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.
“The Chickening” (season 1, episode 5)
Orange Is The New Black does not have a clearly defined genre. Like many other “dramedies” that blur the lines of comedy and drama, the series is telling what I’d consider a dramatic story but with an emphasis on finding its comic moments. It’s similar to Weeds, which Netflix has categorized in the same way: You can find both Orange Is The New Black and Weeds in the “TV Comedies,” “TV Dramas,” and “TV Dramedies” categories on the service.
Netflix will need to make a choice when they submit the series for Emmy awards next year, but I’d argue that Orange Is The New Black is decidedly a dramatic series with comic elements. For comparison, I often referred to Weeds as an “extreme dramedy.” What this meant was that Weeds was not just content with being part drama, part comedy; it wanted to be pure melodrama and broad farce simultaneously, working hard to see how far it could push the contrast and heightening the comic elements as a result.
For the most part, Orange Is The New Black isn’t going for the same extremes. This isn’t to say it isn’t broad, given that the central thread of “The Chickening” involves the inmates chasing after a mythical chicken that may or may not be filled with drugs; similarly, it’s hard to say that the series is uninterested in melodrama in an episode where an inmate’s mother intercepts her guard crush and tries to seduce him in a utility closet. But although “The Chickening” is the broadest episode yet, its comedy feels grounded in a way Weeds lost track of in its later seasons, and in a way that bases it on dramatic rather than comic grounds.
Although there are a number of intangible reasons for this, a big part is the way the show is handling its collection of colorful characters. Just look at how the show is handling Crazy Eyes: Here’s a character who was introduced—through Piper’s eyes—as a crazy stalker, pissing on the floor as though to mark her territory, who can still sit in an AA meeting without feeling like a punchline waiting to happen. A conflict between different religions competing for chapel space, or between different groups like AA and Yoga in the common room, doesn’t feel like comic relief; rather, these conflicts feel like characters searching for an outlet, for a moment of peace in the midst of what could be a lengthy prison sentence. Although the search for the chicken is a broad episodic conflict designed to throw the prison into mass panic, the episode is also filled with basic day-to-day challenges tied to each inmate’s identity.
The search for the chicken is central to the episode, but it plays largely as a metaphor for Piper’s desire to believe in something real and magical in this terrible place, which she chooses over fixing the real-life business arrangements that have slipped away from her on the inside. By comparison, however, Daya’s story is a bit more tangible. Similar to Red’s backstory in “Tit Punch,” Daya’s flashbacks seem as though they’re the first part of a larger story: We learn more about her relationship with her mother (who left her to raise her children while dating a drug distributor), and we learn how her mother ended up in prison, but how Diaz herself ended up there is left mostly unresolved. We know she shacked up with her mother’s drug boyfriend as revenge (hence her mother’s own play at revenge), but is that the whole story? And is the fact we’re not seeing it a sign that it is incidental to her character—a result of her rash judgment rather than her innate criminality—or simply a cliffhanger for another flashback to come later in the season?
Regardless, Daya is a character that has consciously remained on the margins of the story thus far, finding something real in her flirtations with Bennett and something magical in her Manga. The former functions as a basic counter to Pornstache’s douchebaggery more broadly (think back to Bennett’s rational, thankful response to Piper pointing out the disconnected cable in processing), but I’ve been taken with their little courtship on its own merits: It’s been sweet, chaste, and—it turns out—corruptible. One could argue Bennett should have known from the lack of a drawing and the different handwriting that he was walking into a trap, but there’s an innocence to both characters that makes them a perfect match in an imperfect situation. While there was never any chance of the relationship remaining as romantic as it seemed in theory, the possibility of that was a hopeful thread I’ve enjoyed in the previous episodes and which is threatened by the elder Diaz’s actions. It’s better for the complexity, but I kind of want those crazy kids to work it out (they’re my chicken), which as of “The Chickening” has been deemed too optimistic an approach to a series that is thus far nicely balancing the cynical and the hopeful in its storytelling.
- Larry Watch: Larry’s parents are a great example of the show straddling the line between comedy and drama: There’s some funny dialogue in the manifestation of the over-bearing Jewish parents running their son’s life, but they never leap out of reality to become caricatures. I could see those characters being much broader on Weeds, which is another distinction between the two series. Narrative-wise, meanwhile, Larry continues his investigation into Alex’s testimony, which I’ll admit I’m finding fairly dull at this stage.
- Taryn Manning makes her first appearance as Pennsatucky, a religious inmate in a storyline that never really went anywhere. I liked the focus on religion and felt it fit in with the rest of the episode’s interest in shared spaces (mother and daughter sharing the same space, the rec room conflict), but it was a surface level investigation of the subject.
- After sitting out the episode immediately after her flashback (which is a pattern, given that Claudette doesn’t appear in any substantial way here), Sophia returns to try to scam some drugs off of Sister Ingalls—while the discussion of faith is amiably aimless, I liked the dynamic, and appreciated the chance to see more secondary characters interact.
- “Yeah, sure, I got myself incarcerated to see the changing colors”—Morello is a fun character for Piper and others to bounce off of, and Yael Stone is enormously enigmatic, but I also like the quiet way the show is handling her relationship with Nicky.
“WAC Pack" (season 1, episode 6)
“WAC Pack” is far from the most substantial of the series’ early episodes. Nicky’s flashback consists of only two scenes as the show explores her lack of a mother figure on the outside and how Red filled that role as she detoxed while she was still in orange. The return of the Women’s Advisory Council mostly allows existing personalities to play against one another, without any major revelations until the final twist of Healy committing massive voter fraud to force Chapman into a position of authority (and thus conspicuousness). Diaz and Bennett continue to explore their illicit affair—which was only strengthened by Diaz’s mother’s failed seduction—despite threats of a larger crackdown (which also upsets Pornstache’s illicit drug exchanges with inmates).
Yet what I love about the world Kohan and her writers—here Lauren Morelli—are creating is that things don’t really need to happen. The WAC is a meaningless false democracy: Many of the inmates know it (Claudette and Red in particular), the guards/counselors certainly know it, and yet they do it anyway because it creates a semblance of order and structure. For Claudette it’s a form of entertainment, watching Taystee campaign on the joys of fried chicken—although Taystee mocks Sophia for engaging in real political issues as though this is a white person’s democracy (which involves many of the show’s strongest moments of comedy thus far), they all nonetheless fall into the same frenzy of impossible promises and one-upmanship, just with more dance battles that devolve—or evolve—into simulated sex.
It’s the kind of situation that matters without really mattering. Red might use the debates as a chance to get some quiet time to herself, but she’s also pushing her chosen candidate to consolidate her power. Healy might acknowledge that no real power exists, but he still uses his authority to force Chapman onto the council in an effort to class up a system he feels could be more useful than it actually is. Nicky might acknowledge that the WAC is a joke, but she’s also hurt when Red—her surrogate mother figure—doesn’t handpick her instead of Morello. Every prisoner understands that how they live their day-to-day lives won’t change their sentence, or undermine the prison bureaucracy, or even improve their way of life in any substantial way. However, this doesn’t mean Taystee won’t celebrate getting a remote to change from Toddlers & Tiaras to Planet Earth, and it doesn’t mean there won’t be a fight over whether knifes is a word, and it also doesn’t mean that “WAC Pack” doesn’t do anything to advance the series’ plot. In Litchfield, there is often nothing more meaningful than a meaningless distraction, especially when the short-term chaos—which is able to highlight a range of supporting characters within each different group—is able to transition into a long-term conflict with Piper’s appointment to the council.
For the show, it’s a way to provide some structure—the campaigning, the debate, the election—and seed new developments moving into the second half of the season. That being said, while we can look at the episode for the developments in Nicky’s relationship with Red or her continued flirtations with Alex, it’s also a space where the most prominent storyline functions exclusive from almost all of the show’s main characters to this point. The battles between Taystee and Sophia, Morello and Pennsatucky, and Ruiz and Ruiz—and Ruiz, it seems—are well balanced, and continue to show the series navigating the broad racial strokes of the prison itself with the actual nuances of each individual group. It feels like a minor episode compared to some of the earlier hours (and the Piper side of the storyline feels particularly insubstantial), but it revels in its “minor league” focus by letting the supporting players take over; although the end of the episode restores Piper’s position at the center, the work of marginalizing her in the episode itself continues to show some nice progress for the series.
- Larry Watch: This is the hour when my Larry problems kicked into high gear. I like Biggs’ performance, and his desire to write about her prison experience threatens her larger policy of maintaining anonymity—which applies both inside and outside of Litchfield—in productive ways, but I feel no connection to the storyline. Even to the degree that the few minor Larry-focused scenes each week ask me to, I don’t particularly care about his efforts, which isn’t where the show expects me to be near the halfway point.
- I’m a bit sad that we only got the handful of flashbacks for Nicky—it’s still a nice episode for Natasha Lyonne, but even as I acknowledge the value of a scattered focus in the episode I feel she deserved a bigger showcase.
- I enjoyed the reveal that the crazy woman in the bathroom stall was actually talking—and sending the vagina photo that starts off the whole chaos on the guards’ side—to a man named Diablo. It’s a fun inversion of expectations, and it deepens the mythology of what seemed like a joke character without having to spend a lot of time on it.
- I ship Diaz and Bennett pretty hard, and the way the characters worked through his amputated leg was both a nice reveal and another positive note for a sadly doomed coupling. (And to note, as always, I don’t know how doomed they really are, and many of you reading this probably do, so don’t spoil it for me.)
- Lauren Lapkus makes her debut as Fischer, an overly eager female guard who hopes that dinner is “scrumptious” over the intercom. That goes over as one would expect.
- An interesting episode for how it spread focus: Almeida (Daya’s mother) gets her own focus in a scene with Cesar and her mother’s visit, while Alex gets her first flashback as what we think is Piper’s story of Alex meeting Polly becomes Alex being brought further into the drug ring that would eventually be her undoing.
- Even in a show as progressive as this one, the “Others” and the “Golden Girls” still get shafted.
- I enjoy the gogurt continuity—I would hate to see any show leave us hanging after promising a grown man eating gogurt.