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.
“Blood Donut” (season 1, episode 7)
In its first two episodes after its pilot, Orange Is The New Black focused primarily on the characters involved in its flashbacks. Those were the “Red Episode” and the “Sophia Episode,” respectively, and suggested the series could follow the pattern of a series like Lost where the early flashbacks were more often than not paired with a more prominent role for the character in the rest of the episode.
As the series has progressed, though, the flashbacks have become less important. Claudette’s episode remained fairly focused on that character, but the stories surrounding Daya and Nicky were less substantial, and neither the fifth nor sixth episodes were centered around those characters in the same way that “Lesbian Request Denied” was centered around Sophia. This doesn’t make the flashbacks ineffective, but it does highlight how the show’s expanding cast—and our growing familiarity with more and more members of that cast—raises the bar for each additional flashback. While there is value to learning something more about any character, we will come to judge that value based on the strength of other flashbacks, and based on our more serialized engagement with other characters’ stories.
This is a long way of saying that Janae’s flashback was a disappointment for me. It’s a competently told story of a young girl who could run fast, whose entire future was determined by her ability to run fast, and who longed for something else—specifically the attention of men—that running wasn’t going to get her. As Janae returns from solitary—where she ended up following the screwdriver incident—she laments the closing of the track, and Piper’s guilt over being the cause of the screwdriver incident pushes her to try getting the track being reopened. It allows the episode to end on Janae triumphantly running around that track, reclaiming the essence of her opportunity if not the opportunity itself (the college scholarship that could have kept her from meeting that guy at that party and then robbing that dry cleaners).
When Alex looks out the window and sees Janae reveling in her return from solitary, she calls Nicky to the window to witness “a moment.” She observes that what Janae is experiencing is deeper than it might look, more spiritual than those who make Kate Winslet quips understand. But when we eventually learn Janae’s story—and come to understand why solitary would be so confining to someone who ran track and field—I didn’t necessarily gain any insight deeper than what Alex gleans in that moment. It’s not a boring story, but it’s also not a transformative one, nor does it hold the complexity or resonance of other stories the flashbacks have introduced. Perhaps it was that the character had been gone long enough that my connection with her was damaged, or rather it was simply the one-note and fairly predictable nature of her story, but Janae’s flashbacks failed to make an impression on me.
Another issue, as alluded to above, is that there’s so much else going on now. The show has accumulated enough serialized threads that each episode is pulled in about seven different directions: you’ve got Bennett and Daya’s relationship (here told through a few glances and a conversation with Pornstache), Pennsatucky’s feud with Piper over the WAC voter fraud, the fraud of the WAC as a whole, Alex’s relationship with Piper, Healy’s feud with Caputo, Healy’s green card marriage, and Pornstache and Red’s battle over the prison smuggling trade. And that’s not even taking into consideration the continued focus on Piper, who intersects with many of these storylines as she decides whether or not to rat out Flores for her illicit phone in the bathroom, or the continued interest in Larry on the outside.
As a result, for a flashback to be elevated in prominence it needs to deliver, but this didn’t feel like Janae’s story to me. Rather, it felt like “Blood Donut” belonged to Taystee, whose upcoming hearing could result in her release. The series has toyed with Piper as a savior to her less-educated inmates, reading over their letters and helping them with their appeals, and there’s a class-based argument there that I understand but nonetheless find problematic. It’s why I’m glad to see Taystee reject Piper’s efforts to help, and to see a storyline that instead involves the series’ African American characters navigating the distinct experience of being a black woman making your way through the justice system. It’s a lesson in code-switching, as hairstyle and language are seen as determining factors rather than facts or the law itself. Sarah Hess’ script lets their story persist without the intervention of Piper, foregrounding the racial dynamics and offering some great discussion of popular representations and cultural reference points in the process (particularly in the scene in Sophia’s salon).
It’s a discussion that I wish Janae’s story could have contributed to, and one that’s tougher to find in an episode that’s bearing the weight of the series’ growing world (which, it seems, is both a blessing and a curse as the narrative moves forward).
- Larry Watch: I almost wish that Larry’s story were a companion webseries. I like Biggs, and the idea of this character being forced to navigate the idea of his fiancé being in prison is a story I find compelling in the abstract, but place it alongside everything else and his flirtations with a nice waitress are a drag.
- I found Piper herself somewhat insufferable in this episode, but I enjoyed how complex the cause-and-effect pattern worked: Handing in the phone didn’t get the track reopened directly (and actually caused direct harm as Flores’ dismay leads to the loss of their one bathroom stall door), but it creates the rift between Healy and Caputo necessary for Fischer’s request to be accepted and the track to be reopened.
- I also appreciated how Piper’s actions are self-justified as for the betterment of all, and yet also clearly designed to assuage her guilty conscience; I might not always like the character, but I think the show’s doing a good job engaging that emotional response in productive ways.
- That stolen look to Bennett as Daya teaches Fischer dominoes isn’t helping my shipping situation—still waiting for the ball to drop and for that to explode. This is your weekly reminder to resist the urge to go “Oooh ooh!” and talk about it in the comments. You’re better than that.
- If you anticipated that the show would close the hanging thread of “What does Healy’s wife look like in the dress he had Piper pick out?”, I owe you a coke.
- I still don’t entirely understand why Big Boo is training a service dog, but I’m not going to complain except to note you’re not supposed to pet service dogs no matter how adorable they are. Right? I’m not crazy about that?
- “Maybe go easy on the bitch smacking…”—Life Lessons from Poussey.
“Moscow Mule” (season 1, episode 8)
More than any episode before it, “Moscow Mule” is making a clear thematic point as it threads together the various storylines developing throughout the season. As Daya’s pregnant roommate goes into labor, themes of motherhood filter through the prison, whether it’s Daya’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother, Red’s relationship with Nicky and her other adopted children, Piper’s flashback to when she had a pregnancy scare just three months before entering Litchfield, or Polly going into labor as Larry celebrates his article about Piper being printed in The New York Times. It culminates in the realization that Daya’s nausea isn’t part of the flu that’s ravaging its way through the prison as the episode begins; she’s pregnant, a wrinkle she hadn’t expected and one that throws her relationship with Bennett—unseen in the episode—into a completely different light (regardless of whether the implication is that he is the father, which is thus far unclear to me timing-wise).
The challenge with thematic storytelling is that it can often feel extremely coincidental to have so many storylines connect in this way, but “Moscow Mule” earns its coincidences. I was specifically taken with how it finally manages to turn Larry’s disconnect from the central narrative into something distinctly productive, which to this point in the season has been a challenge. Larry wants to believe that what he writes in the Times is “our” story, about a shared experience; however, as Piper finds out while listening to Larry read his article over the phone or following Polly’s pregnancy from afar, she isn’t able to share his experiences. She might know when he forgot the reusable bags at the grocery store by hearing the paper over the phone, but she isn’t able to go to the party celebrating his article. Every day, she’s reminded of how she has been separated from her life and her family, which is why she so resents Larry for writing an article that supposes knowledge of what she’s going through.
It’s a disconnect Ruiz is going to experience with her child, and a disconnect that Tricia is going to experience without the drugs Pornstache had been smuggling in for her. It’s also how Claudette feels when she’s never had a visitor, and has to face reconnecting with a world she had accepted being disconnected from. While the simultaneous labors may offer a clear example of a narrative coincidence, each of these stories taken individually is a matter of narrative circumstance. Disconnect is a reality of prison, one that each inmate will experience in different ways as they reshape their relationship with the life—and often family—that they left behind. Rather than simply resonating within this hour, the theme pulls us back to why the cell phone in the bathroom stall was so important to Flores, and how she responded when it disappeared. We’re taken back to when Tricia nearly ruined Mercy’s life—one of a number of steps toward her withdrawal—in an attempt to keep them together, fearful of what would happen if they were to be apart.
The episode is also versatile enough to investigate the prison family, using a few more Red flashbacks to give us insight on the prison’s matriarch as she battles with Pornstache over the Litchfield illegal smuggling business. While Red’s first flashbacks painted her as something of a sympathetic figure, one that we could presume was an unwilling accessory to illegal activities, the flashbacks in “Moscow Mule” show a woman who seizes an opportunity to prove useful. Outthinking her witless husband and impressing the mobsters, Red reveals herself to have been an active participant in the illegal activities, a dark side that matches with her forcing Nicky to break the news to Tricia that she’ll be spending her withdrawal in solitary. The episode reactivates Nicky’s flashbacks and the mother-daughter relationship she believed she had with Red, and seeing that disintegrate creates space for Pornstache’s meddling and gives the episode a nice sense of forward momentum.
It’s a jam-packed episode, but it’s managed particularly well by director Phil Abraham (best known for his recent work on Mad Men). I particularly liked how he emphasized the theme of separation, particularly in the shot selection and sound design as Alex and Piper are arguing through the dryer door. The episode is interested in how their relationship has changed since their separation, and how their proximity—compromised and then regained during Alex’s illness in the episode’s final scenes—rekindles their previous connection. Abraham captures their connection—and the barriers to that connection—extremely well, and helps “Moscow Mule” develop into both a self-contained treatise on its theme and a strong installment in the season’s overall narrative.
- I also loved the way Piper and Claudette were shifting in and out of focus during their lights out conversation, and those beautiful overhead shots scattered throughout the scene. Also, the transition from the present to the flashback in the kitchen using the produce box was some more slick work from Abraham.
- Some broader comedy in this hour, whether it’s the image of Laura Prepon stuck in an industrial dryer or Piper’s Michael Jackson dance. Still not sure all of the comedy works, but it didn’t damage the episode in any way.
- The credits for this show are perpetually strange: Natasha Lyonne was in the opening credits for the series’ pilot, shifted to a regular guest star afterwards, and now appears as a special guest star in this episode. I’d love to know why the changes, although she does step into a more prominent role in this hour.
- It was only two scenes with Poussey, but I was pleased to see Taystee get some resolution from her hearing, and for them to be played fairly dramatically for a character that has often been pitched as comic relief in ensemble-driven episodes like this one.
- “Fucking cunt ramming awesome”—Pornstache, defending the moustache against Cavuto’s concern it might have become a “gay thing.”
- I enjoyed Healy and Piper both reacting so strongly to Alex being referred to as “the hot one.”