Friday 2 March 2012

Bomb Girls - I found something I love. I don’t care if I fall on my face.

Bomb Girls: 1x05 Armistice.

One of my favourite things about Bomb Girls is that the characters are complex and rarely motived by only one thing. Lorna is fiercely protective and that makes her a good matron, but she also overreaches and overreacts because of her feelings for Marco. Betty is brave and reliable - a hero for Kate, but the very same feeling of love also makes her possessive and slightly controlling (and awesomely, the show calls her out on it instead of presenting it as romantic). Gladys is fighting to lead a self-determined life and to have a relationship that allows her to be herself rather than repeat the mistakes her mother made, and yet, despite all her anger at James for keeping a secret from her and leading a secret life she has no access to, she too is receiving letters from Lewis who still thinks that they will get married once he returns from the war. To me, the characters are all the more likeable for all their flaws and contradictions, and it is incredible to watch a show that allows them to walk a fine line between remaining sympathetic and good, and appearing to be selfish and wrong. What I love most about this episode is that the character who just cuts through all the contradictions with an unexpected clarity is Kate – Kate who still has nightmares of her father’s abuse, who is leading the most precarious life of all because it is based on a fake identity, who is still so new to all of these opportunities that she regards the world with a mixture of excitement and anxiously crouched shoulders. “I found something I love. I don’t care if I fall on my face”. These women (the men too, but they have endlessly more freedom due to their privilege) are burdened with an incredible number of expectations and limitations, things they are supposed to do and want and things they absolutely cannot desire and aspire to be, and yet, this one simple sentence defies all of it – Kate has found freedom in the ability to express herself as an artist, and she will not let go of it, regardless of the potential dangers.
It’s interesting to think about how this sentence relates to the other characters. For Betty, it’s just another push towards revealing her feelings – like the many times Kate surprises her by taking her hand and sweeping her off her feet, and Kate’s promise to move in with her, and Kate serenading her, basically. It’s an invitation, almost, to finally declare her love openly regardless of whether Kate feels the same way about her. I’m not entirely sure what it means for Gladys, because she has just started to want so many things for herself, and she is only growing into it episode by episode. I think in terms of her development, it means not backing down and making compromises (there is a moment in the final episode when she almost does, but ends up sticking to her ideals – because once she starts compromising what she wants, there’s the danger of losing it all). 


Lorna’s even worse off because she isn’t sure what she wants – I think she needs both the reliable husband and the spark that Marco provides, but society doesn’t exactly give her the ability to pursue both. Her aloneness is devastating – she is alone in worrying about her sons because her husband can’t share his feelings with her, she is alone in her desires, because she has no friends to support her (while Betty is involuntarily working towards having a friend to confide in), and I think she even feels alone in her attempts to protect the integrity of VicMu. 
Lorna: It’s been 25 years, Bob, 25 years since you went over that goddamn trench. We have raised three children, buried out parents, and somehow managed to keep food on our table and a roof over our head but it’s like none of that ever happened, none of it, because you see everything through the lens of a few terrible months you had 25 years ago.
Bob: You have no idea what that war…
Lorna: Because you would never tell me. I asked, I hinted, I tried, and then finally I gave up. 
And Bob hints at how awful it was, “how everything bled out of me that day I did my duty”, and argues that he can’t share his feelings because it would be indecent of him to burden her with them. 
Lorna: Well, I think a decent father..
Bob: Don’t you start with…
Lorna: A decent father would let go of his own pain when he’s learned what a brave and honourable son he raised.
This is one of my favourite scenes of the episode, because all that anger and frustration over that thing that has been eating up their marriage for 25 years just pours out of Lorna. They are still two people who get along and who provide for each other and who love each other but this massive thing that happened in the last war has just undermined their entire relationship, and he can’t share the pain and the burden with her because he hates what it has made him, but this inability to be honest about his feelings that she misunderstands as lack of trust in her is an even greater burden, because it also makes it impossible for her to talk about her emotions and desires. It’s an incredibly well-acted portrayal both by Meg Tilly and Peter Outerbridge. And all the way through it, Bob paints his little tin soldiers – he returned from the war broken, and his war is now turned into something that children play with, children who grow up to become soldiers. It’s perfect. 
She almost decides that she wants to be with Marco, promising to find them a secret place, but then Bob turns up unexpectedly at the Armistice Day address that she is delivering to all the workers, and she is thrown completely off-guard. She forgets her speech, the distant words about duty and sacrifices, and instead tells a tale about the very personal sacrifices that war requires, the consequences that she has lived through in her own marriage. 
Lorna: Bob doesn’t have much use for this kind of ceremony. When he came back from the first war, he was badly injured and felt like everything that had happened to him had been for nothing. Sometimes I can see how he’d feel like that, used and spat out by folks who honestly couldn’t give a damn if he lived or died. But if he hadn’t fought in that war, if all those other soldiers hadn’t made their sacrifice, we wouldn’t be standing here today. I have two sons overseas, facing dangers I can’t even know the shape of. And here we are, building the bombs that make them strong, and you can’t say we don’t pay a price. Sometimes you know when a thing is right. What’s a few small sacrifices on our part when we stand to win back the happiness and freedom we deserve.
She makes a decision, a decision against Marco and for Bob, because Marco will never understand this aspect of her.


And then there’s Vera. What do you do if the thing that you have built your life on – appearances – has been destroyed? Vera has to figure out what she wants now that the thing she has always pursued is gone, and she thinks she can – she thinks the only way out of the hospital is to hoard sleeping pills and kill herself (because it’s a “big bad world” outside). She has befriended Archie, but then he gets worse – sepsis – and he realizes that he is dying, and asks her to give him the pills that she has been stockpiling for herself, because she still has choices and opportunities but he doesn’t. 


James finds Gladys’ letters to Lewis and is furious, but in the end, they have that much-needed conversation (“What he wanted was so simple, and he made me feel like only I could give it to him.”), and end up sleeping together. 
James: Because I didn’t care about her. She meant nothing to me.
Gladys: Except you showed her more of yourself than I have ever seen. What are you afraid of, James?
James: That this is me. That this is all there is.
Gladys: That’s all I ever wanted.
James: If I did this all wrong I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.
All of this while Gladys is angry at him for allowing the company to sell flawed rations to the army, but in the end she gets her way, because James admires her for her uncompromising idealism and the way she stands up for herself, so he supports her against her father. They are already doing better than their parents. 
Mr Witham: Gladys. You have no clues about the compromises that come with doing business.
Gladys: I know all about compromise, father. Doing the right thing for as many people as possible.

Kate and Betty

Kate invites Gladys into the boarding house to help her write to Lewis, and Kate brings some “bubbly”, and it’s all fun and games until Kate and Gladys start dancing and Betty feels left out and jealous. It’s this immediate shift in her attitude when she sees Kate dancing with somebody else, and she suggests they go and seek out Leon (because Betty with her endless secret knowledge has “a rough idea” about where he is playing), and she tries getting rid of Gladys (“No one said you had to come”), but of course, Gladys comes. She is engaged in the attempt to become part of this and fit in. There are so many colliding interests here. Betty is warming to Gladys, but she resents her for being the third wheel. She paves the way to Kate’s first appearance on stage, and at the same time resents it because it might drive her away (but she is also so excited and happy to see Kate do something she loves). 
Betty knows how to navigate this place, and she has this command of this space, this ability to make Kate feel safe in it, and it all works out perfectly until she is recognized by another woman and Gladys sees it (“you have such hep friends, Betty”), and it’s the first step towards realizing something about Betty that Betty doesn’t want Gladys to know. To make things worse, Kate goes off with Gladys to get drinks and then talks to Leon, and to Betty, all of this just reads as Kate slowly slipping away. Maybe this would even be easier if it was just that, Kate slipping away, but it’s also Kate becoming more secure with herself and finding this thing that she is passionate about and blossoming. It’s hard to be resentful about something that so obviously makes Kate happy, and I think that Betty is well aware of her contradictory feelings about this. 
Betty: Look at them falling all over her.
Gladys: She’s got something special.
Betty: Next thing you know, she’ll move out of the rooming house and go on tour.
Gladys: Don’t you think you’re exaggerating?
Betty: What do you know about anything?
Gladys: You’re lucky to have such a good friend.
Gladys knows. She has no way of acknowledging it, or asking about it. She knows that society doesn’t allow her to question Betty about her feelings for Kate, nor does her relationship with Betty (yet – and isn’t it glorious that eventually, they are close enough to openly acknowledge the elephant in the room?), but she isn’t shocked. She’s concerned because she realizes what it means for Betty, but she has this immediate and non-judgemental understanding of the situation that is marvellous. 

Betty’s biggest flaw, in the end, is impatience, and who can truly blame her for it? They stumble home from the party, giddy about their shared experience, already telling stories, but as always, it’s never just one thing. 
Kate: That might have just been the most fun I’ve ever had. Thank you.
Betty: Well, next time, maybe just you and me.
Kate: Yes, and you know what Leon said: he might let me have a change on stage with him. Good thing he likes me.
This is what Betty does: she promises to protect Kate. She helps to create an environment in which Kate feels secure enough to express herself and to figure out what she wants. And of course, because that is always the inherent danger in such an enterprise, she might come to the conclusion that what she wants isn’t Betty, or at least, not just Betty, and I think Betty is only now realizing that loving Kate also means giving her that space that she needs to be free. Which is hard to do, but incredibly important. They have their first fight, and it is precisely about this, and Kate stands up for herself and wins. 
Betty: Kate, it’s a bad idea. Going to sing at the club. You make one little mistake and they will tear you to shreds.
Kate: That’s not the impression I got from Leon.
Betty: Yeah, well, he’d have his own reasons for giving you a different impression.
Kate: He has been nothing but decent to me.
Betty: I’m just trying to spare you.
Kate: From what? Happiness?
Betty: No, from getting hurt.
Kate: I found something I love. I don’t care if I fall on my face.
The quarrel doesn’t last long. Betty apologizes and then marvels at who Kate becomes when she is on stage, awkward and insecure at first, but then turning into this beautiful person completely at peace with herself while she sings. And she sings to Betty. 
I wished on the moon for something I never knew. Wished on the moon for more than I ever knew. A sweeter rose, a softer sky, on April days that would not dance away. I begged on the stars to throw me a beam or two, wished on the stars and asked for a dream or two. I looked for every loveliness and all came true. I wished on the moon for you!
Random notes: 

Betty’s giddiness over Gladys’ “lapse” still cracks me up. 

“Your father thinks that the product speaks for itself but until then, presentation is everything.” – this sentence sums up the Withams perfectly, and the very thing Gladys is trying to escape. 

I also like the contrast between Marco with his romantic (almost ridiculous, sometimes) words and Bob’s harsh realism, especially about the war – “it doesn’t make me blind of the war machine buying off our sons with bits of brass.” These two couldn’t be more different from each other but Lorna seems to need both perspectives. 

I absolutely love Betty lurking in the background when Kate is running (so so so) enthusiastically after Leon, always both watching out for her in case something goes wrong and jealously fearing that she is slipping away whenever she talks to other people. It’s so perfectly and realistically written and portrayed. Also the kind of gleeful joy when Leon rejects her. Oh Betty.
Lorna: Perhaps love would be a better recruitment tool.
Akins: What about you, Mrs Corbett? How is your heart these days?
Lorna: Strong and able.
Akins: Not bursting with emotion?
Lorna: I don’t know what you’re insinuating. 
Betty’s face when Gladys didn’t only draw away Kate to get drinks but also managed to chat up the other queer girl was hilarious. 
Leon: Church mouse. Crept out of her hole.
Kate: And she never wants to leave.
Kate: What do you call that music?
Leon: You keep looking for definitions.
Kate: I like to know what to like.
Leon: You like jump blues, mouse.
This feels way more significant in the face of what happens in the final episode: the importance of definitions, of making clear distinctions. I think it’s something she got from her father, and it can go both ways – it can be enabling, but it’s also the creeping fear and the horror when Betty kisses her, because “What do you think I am?” 

Kate is the queen of mixed signals though. I mean, you don’t just serenade your friend only in your underwear while brushing your hair. You just don’t. 

“It’s so brief, you know, Lorna. If you’re gonna burn, why not burn bright.”

James has picked up a thing or two (apart from the clap) via his “full-fledged sexual affair”. He also awesomely decides Gladys should break up with Lewis after the war. 

Never in a million years would I have expected to care about Archie as much as I did. This fucking show. 

“SHE CALLED ME A SOLDIER. Same as any man here. And I liked that. I suppose I still do. That’s the two of us, Archie. We’re soldiers. On the home front. Come home. One last mile, you can do it. And I’m with you.”


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