Reminder: These reviews are for discussion of these episodes of Orange Is The New Black only, so please refrain from any spoilers for future episodes. To discuss the complete season, head to Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the first thirteen episodes.
“Lesbian Request Denied" (season 1, episode 3)
Taken as a whole, Orange Is The New Black is in a tremendous position to be progressive in its storytelling. Its women’s prison setting gives it a canvas on which to explore questions of gender and sexuality, while its mixed race cast has been foregrounded early on. However, at the same time, it’s a show that one could boil down to a love triangle between three white folks (Piper, Alex, and Larry); although sexuality permeates that triangle, and Taylor Schilling remains good at its center, it is still a very traditional storyline for a television drama.
Jenji Kohan knows this. In an interview with HitFix’s Dan Fienberg, she was frank about the value of Piper being at the center of this story. Discussing the series’ choice to use Piper Kerman’s book as a launching point, Kohan says “you're not gonna go into a network and say, ‘I want to talk about black women and Latina women and old women in prison.’ You need a guide. You need a way in. She was our gateway drug.” “Lesbian Request Denied” features a continuation of Piper’s journey, navigating the difficulties of a prison wife—“Crazy Eyes”—she doesn’t want, a former lover who she can’t avoid, and a new bed assignment in “The Ghetto.” The episode also explores her relationship with the outside, on Larry’s efforts to deal with her absence and her inability to control her business relationships given her new position. It tells the story that Jenji Kohan likely sold Netflix, the approachable and fairly typical exploration of one character’s experience in a world different from her own, an experience that will register as one of the biggest changes in her life.
While the episode might continue this narrative, “Lesbian Request Denied” is also Orange Is The New Black’s way of saying “tough shit” to Piper Chapman. On a lesser show, Sophia’s role as “The transsexual to whom Piper sold her hair for a weave” would have remained “The transsexual to whom Piper sold her hair for a weave,” but here the character is elevated above Piper for a week as we learn Sophia’s own story of becoming. While Piper’s change may be more immediate as the shock of prison sinks in, Sophia’s story of becoming is considerably longer, more complicated, and equally as compromised by the penal system. Whereas Piper feels violated by Pornstache’s glares or the requisite “squat and cough” after each visitation, the switch to generic, lower dose estrogen threatens Sophia’s body, a representation of her fight to reclaim her true self (and the reason she ended up in prison to begin with).
It’s a tragic story, albeit one that doesn’t shy away from Sophia’s guilt. Red’s story in “Tit Punch” was about how prison had transformed her, showing us two different people: Red before prison, and the Red who holds power in the prison through her withholding of food and transporting of goods. By comparison, “Lesbian Request Denied” shows us the same person in two different prisons: Sophia trapped in the wrong body, and Sophia eventually imprisoned for breaking the law in her efforts to change that. While she continues to face casual bigotry from those around her in prison (“he she,” “freak,” etc.), Sophia has the ability to be who she really is in a way that she couldn’t before. She might need to mix Vaseline and Kool-Aid to make lip gloss, and the closest she has to couture is a set of duct tape flip-flops, but Sophia wakes up each day in a body that is hers, and with an identity she understands. And while she was on her way to completing that transition before getting caught committing credit card fraud, it was always in the shadow of Marcus’ family, and Marcus’ co-workers, and a past she could never entirely escape.
While any storyline about a transgender character will be complicated, Sophia’s story—brought to life beautifully by Laverne Cox—is even more complicated than that. There’s the wife who supports the transition—and stays with Sophia—because she sees her husband’s pain, and because she believes that giving their son the opportunity to grow up with two supportive parents is more important than social norms. There’s the strained relationship with the son, who while navigating the confusion of his father’s transition must also navigate Sophia’s crimes; he’s angry as Sophia’s former co-worker stumbles across them at the shoe store, but that’s nowhere near as damaging as the shot of the son sitting on the steps with the book of credit cards piecing together the truth.
The back story gives incredible weight to the character’s present struggle for estrogen, which the prison has little sympathy for: “If he wanted to keep his girlish figure, he should have stayed out of jail.” While the series does not shy away from Sophia’s guilt, “Lesbian Request Denied” nonetheless foregrounds how the character has been continually punished for trying to attain or maintain her sense of self. She commits fraud to afford the transition that could save her life, and she commits bobblehead decapitation in order to get the doctor’s appointment she believes will save her body from withdrawal and the symptoms therein; in both cases, however, the desired result proves out of reach, with the doctor’s visit cutting off her dose entirely thanks to some health complications. After a lifetime of fighting against her own body, her body is now fighting back against her transition, just as her co-workers and her son and even her wife—who begged Marcus to keep “his” penis—did in the beginning.
In that same interview with Fienberg, Kohan notes “I did not want to spend my life in prison the entire time. I couldn't bear it, as just someone making this. So we needed those blue skies and we needed those backstories as a relief in the writing process as well as in the show.” And yet couldn’t one argue that until the moment her pills were taken away from her, and her transition was put into jeopardy, prison was Sophia’s “blue sky”? While she must bear the guilt of disappointing her family and absorb the lewd advances of Pornstache, she has nonetheless carved out an identity for herself that need not compete with the spectre of Marcus in her day-to-day life. She has become the prison’s hairdresser, someone to whom other women come to allow into their lives and to help them solve their problems. She is objectified, and ridiculed, but she is also in a space where her womanhood is recognized up until the moment generic drugs place that in jeopardy.
“Lesbian Request Denied” could be the only concentrated glimpse of Sophia’s story we get all season, but it is a brilliant example of how the series’ flashbacks can transform our understanding of these characters. It temporarily reminds us that while some characters will always be perceived as supporting players in an ensemble series like this one, they all have a leading actor story; they all have those big moments, like when Sophia sees a solution to her problem—Pornstache’s drug pipeline—but knows that it would mean comprising the sense of self she’s fighting for. For one week, writer Sian Heder—who brings with her the nuanced, subtle storytelling she was a part of on TNT’s Men Of A Certain Age—and director Jodie Foster tell one woman’s complicated, difficult story in a way that will stick with us even as the show shifts back to Crazy Eyes urinating on the floor outside of Piper’s new room. It’s a tremendous story, beautifully told, and an early high mark for the series.
- Crystal’s visit to the prison—which, interestingly, we see before we see her initial response upon Sophia’s arrest—is just heart wrenching. In one breath, it’s something almost inspiring: “I married a man named Marcus. I cry for him all the time. But I stayed, and I supported you, because I saw the pain you were in. I knew it was saving your life.” But then it ends up with her wanting Sophia to come home so she “can be a father to your son. Man up.” It’s just such a rich character position, one that I’m still parsing out as I work through the scene over and over again.
- Larry Watch: I presume many of you have been waiting to make some American Pie jokes—heck, you probably already made them in previous reviews—but certainly a storyline about edging is going to invite them.
- I enjoyed Jenji Kohan’s response to Fienberg’s question about Foster, an answer that boils down to “Jodie Foster is smart and talented and not inherently suited to the rigors of television directing.” Any struggles were invisible onscreen, though.
- I’ve enjoyed how the show has treated its guards: Pornstache is a high-level douchebag, yes, but both Healy and Bennett are more complicated characters. Healy is a well-meaning bigot with incredibly limited views on homosexuality—he gives the episode its title—while Bennett is kind and gentle with Daya but is also quick to pile on Sophia while trying to integrate into the workplace with Pornstache.
- The show continues to balance Piper’s flashbacks with each episode’s focus character, here showing her first meeting with Alex—it’s nice to have the origin, and Schilling slipped into the more naïve, innocent post-college Piper nicely.
“Imaginary Enemies" (season 1, episode 4)
Logical for four episodes into the season, “Imaginary Enemies" is balancing two separate impulses. One is to slow everything down and settle into a clear rhythm; the second is to keep things tense, lest the show lose the sense of danger inherent to seeing the prison experience through Piper’s eyes.
The latter is provided by the screwdriver, which becomes a Chekhov’s screwdriver by episode’s end. It’s a fairly typical episodic story, a short-term conflict that reverberates through multiple characters and multiple relationships. It provides insight into the power structure among the guards and prison employees (giving us our first look at the prison labor system), it further complicates the relationship between Claudette and Piper, and it also provides a conflict surrounding the pending departure of Mercy (who we hadn’t really met before this episode, but whose character is less about depth and more about symbolism). It also gets left in play—although used as a source of pleasure rather than as a violent weapon by Big Boo, it nonetheless exists in the hands of someone who at least considered using it to harm someone else. Regardless of whether or not Piper intended to remove the screwdriver—I had noticed it in her pocket, and had that detail pegged early—it was nonetheless her fault, and could come back to bite her as the series explores the seriality of the day-to-day conflicts in prison.
In terms of rhythm, meanwhile, Mercy’s exit connects with Claudette’s flashbacks, which are not as substantial as Sophia’s but nonetheless advance both the character and the series. Claudette’s story tracks her relationship with Baptiste from her first arrival to America from Haiti to work for a cleaning company, eventually culminating in the act—the murder of a client who molested one of her own cleaning workers—we presume resulted in her arrest. They’re a bit rushed to pull Claudette’s whole story together, relying on the good timing of both her potential for appeal (as immigration laws change to make her crimes regarding young girls from Haiti being brought to work for her cleaning company as she did years earlier) and the letter from Baptiste (who she clearly loved). All told, however, her flashbacks add depth to a character that was otherwise set up as a stock “difficult roommate,” explaining her emphasis on cleanliness as well as her strict rules regarding her roommate’s behavior. They also resist defining an older black woman solely by her spirituality or her maternal qualities, her faith and her motherly instincts—she herself was unable to have children—are coupled with the menace of her crime and the sense of justice that drove her to commit it. Late in the episode, I found myself presuming that she was the victim of a misunderstanding, but the episode doesn’t shy away from the brutality of her crime—which was a great reveal—in the final moments of her flashback.
What Claudette’s story also does is shift the focus away from the crime itself, which both flashbacks have treated as a reason to tell the story as opposed to the story itself, to the reasons it was committed. Tricia’s attempted crime—putting the drugs in Mercy’s locker—was as much an act of menace as Bo’s threatened screwdriver attack until you add context, which reframes it as an act of desperation borne out of love. It’s somewhat unclear why Claudette initially doesn’t want her case reopened: Is it because she has no reason to want to leave (until Baptiste’s letter), or is it because dredging up the past will bring back memories that she would rather not revisit? While many inmates are desperate to have Piper tell their stories, pushing her to edit their letters of appeal in their efforts to secure release, Claudette has told no one in the prison her story because she felt she didn’t have any reason to tell it. By telling us her story, “Imaginary Enemies” gives us reason to root for her, even if the rest of her fellow inmates remain—perhaps justifiably—frightened.
- Larry Watch: “Imaginary Enemies” is the first episode to eschew Larry—and anyone from outside the prison—entirely, which is either an editing room decision based on the rhythms of the episode or a conscious choice to highlight the isolation of the prisoners as the show ponders their relationship with both lockdown—the moment when the screwdriver goes missing sells the threat nicely—and the promise of release (or, if you prefer, escape).
- While Alex and Piper are still dancing around a larger confrontation at this point, I thought it was productive to give Alex a chance to open up to Nicky. As the show evolves, it no longer needs to filter all of its character development through Piper, who is central to this episode in terms of its narrative and situations but seems somewhat distant from its themes. By comparison, Alex’s relationship with her crimes is more complicated, and it was nice to get a glimpse of that without having to think about it through the lens of Piper.
- “You ain’t steppin’ on the Goblet of Fire. Don’t be fuckin’ with Harry Potter.”—I’d be totally onboard for a webseries of Taystee’s book reviews.