Monday 4 February 2013

Bomb Girls - I won’t suffer silently for the sake of appearances.

Bomb Girls: 2x05 The Harder We Fight. 

Carol: I feel the position is perfectly suited to a girl of my standing. 
Vera: Or maybe the position is more suited to the person who, while actually standing, re-organized the entire filing system. 

Carol: I helped. 

Vera: You licked labels. 
Carol: And I was tasting glue for days.
Behind this conversation, Carol and Vera’s reasons for why they are best suited for a promotion to office manager at VicMu, is an argument about being someone vs. actually doing things, status vs. merit. Carol thinks her social standing automatically means she is qualified to fill the position (if you remember how VicMu functions, it’s why she’s up in the office and not downstairs working the line in the first place). Vera argues that she has proven that she is the best for the job by doing the work, applying herself, introducing innovation, showing initiative. It’s a very personal conflict between the two (Carol has been worried about Vera infringing on her territory since the beginning of the season), but also a reflection of a greater change in culture that is about to happen. Fighting against an established regime, insisting on the need for a change, always comes with a price. 

Gladys’ struggle is the other side of the coin, in a way – hers is not about corporate culture, but she has been caught between enjoying the privileges of being born into wealth, like Carol, and suffering under the expectations that come with her social status, since the beginning. Vera fights against the exclusivity of a self-reproducing upper class that assigns positions according to birth (she is the outsider, trying to break in); Gladys questions the expectations that she, as part of that social class, has to meet, and acts up against them in different ways. Gene Corbett actively positioned himself “outside” when he pointed out that James was born into command rather than “earning it the right way” like he did. He is everything that James isn’t, and being with him gives her the chance to act out against both her family and Lorna, but at the same time, and that’s where the show is so smart, he is a connection to James, because Gladys is currently frustrated by the fact that she can’t speak to her fiancé. She can’t share James’ experiences, he and they are out of her reach, so asking Gene about what the war is like is the closest she can get to her fiancé (and at the same time, the way Gene speaks about the war – like it’s a great adventure, without the profound concern for his humanity that James has – just makes it clear how different he is from him). There is also a moment when he is showing her his scars, and it’s giggly and fun up to the point where he reveals the ones on his legs from his plane getting hit, when Gladys once again realizes how serious this war is, and what damage it does (except obviously the real damage the war did to Eugene Corbett isn’t visible on his skin).
Gene: Tired of being a good girl?
Gladys: I told myself it was to bug your mother, but the truth is that…
Gene: You like me.
Gladys: I like me, when I’m with you. That’s all I know.
It’s not just about defying her parents’ expectations, it’s also about the fact that the war – the surroundings of the factory, the new people she is meeting on a daily basis – provide her with a kind of freedom that she didn’t have before. I think Gladys is at the beginning of something, and she’ll need to do a lot of daring things to get there (and yes, stupid things too). For now, Gene is the person that dares her to drink beer out of a bottle and go skinny dipping – eventually, it’ll turn out that he is driven by his trauma, that he can’t stop himself from seeking out danger – but right at this moment, it’s about how different this day at the beach is from her last one with James (also at the beach, probably intentionally). 
When Carol gossips about Vera Burr, the things she says about her just happen to apply to Gladys as well. This is the thing that happened to Gladys: she’s changed so much that she’s unable to connect with her oldest friend. She wouldn’t be able to talk to any of this to her. 
Gladys: I don’t see your problems. Why judge what makes another person happy.
Carol: Alley cat who swig beers out of bottles and sleep with anything in uniforms should not be angling to be our next office manager.
Gladys: You’re a snob, Carol Demers.
Carol: Well, at least I’ll be able to wear white on my wedding day.
Gladys goes on a reckless drive with Gene, doesn’t realize the extent of his damage, is caught with him by a police man, and ends up driving home with her mother, while he’s arrested. 
Mrs Witham: What on earth were you thinking? Because when these wonderful feelings pass you will be left with nothing but a few tawdry memories and your name in the mud.
Gladys: I don’t care what people think. I don’t want your life, mother. I won’t suffer silently for the sake of appearances.
Mrs Witham: Keeping this from the press and your father is the last act of kindness I do for you. From now on you’re on your own.
“Suffering silently”, not as in “being cheated on”, but as in living your whole life as if you’re constantly observed by a judgemental crowd, always keeping your feelings in check. And yet, Gladys probably doesn’t realize what it means to be completely without the privileges she’s enjoyed all her life. Maybe it feels like a victory for the moment, being rid of the golden cage, but there’ll eventually consequences she might not be prepared for.

And then there’s Betty McRae, engaged in a more physical struggle than the other two, against a newly recruited worker. In the context of VicMu, the production line represents the one place in the factory where merit matters more than anything else. It’s not really relevant where any of the girls come from; ultimately what matters is how quickly and how safely they can make bombs. Betty, maybe more than anyone else, truly has made this her home (like in the introductory speech all the new workers get). I think the severity with which she meets Reggie is easily explained by her relationship to the factory: this is the one thing in her life that works out. She’s VicMu’s best worker (a compliment that’s even greater because it comes from Lorna Corbett, who doesn’t seem like the kind of person that would be particularly inclined to make them without reason). It provides her with the chance of maybe one day buying her own home, and living on her own terms. Part of her outrage over the way the film director represented her in Bringing Up Bombshell was over the fact that it so misrepresented her identity, but it also made a mockery of being a valuable and focused worker (if it’s just for the moment, until the boys come back home). She’s earned her position through hard work, and she has enough experience to train new workers – and yet, Reggie questions and disrespects that knowledge and experience at every turn. You only have to look at Betty’s reaction to Vernon’s letter – a combination of being worried about Kate and seeing it as a threat to her job – to predict how she will react to her merit being questioned by a seventeen year old that has just arrived from a washing machine factory in Amherst. Reggie insists that her hour-long training taught her more about building bombs than Betty learned in years actually working in the factory (“You’re gonna wish you knew half as much as us new girls.”), turns down her advice on pouring the Amatol with more care, and then proceeds to insult her in a way that is perfectly suited to making her angry (calling her “My Führer”), if any of the things she told the German soldier in the previous episode were actually true. 
Betty: You got a lousy attitude, you know that?
Reggie: We get the job done, and that scares you.
Betty: No, what scares me is that you don’t even know how much you don’t know.
At this point, she doesn’t have a reason yet apart from distrust (because Reggie’s “cocky and reckless”) – it’s mainly a reaction to Reggie’s attitude – but once Gladys hurts herself on a casing, all her worst fears are confirmed (plus, remember, Betty isn’t just territorial about the factory, she’s also protective about her friends). 
It’s perfect that Lorna is the one trying to rein Betty in – Lorna, who respects Betty for her work, who probably sees herself in her a little bit, because they are both so focused and take their job so seriously. Lorna reminds Betty that they “have enough enemies in this war” without antagonizing other workers, and that Betty’s “meant to be a role model” – and of course, part of Betty’s reaction is her frustration over everything else that is currently going disastrously wrong, and Reggie is just the final insult to push her over the edge.
There’s also Reggie herself to consider, not just the role she plays in Betty’s story, but the fact that she’s been on her own since she was fourteen, has taken care of herself since then, and has never gotten anything from anyone else. Her attitude is understandable. Her reluctance to take Betty’s advice is understandable. Gladys is the first to point out that Betty and Reggie seem to have a lot in common (the chip on their shoulder, for one), but Lorna realizes it to an extent where she is willing to house Reggie (it’s implied that she lost housing because of a racist landlady).

Vera suggest a mixer to help the new girls get along with the old ones. 
Vera: I worked that line and I know that if these girls don’t know each other, then they won’t like each other, and if they don’t like each other, they won’t respect each other, and if they don’t respect each other, they can never ever work together.
Carol doesn’t respect Vera because from her perspective, Vera is trying to intrude somewhere she doesn’t belong (but Carol has no real experience or qualification to justify her idea that she deserves any of this more, it’s only having been there first). Betty and Reggie don’t respect each other because each of them insists that their personal experience and knowledge is worth more.
Oranges and punches are thrown. Betty threatens to have her fired, Lorna talks her down, explaining to her that Reggie has had a hard time (“Who hasn’t”, responds Betty). 
Lorna: She made a mistake, Betty. We start rooting out every girl who’s slipping up we’re looking at an empty factory. […] Just remember that sometimes the harder we fight, the worse we make it.
And here’s the thing: I think Lorna knows about Betty. Maybe not the specifics of it, but she understands at least that Betty is different, but in a way, she almost identifies with it. I didn’t realize until the third viewing that maybe, Betty just doesn’t take that advice when she sort-of makes up with Reggie, coming to an uneasy peace where none of them really gives up any ground. Maybe she takes that advice into the later conversation with Kate, about Ivan. 
Betty and Reggie’s fight is physical, but they come to an uneasy peace by the end. Carol’s strategy is much more calculated and mean. She tells Donald, one of the workers, to reveal to everyone in the factory that Vera is lining up to meet soldiers. This is the difference between Betty and Carol – Betty stops. Betty accepts Lorna’s advice, but Carol doesn’t have anyone in her life who would realize that she is out of control and intervene (Gladys is joyriding with Eugene Corbett). Glorious, wonderful Vera totally owns the moment, but it takes its toll. 
Donald: I may not be a soldier, but if I give you these, will you give me twenty minutes in the store room?
Vera: Twenty minutes, Donald? Word is, you’ve never gone longer than three. Keep em. They look better on you anyway.
She walks away to the cheers of everyone, shaming Donald and Carol for their attempt to shame her, but she is still crushed by the fact that anyone would be willing to do this to her. Marco approaches her to provide comfort (for Vera, it immediately becomes about the scars on her face, and the camera captures her beautifully, trying to hide in the shadows, until Marco stops her).
Vera: Those gifts. They’re like love letters. And they help me remember nights when somebody made me feel beautiful. I’m not ashamed of any of it.
Marco: Then why are you crying?
In the end, Vera doesn’t win completely: Akins decides that he can’t give her the promotion after what happened at the mixer. But it’s a small step towards justice, because Carol doesn’t get the job either, and if anything, Akins seems disgusted by the way she acted. Vera gloating over that victory is probably the most glorious thing that has ever happened on this show.

Someone else isn’t winning any victories. Talking about things going terribly, awfully wrong in Betty McRae’s life, I think a good way to describe the default expression on her face is “I would laugh at the absurdity and irony of my life if this weren’t the feelings equivalent of a bison stampede running over my heart”. Betty has just decided to be true to her heart and stop pretending she has feelings for Ivan; meanwhile Kate has really set her eyes on finding a boyfriend (and it’s significant that feelings don’t even come into this – whenever Kate speaks about it, it’s about “hooking” a guy, flirting, the technicalities of it, it’s never about emotions). In one of the most tragically hilarious scenes ever, Marco tries to improve her skills, and, dork that he is, asks Kate to try on Betty (after she fails miserably to demonstrate her skills on him, because he is Marco Moretti, and not even Kate could pull that off with a serious face). Here’s how it looks in writing: 
Marco: Practice on Betty.
Betty: You’re an idiot, I’m not a guy.
Kate: Would you help a friend out? Come on! Say something funny.
Betty: Something funny.
More importantly, here’s what’s going on on their faces: Kate’s just falls apart when Marco makes the suggestion, because they are acting like everything’s normal (she is acting, more than anything), but now Marco is asking them to act out the very thing that none of them can talk about openly, because they aren’t allowed. It’s a look of sorrow. And then there’s the double horror of Betty’s life, of “I’m not a guy” (which is exactly why she’s even at this point with Kate, because it’s all wrong), and “help a friend out”, the way both of them are clinging to their friendship because it’s all that they are allowed and it’s already pretty impressive and special that they aren’t doing everything to avoid each other after what happened, that they are still so close. Kate’s eyes flutter, right before Betty says “something funny”, and then she laughs, artificially and loudly, and punches her in the shoulder, and the moment passes. Marco’s happy about the result. Next stop: playing hard to get!

Because this is what it comes down to: if this episode is about being something (by birth) and achieving something (through your actions), then Vera, by insisting that her actions are more important than what she was born into is a way to rise in the corporate hierarchy of VicMu, an opportunity. She believes that she deserves the promotion because she is the better worker, and who her parents are, and who she sleeps with in her spare time, is of absolutely no interest to anyone but herself. For Vera, it means freedom and possibility. 
But applied to Kate, who argues that acting is more important than being, it’s not about a career, or success, it’s about dealing with emotions and feelings. It’s the idea that by acting, she can somehow escape who she is. She chooses to pretend, to perform, which is exactly why feelings play no part in her attempts to find a boyfriend. It’s about the surface of things, appearing as if everything is normal. Her attempts at flirting finally work – with none other than Ivan. It’s significant that they initially connect over Betty. Kate says “I was sorry to hear about you and Betty” – and chooses just the right moment to hold his hand.  
This is what pretending to be normal means to Kate: She tries to reshape her relationship with Betty according to what is expected of two women who are friends. Kate and Betty can’t talk about the kiss, but they’ve created this space of friendship where intimacy closeness is still possible. It allows them to sit on the bed together, because Kate is painting Betty’s nails, as friends do. They are basically holding hands, but it’s mitigated through this ritual approved by society, which is exactly what they’ve been doing for months now. Acting like everything’s normal isn’t just about covering up their part in Vernon’s death, it’s re-interpreting their entire relationship to fit into what is accepted. Kate can’t even begin to think about what she is really feeling for Betty, but she can go through all the motions of just being friends, and friends talk about crushes and boys and dresses and paint each other’s nails. 
Kate: There’s something that I didn’t mean to happen happened with Ivan, somehow I flirted with him and then he went and asked me to go out with him but I won’t, not if you don’t want me to.
Betty: He’s a nice guy. You could do a lot worse.
Kate: Are you sure it’s okay.
Okay then. Help me pick out a new dress.
I think part of this is Betty sticking to Lorna’s advice, that she’ll make things worse if she fights harder for Kate (who is doing exactly what Gladys told her mother she wouldn't: suffering for the sake of appearances). And the other thing is that within the constraints of where they are at this point, and what society allows them to feel, the closest thing Kate will ever have to being with Betty is being with someone who has feelings for Betty as well (and maybe the same is even true for Ivan – there is this strange moment when he first realizes that Kate is flirting with him). In the end, I don’t think that this will work for either of them. Kate carefully removes a bit of paint from Betty’s fingertip in the most intimate and tender way possible. They aren’t able to express their feelings for each other in words but it’s all in the eyes and their movements.

Random notes: 

It’s not obvious from the review but this was a FUN episode (Gladys Witham WON’T BE PASSING ANY ORANGES TODAY!!). It speaks to the quality of the show that fun is swiftly followed by getting your heart ripped out.

Also if the look of abject terror in Lorna’s face when she sees Gene on the fence doesn’t break your heart… There are so many ways you can lose people in this war, it’s not just death. The episode shows her performing as a mother in different situations – there’s her appeal to Mrs Witham as a mother, the way she takes care of both Betty and Reggie, and of course the heart-breaking realization in the end, that her actual son didn’t come back safe and sound.

A summary of the kind of day Betty McRae's having: 

The scene of Betty, Kate and Gladys arriving in the car was some serious Clueless 1942 material. 

Betty totally checks out all the new workers with the most appreciative look possible. I think Kate notices Betty noticing, but the cut comes too quickly to really tell (“We need all the help we can get” indeed).

It’s interesting to compare Betty’s reaction Kate’s mistakes in the first episode and how she treats Reggie entirely differently because Reggie isn’t apologetic about her actions (and denies them). Plus there’s the fact that she isn’t Kate…
Gladys: I doubt my fiancé would like another man behind the wheel.
Gene: See, now I wanna drive it even more.
Not really talking about cars anymore, are we.

I really like how she insists on calling him by his full name (“Eugene Corbett, you low-down lout.”), as if belittling him in this specific way and constantly reminding herself whose son he is would help. 

Just as a reminder of what the Gladys-Lorna business is about, because the episode had a lot of throwbacks to season one: in an attempt to remove Gladys from the line, Mrs Witham asked Lorna to have her fired (in exchange for paying for/helping with Sheila’s med school), so Lorna started rumours that Gladys was pregnant. The episode did a really good job at showing the strange connection Mrs Witham and Lorna have, but also the endless amounts of distrust based on their class differences (Mrs Witham is worried about her daughter’s reputation, Lorna thinks that rich people like the Withams “only use people like us”).
Lorna: Your daughter is dating my son.
Mrs Witham: Gladys is an adult, I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.
Lorna: You don’t believe that any more than I do.
Mrs Witham: Even if that were true, what do you expect me to do?
Lorna: Rein in your daughter.
Mrs Witham: Why don’t you harness your son?
Lorna: Your daughter’s engaged. This will come down harder on her than it will on him, we both know that.
Mrs Witham: Disappointing, isn’t it. Realizing your child isn’t the person you’d hope they’d become, and you have absolutely no control over it.
Lorna: I’m a mother, Adele, defending my own. I had hoped to find the same in you.
That last bit gets me every time, the moment when Lorna switches to calling Mrs Witham by her first name because she is speaking to her as a fellow mother, as someone who should be just concerned about protecting her children as she is. 

I really like that the initial appeal that her mother makes to her isn’t about the scandal and the rumours at all, it’s about the very personal effect that her infidelity will have on James – which she knows, from the other side of things, from being cheated on by Gladys’ father. 
Mrs Witham: You can justify it all you want, tell yourself you’ll be discreet, but once you cross that line, when James comes back home to you he’ll know. He’ll see it in your face, feel it in your touch. And it’ll cut through him like shrapnel.
Gladys: I know what daddy did to you
Mrs Witham: No you don’t. But keep it up, and you will.
Also with the shrapnel thing, because she’s just seen the effects of literal shrapnel on bodies, but the damage the war did to Gene Corbett isn’t physical, and the damage she’s about to inflict on James isn’t either, and all of this is just really fantastically written. 

Not really sure yet what to make of Marco’s encounter with the detective, who reads the transcripts of his visit at the detainment camp back to him and informs him that his father’s release was denied. (it does lead to an ominous “Go ahead, keep treating me like the enemy, you just might get what you’re looking for.”)

Akins: That’s the problem with you women. Too damn emotional.

Akins: And you want me to throw these dizzy hens a party?


Talking about Marco (who's really been growing on me this season). I think the moment that made me laugh the most in this episode is when he excitedly and very emotionally recites the sexy passage from Song of Solomon and then oh so proudly looks at his audience of two for applause  - and then the moment turns almost immediately because just like when Gene asked Kate to dance, when Betty took her to Leon’s sermon, something is wrong exactly because this should speak to Kate, but it doesn’t (because all her father ever did was preach the hateful passages, the one denying her every bit of freedom imaginable). This is what Bomb Girls does at its best: you laugh with (or more accurately, at) Marco, and then you see Kate’s absolutely crestfallen face because she would like to be the person who takes solace from this so much, but isn’t. 


Anonymous said...

You are so brilliant at this! I look forward to reading these every week now :)
Thanks for sharing your insights.
-Lady Canuck

cathy leaves said...

I think the second part of the season starts towards the end of March? Oh painful, horrible hiatus.

bnofee said...

“I would laugh at the absurdity and irony of my life if this weren’t the feelings equivalent of a bison stampede running over my heart” - perfect summation

cathy leaves said...

I felt so sorry for her in the "practice on Betty" scene and yet her face totally cracked me up. That's some acting witchcraft right there.

Ceridwyn2 said...

This was well thought out and awesome. Thanks!

cathy leaves said...

Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! Can't wait for today's episode...