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.
“Tall Men With Feelings” (season 1, episode 11)
Prison is filled with stolen moments. In order to memorialize a dead inmate, prisoners have to hide their hooch and potato chips in case the guards happen by. In order to share a brief moment of comfort, Piper and Alex need to ensure the guard working is likely to allow them contact. Daya and Bennett’s relationship is one long stolen moment, a romance born in hidden corners and janitor’s closets where Daya is forced to hide her morning sickness.
However, even when you’re not actively subverting a specific rule, prison has a way of making you feel you’re stealing a moment when all you’re doing is trying to feel something. Despite the fact that visits and phone calls are fully sanctioned, the prison system renders even the most basic of human emotions like happiness something that Claudette has forced herself to repress. As Baptiste asks her to imagine her first day out, and she waxes nostalgic about an Italian place they once frequented, it feels like a stolen moment even though it’s something that breaks no official rule. The only rule it breaks is that unwritten rule that you’re not allowed to be happy in prison, either because the system will find a way to dish out karmic punishment or because it means you’re on some level betraying the life you were living on the outside. At every moment, you’re reminded of your transgressions when nearly every single thing you do is treated like one, and the only way you survive is by working with those around you to contextualize and better understand why things are the way they are.
And so when Larry gets on public radio and retells Piper’s stories about the various inmates she’s encountered, he cannot possibly understand in the way Piper does. Mind you, Piper didn’t understand either at first, which is why his versions of the stories are reflective of her first impressions of Suzanne or Claudette. Not everyone who Larry mentions in his lengthy, montage-friendly rundown of Litchfield’s “cast of characters” is concerned about how they were represented: Janae and Nicky are proud to merit a mention, and Red seems pleased enough with her portrayal. But for those who Piper has come to understand better, whose initial narratives changed the more Piper spoke with them, Larry’s stories came from a place of deep ignorance if not malice. Larry has decided that he understands prison because it’s easier for him to claim he knows than to admit to himself he is on a completely different planet from his fiancée even when he’s visiting her or taking her calls.
I’ve often made a point of separating Larry from the prison narrative by only talking about his storylines in the stray observations. This has meant I haven’t spent a great deal of time discussing the character, which is partly about wanting to try to keep these reviews manageable in length—there’s a lot to cover on this show, and Larry has rarely if ever seemed like he merited any greater consideration. But we’ve officially reached the point in the story where the gap between what Larry knows and what Piper—and thus the audience—has experienced has grown such that his place in the story is finally productive (if also infuriating).
Piper responds to Tricia’s death by trying to hold a formal memorial, to use a traditional form of grieving in order to help process her passing. What she discovers is that you can’t just transpose the real world onto prison, as though the same rules apply or that the same principles of grief would manifest; you need to gather with a group of Tricia’s friends, with some illicit hooch and a set of stories and a crudely constructed effigy of Tricia hanging in the corner. What Piper learns is not how things work in prison, but rather that there’s no way to fully understand how prison works. It is a fucked up place where there’s no easy answer, and no consistent answer, and where you’re always forced to adapt and find new answers when a situation changes. Daya’s pregnancy converges with Red’s issues with Pornstache here, the latter hatching a scheme that could solve both of their problems but which also involves Daya giving up her body to Pornstache. It’s far from an easy answer, and it’s an answer that no one involved wants to be the answer, but surviving in prison isn’t about understanding: It’s about accepting fates you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy (which is why Piper, in a shrewd use of her privilege, rescues Pennsatucky from the psych ward once she hears about it from Suzanne).
It’s not that Larry should understand prison, or what Piper has done in prison. There is no question that Piper has betrayed Larry on a basic level, and it seems unfair to suggest that Larry should instinctively understand that Piper simply needed some comfort or human emotion in order to survive in prison. He can’t know what she’s going through, but he also can’t be expected to reconcile his fiancée sleeping with her ex-girlfriend who was responsible for her ending up in prison in the first place. However, instead of living in that state of uncertainty Piper is forced to live in every day, Larry decided he understood. He decided he could go on public radio and explain what it’s like for women in prison, opining on the struggles of their daily lives having never lived it. For every judgment we’ve felt toward Piper’s self-involved—Alex calls her on the Tricia memorial becoming about her—and often privileged view of prison, at least she’s lived between those walls. She’s been forced to adapt, forced to understand how difficult it is to understand that life. She’s grown, in a way that Larry can’t be expected to grow, and yet also a way that Larry claims to have grown so that his story can be packaged for public radio.
“Tall Men With Feelings” probes our own feelings, asking us to consider how wrong Piper’s first impressions were, and how our own first impressions of various characters are tested when we see them in new elements. Are we capable of feeling sympathy for the lonely and broken Pornstache when we discover that Litchfield has also—in a way—stripped him of his life outside of prison? Do we feel for Pennsatucky when we discover how she’s treated in the psych ward, where a garden-variety religious zealot is treated like she has no grip on reality? In both cases, the answer is not as simple as yes or no, as it’s all a never-ending search for understanding that will never fully resolve itself, and which will vary across different circumstances. It’s why Orange Is The New Black has such a large ensemble, and why it’s committed to telling so many different kinds of stories, and why even its weaker stories—like Janae’s flashbacks, for example—are still contributions to a large goal of demonstrating how people like Larry who flatten prison inmates under broad stereotypes are doing many of them—if not all of them—a tremendous disservice.
Although the meta-narrative implications of Larry’s public radio interview were a tad overdone, “Tall Men With Feelings” comes at a stage when the show’s introspective gaze is a logical reflection of its characters. Although none of them might keep a notebook of all the trinkets or lives or moments they’ve stolen as Tricia did, their minds nonetheless function like ledgers, constantly filing away feelings and actions in an effort to understand the life they’re living relative to the life they lived or could live in the future. It’s a search for understanding that will never end, and which is as likely to lead you down a dark path than a light one, but it’s also a search for understanding that the show—unlike Larry—has rendered with skill and pathos as the season marches toward its conclusion.
- I can’t say enough great things about Piper’s conversation with Suzanne about the psych ward. It manages to both reaffirm that she is legitimately “crazy” in the eyes of the system while also establishing a sense of perspective that makes the character about so much more than her craziness. It’s a great piece of acting from Uzo Adeba, and it makes Larry’s flattening of her character all the more powerful.
- Also, on that note: “There used to be a sign saying CAUTION. WET FLOOR. Really told people what was going on.” Glorious.
- As NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out on Twitter, public radio isn’t exactly known for its dramatic lighting, but I generally liked how the public radio scenes played out with an attention to light satiric details rather than an attempt at parody (which is a major difference between this series’ world and Weeds, which struggled in straddling that line).
- Speaking of NPR, I suspect many of you have already listened to Jenji Kohan’s Fresh Air interview. But just in case.
- The episode’s flashbacks are interesting in terms of perspective: we shift from Piper’s reason for leaving to Alex’s sense of betrayal when Piper leaves so soon after her mother’s death, getting the two distinct versions of their breakup that they carried with them into the series. I will say that their efforts to sell us on exotic locations through only hotel rooms is maybe not working—maps on beds and some occasional French words can only go so far.
- “You knew exactly what you were getting into”—Alex says this to Piper in the flashbacks, but part of the point of the series is that this is never, ever true.
“Fool Me Once” (season 1, episode 12)
For most inmates, time spent in prison is time spent “in-between.” Prison is something that changed the life you once lived, and which will eventually end to give way to the life you’ll lead in the future. However, to understand it on those terms requires either foresight or hindsight, because such perspective is lost between you’re forced to live in the in-between, and when that in-between is designed to strip away your basic humanity. Technically, every new situation we enter into—whether it’s a relationship or a job or an apartment—is potentially an in-between, but few of those situations carry the same weight as prison; while you can often—although not always—choose to move to a new apartment, or quit a job, or end a relationship, prison takes away that agency and replaces it with the certainty of confinement.
Orange Is The New Black is first and foremost a character study: Even as the plot ratchets up with Pornstache on leave and using Bennett to get payback on Red from the outside, the series’ central concern is understanding what it is about prison that would make those characters act in those ways. Pennsatucky has often registered as a plot device, her extreme religious views a foil for other characters that could be used to push Piper into solitary or to bully Alex as a way of investigating her childhood. It was only in recent hours that the character was allowed to evolve, her experience in the psych ward pushing her to question her beliefs, and that seemed sufficient: While some character arcs have worked backwards, using flashbacks to show us how people have been transformed over time by their stay in prisons, I was largely content in my belief that Pennsatucky was in prison for being the Pennsatucky we met in Litchfield.
“Fool Me Once” tells a different story, one I wasn’t expecting and one that doesn’t make me sympathize for the character so much as it makes the character more multi-dimensional. The character’s story is still a broad one, but it’s defined by a broad contradiction of the addict who would qualify for an abortion punch card being transformed into a religious zealot by an opportunistic “Christian lawyer” looking for a martyr for his cause. It’s one of the more outlandish stories in the series thus far, but it’s effective as a way to identify the degree to which living in the in-between can change a person. Pennsatucky agreed to become a religious martyr because it helped support her family, and likely garnered her a lighter sentence than she would have earned without a religious defense. She accepted a temporary assist from God as a way to survive, but once she actually arrived in prison she took her method acting far enough that she became the role she was being paid to play. Perhaps we could look at this as evidence of some form of psychiatric break, but it’s ultimately—not unlike Piper’s affair, or Morello’s wedding planning—a form of survival.
Let’s be clear, though: Pennsatucky was crazy enough to take a hunting rifle into an abortion clinic to shoot a nurse who offended her. She was also a drug addict who refused to have a baby not because of how her addiction would hurt the child but because she could be arrested for child endangerment. She was also a woman who continually refuses to adjust her status quo because the idea of having a child—or getting clean—scared her, and there was a pain on her face following that abortion that was real, and tangible, and human. She is like every other inmate we’ve met at Litchfield, all complicated women whose complications have carried with them behind bars; some were more corrupt than others before they arrived, and some have been transformed in more substantial ways, but none of them are interesting solely because they are in prison. They all have pasts, and we hope most of them will have futures, and the show is committed to exploring those dimensions without flattening them as inmates (extending the central takeaway from “Tall Men With Feelings” to even those characters we don’t inherently sympathize with).
This becomes a different conversation when considering those who work at the prison. What is Litchfield to them? Is it a career, a place where they will be spending their entire lives? Or is it an in-between, a job they take to get by before they find a better way to make a living? And in either instance, should they attempt to make Litchfield feel like their home by getting to know the inmates, or should they treat the inmates like sheep as Caputo suggest to Fisher? Pornstache may have treated the inmates terribly and corrupted the system in myriad ways, but he also integrated himself into their world and largely lost track of what else he had to live for (which is why his leave of absence hits him so hard, and also why his connection with Daya was so meaningful for him). Bennett, meanwhile, also found a meaningful connection with Daya but sees Pornstache’s fall as a sign that he shouldn’t be diving into a world he’s not comfortable with. And because he has the privilege of being able to walk away from a situation in the way Daya can’t, he’s able to hand the drugs over to Caputo as Pornstache intended, in the process signaling a desire to extricate himself from a situation retroactively determined to have been in-between his time overseas and his future as an above-board prison guard.
Fisher, of course, struggles to take Caputo’s advice and pays the price when she goes after Claudette following her unsuccessful appeal. Claudette was someone who had accepted that her time in prison was too long for it to simply be a transition between one thing and another. She refused to acknowledge the possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel until her hopes were raised by talk of her case being reopened, and Baptiste’s return, and talk of eating meals at a reasonable time. When her appeal goes south, she throws everything away in a wrenching sequence that captures how well Orange Is The New Black tells stories in the moment. Even though the large ensemble means we often only see bits and pieces of each character—we don’t go with Claudette to her appeal, or to her conversations with her lawyers—the series can still make the viewer feel present in a moment like this one. The layers of the sequence peel back one by one: We sympathize with Fisher for just trying to do her job, we empathize with Claudette for the pain she’s feeling (and thus judge Fisher for pushing her), and our hearts break when we see Claudette throw everything away and accept even greater confinement in maximum security.
When the show first debuted, there was conversation about how long it would run, with most presuming it would run for roughly the length of Piper’s prison sentence, but I would argue that no longer matches the series’ storytelling. “Fool Me Once” is a pivotal episode for Piper’s relationships with Alex and Larry, as they all explore what kind of future exists for their relationships in the wake of Piper’s incarceration, but it also reaffirms that Piper is one inmate who has the privilege of thinking about her story as something other than a prison story. Taystee tried to transcend being a prison story, but she ends up back in orange before the season ends, tearfully explaining to Poussey that the uncertainty of life on the outside was way worse than the certainty of Litchfield. It’s a stunning exchange, where Taystee is rightfully admonished for giving up her freedom so willingly but also entirely rational in considering how parole with no real support system strips away your humanity more than a pair of tan pajamas ever could.
“Fool Me Once” ends on a plot-heavy cliffhanger where Piper’s relationship with Larry and her physical safety are both placed in jeopardy, but its larger message is that every part of yourself is in jeopardy when you step inside those walls, and will likely remain in jeopardy after you leave them. As much as the narrative thrust of the series is ramping up heading into the season finale, it does so with no promise of closure; instead, it’s just one escalation of what could be many, a continued exploration into the in-between (and, more importantly, how that in-between manifests differently for a range of complex characters).
- Larry (And Friends!) Watch: In addition to his visit to Piper and his marriage proposal to end the episode, we also get another visit to Cal’s wilderness trailer, and the genius that was Neri’s description of him as “like a fat Bon Iver, the fucking Jack Johnson of Wisconsin.”
- While I’ve largely avoided spoilers (and I’ve now seen the finale after this review will go up, so will avoid any more), a Tumblr post about Taystee and Poussey did spoil the former’s return to Litchfield. However, I still felt the complicated reaction to her sudden pop-up during Claudette’s removal: You feel happy to see her, as the inmates are, but also know what it means that she’s back, and your heart just soars and sinks in equal measure.
- Janae and Yoga Jones’ side story never really ties into anything larger, but it’s a vulnerable and compelling story of how inmates face the burdens of their crimes, and helps explain how someone as peaceful as Yoga Jones could end up in prison, and was a nice little two-hander at the end of the day.
- I suppose it’s fitting we get another scene with Healy’s green card marriage—here with Red translating and serving as a marriage counselor—in an episode about transitional living arrangements.
- There’s something so peaceful about Crazy Eyes cleaning the bathrooms as a way to calm herself: She’s one character who has come to accept the necessity of prison (especially when compared with the psych ward), and it gives her a perspective on her confinement that other inmates—including Piper—don’t have. She also knows you have to clean from the inside out (which is totally a metaphor for surviving prison, but I’ll avoid writing an entire essay about “Crazy Eyes: Janitor”).
- A call from a journalist to Fig pushes the prison’s corruption to a level beyond corrupt individuals, suggesting the character has been embezzling money intended for the prison while taking away important services. Not sure if the show is capable of juggling that larger critique, but it’s a new angle as the season heads to its conclusion.
- “May the Kwanzaa elves smile on you!” Black Cindy and Poussey are no Taystee and Poussey, but who could be? Still great.
- I don’t think there’s a way we can really deal with casting spoilers, but let’s try to avoid any spoilers for the finale in whatever discussion we might have about this Buzzfeed report, or simply comment on our Newswire piece about it.