Monday 7 April 2014

Bomb Girls - Welcome home!

Bomb Girls: Facing the Enemy. 

Betty McRae went to prison to protect the person she loved the most in the world, and then disappeared after getting out, choosing a path on which intentionally losing and getting hurt meant she was winning. Kate Andrews went on stage; night after night, thinking Betty hated her because she would not write back, but Betty’s sacrifice allowed her to grow into herself rather than make choices out of fear. Gladys went away to learn how to become a spy, and in the process was in danger of forgetting what it meant to be a friend. Lorna watched the people she loved grow and change, literally learn to walk, start to be self-sufficient again, but failed to see that they were able to be and do these things because of her, that she made them beautiful, so she would never be dispensable, regardless of how much she felt like she was. Vera was maybe the strongest amongst them because she faced all of her demons early on, and without flinching, so she went into battle open-eyed and bravely. Marco found a home that didn’t make him feel like an alien, because sometimes all that matters are the people that share your life. 
Facing the Enemy does little to fill in the space between the last time we went inside VicMu and the moment when Gladys returns, after Clifford, on the tracks of a conspiracy, has been murdered. Her mission is to figure out if VicMu is where an infiltrator sabotages a newly developed technology that can detect German submarines, at the cost of Canadian ships. This puts Gladys in an interesting position, considering how she made it onto the floor of the factory in the first place: slightly, secretly on the outside, forced into the position of the observer not by her social standing this time but by her secret identity as a spy, back home with her friends. The things that have changed since she left severely affect her mission: for one, the new production line is run by Ivan’s wife, Helen, who mistrusts her even more than Lorna and Betty did when she first entered VicMu, and also her best friend, Betty, hasn’t contacted anyone since leaving prison and hasn’t returned, so the person that she’d have the most trust in is gone. It almost feels like Gladys is unlearning something that she was taught at “The Farm” – to trust no one, because she realizes that the success of her mission depends on the wit and knowledge of the friends that she has faith in and trusts implicitly. This is what sets her apart from the men who oversee her: that her unconventional approach, and her readiness to cooperate and ask for help, is a more certain way to eventual success than their covertness and obsession with secrets. This fits in beautifully with what Bomb Girls has always been about, just on a very basic level, that picture of women walking hand-in-hand to and from the factory, working on something together and in the process claiming the future for themselves. 
This is what breaks whatever spell has kept everyone else back in VicMu from truly trying to find Betty McRae – Vera, the only one knowing where Betty is, keeping quiet because she assumes it’s what Betty would want, Kate not pursuing her because she thinks that Betty hates her. Gladys instantly realizes that Kate’s assumption can’t be true, since she is the one person who knows how deep Betty’s feelings for Kate go, who comprehends it enough to know that hate isn’t even a possibility, regardless the circumstances. She needs Betty at the factory because she trusts her “implicitly”, and she knows exactly what buttons to push to get her back there – when she chooses to mention that Kate thinks that Betty hates her, something that Betty needs to react to. 

My favourite part of Facing the Enemy is what Gladys and Lorna bring out in each other. Lorna is unquestionably and completely supportive once she’s accepted someone to be “one of her girls”, and Gladys is that – so her reaction to Gladys’ cover story for returning to VicMu (that she was kicked out of the CWAC because of subordination, entirely believable) is to do everything in her power to help her – “She really is one of the good ones”, she tells a friend of hers who might be able to help. But of course, at the same time, Lorna is probably a better spy than Gladys will ever be. After all, she set up Marco, found the locket in Kate’s locker, is more observant because of her incessant protectiveness and seriousness. This is Lorna’s story now: seeing her daughter start her own new life with Ned, pregnant with her grandchild, no longer dependent on her help, seeing Bob walk on his own, tentatively but more certain of himself every day (and maybe he won’t need anyone in the future, Ned tells him, something that Lorna misunderstands entirely when she overhears it), and then, the final straw, Gladys telling her that she isn’t one of her girls anymore. Lorna feels redundant, unnecessary, without a calling, until Gladys realizes that nothing works without her, that she needs her help to finish her mission, because both of them care entirely too much about everything, but Lorna has the experience and knowledge that Gladys lacks. Her training, and maybe the very instincts that led Clifford to believe that she was cut out to be a spy, allowed her to realize that the one button she could push with Lorna once her first cover was blown was to tell her that she’d been pregnant, and lost the baby – but everything that she learned during her time on the floor of VicMu, through her relationship with the girls, through respecting Lorna and loving Betty and Kate and Vera, tells her that she needs to trust them to accomplish her mission. 

Vera faced every obstacle in her life head-on, bravely, without flinching. She re-made herself after her accident, she embraced life to the fullest, and now she is ready to face the most terrible thing of all: war on the front lines, not at VicMu but overseas. Marco can’t join – Canadian Italians aren’t allowed yet, and his father, recently released from the camp, is opposed, since he may be forced to kill Sicilians – but Vera does. She does it for herself as much as for her country, because Vera Burr doesn’t run away from the things that she’s afraid of (and Marco realizes that, and is as supportive as he possibly can be, rather than pitying himself, or feeling like his ego is hurt – he is proud of her, and committed to waiting until she comes back). 

And then there’s Betty and Kate, of course. Betty returns to the factory after Gladys tells her that Kate thinks she hates her, a misunderstanding that Betty couldn’t possibly leave between them, even if her pride tells her to stay away from the factory and all the rumours surrounding her departure. She meets her in her room in the boarding house, once again, mirrors capturing both of them. 
Betty: So you think I hate you?
Kate: I never wanted you to take the fall for me, I tried to stop it from happening.
Betty: You never would have made it in prison, it would have destroyed you. I don’t hate you, I didn’t call, I stayed away. I let you move on.
Kate: As you can see I’m still here.
There are several moments like this throughout the episode, Betty testing the waters, asking about who Kate is in the moment, how much she’s changed, and Kate insisting, in her subtle way, that her feelings for Betty haven’t changed. She is still at the factory. She is still – endlessly – happy to see Betty, and they hug like the world is ending. When Gladys’ boss continues to flirt with her, sending over cards and drinks, she is visibly disinterested, even if Betty keeps inquiring about the nature of her interest in him. She is different from the Kate before, more grown up, the kind of person who can deal with being on stage night after night without the fear and stage fright she experienced before, but her feelings for Betty are still as profound as they ever were. She kept all of Betty’s stuff in her room, and that picture of her that saved her, that bought her the security clearance which meant that she could continue being Kate Andrews, is right on top, like she’s looked at it again and again, considering its importance and the fact that Betty kept it. Betty still constantly offers up her own interpretation of events – standing up to Kate when Donald tries to ridicule her is stupid, until Kate convinces her that it was brave, Betty needing those reassurances still because her mind is still occupied with the fact that Kate almost married Ivan, and what that might mean, even when Kate tells her that things have changed. 
What has changed is Betty’s anger. It was simmering under the surface before, a feeling of not belonging, but it’s sharper now, more focused, because she’s experienced the worst aspects of being on the outside. She clings to her dream of a house of her own even though having been in prison is an even bigger obstacle than being a woman, or being a single woman without a man speaking for her – but she needs it “cause I need a house, okay. Cause I deserve it. Cause it is my haven, and that ain’t no crime.” It’s her haven because it’s a room of her own, outside of the control of the people who constantly try to put her down and deny that her identity is valid, and Kate understands entirely, even if the way she shows it continues to be subtle. 
Betty thought that the only way for her to win anymore was to lose, and carry the traces of those lost fights in her face – and she wants to lose one more fight, until Marco gives her the chance to win by winning, to face what scares her and fight back and come out on top, and finally win her big dream. He bets on her, because that’s what friends are for. And Kate, horrified after seeing what bombs do, voicing the words that her father spoke to her about making bombs that kill people, shapes that realization into something new, something beautiful: she wants to sing, not as a hobby, but as a career, doing what she’s been doing all along (console with her words, give meaning), but without hesitation, because it’s what Vera would have done. And Betty gives her a home – gives her a home by winning that last fight, realizing her dream that only comes to full fruition when it extends to Kate. Not just a house of her own, but a house with a room for Kate, as long as she needs it, to make sure that she’s safe. She thinks it’s for until she finds the man of her dreams but the quiet smile on Kate’s face should tell her that there’s no need anymore; she’s already found her home.  

They beat the enemy within, in the end, with each other’s help. They mourn their lost friend, and hope for the war to end. They will do their part, build bombs that kill people, go overseas as spies, put on a uniform that was denied to them to keep the memory of Vera Burr, sing to bring back the light.
When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won't mean "goodbye" but "Hello to love"
When the lights go on again all over the world
And the ships will sail again all over the world
Then we'll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
When the lights go on again all over the world 
Random notes: 

The thing is that it will never be enough, the idea of getting any meaningful closure with what amounts to just two episodes is ridiculous, and that Bomb Girls could have, and should have, lasted at least another three seasons, so it’s pointless to judge Facing the Enemy by the fact that it’s the last chapter that will ever be released. At least there’s no epilogue, pretending to wrap things up neatly. It feels more like a beginning than an end, which is possibly the most we could have hoped for. Facing the Enemy probably works best on the meta level of people who seem to have enjoyed working with each other rejoicing in one more chapter of the story. Lots of hugging.  

BUT I would have taken a kiss between Kate and Betty. I think it would have been necessary, and fitting, rather than have Kate play the bait, reclaim her sexuality as a weapon to be used in the fight, to have it for herself. It would have fit, it would have been entirely possible, it wouldn’t have been rushed, but someone made a choice against it, and that bothers me. 

Nobody will convince me that Kate isn’t still, and always, singing about Betty when she’s on stage – starting with the first  “Oh lover, please remember me when I go away” & the light still does glorious things to both their faces. The song she sang for Vera is my favourite: 

Give me a kiss to build a dream on and my imagination will thrive upon that kiss. Sweetheart I ask no more than this: A kiss to build a dream on. When I’m alone with my fancies I’ll be with you. Weaving romances making believe they’re true. Give me your lips for just a moment and my imagination will make that moment live.
Vera: He actually thinks I’m going to be some typical Italian wife.
Kate: Vera, you’re nobody’s typical anything.
VERA. I don’t know where to begin. It’s true that the violence that comes with war is random and cruel, and maybe a show like Bomb Girls has to portray that nobody is safe during this time, that there is no proper closure (just like there was none with James), it all ends in a formal letter delivered by a serviceman to the next of kin; but at the same time, killing Vera of all people feels like killing hope itself, feels like killing the one optimistic beautiful driving force seemingly capable of overcoming all obstacles and embracing life with the full force of her radiant being. I won’t be over this loss for a while; and it’s just one of those things that Anastasia Phillips accomplishment in this role will never be truly recognized. 

Of all the reactions to Vera joining up and then dying, I think Carol’s very subtle in-the-background acting floored me the most.  

Something unsettling about how completely Gladys is convinced that that girl with the fake security papers is the perpetrator, considering that Betty’s backstory isn’t all that different from hers, even if her family managed to shake the German identity early on – in the end, “facing the enemy” means facing an enemy that is very much within the country, not from the outside, poisoned by the fact that a murderous ideology isn’t really bound to borders and can cross oceans. 
(and it’s a small moment, but Berman explaining that he has joined a group that is trying to draw attention to the suffering of European Jews is heart-breaking, because the restrictive immigration policy meant that there was no safe haven in many cases and in 1943, information about the camps had just started to come to the attention of the public. He is very formal in his plea, which makes it even more emotional). 

Oh Ivan. It’s like an escalation of terrible decisions which end in a pen that is also a bomb and a woman who loved him but was also responsible for his death. 

I don’t know what to say. That’s it. There would have been so much more to say.


Anonymous said...

I can't even. Thanks for your interpretation of the McAndrews bits we did get. I saw it the same way. It's sad that they decided to have it be only subtext and the background of the already sidestory. This and the whole movie just wasn't enough.

But I'm not only sad about the show ending (for now?), I'll also be sad about not reading articles about it by bright people like you.

Thanks for your work! Your comments and interpretations are always spot on :)

(And just by the way, I think it's telling that there've been 45minutes-episode recaps that you had more to say about than the 90 minute film. And I hope you do understand that that is no critique that's meant for you.)

Lied89 from Twitter :D

cathy leaves said...

Thank you so much!
It could have never been enough. I'm also not just sad to lose the characters (even if they live on in my imagination), but also the discussions and debates etc. And I will always look for that care and passion that everyone involved in Bomb Girls put into it in other shows, it sets a very, very high standard.
(and yes, I didn't have that much to say about the spy plot. An episode like 'Something Fierce' will always be the ultimate comparison in terms of how many feels a writer can fit into just 45 minutes of television)