Monday 7 January 2013

Bomb Girls - Don’t go telling me where my goddamn heart is.

Bomb Girls: 2x01 The Quickening. 

Kai Low: You straddle two worlds long enough, you end up nowhere. 
Gladys stands beside her co-workers, all dressed in their uniform, except she is in her best gown, observing her parents striking deals with the Red Cross, and realizes that she can’t be both. Lorna goes from Marco back home to the apartment she shares with her husband and spends hours staring at the herbs that will decide the future of her marriage, her future. Vera feels alienated in the office job she fought so hard to get and at home with the girls down at the floor. Betty realizes what being exposed would mean for her future in the factory and her dream of buying her very own house, and suddenly a male co-worker looks at her in a way she recognizes and the wheels start turning in her head. And Kate Andrews, barely recognizable, with a new tone in her voice and an incredible anger and fierceness, suddenly finds herself no longer trapped between two worlds, but the cost of breaking free is incredibly high. 
The episode is about moments were decisions are made, it captures the characters at turning points that aren’t necessarily facilitated by massive events (obviously, sometimes they are). For Gladys, the decisive thing seems to be the look in the other girls’ eyes when they realize that they are the staff at a party that is all about Gladys Witham’s face. For Lorna, it’s feeling the baby move for the first time, a moment she doesn’t share with anyone, and yet it feels like it’s the first time that she is at peace in the entire episode.  For Betty, it’s an escalation from small moments to big events so overwhelming that she seems utterly unable to process her complicated feelings at the end of the episode, because sometimes getting what you want has difficult consequences. 
Bomb Girls has always been about shared experiences and the strength that the characters derive from tackling issues together, but one of my favourite storylines in The Quickening features one of the strongest scenes in which two characters overcome isolation to communicate about a taboo and ultimately help each other. Lorna realizes that she can no longer pretend her pregnancy isn’t happening because Bob is starting to notice signs that he recognizes from previous pregnancies. She overhears a conversation in the factory that references the rumours she spread about Gladys Witham and mentions a place in the bad part of town where abortions are performed. Vera offers to go with her when she pretends to check the place out for some girl at the factory who is pregnant. At some point as Lorna talks to the woman there and has to accept that she isn’t just going to walk out with the mixture of herbs without ever having to reveal her identity, Vera just knows that Lorna is asking for herself. They aren’t really friends – Lorna doesn’t seem to have any friends, really. They aren’t in any position to talk openly and honestly about Lorna’s pregnancy. So Vera does the kind thing and explains in detail how it works (revealing that she knows; that she’s probably been here before), without ever forcing Lorna to admit to anything (“And… that girl. Tell her not to be afraid. Because she’s the one who has to live with it, whichever way it goes.”) She shares her own experience, and gives Lorna the bravery to go back there and be examined and leave with the herbs she’ll need to save her old life, her marriage, if she so chooses. 
One of the ways in which the women in this show (in this time, in this place) are being trapped in impossible situations is by isolating them from each other, by making issues that apply to women taboo and impossible to talk about, so that whenever one of them faces the issue, they are entirely alone. It creates a distance, an alienation. It happens with Gladys and Betty when Lorna asks Betty about a letter that Akins received from Kate’s father, accusing her of trying to seduce his daughter, asking for her to be fired. Betty can’t tell Gladys, because as close as they have grown, they haven’s explicitly discussed what happened between Betty and Kate, and Betty isn’t even close to being out to Gladys, even though it’s obvious from Gladys’ reaction to everything that happens between Betty and Ivan in the episode that she knows (but again, because of reasons, can’t openly acknowledge it). Their relationship is incredibly fascinating to me, because Gladys somehow manages to be supportive and tries to convey that they could talk about this if only Betty wanted without ever being explicit, saying the words. 
Gladys’ own isolation is more profoundly about class – her parents live in a different world than she does, and they operate differently, match Gladys’ idealism with opportunism. They sort of support her work in the factory now that it is paying off and plays well into the ad campaign for their new product line (“They figured out what side the Witham’s bread is buttered on” says Gladys) – food for the soldiers, “At Witham’s we’re with ‘em”, featuring their daughter in her uniform. Gladys constantly underestimates how far her parents are willing to go for a profit margin, and part of her journey in the episode is finding a strategy to match them, to beat them at their own game. It’s pointless to remind them of their patriotic duty, or even to tell them the grim stories she’s just heard from the Chinese-American interpreter that put an end to any romantic conception of heroism in war times, so instead, she hits them where it hurts – she forces them to donate more money than they want, and robs them of the opportunity to use the charity event to their own advantage. 
An episode about strategies… like Betty, who panics after Mr Rowley’s letter, and sees an opportunity to counteract the rumours by going on a date with Ivan, a bright eyed factory worker. If it weren’t so incredibly sad to see Betty cornered, the way the decision forms in her head is almost comical. He holds her, she is asked about him by random factory girls and further encouraged by the fact that Gladys insists she isn’t “that kind of girl” (because being “that kind of girl” would solve all her problems, which is a beautiful throwback to that conversation with Kate in Bringing Up Bombshell, about sometimes wanting things to be easy). Then during the actual date it turns out that he isn’t all that bad, he would probably make a pretty good friend, and she feels comfortable enough around him to tell him about her big dream (and to burp). 
Ivan: I’ve seen you, you take pride in your work. What are you gonna do with all that money you’re making?
Betty: Truth? Buy a house. My own house.
Ivan: A house?
Betty: You don’t think I’m cracked?
Ivan: I think girls like you are going to be running this place before the war’s over.
But being comfortable around someone isn’t the same as being attracted to them. Gladys tries to intervene, and she obviously has good intentions but she also doesn’t quite understand – to her defence she can’t, because Betty never told her about the letter, but there is also an argument to be made that she is privileged, that she doesn’t truly grasp the extent of Betty’s predicament because this isn’t her own struggle. 
Betty: I don’t need a rescue, Ivan’s great.
Gladys: Really? You mean that? Betty, aren’t you leading him on?
Betty: Why would you say that?
Gladys: You telling me your heart’s in this?
Betty: This is what girls do. They date boys. And they don’t get arrested, and they keep their jobs, and they don’t have the whole bloody world thinking they’re deviant freaks.
Gladys: Betts, I never…
Betty: No, you didn’t. So don’t go telling me where my goddamn heart is.
“This is what girls do”, which also means, “this is what you do”. They live in a world where they can’t openly discuss it, and there is no way that Gladys could understand the pressure and fear and sheer misery of living this particular lie. Gladys is kind and understanding but Betty is in no position to accept any of that kindness, it doesn’t help her in the least. Being with Ivan might. Taking him to her boarding room so that the other girls start gossiping about her might, even if it takes all these rapidly downed drinks. I’m not sure if Lorna’s experience in the episode was meant to mirror Betty’s, but it’s a beautiful coincidence. For centuries, women were oppressed because society kept them from communicating their experiences and attached so much shame to all of it, but now that these women are coming together in the factory, in a new context, things are starting to change. But they are changing more for some of them and less for others. Gladys isn’t the one helping Betty in the episode – actually, nobody is. Ivan doesn’t take advantage of her and leaves before anything can happen, but the thing that draws Betty back, that forces her to make a choice, is that she can’t escape her feelings for Kate. There is almost a sense of haunting when she starts hearing Kate’s singing on the street (only because she couldn’t catch a taxi, only because Gladys had the idea of the fundraiser at her home and invited all the factory girls). Betty has probably imagined this moment again and again over the past three months, she’s taken walks to search for her every day, but there’s a cruel twist almost immediately: Kate breaks out in a terrible, fierce sermon of hatred, “You cannot hide your sinfulness from the Lord, forsake your wickedness”, all the words her father taught her so well. Vernon confronts Betty, and the heart-breaking thing she says to him, to counter his arguments, is “I have a boyfriend now”. The thing that makes the difference though is when Betty mentions the letter he wrote to the factory, because there seems to be this moment when Kate realizes that she’s done everything that was asked of her, she left her new life behind, she returned to the man who tortured her, and still, somehow, she is wrecking Betty’s life from the distance. That sermon of hatred doesn’t come from genuine belief, but she put all her hatred and anger of her father into it, the man who doesn’t let her see her mother (Is she in a sanatorium? Did she leave? Did she die?) and dragged her away and is now threatening the life of someone she loves. Betty only walks away from the situation when Kate tells her that he will “hurt her, or worse”, because she’s beyond caring about her own safety. And this is when the world starts to fail Betty McRae, because what is supposed to happen here is that she goes to Gladys, and they would both manage to bring Kate to safety, two against one, but Gladys can’t leave her own party, and she doesn’t understand why Betty is so anxious because part of that story that would explain why Kate is in such danger Betty couldn’t share. She couldn’t tell Gladys that Kate left because Betty tried to kiss her. She couldn’t tell Gladys that the argument Vernon made against her, against Kate’s new freedom, was Betty’s behaviour. 
Betty: We gotta save her once and for all.
Gladys: Save her?
Betty: Yeah, she’ll listen to you. You’ve got a way of handling these things.
Gladys: Except I’ve been ambushed here. I can’t leave these girls now. I have to say a speech. Can’t we go tomorrow?
Betty: Tomorrow she’ll be long gone. Please.
Gladys: Kate is a grown woman, surely if she wanted to leave, she could.
Betty: No, she can’t. You could, if you wanted to.
Gladys: Betty, wait.
Betty: I can’t believe this is how you treat your friends.
Gladys: That’s not fair.
Betty: Fair? You said you’d help.
Gladys: I have to stay the course and play my part.
Betty: I see they are playing you right back.
Gladys’ straddling two worlds, the one of her parents that comes with so many comforts and privileges, and the other one that has genuine friends and people she trusts, and these two worlds are utterly contradictory, because Mrs Witham treats her friends like staff and the expectations in her keep her from doing the more important thing in the situation. She makes up her mind a heartbeat too late. 

Is this where we start talking about Kate Andrews? The broken promises of three months, the fact that Vernon kept her from her mother, one of the main reasons why she returned in the first place (this accusation that her behaviour, her freedom, contributed to her sickness), the “land of milk and honey” that does not exist, and will never exist anywhere with him. Betty comes to rescue her but in a way, she is already too late, because Kate is forever changed. 
Betty: Please let me help you.
Vernon: I gave my daughter life, you will not destroy it.
Betty: It’s nothing but lies that you tell her.
Kate: Mom’s not sick in the hospital, is she?
Vernon: This Jezebel has filled you with poison.
Kate: She left, she couldn’t stand it anymore.
Vernon: Do you want the truth? Do you want the truth? Your mother is dead. And I am all that you have.
Kate: No. No, you’re lying.
Vernon: Marion, it was to protect you.
Kate: You lied to me just so that I’d stay with you.
Vernon: It was so you wouldn’t suffer.
Kate: Living with you is misery, every day of it.
Vernon: You shut it.
Kate: No, I won’t shut it.
It happens quickly, Vernon chases Betty, Kate runs after them, and somehow, Vernon ends up falling, and there’s no doubt that he’s dead immediately. Betty wants to get the police, but Kate has made up her mind. There isn’t a moment of hesitation, she’s so decisive; they cover him up, and leave together. Finally, “he seems so small”, and she doesn’t owe him a thing, because he has taken everything from her. 
And I like the last scene for the image alone, Gladys and Kate and Betty lying on the bed, smoking, so close together, but in a way, there is also a dark shadow clouding everything (Betty’s face, especially), because Betty had this romantic notion of rescuing Kate, and in the end, in a way, Kate rescued herself, and it wasn’t romantic at all; it was cold and terrible, and the secret they share now isn’t really the bond that Betty ever wanted (it’s that song again – “Be Careful What You Wish For”). Gladys asks Kate if she’s alright and safe, and Betty isn’t sure what the answer is. 

Random notes: 

On a less personal level (even though it is mostly shown through Gladys), the episode is about the war coming home, in a way, first with the false air raid warning that has the factory workers shivering in the shelter, then with the stories of how the Japanese treat POW, and Gladys’ realization of just what might be waiting for James once his officer’s training finishes (and of course when he tells her that the women working in Chinese bomb factories were killed in Japanese air raids). 

There is this heart-breaking moment after they’ve left the shelter, when Gladys tries to talk to Betty about looking for Kate and Betty sees that Lorna is there, Lorna who knows about the letter, and Betty just shuts down completely, like Vernon Rowley has finally managed to infiltrate the one relationship she felt confident in before and taken away her one safe spot. 
Lorna: It’s easy for vain and cruel girls to be cruel. You’re more capable than that whole knot of ninnies combined.
Vera: Thank you, mam.
This relationship was so unexpected but so beautifully written and acted.

In a smart tiny little juxtaposition, the first shot of Vera in the season is her applying a fake line to her calves that makes it seem like she’s wearing stockings (this is how she fits into the office, by faking it), and then there’s this shot of Mrs Witham’s legs when they are having breakfast with the same lines, except we all know she is wearing the real thing, since in a way this is the world that Vera is trying to break into (the world that Carol is part of, the person there who makes her feel so alienated). ALSO: 
Carol: This isn’t the back door.
Vera: You’re damn right.
There is also a really nice parallel between the way Gladys gets used for the ad campaign by her own parents and the way Betty’s image was distorted until it fit in Bringing Up Bombshell; in both cases they were robbed of their agency and their control over their own bodies for the benefit of someone else.
Carol: Look what the cat dragged in.
Betty: Shove it, powder puff.
I have a headcanon about Gladys and Betty going hat shopping and that ridiculous Robin Hood / Beauxbatons thing Betty was wearing throughout the episode was the compromise because what Gladys REALLY wanted Betty to buy was whatever that thing was she was wearing when she got the call from the Red Cross. 

Gladys not really consciously touching Betty’s vest on the bed is such a fantastic tiny detail – there is this unspoken intimacy between them despite the fact that they can’t talk about so many things, and Gladys has this really fantastic way of communicating that she understands, regardless? I can’t wait to see where all of this is going. 

No comments: