Monday 6 February 2012

Bomb Girls - This world we live in, anything could happen.

Bomb Girls: 1x01 Jumping Tracks.

Apparently I have many, many feelings about this show. 

Betty:  Here’s the deal, ladies: if you do fine embroidery, you can assemble a time fuse. If you sew buttons, you can thread a detonator. If you can pour tea, you can pour amatol. It’s no big whoop. Except some folks don't see it that way. These guys are crapping bullets, afraid they might not get their easy street jobs back after you've helped them win the war. You ignore them first, talk tough second, and if that doesn't work, you slap 'em silly. 
Mr Witham: You girls are only filler until the boys get home. Like they’re having use us plastic instead of metal.
Bomb Girls is kind of like Game of Thrones. Marginalized characters struggle for participation, for power, for the ability to lead their lives the way they want to, or for the space to even have the ability to imagine how their lives could be different. It is completely unlike Game of Thrones too, because in a way, it’s a communal struggle, not just an individual one: a rapidly changing society adapting also to the idea that it’s not necessarily a zero-sum-game. 
The relationship between the communal and the personal is one of the most exciting aspects of the show, and it already starts in the introduction: Gladys tells her now-fiancé James that they could now do more than just kiss, and he turns her down, responding that he doesn’t “wanna take something you’re not ready to give”, even though she clearly is very, very ready – but they are both trapped in the roles society assigns to them. She is meant to remain clueless and virginal until the wedding, he feels pressure to collect experiences outside their engagement so he is prepared for their wedding night – the show beautifully explores their relationship, but the frustrating inability to communicate their desires to each other because they can’t overcome these preconceived notions is right there in their very first scenes, and the precise and economic writing of the show only needs one tiny moment between them (before we even know them) to convey most of this. The show will spend the next episodes making the viewers care about the characters as individuals and the fantastic acting turns them into complex and fascinating ones, but the first thing that really drew me in is this amazing ability to portray the conflicts that drive these relationships. 
The first scenes of this episode show three of the main characters before they’ve even met each other: Gladys, daughter of a successful business man, is still trapped in her golden cage and James is both the person who may eventually free her from her parents’ house and someone who is dangerously closely connected to it at the same time, since he is working for her father. We first see Lorna at home with her husband, who, we will later find out, returned from the first world war paralyzed and disillusioned, and they are fighting over whether their dinner is appropriately modest or not (later on, her opinions and contributions will be equally questioned and ridiculed by the all-male management of the factory). Kate’s (still Marion) introduction is the most dramatic: she escapes her abusive father with the help of her mother (since these early scenes are all about the relationship of the female characters to men, we see his reaction to what he considers inappropriate flirting with a stranger on the street – he advices her to “exercise the evil inside” and bruises her hand), hoping to find safety in a new identity and supporting herself by working in the bomb factory. 
This is what the factory offers: a new opportunity for women to earn money, to be independent. When Gladys first enters she only works as a secretary for the manager but looks at the workers stunned and entranced – she is fascinated by idea that women contribute to the war effort, since she comes from a household where the war is mostly discussed in terms of providing a business opportunity. For Lorna and especially Kate – and Betty, who has meanwhile been introduced as Kate’s unwilling helper (when Kate tries to figure out if her door can be locked effectively, fearing her father might come and break it down, eventually), having the job is economically essential, and the prospect that this might only be temporary and will end with the war is an existential threat looming in the distance.  
The women aren’t the only ones who find themselves in marginalized positions: the first episode also introduces Marco Moretti, an Italian-born materials inspector and a thorn in Lorna’s side, since she suspects him of spying for the enemy. In the end, Marco still trumps Lorna because male privilege overrules nationality, but they are both not taken seriously by the management and painfully aware of it. 
The emotional centre of the show is how the main characters start supporting each other – even before they’ve formed closer friendships. Seemingly unmoveable Betty passes on a chance to have Kate fired after an accident after she begs her (“I don’t have money. My folks won’t take me back. Please. This here is all I’ve got.”) – and shows her how to avoid something like this in the future, even shooting her a smile afterwards. Later, Kate kind of gently pushes Betty into doing things she’s previously avoided – going to a club, dance in public where people can see her feet. Lorna accidentally reveals that Gladys lied to her parents about where she was going in the evening and tries to keep her alibi intact. Gladys herself feels more drawn to the “barbarians”, as her friend calls the floor workers, and ends up going out with them. Even the pushback she gets from Betty only serves to help her realize that she wants something she couldn’t articulate before: Betty dares her, and Gladys reacts, but not by drawing back. 
Betty: You wanna help the war effort, princess, try not wasting silk.
Gladys: Now you sound like my mother.
Betty: No, I’m nothing like you rich gits with your big silky security blankets.
Kate. Betty!
Betty: You think you’re all brave now because you’ve walked into a factory. What have you ever done, in your whole life, one thing that has ever scared you? That’s right. Nothing.
So Gladys gives her silk stockings away and goes to make out with her Airman who is about to be shipped off, and then she makes the decision to defy her parents and her fiancé and build bombs because she refuses to only exist to be a good wife and birth grandsons (“I give away my precious things. Stockings to hacking canaries, fiancés to greedy fathers.”) The factory provides alternatives that didn’t exist before, even though the power structure within reflects the positions men and women occupy in society – but it also has this potential to change everything. Her father predicts that she will “walk out of the rubble, with nothing”, but what Gladys desperately wants is to have more than “marriage, fortune, reputation” because none of these things are truly her own. 
James: Why do you wanna do this?
Gladys: To see what I’m capable off.
James: It’s not going to last forever. This war will end and it will all go back to normal.
Gladys: So let’s just live for now.
It’s Airman Lewis who brings up the idea that this isn’t just, or necessarily, a struggle of men against women: “We need you girls to fight with us,” he tells Gladys. 
This is Lorna’s argument when she passionately argues on Vera’s behalf, after a horrible accident leaves her disfigured: they ARE fighting, they should be equal, because their effort is essential. 
Lorna: You can’t let her leave here deformed, it will destroy her future. 
Doctor: With limited resources, priority must be given to the soldiers. 
Lorna: Vera is a soldier. Vera risked her life every day to help win this war, do not turn your back on her. If you want to see our boys with bullets in your guns and bombs in your planes, you will show her the same respect. Go in there, you book the operation room and you do the surgeries, no matter how expensive or lengthy. You do your best for that girl.
Random notes: 

It’s kind of absolutely fab how everyone just conveys so much about their character (before we even know anything about them) just by the way they carry themselves: Kate is all fear, always looking for potential danger, and at the same time giddy at all the new things, Gladys self-assuredness makes her an odd fit as the new girl at the factory and that uneasiness is conveyed beautifully, Betty is tough and strong except when it comes to dancing and water (“water’s water”, she replies when Kate points out to her that the Sandy Shore is by a very large lake, not the sea, making German marine unlikely).

Betty: Just a poor little rich girl on a field trip. First broken nail, she’s outta here. 

Gladys’ reaction to Betty’s introductory speak for the new girls is one of my favourite things about the episode. She enjoys it so much. She so much wishes she could trade places. Just in general, it’s really interesting how the show pits these two against each other, because the more often Betty calls her “princess” in the most condescending way possible (also note how it grows almost fond over the next few episodes), the more awesome. 

Gladys’ decision to act against her parents’ wishes and work on the line is also her personal effort to contribute something to the war – the Airman she meets tells her that “We’re all soldiers. Every decent man in this country” – and that puts her in a position of moral authority in the arguments about the war and the military contracts on the dinner table (even though her parents still think she is just a secretary), and more importantly, that is a position that James learns to respect, too. 

Betty: You’re singing? 
Kate: Sorry. Bad habit. Comes from being a preacher’s daughter. 
Betty: If I had a voice like that, I might actually believe in god.

I love all the scenes at the club. The music, the dancing (and fighting) are so beautifully choreographed, and it conveys this feeling that Kate, Betty and Gladys are kind of entering a new world perfectly. 

“Just one of the gals!”

Betty: You dance much? 
Kate: Oh. Lots. By myself.

Betty super-obviously checking out the girls at the club was also fun, and then basically staring at two girls dancing, and Kate noticing and coming to the conclusion that what Betty wants to do, secretly, is dance, which ends with a whole other wish-fulfilment thing for Betty. The scene conveys so much information: Betty knows that she’s gay (it’s not really clear how much she has ever articulated this to herself, but a later episode indicates that she has gay friends), but this time and place don’t give her any space to be “out” in any way, and Kate is naïve, but at the same time (accidentally) accommodating in exactly the way Betty needs. It’s like my favourite thing ever. DO YOU WANNA TRY A TWIRL? (… come and dance…) – She just takes her glass away and basically sweeps her off her feet. 
And almost immediately afterwards, Betty reacts to other people becoming closer to her with jealousy. 

One of the themes of the episode is… desire, and how it is controlled and punished by society, but also how it changes relationships: there’s Gladys, frustrated by her fiancé, ending up with the Airman (and finally doing what she thought was cruel before, promising to marry him before he ships out), Lorna, frustrated in  her marriage by her husband who is struggling with his disability (and already starting her dance with Marco) and Betty, sort of anxiously but also excitedly leaning against her door after promising Kate that she’ll take care of her, knowing that she’s in way over her head. 

The show could have also easily portrayed all the men as villains, but it doesn’t; James reaction to Gladys is complex, and Bob, Lorna’s husband, is caring underneath his cynical façade (he starts writing letters so that one of Lorna’s co-workers can spare her children the terrible news of their father’s death). 

Gladys: I’ve never felt so alive. I’m not going back to drifting around the house all day.

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