or I’ll see to it you can’t walk straight.
Vernon: You think I can’t see the sin inside of you?
Betty: You’ve got no right barging in here.
Kate: Yes, he does.
Betty: I’ve seen your scars, I know he put them there.
Kate: My name’s Marion.
Betty: You have a new life here.
Kate: What kind of life? I make things that kill people. I debase god’s gift. I sing and dance of sin. I drink, smoke, consort with deviants.
Betty: You’re free.
Kate: I was seduced. And now I want my family back.
The woman who walked out of the room has empty eyes; Marion is only a shadow of Kate. It’s a shocking portrayal of a woman who was brainwashed by a man who knows exactly how to control her, how to take away everything she has built up for herself. Kate comes back for a moment when Betty says “Don’t leave, I love you” – when Betty calls her Kate, she’s Kate, but Vernon has the power to make her go away, and in the end, Kate protects Betty, because her father doesn’t shy away from physically assaulting Betty, who is fighting tooth and claws (at one point, she puts herself between the two to keep Betty from harm). Kate leaves.
Betty stays behind, shell-shocked from the events, and the first thing she does – the next day, because the factory is still standing, and what else does she have now, is decide to trust Gladys with her secret.
Betty: You hair looks like a rat’s nest.
Gladys: Can’t close the damn rag top. And James enlisted. He left this morning
Betty: What about the wedding?
Gladys: We decided to run on promises. What happened to you?
Betty: Kate left. I don’t know where and that’s the way she wants it.
Gladys: Oh dear.
Betty: My secret’s out, princess.
Gladys: I know the feeling. We’re still standing.
Betty: Barely. What about Kate? She’s back where she said she’d never go.
Gladys: I’ll help you find her, make sure she’s okay. You’ll help me get my job back.
Betty: The big promise. That we might actually get the things we want. What if it’s a lie?
Gladys: Can’t stop trying. Come on, Betts. We’ve got a war to win.
HOLD ON TO YOUR TONSILS, PRINCESS.
Full circle within six episodes: Princess started as this derogatory term for the upper class girl surely too frail to last in the factory, but it’s become a term of endearment between Betty and Gladys. It’s lovely. Their friendship is one of my favourite things about the show.
Gladys on her first time with James: “It is not the chore mother says it is”.
Betty: Hey there, Jesse.
Carol: The name is Carol.
Betty: You’re Jesse Owens to us now.
Kate: Vic Mu’s greatest springer.
Carol: I’ll see you later. I think.
Gladys: Oh Carol, it means they like you!
It’s fun, but also an interesting moment that showcases that Gladys fully belongs and Carol, still the office girl, doesn’t.
When Gladys tells Kate and Betty about the wedding plans, KATE is the one who brings up the whole “that’s a steep price to pay to walk away from your family” thing (and there’s a tiny moment where we see Betty’s reaction, her “you of all people should understand” face). That’s Kate’s conflict, especially after her first encounter with her father – she wants this freedom, she knows she needs it, but all the lies and the manipulation also make her believe, deep-down, that she is responsible for her mother’s illness.
So much happens in the episode, and a really emotional moment on the sidelines is when Skip, Edith’s son, asks Bob if his father died, and Bob can’t deal with lying to him anymore, and then he gives him all the broken tin soldiers he’s kept all these years to play with (and Edith, when accepting his apology, accidentally reveals to him that Lorna is pregnant, which might be important in the next season?)
“Anything’s possible, Sheila. We just have to be smart about it.”
The second season starts shooting in August and I’m afraid won’t air until early next year?
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