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.
“Fucksgiving” (season 1, episode 9)
One of the best things about celebrating holidays is that they can slow down everything else in your life. For that one afternoon, you do your best to put everything else behind you and revel in the warm embrace of family; even though you might still have deadlines to meet or responsibilities to balance, there’s always that sense that holidays give us the justification for forgetting about it all and focusing on the day at hand.
When you’re in prison, holidays don’t take on the same meaning. Although a special meal is planned, Red notes that “taxpayers don’t give a shit if it’s a holiday: We’re the bad guys.” The realities of prison, both good and bad, don’t go away just because you want them too: Daya is still pregnant, Taystee’s departure is still looming, and Alex’s conflict with Pennsatucky continues to reverberate. Even before Piper is thrown in solitary by Healy for fighting back against his homophobic response to her dancing with Alex, there’s the sense that no matter how much you try to turn Thanksgiving into a celebration there will always be the harsh reality around the corner to remind you you’re in prison.
Piper being thrown in solitary is obviously the hour’s most pointed deconstruction of the Thanksgiving experience, her turkey dinner replaced with a meatloaf constructed from a collection of near-rancid leftovers. It’s one of the rare instances where Taylor Schilling is largely left to act on her own, and I’d argue it’s a strong moment for the actress and her character. The episode opens with Piper acknowledging that what she misses is contact, which even discounting sex is in short supply in prison (as Arrested Development emphasized with its refrain of “No touching,” echoed in an earlier episode of this series). Her trip to solitary expands her lack of contact beyond the physical, stripping her of the emotional connections she’s built with her fellow inmates, and the emotional connection she’s maintained with Larry through his visits. Schilling does some capital-A “Acting” in those scenes, talking only to the voice behind the grate that’s either an inmate on the brink of losing their grip on reality or a sign that Piper is doing the same.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how the show around Piper is more interesting than she is, and we could easily isolate out the storylines unrelated to Piper and look at “Fucksgiving” as a strong hour. By the time the inmates come together for Thanksgiving dinner, the hour developed meaningful subplots for a range of supporting characters that have little to nothing to do with Piper. Sophia gets her most meaningful storyline since her spotlight episode, giving Crystal permission to start dating and earning a karmic victory with the return of her regular dose of estrogen; Red and Pornstache continue their battle over the import business and dinner goes without gravy as a result; Daya buys into a homemade remedy that will take care of her pregnancy problem before discovering it was all a ruse designed by her mother to help convince her to keep the child despite the challenging circumstances; Taystee gets a farewell party, a nearly-missed goodbye to Poussey that made me tear up, and a rude awakening when she discovers she has no safe place to land upon her release.
The series also continues its work of expanding Alex’s character, delving into her backstory on terms unrelated to her relationship with Piper. Although Alex’s feud with Pennsatucky is meaningful in part because it’s one of the reasons Piper ends up in solitary, it’s also a trigger for Alex’s past struggles with class hierarchies. While framed by Pennsatucky as coming from privilege, Alex’s past is one with a working class mother and an absent rock star father. It’s far from the most complex origin story for how a young woman ends up smuggling drugs for an international cartel, but I like the idea that she sort of ends up falling into it because she needed something to fill the hole where her father would never be. In a situation like that one, Alex could either gain new perspective and put her life on the right track or try to fill the absence as quickly as possible; that she chose the latter is how she became the person Piper met in that bar and the person who Piper ends up with in the chapel at episode’s end.
That all of this—and more we’ll get to in the stray observations—is present in the episode without really even dealing with Piper would support theories that Piper is unnecessary to this story. However, as much as the series’ ever-growing collection of smaller storylines is a huge part of its appeal, Piper is an important part of this ensemble. Although she began the series as the most stable of the various characters, the relatable outsider who could serve as an audience surrogate, over time she’s grown less and less stable as we’ve grown more and more comfortable with the other inmates. “Fucksgiving” marks the episode where our perspective shifts fully away from Piper’s, as we have no way of experiencing her isolation. When she realizes she might well be losing her mind, she makes a promise to whoever might be listening that she’s simply going to put her head down and finish out her time without incident; however, when she’s actually released once Healy is forced into reversing his decision under duress, the effects of the isolation explode in a heated encounter with Alex that marks the character’s most declarative exercise of agency in the series thus far and caps a strong hour.
- Larry Watch: The best thing the show can do with Larry is find a way to make his story meaningful as more than simply an insight into his relationship with Piper. That’s not something “Fucksgiving” really has space to do, but I appreciated how Larry’s Thanksgiving dinner gives us the counterpoint to the prison Thanksgiving, and how his conversations with the Ira Glass stand-in work to reframe his separation from Piper as a long-distance relationship (so as to exoticize rather than fully understand the gravity of what she’s going through). It’s a productive storyline, if far from the most interesting corner of the episode.
- The one part of the Larry story I really enjoyed was the way the Glass stand-in’s desire for a more “representative” show about prison offers meta-commentary on Orange’s interest in a story like Taystee’s—the cycle of poverty and/or criminality—rather than Larry’s. It’s definitely reassuring to know the writers have a clear sense of their priorities, my issues with Larry’s storylines aside.
- “Suzanne, language”—we only get two brief glimpses of Crazy Eyes with her parents, but boy are those two glimpses wonderful. It seems like it would be so easy to cut those scenes, but they add some nice levity and resonance to the episode.
- Since someone suggested we might want to know in last week’s comments, the song that closes the episode is Leagues’ “Walking Backwards.”
“Bora Bora Bora” (season 1, episode 10)
“I feel like I’m 23 and no time has passed.”
Piper says this to Alex as they share a brief moment of contact during a conversation. Since rekindling their relationship a week earlier, the two characters have been consistently enjoying one another’s company, which Piper quickly clarifies is about comfort rather than a sign that she’s “rejoining [her] softball league.” Instead, it’s about Piper’s need for connection, the kind of chemical connection she was searching for when Polly was getting married, and the kind of connection she feels she needs in order to survive.
For a moment, it appears Piper has calmly rationalized her decision to cheat on her fiancé, but later in “Bora Bora Bora” she tells the wheelchair-bound Scared Straight participant that she still doesn’t know what her decision means. Maybe it’s simply a case of short-term pain management; maybe she’s “an evil fuck monster.” In either case, Piper feels she has been forced to look at her truth head-on, all of her past floating back to her in the absence of the everyday existence she would normally use to stabilize herself. The flashbacks we’re seeing are not just a device for the show, but the kind of retrospective psychology that prison can drive one towards. Piper says she was “somebody” before she came to Litchfield, but that identity has been stripped away, and her search for a new one has manifested as returning to when she was 23 and jumping around the world with Alex.
This manifests in Piper in ways it can’t with the other inmates; Alex’s—convenient, but productive—presence in the prison gives her a physical link to some part of herself she can use to stay sane. Morello sought a physical connection in Nicky, but has since worked against the cheating-related guilt Piper is dealing with to focus on planning the wedding she believes is waiting for her on the outside. When Nicky finally says what the fiancé’s narrative absence has foretold, that Morello is holding onto an ideal that has long since been destroyed during her time in prison, it is something I had never considered but nonetheless felt immediately true. Because the wedding felt so real to Morello, and was so central to her character when we first meet her, we have no reason to question its authenticity because of how authentic Morello made it in order to survive.
It’s the same reason why no one can believe Claudette would ever have a visitor, the guards presuming her name on the register was a joke. She’s been in prison long enough that she had severed all ties with the outside world, and whatever her short-term coping mechanisms were—a photo, a phone call, a visitor—have been lost to history. It’s possible Claudette had her own story to tell to keep herself sane, but over time she’s stripped herself of those stories, unwilling to open herself up to Baptiste or anyone else out of fear it could destabilize her day-to-day life. She isn’t allowed to touch Baptiste when he visits, not really, but the show lets her hug him as though to signal her full embrace of her past, a full break from her self-enforced isolation and a symbol of her decision to embrace the truth she’s managed to compartmentalize.
It’s a decision that seems braver when you consider what happens to Tricia in “Bora Bora Bora,” a character who has struggled to leave behind her old life. While some of the show’s flashbacks have come with narrative justification (as in we see characters travel back to the memory we’re about to see), Tricia’s life ledger makes her tragic death all the more tragic. Her story seems not unlike the story of many inmates, a kid who fell between the cracks and ended up on the streets. She wasn’t one of the lucky ones who got a second chance with a job in a kitchen like her friend, nor was she someone who once in the prison system found a way to clean herself up. She was constantly trying to pay off her debts, keeping track of everything she had stolen to ensure she could keep living, but there came a point where the debts became too heavy. It’s a literal manifestation of how many prison inmates and addicts feel, and what I appreciated about “Bora Bora Bora” is that it gave a death that could be read as a matter of circumstance feel like a matter of substance. Tricia’s death is a plot obstacle for Pornstache and a trigger in his war with Red, but this also felt like Tricia’s story as someone who couldn’t overcome the weight of time and the debts associated with it.
Orange Is The New Black has not yet launched a distinct criticism of the criminal justice system and the challenges of reformation beyond its basic premise (and Taystee’s ongoing storyline following her release, absent in this episode), but in Tricia we see the first inmate to lose her life to that system. In an episode that indulges in the comedy of Crazy Eyes’ “Scared Straight by Shakespeare,” it also reveals that it’s the system—rather than the threats of open-air toilets or shower rape—that could well be the scariest thing for young criminals. There is something funny about “Bora Bora Bora” when it’s about Alex convincing other inmates to help delude Pennsatucky into believing she’s a faith healer, but it’s a comedy that’s interrupted by Tricia’s death, and which must nonetheless co-exist with Piper’s own struggles with who she is once she’s in the system. But where that clash of styles could be read as a detriment to the series, it’s a productive way of demonstrating the limbo in which inmates must live their lives. For a moment, Poussey and Ruiz and Crazy Eyes all get to play the part of the intimidating inmate, but they’re still vulnerable inmates at their core, and they’ve still got stories that will haunt them if they don’t find a way to cope.
- Larry Watch: Although we get a brief scene of Larry avoiding Piper after learning at least part of why she was in solitary, the most substantial Larry scene comes when we see the moment the two first met. It’s a scene that fits comfortably into meet cute stereotypes—dog bites girl, boy offers girl hydrogen peroxide—but also has this acute sensuality (which I suppose is a fancy way of saying Schilling was awfully fetching in the scene).
- Bennett is finally let into the secret of Daya’s pregnancy and has the logical response—“Can you take a pill or something?”—that Daya and her mother are dead set against. As Aleida says, Bennett has nine months to find a way to support a child whose existence could render him a sex offender, which is bound to go as well as Cesar’s home invasion that let Bennett in on the baby’s existence (or the dirty hot tub session that led to Bennett losing his leg, which means I now get those weird hot tub jokes I saw floating around on Twitter a few weeks ago).
- As with many of the series’ flashbacks, it’s unclear what exactly Tricia is serving time for. Is it for the “sort-of shoplifting” she’s caught committing here? Or something else entirely? With her death I’m not convinced we’ll ever get the whole story, which may be part of the point: Although she obviously felt she had grounds for appeal when she turned to Piper, once you’re in the system the actual details don’t always seem to matter.
- Interesting that Healy gets only a single scene, wherein he bristles at the touching going on in the moments following Tricia’s death. Coming off of “Fucksgiving,” it’s a nice way of reinforcing his psychosexual hangups.
- “I want to play a role like Desdemona, or Ophelia, or Clair Huxtable.”—Crazy Eyes, being delightful.
- “What are you talking about, wizards are evil!”—I wasn’t entirely sold on the broadness of some of the “Pennsatucky: Faith Healer” storyline, but the inmate that uttered this line and a few others was hilarious.
- “I used to have a temper. Now I have a passion for justice”—I’m stealing this from Piper.