Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Bomb Girls - When we’re finally safe, it’s okay to stop fighting.

Bomb Girls: 2x04 Guests of Honour. 

One of the themes of this season especially, even though there were moments in season one as well, is how the war reaches the “home front”, the workers who are building the bombs that are then used in a war taking place elsewhere. There’s always a sense of actual danger drawing nearer, but the combats haven’t reached Canadian soil. So far, the closest the war has come is through the radio news reports (also providing the live coverage of hockey games – the show does such a great job of portraying normal life resuming nevertheless) and through returning soldiers, the most immediate source of information. 
Guests of Honour introduces another connection to the war: while the Corbetts enjoy the return of one of their sons, a news reporter announces that three German prisoners of war have escaped from a camp. None of the characters have ever seen or spoken to a German soldier; not even Sergeant Eugene Corbett has, his deployment as a gunner on an airplane means that his targets are always far away and he is detached from the actual effects of his attacks – “The only good Nazi is a bad Nazi”, he says before, except it turns out that this is a different story when the enemy is unarmed and he has to look him in the eye before killing him. 
Gene comes back from battle full of stories about bravery and debauchery, none of which come particularly handy in an air raid survival skills seminar, but he does manage to charm some of the present workers. There is a beautiful parallel here between James’ absolute terror in the face of having to go into battle in contrast to Gene’s nonchalance about it. James is worried about how war and killing will change him, about the responsibility for other people’s lives, Gene returns seemingly unchanged from the carefree boy he used to be, except harnessed with even more confidence. 
The episode is interested in Gene’s own development, but he plays a more important role as a catalyst for other characters, I think. There’s Kate, who sees him speak about his adventures in London (the same adventures that Gladys worries James is currently having) and just like with Ivan and Betty, the wheels in her head start turning. She flirts with him – observed by Gladys, Betty and Vera, all weirdly fascinated and upset over it at the same time (Betty for obvious reasons, Vera because it’s so terribly awkward) – and invites him to party at the boarding house. I think it’s significant that Betty and Gladys never actually hear what Kate tells Leon – Leon, who invited her to join the choir – she never gets quite as explicit with them, except for a small moment with Gladys. 
Kate: In the last couple of months you missed a lot.
Leon: I missed less than you think. Something hurt you. I’m not asking for details, I’m just offering you a place to set your heart right.
Kate: I can’t sing anymore. My father, he wrung it out of me.
Leon: If I couldn’t sing, I wouldn’t know how to find comfort in this world.
Kate: I need something stronger than singing to comfort me now.
Leon: You’re not gonna find it in a bottle.
Kate: I’m flirting with another solution later tonight. Thanks anyway, Leon. Thanks for everything.
Leon: Careful you don’t hurt yourself, church mouse. Take care of yourself.
She can no longer find comfort in song, because her father destroyed it for her, he turned it into something disgusting with his words. And she is literally flirting with another solution tonight, but it all goes terribly wrong once Gene asks her to sing, and has no way of reading the expression of utter desperation on her face when she tries and fails. As unlikeable as Gene is throughout the episode, there is also a sense of two profoundly traumatized characters dealing with their grief in completely different ways – Gene by drinking and partying, creating this illusion that Kate so desperately wants to believe in, because maybe if she acts like everything’s normal long enough, it will eventually become true (but then there’s her face when he asks her to sing a song with him and it becomes impossible, acting like everything’s normal, and her voice breaks). Gladys realizes that Kate needs help to get out of the situation and steps in, but Kate will later read all of this wrong, because the reason why Gladys steps in, takes over for her to spare her the emotional torment, is one of the many things they will never be able to discuss openly. And Betty isn’t there, so Gladys automatically assumes the role of protector. 
Kate misunderstands, naturally, once she witnesses Gene and Gladys talking privately. Gene has the unsettling ability to realize things about others (something he can’t really apply to himself), and he realizes Gladys’ struggle with her father the moment he recognizes her from the cans. 
Gene: You work in the plant, you are playing some funny game, huh. These other girls, they need the money. What do you need? To make time with things that go boom.
Gene: How does that sit with you?
Gladys: What do you think? Do you believe what you’re selling?
Gene: I don’t even know what I’m selling.
Gladys: That makes two of us.
They are both tasked by others to sell the war; Gene to get others to buy war bonds, Gladys as the face of the rations that the soldiers get. And both of them are not entirely sure of what they’re doing (James never understood this doubt, his fears about the war are different from Gladys’). Kate overhears them and misunderstands the nature of their shared intimacy. 
Gladys: Nothing happened.
Kate: Thanks to the air raid sirens ruining your moment.
Gladys: I’ve been fighting off Gene all night.
Kate: Poor Gladys, endlessly fighting off men.
Gladys: Something happened to you, Kate, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with Eugene Corbett. You’re not yourself anymore
Kate: My father..
Gladys: Has gone. So what are you afraid of?
Kate: Everything.
Her father is dead but he still appears in his dreams; he's gone, but he managed to take the one thing with him that meant more to her than everything else. He's gone, but the police know about a blonde woman who got into a fight with him right before he died. He's dead, and she's marked as different, she doesn't feel the way she thinks she's supposed to feel, and no amount of acting is helping. 

The blackout drill creates an artificial situation that forces the characters to confront each other and their own feelings and fears in a way that they never before had to. At the Corbetts, Sheila finally voices her anger over never having anything of her own, in spite of always doing the right thing – her brother gets a party that he isn’t even there for and her date doesn’t even get a meal because Gene is meant to carve the roast. Gene traps himself with the girls at the bomb factory, unintentionally causing Kate to realize that this is just another thing that doesn’t help her to escape from her feelings, and Gladys that there are a lot of unspoken things between her and James. Betty finds herself literally caged with one of the escaped German POWs, in the cellar of the factory, engaged in a physical fight until their struggle turns into something else entirely. 
There is a consequence to having secret knowledge about things that others know nothing about, to having gone through experiences that nobody else shares. Gene is the only person at dinner and in the factory to have experienced the war directly, and that makes him a stranger, an other. Kate feels completely alone in her reaction to her father’s death, and is unable to articulate the terrible effects his abuse has had on her – her attempts to communicate her experiences are always cut short, like with Leon and Gladys in this episode. The German soldier is other by nature, a stranger in Canada, escaped from a prison camp, but he detects something in Betty that he recognizes and clings to it. The episode never really makes it clear whether the story she tells him about hiding being German in fear of being sent to a camp is true – if this is a burden that she carries, or something that her family has buried years ago, that has no effects on them now that they carry a different name. This is the story she tells: her grandmother came over to Canada, and the family started to hide during WW1, in fear of camps and angry mobs, a fear that never subsided and is new renewed; except more profoundly, this whole exchange gives Betty a chance to talk about something else entirely without ever saying it out loud. I think what Betty is doing in this situation is communicating her fear of being found out as gay, the fear that has been with her ever since Vernon sent that letter. She tells him that they would treat her no differently from him if they ever found out, but this applies to both her German roots and her being gay. Betty McRae is talking about her specific otherness to someone who doesn’t matter, a complete stranger, an alien, someone in a more precarious situation than she is in, and the whole thing is a struggle for survival (they are trapped in a cage together, grasping for weapons, pleading with each other, coming to terms). The soldier understands her absolute terror and alienation, even though he never finds out the source. 
Betty realizes that she can’t ask Gene for help, because Gene would kill the soldier, and Betty doesn’t want him dead. She makes the choice – to have him returned to a war camp but not killed, because they are not the same, her otherness is different from his. 

But it gives Gene a chance to see eye to eye with the enemy rather than just regarding him from a safe distance, and it changes everything for him. He hesitates after the third blow, right before he’d make the choice of killing him, and then Betty stops him – and it’s written on his face, that he recognized something in the face of the enemy that he never thought he’d find there, and it scares him to death, and it changes everything about the future, about the way he will face the war from now on. 
Bob: He’s as selfish and as stubborn as he was when he was a little boy.
Lorna: I loved that little boy so much, but he’s always done what he wanted when he wanted and I let him.
Bob: We let him.
Lorna: Everything’s gone so wrong. I used to think I was a good mother.
Bob: You are. You are. No one can predict what war will do to a man.
Gene returns home late at night, after the party is long over, and Bob tells him he hurt his mother by disappearing, and the next morning, he repairs the drapes that Minnie Akins destroyed, but everything’s changed from the morning before, from the sunlit scene in the kitchen and everyone’s excitement over having him back. He’ll start to see people whenever he shoots someone. 

“Wir können uns nicht für immer verstecken”, says the German soldier to Betty, right before he’s taken away. We can’t hide forever.  The moment that Kate realizes that Betty was in danger is when everything else becomes less important, the entire scene between Gladys and Gene is immediately forgotten. She takes her up to her room to bandage her room – the same intimacy they shared before everything changed. 
Kate: He might have killed you. He said something to you.
Betty: He told me none of us can hide forever.
Kate: We do what we have to. To survive.
Betty: But when we’re finally safe, it’s okay to stop fighting.
It’s impossible to describe in words what both of their faces look like in this moment. Betty is making a promise and hoping she’ll be able to keep it, because she would give her life to make this true – Kate is safe now. Kate is finally hearing something that gives her the voice back that she thought she’d lost – this promise of safety and freedom from someone she loves. Kate goes and sings, and lays down her burden, at least for now. 

Random notes: 

Meanwhile, Vera writes an article about Veronica Lake’s hair and wants it to be published in the employees’ newsletter (apparently, her hair cut marries elegance with safety and is ideal for factory girls – “it’s close to my scalp”, says Vera), but Carol, editor of the newsletter, has been feeling threatened by Vera for months now and takes this as a chance to shut her down. She later tries to invite Gladys to a meeting of some upper class club of women who make packages for soldiers on the front, but Gladys doesn’t have time, so Vera takes the opportunity and invites herself into this new social circle – and, realizing that their way of packing the parcels is highly inefficient, proposes a solution akin to working in a factory, which gains her the praise and admiration of Mrs Beaverton, one of the most respected members of the circle, but ridicule and contempt from everybody else, especially once she reveals that she is not “one of them” (and Carol, eager to protect her position, takes the lead in alienating her), so she leaves, except it turns out that being smart and actually attempting to use that intelligence for a good purpose sometimes does pay off: Carol receives a reprimand, Vera a bouquet of flowers. 

The thing about Guests of Honour is that I spent most of the episode being incredibly annoyed about Gene until I realized what they were doing; with Bob warning about what’s really inevitable, because he knows what’s coming, he realizes that his son hasn’t yet fully understood what he’s become part of (“War doesn’t always have to break a man.”, says Lorna, hopeful, “Eugene’s war isn’t over yet”, responds Bob), and then the utterly perfect and horrible final shot of Gene, looking so much like his father that Lorna needs to take a step back. It’s a different story when the people you kill have a face, and look so much more normal and less like monsters than you expected. “You’re better careful what you wish for, son.”

The scene when Gene gets twitchy and nervous after he knows he’s trapped with these people discussing the war gets me every time – the thought of sitting still and reflecting on his experience is so terrifying that he has to get up, steal the whiskey and leave, he can’t bear the thought of being around people he knows. This is such a great portrayal of someone traumatized by war but trying his best to hide it.

Bob just helping Lorna while she frantically prepares the great party by mashing the potatoes is the greatest thing. “Lift and turn” Bob, she wants them mushy!!


The most hilarious scene of the episode (apart from Minnie Corbett getting absolutely wasted at the party thanks to the neighbour) is Marco approaching Gene after his talk at the factory and fanboying him in front of Lorna with the sincerity of a 12-year old at a Star Trek convention. He's just a co-worker!!

There should be an entire essay about how lovely the random intimacy between Betty and Gladys is – the way Betty looks over Gladys’ shoulder to read James’ card, the mere fact that they have things like regular card games (and their shared immediate dislike of Gene, and Gladys’ instinctual protectiveness once she realizes that Kate is getting involved that I’m pretty sure is both for Kate and for Betty’s sake). 
Gladys: Shakespeare called this a nipping and eager air.
Betty: Yeah? Well, my dad calls this freezing the balls off a brass monkey.
Gladys initially dislikes Gene because he stands for everything she fears James is up to in London, but once she realizes that Betty is upset over Kate’s interest in him, she totally adds that to her list of annoyances as well. 


Gladys’ “There’s no dignity for carrying a torch for a girl that doesn’t love you back.” seems so significant considering she is speaking about Ivan – I kind of love that the show leaves it open how much Gladys knows about Kate and Betty, but I’m fairly convinced that Gladys wouldn’t have said this if she thought that this also applied to them? My guess would be that Gladys knows, and that she’s pretty sure that it isn’t impossible that Kate feels the same way about Betty. But then there’s also “Ivan just needs space and time. Just keep a distance until his feelings diminish and then maybe you can be friends again.”  I JUST DON’T KNOW. I’m not sure if this is Gladys’ attempt to talk about Kate with Betty by pretending to talk about Ivan. 

Betty: I believe she’s trying to flirt.
Vera: is that what they call that.
Betty regards all of this with this absolutely heartbreaking mixture of fascination and abject terror and I for one completely identify with this. 
Gladys: I wouldn’t have imagined those two together.
Betty: You and me both.
Lorna and upstairs neighbour with booze cackling about Minnie Akins cabbage pudding or whatever that green thing was is awesome. “THE WAR DEPARTMENT’S ASKING FOR OLD RUBBER!”

Sheila Corbett invites the lovely doctor she is currently sort-of dating to Lorna’s dinner except Lorna completely freaks out because he is the one guy who knows she had a miscarriage (even though he has no way of knowing it’s the result of an affair). She treats him (and her daughter) abominably. I think that’s maybe the point of the title – the real guest of honour is absent, getting drunk with people he never met before, while the person who saved her life goes home with an empty stomach without ever blaming her for it. 

Both Gladys and Betty share intimate details of their lives with strangers, because sometimes that’s easier than talking to people who know you (because there are no consequences). 


(Betty’s “Speak for yourself” is giving me a headache though – I wonder if that last bit between her and Kate meant that Kate is safe now that her father is dead but Betty will never be safe, not for years, and has every intention to stay right where she is?)


Anonymous said...

This was great.
I hope you don't mind but I linked this from my tumblr again
-LadyCanuck :)

Anonymous said...

Ms. Cellar Door, I came upon your post randomly, and I have to say this is the most incisive and fantastic summation of what I aim to do every week . In short, you are picking up what we're putting down. Thanks for enjoying us so intelligently. — M MacLennan

cathy leaves said...

@LadyCanuck: Thank you so much for linking. I've only recently started following you on tumblr and I really enjoy reading all your thoughts on the show.