Monday, February 4, 2013

Bomb Girls: Gladys, Gene, and the Wars Within

Part of what makes Bomb Girls compelling, as a show, is the narrative’s exploration of internal conflict set against a larger backdrop of world war.  Each character can be identified by the negotiation of two opposing sides within themselves.  Lorna struggles between responsibility and desire; Vera struggles between how she feels and how she looks; Gladys struggles between her family and her identity; Kate struggles between her family and freedom; Betty struggles between her identity and her happiness.  Each of these women has a war within themselves, and Bomb Girls very smartly puts them in the circumstances of an actual world war, where changing stakes and shifting priorities affect these internal struggles.  It’s this merging of concepts that propels much of Bomb Girl’s conflict and character plotting.

Now that it’s Season 2, and the war is in full swing, Bomb Girls is allowing for these opposing polarities to blur together, to show that it’s not so easy to tell the difference between good and evil, right and wrong --  when a war is on.  The result is a batch of episodes that are painfully unafraid to confront that gray area in between two contrary concepts.  Betty faces the enemy and is confronted with the possibility that they’re not unalike; Kate struggles to grieve a father who abused her; Lorna deals with the good and bad in an unwanted pregnancy.  But perhaps no storyline serves this concept more distinctly than the introduction of Eugene Corbett, Lorna’s war hero son.

At first, it’s easy to be frustrated by Gene’s inclusion in the show.  Lorna is blind to his faults, and defends him at every turn.  He’s something of a cad, a selfish and arrogant talker who has little regard for rules or propriety.  He shamelessly flirts with Gladys, ditches family dinner, and stirs up trouble pretty much wherever he goes.  He’s a difficult character to like, especially on a show like Bomb Girls where the dimensionality of its female characters is sacrosanct in the eyes of a primarily female audience.  And with the introduction of Gene, Bomb Girls has toyed with the idea of Gladys and Kate being at odds over Gene’s affections, as well as the notion that Gladys is drawn to the soldier, even though she has a fiancé overseas.  Gladys’ scenes with burst with nauseating flirtation, as he calls her “Society Girl” and purposefully provokes her so that she’ll loosen up and do what he wants.  On its one-dimensional surface, it appears to be a reimagining of a “bad boy” trying his best to ruffle up a “good girl” for fun.  So, I spend 90% of Gene’s screentime ranting about the way he treats the people around him, and how obnoxious it is, and how much I’ll hate it if Bomb Girls scripts Gladys to give in to his flirting.

But Bomb Girls actively chooses to provide depth and nuance to Gene’s role on the show, and I am madly in love with all its painful tragic infuriating details, even - especially? - in the arc with Gladys.  Gladys and Gene’s attraction is not simply the devil-may-care pull of testosterone towards a sheltered society girl who tries hard to resist but just can’t.  Instead, Bomb Girls is scripting something richer, made specific and dimensional thanks to the interaction of circumstance and character design.  In other words, the Gladys-Gene storyline transcends cliché on account of the attention paid to the contextual environment of World War II, and to Gladys’ character itself.

Gladys’ attraction to Gene is not about Gene; Gladys said it herself.  “I like me when I’m with you.”  Sure, it sounds like a schmaltzy line from a love story, but this is not a love story.  This is a tragic spiral of two people who feel helpless in a violent world and succumb to poor choices.  So, that line is an indication that we need to be looking at Gladys’ identity when it comes to her interactions with Gene.  Obviously, the easy assessment is that she’s lonely and he’s charming and her fiancé is overseas and they all might die tomorrow.  Combined, it’s enough to support the idea that Gladys would kiss another man.  But the scene with Gladys and Gene in the car - the scene in which Gladys gives in - suggests something beyond that.  It’s not just that Gladys blows off work to be a rebel with a cute guy. She wants to know what it feels like, to know what it's like to do what Gene does in the war.  There’s a level of curiosity there about that, specifically.

All Gladys has wanted from episode 1 is to be a part of the war - obviously, because she has no reason to work in the factory except her own will.  In fact, she has to actively fight to keep her participation in the war.  She doesn’t want to be a face, or a wallet - she wants to get her hands dirty, get involved, and experience the feeling of purpose, with a blazing if naive determination.  It’s perhaps Gladys’  biggest objective in the show, above all else.  So when someone from the front lines comes through her life, it only makes sense that she, as a character, want to connect to that.  Gladys going for Gene is not about Gene necessarily, but about what Gene represents, and who Gladys wants to be.  It’s no coincidence, then, that Gladys doesn’t engage with Gene until only after he shows her what it’s like to fly right on the edge of danger.  What it’s like to be a gunner for the air force, what it’s like to be on the front lines of the war effort.  It’s an embodiment of everything Gladys has ever wanted.

Of course, this concept also plays into the conflict between Gladys and her family.  Gladys is constantly in rebellion against her parents and her place in the world, and Gene is an outlet for her to satisfy that.  It’s not necessarily that having an affair with Gene is taboo (although it is, and Mama Witham is not happy) -- it’s the idea that Gene is someone who encourages freedom, flying into the wind, and doing whatever the hell you feel like.  Is that not what Gladys has been fighting for since the war started?  Gladys’ inner conflict is usually between duty and self, and the war effort is the one place where those two ideas can synthesize.  Gladys feels duty to her country and to her identity over her family, and so working at the factory is an easy choice.  It satisfies both those needs.  As for her duty to James… I don’t think she doesn’t feel any.  But I also don’t think it stands a chance, in a moment of weakness, against Gene and what he represents.  Gene embodies the concept of Gladys’ country, and her identity - and those responsibilities will always edge out any other duty Gladys may feel.

I do think as well that there’s enough evidence to suggest that Gladys’ desire to know what it’s like to live Gene’s life is connected to the concept that she wants to understand what James is going through.  It’s not as though Gladys has forgotten James - hell, her entire portion of 2.04 was dedicated to the stress of enduring non-communication with him, and worrying over his whereabouts.  Beyond that, before he left, Gladys began to experience a disconnect from James - a sense of alienation on account of their differing experiences.  He was already altered by the war, even before he shipped out, and Gladys struggled with the idea that he might not open up and share his experience.  While it’s hardly an excuse for kissing someone not your fiancé, I do think the show has put enough pieces in place to support the idea that Gladys wanting to understand a soldier’s life is directly related to her wanting to understand James when he gets back - to be able to help him, to see things as he does, and not lose him to post-traumatic stresses and depression.  What’s ironic, of course, is that the boy who’s sharing his war hero POV is already beginning to suffer that very fate.

At the end of the day, of course, an affair with Gene Corbett is a really bad decision.  It’s also really stupid to let a man who’s been drinking grab the steering wheel while you have your eyes closed.  This storyline is not showing Gladys in her finest hour, but it is showing us who Gladys is, on a complicated and deeper level.  No, she’s not a cheater at heart, nor is she a thoughtless tramp.  But she is someone who wants desperately to be a part of the war effort, and to feel uninhibited by the bounds of the lifestyle she was born with.  Gene Corbett, however annoyingly persistent in his flirtation, satisfies that for Gladys.  And as she said, it’s not really about him - it’s about her.  Gladys is steering the ship, as it were, and I love that Bomb Girls has chosen to define the progression of this storyline by that.  She is the one to grab his arm and pull him back; she is the one to kiss him.  This is not a story about a society girl and the boy who makes her feel free.  It’s much more specific than that, and that comes from Gladys.

Of course, this specificity is extended into the circumstances of their context - World War II.  Obviously, it connects to Gladys through her desire to fight the same fight the boys are fighting overseas.  But it also manifests through Gene himself, and through the general tone that Bomb Girls is setting for this season: the permanent uneasiness that comes with the unknown.  Everyone in the narrative is dealing with a certain level of powerlessness as the world spins out of their control - and both Gladys and Gene are prime examples.  Gene’s made it clear that the possibility of death on the warfront makes it a lot easier for him to be flippant about social mores.  Or maybe it’s just an excuse, or an exacerbation - Bob and Lorna mention that Gene was selfish and singular-minded even before he enlisted.

But as Bob says, you can never tell what war is going to do to a man, and Bomb Girls is using Gene Corbett to demonstrate that firsthand.  While both of Gene’s episodes portray him as roguish and unlikeable, they also purposefully poke holes in that facade to reveal harrowing glimpses of a young man spiralling out of control.  It’s difficult to write him off completely, considering what’s happening to him - that he has absolutely no control over.  Gene Corbett is coping the only way he knows how, and the moments when we are reminded of that are genuinely painful and stomach-turning.

Looking ahead, I’m completely invested in Gene’s devolution, as it were, as well as in the impact that will have on Gladys.  I’m not really looking forward to seeing how Gladys handles this in conjunction with her engagement to James, or to the hopefully-forgotten prospect of any further Kate-related triangle drama.  But those aspects are resting on the surface of a much more complicated and dimensional exploration.  What would, on most shows, be trivialized for romantic drama and flattened into a basic love story, is instead on Bomb Girls demonstrated as a study in the tolls taken by war, and the struggles within ourselves to live true to our own purpose.  It fits neatly into the scope and tone that the show has chosen to define itself by, and serves not only as a testament to developed character design but also as a tragic reminder of the inescapably stressful reality of war.

1 comment:

  1. Bomb Girls has been brilliant this year. On any other show the Gladys/Gene hook up would have been all about her being unable to resist his flirtations. He's so cute in his uniform... ZOMG... flail. This was so much better.

    Bob always says that you never know what War will do to a man... and we see that playing out with Gene's devolution, but what I think is the most interesting is that this is a show primarily about what war will do to its female protagonists. You should write more about this show... you, know... in your spare time. :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...