Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Bomb Girls - Your life should do more than just go on.

Bomb Girls: 2x03 The Enemy Within.

I’m always conflicted about the blunt way Bomb Girls executes themes in the episodes; on the one hand it’s very on-the-nose, very direct, and less subtle than it probably could be and would be in most other shows, on the other, it’s incredibly rewarding for me, both as a viewer and someone who writes (or at least, tries to write) about the episodes. 
The title is perfect for the episode. The driving dynamic of the show is how all these women struggle to balance their personal happiness and expectations from life with the demands of society, a society that is rapidly changing due to the war and is yet also influenced by conservative forces that insist that all these changes will be undone once the men return from the front. There are two aspects to this struggle: one is political, takes place in public, is about how our beloved characters perform in the factory, in the bars they go out to; the other is personal – how they behave in their relationships, with friends, family and lovers, but also more profoundly how they make decisions and think and feel when they are entirely on their own. The Enemy Within contains both aspects of the struggle but is more concerned with the personal side of things than the political one (even though the decisions made ultimately are political). It’s an episode about inner demons more than anything, an episode about how societal expectations wreak havoc in characters who find it impossible to follow them and still be happy, or even themselves. The Enemy Within is an episode about dignity, and about what happens to people when they are forcefully robbed of theirs (and the consequences of reclaiming it). 
There are three stories here, and each of them ends differently. Three months have passed since the beginning of the season, two since Lorna lost her child, and we get an impression of how the war effort escalates: rationings is about to go into effect, and both the factory girls and the media try to mobilize everyone who isn’t yet involved in the war effort. An impossible situation for Marco, who’s been trying again and again to sign up and keeps getting refused for his Italian heritage, and an equally Sisyphean task for Bob Corbett, because all the factory work is covered by women now, except the jobs that require heavy lifting. Both of Lorna’s men are desperate to contribute, because it’s what society expects of them, and both are constantly ridiculed and rejected for their efforts. For Bob, reclaiming his dignity ultimately means compromising and accepting work that he feels is beyond him, because it plays into the cliché of the “cripple on the corner” – but ultimately, his willingness to compromise and take over the newsstand from a friend leads to the only happy ending anyone has in this episode, an incredibly rewarding moment, when Lorna realizes that Bob is finally passionate about something again, even if it’s the choice of dailies on the newsstand and the state of its paint, and as an additional silver lining, their son is returned to them a hero, a Sergeant, and more importantly, bound for a war bond tour rather than the front. Bob is proud, and glad, and yet cautious, because he knows about war and what it does to people more than any other character on this show. But for now, it’s a silver lining. 

Marco, on the other hand, only experiences further disillusionment. Gladys teases him about signing up for military duty and when she realizes her mistake, the fact that Marco keeps trying and is only kept from it by ignorance and prejudice, and even worse, that his father has been locked up in an internment camp for two years, she decides to make him her new project. This season has been so good at portraying how Gladys slowly sheds her illusions about the nature of warfare, and after finding out about Japanese war crimes and the toll the pressure takes on the officers, this is the episode where she realizes that there is a price paid by democracies as well in wartimes; she arranges a hearing for Marco’s father, drives the Morettis to the camp because they have no other way to get there in time, and then slowly realizes that all her idealistic ideas about due process and civil liberties, the very things she believes to protect by building bombs for Canadian troops, are blatantly disregarded in the Canadian detainment camp. It’s never stated explicitly but Gladys starts wondering what she is fighting for exactly if this is how the country she is building bombs for treats people who have done nothing wrong. Devastatingly, Marco’s father, after two years in the camp, is unwilling to compromise, holds on to the only thing left to him, his pride, and destroys any hope for freedom when he refuses to denounce Mussolini in his hearing. Marco almost doesn’t make it out, either; outraged by the fact that the camps has broken his father’s mind and spirit, he gets aggressive and is detained for a day, until a miraculous call frees him and allows him to leave with Gladys and his mother. A compromise would have meant freedom and a family, reunited; but Marco’s father is stubborn, and so all that is left to them is driving away, waiting for the war to end. 
And then there’s Kate and Betty. The way the show tells their story is quite marvellous – because we follow Betty, always, she is our reference point, and we only get glimpses of Kate, more often than not filtered through someone else’s perspective. The two notable exceptions are when Lorna, after smelling alcohol on her breath, reduces her to store room duty, and we see her take a swig of Whiskey once she thinks she’s alone (in fact, Leon watches her), and a tiny moment when she watches herself in the mirror, unable to recognize herself, just before Betty comes in. Kate has developed a severe drinking problem that leaves her almost unable to do her job at the factory (she’s returned, using her mother’s death as an explanation for her absence). Sometimes she doesn’t come home; we don’t know where she is, neither does Betty. Kate’s struggle is a painfully private one that involves no other people, while Betty’s struggle is of a different nature, but the most devastating aspect of this is all the things they can’t say to each other. Whenever Kate mentions Ivan, there is always this undertone hinting at the kiss they can’t discuss. When Betty asks Kate where she was when she didn’t come home, she’s asking something else as well, but they’ve been put in a position where none of this can be said out loud. 
It’s destructive, all the things they can’t say to each other, but it’s even more devastating how the show portrays Kate Andrews. Leon returns, and he notices Kate’s thirst. The first time they met, hearing Leon sing and joining in was the moment when a new world opened for Kate. She used to sing to feel, and then sang because she felt, and now both things have become impossible; she doesn’t feel the way she thinks she’s supposed to feel, guilty about her father’s death, grieving his loss, ruing her part in his fall – and yet, she doesn’t feel. And worse, because this is Vernon’s lasting role in her life, she is unable to sing. He has stolen her voice and taken the one thing she valued above all because it allowed her to express herself. 
Kate and Betty are acting. Their way of dealing with Vernon’s death, but on a more serious and intimate level, with their attraction to each other, is performing normality. We mostly see Betty’s side of the performance – the awkward dates with Ivan, which would be so great if only Ivan did not try to kiss her, the horrible moment when it becomes a choice between sleeping with him and dropping the act and choosing something she doesn’t actually want is suddenly much easier than the alternative – while Kate’s remains mostly unseen. So Betty slowly starts getting into situations that she no longer fully controls (But isn’t Ivan so nice, so understanding? Isn’t it so easy to pretend, except when it isn’t, suddenly, when it’s all wrong, and all the lies come back to haunt you.), and Kate falls asleep on couch in the Gryffindor common room.
Betty: You can’t keep this up.
Kate: I’m having a good time. It keeps me from remembering things I want to forget.
Betty: Running away won’t fix it. Your dad is dead.
Kate: We agreed, Betty. A normal life from here on out. It’s what I want, just like you. A good job, and a guy like Ivan.
Betty: Go wash your face.
The way Betty’s “I have a boyfriend now” comes back to haunt her, again and again, contributing to Kate being unable to ever mention the kiss to her, to the moment in the car when Ivan insists and Betty doesn’t have the energy to say no anymore. 
Leon, who probably knows more about them than anyone else, tells Betty about Kate’s issues (like, the mere fact that he knows to approach Betty? And that there is still this unspoken jealousy from Betty over the fact that Leon understands music and she doesn’t so he gets to be closer to Kate with regards to that one thing than anyone else does?), invites them to attend church, his church, and Betty turns him down, except then the situation worsens and she’s willing to try anything to make things better. 
Betty: Kate? You weren’t home when I got in last night.
Kate: What am I doing?
Betty: I don’t know anymore.
Kate: Something’s wrong.
Betty: With both of us. Get your clothes on. We’re going out.
They attend the service, and Leon’s sermon, and there is this incredible moment when every single thing that Leon says about being accepted by god in spite of sins and flaws clicks with Betty, where it all makes sense to her and gives her hope, where she absorbs every little thing that he says about grace – while nothing of it holds true for Kate, who’s been raised by a man who claimed to be religious and all he ever had was hatred, all he ever preached was about hell and sin. It’s not necessarily about Betty finding religion – more about the giddy feeling of someone telling you that your choices are valid, that you are loved in spite of all the times when someone or something made you feel an alien, a stranger in a strange land. And how Kate can’t take part in it because she has lost this, Vernon has stolen it from her, so when she hears the choir sing that song that she used to sing – about being careful what you wished for – it’s not a possibility that opens up, it’s not hopeful or a beginning, it just reminds her of all the things that she’s lost. It’s absolutely brilliant, and absolutely devastating. 

“Grace is love without limit, love without reason, god loves you for your virtues and for your sins. Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, he’s at your side. He sees you. He knows you. Accepts who you are. All he asks is that you be true to your heart and accept god’s grace within you.” 
It’s horrible because they’ve been through this together, and yet, they can’t talk about it. They’ve never talked about the scars on Kate’s back, or all the reasons why Kate had to run when Betty kissed her. Leon is reaching Betty, but he’s in no position to get through to Kate. Hearing these women sing, do the one thing that she loved to do above else, only makes her feel nothing. 
Betty: Leon’s saying a thing or two.
Kate: Mercy, grace. It’s hogwash.
Betty: It’s a start, Kate? It’s a way back.
Kate: A child of god should be able to grieve her father’s death. Me, I feel nothing. Except relief. That man can rot in hell for all I care.
Kate walks away, but Betty makes a decision about pretending and acting. Maybe she has a choice. Maybe she can choose to be herself and survive the consequences. She tells Ivan that they are both “meant for other people”, that she has to follow her heart.

Random notes: 

I haven’t mentioned this before but Charlotte Hegele’s performance this season leaves me speechless and wondrous and stuff. 

Rationing is the driving force of the episode: it’s the reason for why Bob needs to find a job, because he’s finished his last batch of toy soldiers and now all the tin will go into the production of arms; it’s why Lorna holds a blatantly unsuccessful cooking workshop, then gets awesomely outplayed by her friend Vera Burr (the episode played their newly forged relationship incredibly well), who delivers one on make-up and uses her as demonstration subject, which leads to a newly found confidence on Lorna’s part. 

I love how the moment when Betty realizes that rationing will be serious business is when Gladys mentions coffee. Me too, Betty. 

There is a strange reference to the previous episode when Lorna realizes that something is wrong with Kate (and remember, Lorna’s been suspicious of Kate forever now) when she can’t keep a tea pot still – in much the same manner Betty couldn’t when Kate returned. It seems significant how similar and yet out of synch they are, and the episode hints at a very important breach between them in how they deal with what’s happened. 

Also, the fact that Betty, once Lorna brings this to her, tells her that Kate is a Christian and therefore wouldn’t be drinking excessively is perfect, considering how Betty wielded “I have a boyfriend now” as a weapon, a self-destructive weapon that worked against her as much as it did against Vernon Rowley, and this in an episode where Betty sleeps with Ivan and Kate enters a church that should appeal to her, that should make her sing and forgive herself for her sins, except she absolutely can’t because none of this is hers anymore? This fucking show.

Only Meg Tilly could deliver “Don’t forget, next time we’ll discover the wonders of Tapioca” as the terrible yet hilarious punchline to Lorna’s terrible, terrible life. “Do I look like someone who tap-dances?”

I guess there is also a theme about fathers, about Gladys learning to understand that she will never change her father (for whom everything is a horse trade), that she has to learn to accept and cherish him for the person that he is, and maybe even love him because of all the tiny things that she can’t deny she inherited from him – because this is how it is for Marco. 

Massively in love with the fact that the Morettis win friends by feeding people. Oh, you’ve got my husband a hearing! Here, have a jar of tomato sauce! On a tight schedule for arriving at Petawawa? Let’s have a picnic!

Oh Ivan. You’d make such a perfect lesbro. In 2013. Finger theatre and onion and tomato sandwiches, man.

Vera’s story is more complicated and didn’t fit in as perfectly; she goes out with another soldier (one in a long line of soldiers, judging from her drawer of presents, four for you, Vera Burr!!), who turns out to be a coward who would rather desert than be sent to the front, and basically tells her she is a prostitute for sleeping with soldiers in exchange for presents, while Vera insists that she does it for love, “to find a decent men before they all ship out”. I think this is mainly about the fact that each and every one has the right to interpret his or her own life, and not leave it to others, and that Vera has found a way to OWN something that has always been ascribed to her? 

Guys, I just really like the dynamics of Bob and Lorna’s marriage. 


Jo said...

excellent analysis of the episode

Anonymous said...

This is brilliantly done!

cathy leaves said...

Thank you!! I just really love the show a lot.