Monday 14 January 2013

Bomb Girls - Act as if everything’s normal.

Bomb Girls: 2x02 Roses Red.

Bomb Girls is the kind of show that can afford to be pretty on the nose with its themes because it ends up executing them so well, so it doesn’t matter that the entire episode presents what it’ll be about in a dream sequence at the beginning of Roses Red – Kate has a nightmare about running away, in a wedding dress, in the most beautiful light that has ever appeared on the show (another more cinematic theme), from Vernon Rowley, who declares that he is “the one thing that you can’t kill, Marion”. This is the theme of the episode: because one consequence of straddling two worlds and then making a decision about which world to choose is inevitably running away from ghosts and monsters, and I think that’s something each of the characters is doing this episode, literally or metaphorically. Kate wakes up from her nightmare (she wore a white wedding dress; Vernon wore his blacks), and in the background, a beam of light illuminates her choice – Betty McRae, who’d risk everything to make sure that Kate is safe, but doesn’t trust herself enough to sleep in the same bed as her. Vernon throttled her (literally, in her dream, metaphorically in terms of who Marion Rowley was allowed to be; too little, so she had to become Kate Andrews), Betty sleeps uncomfortably on a chair beside the bed just so she doesn’t make her feel uncomfortable. Betty who dragged Ivan into her room to fight potential rumours about being gay – and Kate wakes up, and immediately, almost instinctually, searches for Betty, because suddenly she isn’t quite sure if they’ve managed to slay her demon. 
Roses Red is one of those episodes that made me realize that Bomb Girls is a special show, one that has managed to carve itself its own place into my heart – because Kate Andrews isn’t driven by grief or guilt. She doesn’t rue that her father died in an accident, she doesn’t miss him, because he left the most terrible scars on her back and told her lies to keep her away from the freedom she had found; Kate is profoundly afraid that Vernon is still alive, and, later in the episode, once his death is proven (and she needs to see his body, not to find closure, but to be sure that the things in her head are nothing but ghosts), her biggest fear is threatening the one person who means most to her. In her case, she ponders running away as a way to protect Betty. 
This episode is brutal in a way that television is rarely brutal – it’s not gore, it’s an emotional kind of horror that is incredibly true to the characters. Kate needs to see her father dead, and seeing him in the morgue is a relief (even though the threat is right there, the officer poking holes in all the stories she has prepared for the occasion). Some monsters we actually need to see dead, despite the cost. 
Betty is running too, running in a way that is obviously painful to herself. It’s Valentine’s Day, and nobody’s more conscious of the expectations than Betty McRae. She is already torn between feeling happy about Kate’s return and terrified about its cost; but now, additionally, she needs to go on a date with Ivan, because that’s what girls do. It’s also a way to pretend that everything’s normal, in both senses – to pretend that Kate and Betty did not just walk away from the dead body of Vernon Rowley, and because they now have a connection, but they still never talk about what happened before Kate left. They’re pretending that everything’s normal; they didn’t kill someone to ensure Kate’s freedom, they didn’t kiss; everything normal, Kate doesn’t have all these conflicting feelings. They go on a double date and spend the evening throwing each other loving glances and acknowledging how much they care about each other, and know each other. Bomb Girls never needs to be explicit about Betty’s feelings, because it’s all right there in her movements, the way she reacts to people; the way she awkwardly goes through the motions of kissing Ivan, which results in a “thank you” and the most awkward of awkward pats on the back; and the way she instinctually and completely uninhibitedly embraces Kate when she returns. Their one constant is the way the world constantly interrupts them whenever there is a threat of intimacy; they talk about how much they mean to each other, and why, and other people come flooding in with their demands. Betty asks Kate to promise that she won’t go back to her father’s caravan alone to retrieve the money she owned; but before Kate can promise anything, James and Gladys come in. Kate tells Betty that she will leave, not to protect herself but because the police knows of a blonde woman who talked to Vernon before he died, and Betty asks her to stay, but before she can explain why (because she loves her, because that boyfriend that Kate mentions means absolutely nothing), Gladys and Lorna come in and demand all the attention. 
Betty: You come back home after?
Kate: Go.
Betty: PLEASE.
The kiss with Ivan means nothing, Betty’s just moving through the motions of acting like everything’s normal (like she is normal, like her heart doesn’t skip a beat whenever Kate enters a rom), but then Kate does come back (“I was out there thinking that I had no family left, but then I realized that I did.”), and romantic music plays in the background, and Betty walks towards her (it might as well be slow motion) and embraces her. 

And then there’s James. One of my favourite aspects of Gladys’ stories is that the show always chooses to acknowledge how incredibly privileged she is. She decided to move out of her parents’ house and into the boarding house, except of course the other girls there don’t really have a choice about living there; it’s an adventure for her, but a reality for everybody else, the price they are paying for their freedom. She doesn’t know the rules (you can’t take a hot bath in the mornings because hot water is a luxury), she has her friend Carol drag her luggage there, her mother assumes that Gladys will return once she needs her clothes washed – and James, who’s just finished his training as an officer, is privileged too. He’d be a regular soldier if it weren’t for his money and his social standing. The disillusionment Gladys went through in the first episode, learning about Japanese war crimes, was sort of political and not yet personal, but the way James describes the horrors of knowing that he will soon have to kill people just to protect the men whose lives are now his responsibility, despite the fact that he almost failed his training, and doesn’t feel prepared, completely robs Gladys of any romantic notion of warfare. There is a greater conflict in this episode, viewed through the siege of Singapore: that between leadership and common soldier. James, as part of the leadership, has a responsibility that extends far beyond his own life. He doesn’t worry about dying; but killing. He isn’t concerned about his own life, but not being able to preserve that of the soldiers he is meant to protect. When the Japanese siege of Singapore is successful, the public blames the leadership, too craven to successfully defend the city-state, leaving the soldiers behind to be taken captive – but Gladys, through her experience with James’ fears, realizes that the leadership consists of individuals who aren’t heroes or gods, but simple people, driven by fear, unable to deal with the burden of expectations that is placed upon them. 
Roses Red feels like a eulogy to James, and I can’t shake the feeling that something terrible will befall him soon. There is a sense that this is a swansong, a goodbye; one that brings both closure, when Gladys tells him that he is brave, and a good person (“I’ve been thinking James, and the fact is, you are no coward. Look at me. There’s no officer’s camp can make a man ready for his first battle. It’s life that prepares us. And I know that you have lived yours well.”), and guilt, when James drunkenly tells her he enlisted for her. That last picture they take feels like something she will look back to grieving. It’s a photo to remember him by.

Lorna’s way of running is subtle, and only a few actually know that she is hiding from an inescapable truth: Marco knows that she is pregnant with his child, and still working the factory floor, ignoring all the risks. Bob assumes that his wife is pregnant from another man, even though Lorna has chosen to pretend she isn’t. 
Part of running away is acting. You act like everything’s normal or you act like your secret pregnancy is the result of a lonesome night of passion a couple of months ago; and Kate is great at it, pretending, because it’s the thing that keeps her alive (literally, because it’s what made Kate exist, stories), but Lorna is absolutely terrible at acting. She bakes Bob’s favourite pie to tell him that she realizes she might just be pregnant, but of course Bob knows it’s not his, he knows that this is a performance. They’ve known and each other for ages, so they have the ability to really hurt each other, hurt each other in this focused, pointed way that only people who’ve once loved each other can find. Lorna admits that the man she was unfaithful with “saw her, inside” – in a way that Bob couldn’t, because he always chose to leave her out of that intimate pain of his, the pain of losing the ability to walk in the trenches and returning as a cripple (and when he responds “I see you too”, it’s a threat more than anything). 
Lorna: I’ve been so unhappy. You know what I’ve put up with.
Bob: It goes both ways, Lorna
Lorna: Maybe if you hadn’t shut me out all these years ago, maybe if you knew how to be a man.
Bob tells her that he had opportunities to be unfaithful, and she responds that she doesn’t believe him; and in a way, it’s the ultimate thing she could do to shame him, telling him that. He throws her out of what he calls “his” house, a house that she’s been paying for since he came back from the war. Sometimes the people who’ve loved each other the longest can be the most cruel to each other.
She wanders the streets alone, and starts cramping later, in the factory, while everybody else is singing the national anthem; Gladys and Betty take her to the hospital while Kate removes the traces (she will not leave the factory on a gurney), except inevitably, all of it will come to light, because she will lose the baby and her daughter works in the hospital. 
And the thing is, they know how to hurt each other the best, but this is also an episode that makes us remember the other side of it – the intimacy of having known each other forever, of raising children together and working to have a roof over their heads and dealing with this incredible trauma, even though it’s left its scars. Lorna loses the baby, but they’re united again in her sickbed, her daughter (soon to be a doctor, just watch) taking care of her, and Bob hesitating but finally grasping her out-reached hand. They’re both guilty in their own way, but there is an incredibly intimacy to their knowledge of each other’s pain as well. 

Secretly, my favourite part of the episode was Vera Burr, because I can’t think of a character who’s ever snuck up on me as sneakily as Vera Burr did; It’s always the silk stockings, the signifiers of a class that Vera does not belong to, objects she wanted to obtain by working her way into a place that didn’t invite her, except the only way Vera will ever have silk stockings is by waiting for a soldier to give them to her. And the glorious moment of the episode is when Vera stops being apologetic about it; when she proudly wears the scars that she obtained as a soldier, and completely dazzles a young man. It’s kind of magical that Bomb Girls is a show about history, and yet one of the rare examples of stories that acknowledge that women sometimes just want to have an enjoy having sex. Four for you, Vera Burr!

Random notes: 

12 pages of notes! Panicking about 12 pages of notes! I need help!

The light in the episode is so gorgeous. 

A moment to remember the fact that Gladys Witham chose to give Kate a Valentine’s Card with a heart and a short-haired blonde woman. I think it’s fair to say that Gladys Witham ships McAndrews more than the entirety of tumblr, yes?

Also just the fact that Gladys Witham, straightest of all the characters, gave Valentine cards to all her favourite girls. 

Lorna’s confrontation with a worker who’s just had a kid is really great, because she learns that there are now choices about children that didn’t exist previously; there’s infant child care which allows women to return to work immediately. 

Awesomely, Gladys asks Vera to go drunk bowling with her when both of them have no date for Valentine’s Day, and it’s too bad that nothing comes of it. I love that the show tries to make connections between previously unconnected characters this season. 

Marco’s Cupid outfit is truly spectacular. And if only this dorky Italian weren’t so much into desserts, he’d be so much easier to dislike (and the quiet Marco/Vera friendship that started in the hospital is so great, because the kindest thing is not loudly acknowledging things sometimes, which is exactly what Marco does when he realizes what Vera is doing out on her own on Valentine’s Day). 

I don’t know what exactly the point was when Gladys explained in detail how bullets worked, but there was an incredible beauty there; Gladys, knowing the theory of it, how destruction works, and James, fearing the nearing moment of being thrown right into it. 
Gladys: I sent for my things, Betts, it’s what one does.
Bob compliments Lorna on her ability to balance raising the children and being responsible for the household while working at the factory right before she admits that she might actually be pregnant; and then, later, wandering the streets alone, she looks at a shop window, advertising the “housesoldiers” that can do it all. Except, what if it is a lie, that we can get what we want? What if it isn’t actually possible, to balance it all, to balance responsibilities and desires, social conventions and freedom, work and family?

The lovely moment between Kate and Betty with Betty’s face cream (which she certainly got from Gladys) – I feel like this was meant to be Kate, trying to get Betty to talk (“I bet Ivan appreciates the effort”) except of course Betty swiftly changes the subject and offers to help Kate with the rent. 

The way Kate faces the police officer absolutely slays me, because clearly, she’s been thinking about it endlessly since it happened. She’s made up a story to cover their tracks, she’s invented a fictional blonde woman to blame, she’s suddenly brave when she tells the officer that “Sir, my father has died. I found out not more than an hour ago, I’d ask you to show a little more consideration.” But once the officer mentions the blonde woman that’s been seen arguing with Vernon, she also realizes that her one safe place is in danger. 

Vera’s Randall is the first time ever that I’ve felt compelled to use the term “delicious man meat”, but seriously, if all falls apart but Vera’s happy with her hot soldier, I’ll be sort of content with the show. 

Gladys: Why Vera Burr, did you snag yourself the love of a good man? 


bnofee said...

Hi! Such insightful analysis here- lots of things i've never thought of before!

Just on the bedside scene, i was thinking it's all the more poignant as either Kate or Betty could have chosen to sleep in the common room and left the other to take the bed, but they needed to be together; needed the company/safety of each other's presence -especially after such a traumatic event- but simultaneoulsy couldn't fully seek the comfort they were after.

Yes, Betty is afraid to trust herself in the same bed as Kate, but i feel like she's also granting Kate a safe distance, as a means of making Kate feel comfortable. Because so much of Betty-Kate is about keeping each other safe. In my head canon, Betty also thinks sleeping on a chair by the door is a good idea in case someone tries to come in during the night, she'd sock em one before they even knew what was what <3

cathy leaves said...

I really love that scene, and I agree with you interpretation (plus it gives me a lot of feelings)... makes me wonder about the significance of Kate sleeping in the common room in a later episode. Is this really just Kate passing out from staying out drinking late or are they now at the point where even that comfort seems out of reach?
I also see Betty sleeping in the chair as a sign of both of them handling the fall-out of the kiss and Betty's declaration of love last season without explicitly talking about it. Their non-verbal manoeuvring around each other and affection and intimacy (that is so different from the easy rapport that Betty and Gladys share) in the light of what happened is one of my favourite things this season.
And "keeping each other safe" - YES, this is so so true, and I think sometimes in reviews there's too much focus on Betty protecting Kate even though it's a two-sided thing.

Also, now we definitely know that Betty would be perfectly capable of knocking out anyone daring to come through that door :)

Bnofee said...

Completely agree :) I've read a lot of people are upset that the kiss was never discussed, but i think it makes perfect sense. This is not erasure; this is not Glee insofar that the writers have PTSD about previous scenes/plotlines. It's what's really hooking me into the show - the fact that the writers appear to have a very deliberate plan for developing themes/characters, which you do so well in deconstructing here.

I think the avoidance of the issue was preciptated by the whole 'I have a boyfriend now' thing, and both of them grasping for 'normality' - it's okay the kiss doesn't mean anything, the 'i love you' declaration doesn't mean anything .. i know this avoidance too well, when i drunkenly kissed and declared my hand to my best friend at a music festival then proceeded to freak out and run away into the fields then all these things happened, and we've never really talked about it since but it is implied in everything we do, and the ways we try to maintain our friendship. And they do it so well in the show with connecting physical and emotional distance (i think this is what they were shooting for when Kate sleeps on the couch in the following episodes) Sigh so many feelings!

Yes yes yes to Kate also being protective of Betty- i can think of two instances (apart from the obvious Kate willing to leave her only safe place to protect Betty), one when the Vernon comes to collect Kate and hits Betty, Kate is quick to heed her father's cry to "tell her " (Betty) that she has been seduced. While the "I never wanted any of this/ i never wanted you" declaration may have been true, i can't help but think that the bluntness of it was intended to protect Betty further from Vernon's violence- those words cut deep enough and had an immediate impact so Betty would stop following and were exactly what Vernon would have wanted to hear. The second instance is when Betty finds Kate in the street and she begs her to leave otherwise Vernon would hurt Betty. Betty, ofcourse has no regard for her safety when it comes to Kate, and Kate is wise to that quickly saying that her dad would hurt her instead if Betty didn't leave. I think Kate is a lot wiser that a lot of people make her out to be. She's a survivor of abuse, she knows self preservation as a means of staying alive, and is quick on her feet in situations of danger (you can see this is the scene with the cop)

Sorry this is so long, i am just obsessed with this show more so than i have any other for some time! Excited for today!

cathy leaves said...

The amazing thing is that they are processing the kiss in their own way - the way they look at each other and put all the feelings in the world into it. It's also really peculiar that they aren't avoiding each other at all - you'd think that would be the easy thing to do, stay out of each other's life - but instead they're constantly exploring the boundaries of their precarious friendship (Kate doing Betty's nail and asking about Ivan SLAYED me in yesterday's episode, what a perfect combination of "doing what best friends do" and endless amounts of subtext).
It's also kind of strange that Kate involves Betty so much in searching for a guy if you think about it - sure, they share a lot of things, but Betty is almost always there when Kate is trying to flirt! And Kate asks for approval and help, as if she's daring Betty do intervene in some way (or it's a constant feedback loop of "we're normal girls dating normal guys"). I think the season is heading towards the breaking point where either of them just can't take it anymore.
I love your interpretation of the confrontation with Vernon! And she physically put herself between Betty and Kate initially, which is pretty amazing considering that all her instincts as a victim of abuse must have told her to get as far away from his possible. I also think that Kate is the kind of person that would mentally go through any possible situation, so she'd have thought about the possibility of the police investigating her father's death - and it would have occurred to her that someone would mention Betty's threat to them, and come up with a ready explanation beforehand to protect her in case she ever got asked that question.

I don't think I've ever been so emotionally invested in a show and had so much trust in the writers before. No need to apologize for sharing your thoughts, I'm really grateful and enjoy reading and responding to them!!

Bnofee said...

I trust you've seen the new promo?! Well you called it - looks like things are definitely heading towards a breaking point. Such levels of unspoken emotions/desires/FEELINGS cannot be contained for long!

Cannot wait to her your thoughts on 2.05. I was absolutely aghast that Kate could be so.. so insensitive(?)naive(??) I like your idea of Kate almost challenging Betty to intervene or show her hand - not sure whether this is intentional or subconscious, she's playing at some game though, just probing enough and poor Betty; just, her face portrays internal anguish and conflict so well. ljlallkfj too much. Whereas in previous scenes, I've felt that Kate has been trying to probe for a reaction in Betty("i bet Ivan appreciates the effort", "you've got Ivan now"), she seemed genuinely excited that Betty granted her 'permission' to date Ivan. It's like she's genuinely buying into this idea of boy + marriage + kids = happiness/easing of her pain-trauma. I think she'll soon realise though that Ivan won't fulfill her vast unmet needs. As much as i hate this, i think it's completely necessary as Kate has such a long journey to go in terms of exploring her identity away from her father; and yes, part of this involves her sexuality, but also in other things like 'am i the kind of person who condones drinking, how do i feel about fidelity?' SHE'S JUST A BABY IN THIS WORLD. And gosh darn it Betty, just hang in there! I think i'm gonna be watching next ep with this fixed expression D: