The Happy Ending Project: Nikki and Helen of ‘Bad Girls’

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Before Franky and Bridget (and Franky and Erica), there was Nikki Wade and Helen Stewart. This week’s happy ending project comes from a lesbian-packed British prison show called “Bad Girls.” The series, which aired from 1999 to 2006, had multiple lesbian couples, including Denny and Shell (seasons 2-4), Cassie and Roisin (season 4), Selena and Kris (seasons 5-6), and Pat and Sheena (season 7), although not everyone got a happy ending and none of which were as popular as Nikki and Helen.

When the series starts, Nikki (Mandana Jones) is Larkhall Prison’s top dog, a firm but fair inmate serving a life sentence for killing a policeman who tried to rape her then-girlfriend. Helen (Simone Lahbib) is the new Wing Governor of Larkhall’s G-Wing, an idealist struggling to assert authority over both her own officers and the inmates. Inevitably, the two are drawn together in a perfect forbidden romance.

The Nikki and Helen relationship is a master class for how to develop a lesbian storyline, a fact made all the more impressive given that in 1999, lesbian pairings were still a relative rarity on TV. All the details of the pairing work, from the plot to the writing to the acting to the pacing of the storyline.

A particular strength of the Nikki-Helen relationship (this was looong before portmanteaux were a thing. Nikelen? Helikki? WadeStew?) is its gradual, natural development in season one: it’s easy for Nikki to fall in love with Helen, but much harder for Helen to grapple with developing feelings for a woman for the first time, and an inmate over whom she wields disproportionate power, to boot. The Nikki-Helen relationship was well done, and as a result, everything about it was heartfelt and genuine.

 

Nikki and Helen spend their earliest interactions bickering. Helen’s efforts to reform her wing of the prison are failing, and Nikki is acting out as a result of feeling degraded by the system, which treats inmates like brainless cattle. The dynamic changes, however, when Helen shows Nikki trust, which Nikki returns. The two (wittingly and unwittingly) flirt over classic literature, which emboldens Nikki to make a move on a shocked Helen.

Helen firmly rejects the advance, leading Nikki to lash out and Helen to put up walls. The two quickly become supports for each other, however, in the dehumanizing world of the prison system. Nikki helps Helen try to make Larkhall a better place even as she continues to push Helen to confront her feelings for Nikki. And all that is just what happens before they kiss for the first time.

One of the key themes of the relationship is propriety and power: what is proper behavior for someone in a position of power when love is involved? Helen, following the letter and spirit of the law, believes it’s impermissible to have a relationship of any kind, and frequently tries to put up barriers to prevent or constrain any relationship. Impulsive and determined Nikki, on the other hand, believes that love is more important than law. This tension between the two approaches drives the relationship throughout seasons 2 and 3, but of course, the relationship ends with the type of happy ending that makes you go, “Awwww.”

The Good:

  • Nikki epitomizes the trope of the inmate with a heart of gold. She’s a sympathetic character for whom viewers want to root.
  • Jones and Lahbib both do wonderfully with their characters. Neither Nikki nor Helen is perfect; they are both adults who behave in sometimes selfish, childish, self-destructive ways. This makes them incredibly realistic and relatable.
  • Although the prison hierarchy naturally sets up a power imbalance between Nikki and Helen, this is a relationship that strives as much as possible to be between equals. Helen respects Nikki for all that she is outside of just her orange jumpsuit (metaphorically, because at Larkhall the prisoners don’t wear uniforms): a businesswoman, a voracious reader, and a leader. Helen encourages Nikki to continue her education and set goals for herself. Likewise, Nikki respects Helen as someone sincerely committed to making the world a better place.

 

  • In the same vein, the show is very good about displaying the actual power imbalance that exists when as one partner is locked up and the other is her jailor. As much love as they might have for one another, Helen is free to enter Nikki’s cell at any time, permission given or not. Helen can send Nikki to solitary confinement or have her relocated to a different prison. Helen can go home at night, but Nikki can never leave the confines of Larkhall Prison’s G-Wing. Helen doesn’t have to actively abuse her authority to still have a significant degree of power over Nikki. Moreover, when Nikki and Helen break up at one point, it’s because Helen has chosen desire for authority over love and compassion.
  • “Bad Girls” did a good job of tackling many interesting, serious themes over the course of its run (drug abuse in prison, separation of mothers from children, abuse of prisoners by officers, etc.), one of which was the way prison strips control from prisoners. For example, Nikki’s disappointment in season one at meeting Helen’s fiancé Sean on one hand reflects her belief that she and Helen shared a romantic connection, but on the other hand also reflects her despair that no matter her efforts, as a prisoner she is constantly unable to control her surroundings. She couldn’t ask the object of her affections out for a drink, nor could she, having been rejected, go have a beer to get over it or find another woman to pursue.

The Bad:

  • Helen’s hair and most of her wardrobe in the first season leave much to be desired. In 1999, Helen was still dressing like Dana Scully from “The X-Files” circa 1993. Luckily, in season two her look was revamped.

Overall grade: A. This is a very, very solid couple both on its own merits and particularly when viewed in context of when it aired (18 years ago!). “Bad Girls” did a standout job of shining a light on important prison issues in a nuanced and sympathetic way. Manipulation, control, abuse of power, bullying, and drug abuse were all part and parcel of the show’s storylines, and in between it all, a well-crafted love story was woven. Although for some happy ending pairings it’s best just to watch clips of the lesbian couple and not the wider show, “Bad Girls” is worth watching in its entirety, episode by episode, for its complexity and engaging storylines. Read our recaps of “Bad Girls” here.

AfterEllen would also like to note that Lahbib is the driving force behind The Eilidh Brown Memorial Fund, a charity set up in memory of her niece. The charity is raising funds to build a countryside respite holiday home in the Stirling area for young people and their families who are going through, went through, or lost a child to cancer. The charity is only short £50,000 from making Eilidh’s dream a reality, so if you’re looking for a charity to donate to and loved the show, you might consider this one.

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