Orange Is The New Black: “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”/“A Whole Other Hole”
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Orange Is The New Black: “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”/“A Whole Other Hole”

Suzanne and Morello take center stage

As with Orange Is The New Black’s first season, we will be covering two episodes of the show’s second season weekly, with regular reviews posting Tuesday mornings at 11am Eastern. These reviews will be written without foreknowledge of what takes place in future episodes, and thus will feature no spoilers for later episodes. If you wish to discuss the entire season, visit Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the complete season here —if posting here, please be respectful of those moving at a slower pace and avoid spoiling or heavily alluding to future developments in the comments.

“Hugs Can Be Deceiving” (season 2, episode 3)

The news that Uzo Aduba was among those made series regulars for the second season was not a huge surprise: Suzanne was easily the breakout character from the first season. When I was in Los Angeles for the Television Critics’ Association press tour last summer, right when the series was catching fire, Aduba randomly crashed the NBC cocktail party to say hello to her co-star Pablo Schreiber (Pornstache), and was all but mobbed by journalists and stars alike. Suzanne was a character people connected to because she embodied the series’ nuanced storytelling, introduced as the zany “Crazy Eyes” but then fleshed out with every subsequent interaction. You left the first season wanting more time with the character, and greater insight into her past, and “Hugs Can Be Deceiving” lives up to that.

I said last week that one of the benefits of flashbacks for Taystee or Suzanne is the fact that it feels like new information, compared with the third or fourth flashback for a character like Piper. To clarify, though, it’s not as though these flashbacks are more compelling because they are intensely revelatory: there’s no grand mystery in Taystee’s nickname, and no smoking gun in Suzanne’s past to explain why she is the way she is. Rather, these are characters we’ve wanted to see more from, and whom we want to understand better, and whose pasts offer another window into expanding their characters in their day-to-day lives at Litchfield.

In Suzanne’s case, her flashbacks are—like Taystee’s—not focused on the backstory of how she came to find herself in prison. They instead pivot through a collection of scenes that explore how Suzanne’s struggles with her mental illness manifested throughout her childhood. The new details that emerge largely fit into an existing narrative constructed through conversations and scenes in the first season. We see more of her affluent white parents, who we learn adopted Suzanne before getting a “miracle” baby of their own: It’s a complicated arrangement for any child, let alone one suffering as Suzanne was. We see her inability to adjust to social situations emerge at a sleepover party she wasn’t invited to since she’s four years older than her sister, and clearly struggles to find friends of her own. We see her stage fright manifest at her high school graduation. Everything fits into what we’ve seen of the character in the past, and what we see of her in this episode, where she’s marginalized to timekeeping when the Black inmates play Celebrity after losing her cool too many times in the past—they still can’t play Jenga because of her.

What I loved about the flashbacks was that they didn’t try to reduce the character to one big moment, or try to solve the character in any way. It is not that Suzanne experienced something distinctly traumatic as a child: lots of people got anxious about new siblings, or got mean girled at a sleepover, or suffered from stage fright in front of their high school peers. Her parents did everything they could to make sure she got to have the same experiences as her sister, and that she pushed herself to be normal, not realizing that their anxiety about her skin color was obscuring a deeper sense of difference that would over time drive her to a darker place. They were neglectful only in the same way that so many others are neglectful to mental illness, in that there are so few resources to diagnose conditions that can be easily read as garden-variety growing pains. Suzanne is a product of a system that doesn’t know how to address mental illness, and not any sense of tragedy or abuse (at least not to this point in her story).

There is no doubt these experiences have affected Suzanne: her childhood flashbacks are joined by a flashback to the Christmas pageant, where we see Suzanne herself flashing back to her high school stage fright, and taking it out on Piper after stumbling upon the fight in the yard that brought the first season to a close. The scene reframes Piper as a symbol for Suzanne’s mother, and for the way she pushed Suzanne to take “her chance” to prove herself, and inadvertently makes it seem as though Piper’s one-sided attack on Pennsatucky was something closer to a fair fight.

At the same time, the episode also wants to emphasize that Suzanne is not defined by her past. As Vee works her magic to regain control of the prison she once ruled, she quickly makes friends with Suzanne, treating her with patience that the other inmates ran out of long ago. She calls her by her name, and she thanks her for not interrupting their conversation (knowing it took effort), and she creates an opportunity for Suzanne to prove herself by prompting her to find the cigarettes without outright asking her to. She even gives her a pep talk about her sense of self-worth, reminding her she is a strong black woman, a garden rose to Piper’s weed. Vee is an agent of chaos in a lot of ways, stirring up shit with stale cigarettes and forcing Red to get her head back in the game (literally, during her trip to Sophia’s salon for a dye job). For Suzanne, however, a master manipulator is the perfect influence, because Vee is incentivized to make each and every inmate feel important and, most importantly, normal. Vee’s arrival has really invigorated the broader politics of the prison system, and through Taystee and Suzanne the character has been sketched out really effectively while not taking away from their individual stories. 

This is also the week that Piper returns to Litchfield, and I have to say that I like the show better with her in it. While the Internet went through a rollercoaster regarding Laura Prepon’s status for the second season, Piper without Alex is just a more interesting figure from my perspective. Nicky calls Piper out on acting as though she’s the star of her own show and everyone else’s, and that was on some level necessary given the way the plot revolved around her. As she returns from Chicago, though, the plot of the season is largely operating outside of her sphere of influence. She’s just grateful to be back at Litchfield, and even seems to have put Alex’s betrayal behind her. The episode charts Piper’s realization that she’s a supporting player, that she is now officially “one of them” and has the ability to define her prison identity. Is she going to be the best friend who helps Brook through a tough night and becomes her friend? Or is she going to be the hardened survivor who refuses to take Brook’s bullshit and who uses the reputation earned by her attack on Pennsatucky to her advantage? The episode has Piper accepting—for the first time, I’d argue—that she is capable of having a prison identity, and that she has some agency to make that determination for herself after being hardened by her recent experiences.

The episode finds time to check in on some smaller storylines, but it’s really about the three hugs. As someone who is very unlikely to initiate but happy to accept hugs, I appreciate the title of the episode as an acknowledgement of what is an inherently ambiguous gesture. There are big stakes in these hugs, though. What history is wrapped up in Red and Vee’s embrace? Does the emotional impact of Vee and Suzanne’s hug for the latter resonate in any way with the former, who seems to be mainly out for power? And is the coldness of Pennsatucky and Piper’s forced hug an indication that they can truly live in harmony, or a harbinger for the conflict that will inevitably rise to the surface? Much as the flashbacks work to set the stage for Suzanne’s arc for the season, the action in these early episodes is setting the stage for the season to come. “Hugs Can Be Deceiving” does a nice job of subtly reintegrating Piper, delivering on the Suzanne back story we’ve been waiting for, and building out the larger “plot” of the season in ways that still boil down to character.

Stray observations:

  • Ugh, Larry: I’m not sure why exactly Larry is in this episode, but I’ll admit this is a better than usual Larry story given how much it shits on him. First the reporter wants to talk to him only as a conduit to talk to Piper about the corruption at the prison, and then his father sets him up on a date with a woman who has a fetish for men with no ambition. As long as Larry’s a punching bag, I can sit through even fairly unnecessary Larry storylines, I’ve discovered.
  • I really don’t know how to respond to the Bennett and Daya storyline. I’m not invested in them as a couple (the pregnancy stuff with Pornstache put an end to that), the threat of the administration learning about her pregnancy feels underdeveloped, and the idea of him smuggling pre-natal vitamins in his prosthetic doesn’t make it any more interesting. I need a twist other than spinach under her pillow.
  • “The white Michelle Williams!”—where’s my “Poussey and Taystee play Celebrity” transmedia Vine account, Netflix?
  • Pick your favorite moment of Morello’s disturbingly endearing racial insensitivity: “But you don’t look full Asia” vs. “You don’t go Jessica Simpson when you got Rihanna…yes, I know Rihanna is black, thank you.”
  • O’Neill walking in place to get his step count up makes his occasional appearances a delight.
  • So there’s now two people whose involvement in Piper’s attack on Pennsatucky is being hidden—I’ll be curious if the truth about either Healy or Suzanne’s involvement will emerge by the end of the season.
  • Leanne lives up to her happiness at Pennsatucky’s absence and stands up to her—given that Taryn Manning was the other series regular added, I remain intrigued to see where that character goes from here.
  • I loved Nicky’s journal entries breaking down her sexual encounters and how dissatisfied she is with them. It was charmingly scientific and fits the character nicely.

“A Whole Other Hole” (season 2, episode 4)

With Vee settled in and Piper reintegrated, “A Whole Other Hole” stands as the first episode of the season that starts with everything already in order, or in as much order as things can be at Litchfield. With Piper reassigned to a dormitory, the transitional period of the season is officially over, but of course whatever status quo is established will be chiseled away until the season devolved into the chaos we know awaits us by season’s end.

What sets Orange Is The New Black apart from other shows is that when it has an episode like this one, it doesn’t just settle into telling a single transitional story. There may be major storylines that clearly either structure the episode, like Morello’s flashback and the inmates learning about female anatomy, or set up future developments, like Red’s greenhouse sewer drain and its potential as a pipeline to the outside world. But then there’s also a scene like Rosa’s chemotherapy session, and the conversation she has with a punk teenager who just wants an iPhone charger. On any other show, that scene would’ve been cut, if it had been written at all—her chemo is only “necessary” to the larger episode in terms of giving Morello the circumstances to drive to Christopher’s home and see the life she’s missing. And yet OITNB is more than willing to stretch an episode out to an hour for no other reason than to show what happens with an inmate with cancer asks an ungrateful kid if he wants to hear a joke.

It’s one of my favorite qualities about the show, even if there are admittedly times when having to set aside an entire hour to watch an episode can be a bit draining. It resists marginalizing a character like Rosa in a storyline where she would typically be reduced to a justification as opposed to a character in her own right. One doubts there’s a grand plan for Rosa, but learning more about her past—she robbed banks—enriches the character, and the idea that the show could at any point pull a character out of the background and find a story to tell about them. While characters like Morello have been prominent enough that we have questions that we want answered as they are in this episode, the show works best when it reminds us that we should could just as easily have questions about Rosa.

We did have questions about Morello, and “A Whole Other Hole” answers them pretty definitively. It’s a nice piece of misdirection, particularly given that it parallels the way Sophia’s flashback was constructed last season. In Sophia’s case, the episode establishes the crime immediately, with Sophia stealing the information necessary to commit what we presume to be combinations of identity theft and credit card fraud. The episode than tracks the parallel impacts of her crimes and her transition on her family, a slow-motion tragedy not unlike the ones our own Todd VanDerWerff wrote about regarding Hannibal’s second season (which I haven’t read because I haven’t finished Hannibal’s second season yet). And so when Morello is first introduced scamming an online retailer to refund her shoes, and meets the infamous Christopher while carrying piles of boxes (to the point where he jokes she might be committing mail fraud), it sets up a slow-motion tragedy as she finds the love of her dreams and loses him when he finds out how she’s affording all these high-end clothes.

And then we stumble on her last flashback, and discover that she and Christopher went on a single date after their meet cute before he called it off. We also learn she subsequently stalked him, even threatening his new girlfriend Angela and planting a homemade explosive under her car. What was a slow-motion tragedy becomes a fast-motion tragedy the second Christopher clarifies they were never actually together, and we watch as Morello smiles and nods at every claim, eventually leaning to her lawyer and explaining that they’ve simply blown things out of proportion.

It’s a striking reveal. It’s foreshadowed, of course: we’ve always known Morello was obsessive given how she’s gone on about her wedding with Christopher, and the scenes that precede it do feature Morello stealing away from the hospital to break into Christopher’s home. And yet I’ve typically read Morello as having been broken by prison, when it turns out that she’s in prison because she was broken. She is someone who struggles to live in her own reality, who met a guy wearing the same sweater as the model whose photo she had on her wall, and who convinced herself she was dating and then engaged to this man. The deluded fantasy of her wedding is obviously a huge part of what’s keeping her sane in prison, but it’s also the same deluded fantasy that landed her in prison in the first place. It adds another layer to the series’ engagement with mental illness, as I don’t know if any of her fellow inmates would think she was suffering in this way—when Morello cries through movie night with the stolen teddy bear, Yoga Jones has no reason to believe there’s more than just an inmate missing her fiancé, and it allows her to pass as “normal” in a way that, for example, Suzanne can’t.

It’s another case of the show avoiding limiting its exploration of an issue—in this case mental illness—to a single example: Suzanne, Pennsatucky, and now Morello are all circling around similar ideas, with varied perspectives and space for discussion. The same goes for issues of sexuality, which we’ve seen in a range of same-sex relationships throughout the series (including Nicky and Big Boo’s light-hearted battle to land Brook that plays out in this episode). “A Whole Other Hole” narrows in on Taystee and Poussey, and brings to the surface a question that faces a lot of close female friendships, particularly in this context. Seeded by Taystee’s look of discomfort as Poussey casually outlines her up-close experience with female anatomy, it comes into full bloom as Poussey goes in for a kiss after a friendly tickle session. Taystee responds in a way that reinforces this is a conversation they’ve had before: She’s not gay, Poussey knows it, and yet they’re best friends who rely on one another for support and stability. As the Tumblr memes from last season showed, their relationship is one of the show’s strongest, and so the idea that it could evolve into a romantic or sexual relationship is certainly within the realm of possibility given their circumstances.

There’s a plot component here, as Vee uses her influence over Taystee to convince her to push Poussey away, a selfish move intended to secure her own control over the Black inmates. And yet while that continues to set up the power struggle between the Latina, Black, and White factions operating in Litchfield, Taystee’s actually very sure of herself when she offers cuddling—which she reads as comfortable within a platonic relationship—in exchange for being unable to give Poussey what she wants (or needs). Navigating that relationship is challenging but not impossible, but it’s Vee’s influence that turns it into a crisis, and something that again threatens one of the most enjoyable partnerships in the series (regardless of whether or not it’s romantic).

At the episode’s heart is the tension between the inside and the outside, both as an inmate and a human being. At the risk of working too hard to collect together elements the episode is largely disinterested in forcing into an overarching theme, the mystery of the female anatomy mirrors the mystery of these women to each other. Who are they on the inside? How are they hiding that from everyone else? Who were they when they were on the outside? Who will they be when they’re on the outside again? Who will they be when they’re by themselves, versus how they are with someone else? While Sophia can give everyone an anatomy lesson to help them better understand their bodies, Morello’s flashback reminds us there’s no diagram that unlocks the inner-workings of their minds in the same way.

Stray observations:

  • I love Piper so much this season. She’s not a major part of this episode, but I enjoyed her silent pleas with O’Neill that she wouldn’t be rooming with Brook, and her taking charge with Red, and her strong opinions on Inspector Gadget’s failings as a detective, and her awkward attempts to pimp Brook out to Big Boo. I’m going to be so pissed when Alex shows up again and sends her into a drama spiral, because Prison Piper is delightful.
  • While I can’t relate to the female anatomy storyline directly, I will say that it gave me flashbacks to reading The Diary of Anne Frank in eighth grade, and the class tittering over the self-examination entry. This is well-timed given this past weekend’s release of a film set in part at the Anne Frank museum, and also brings back my rage at my stellar project on the book being graded based on completion after my teacher went on leave halfway through the year with no notice.
  • I’m a sucker for misdirection, so I really liked the way the rabbit was used in Morello’s break-in. Framed as it was, it made me think that there was a hide-a-key, so the quick cut to her smashing the lock was great.
  • I hope when the series ends we get flashforwards to what each of the inmates did with their lives, and we see Poussey on Shark Tank with the She-Wee.
  • I tried IMDBing what Michael J. Fox movie would be a reinforcement of capitalism—I didn’t recognize it—and there ended up being too many generic-looking starring vehicles to choose from.
  • O’Neill’s close attention to Sophia’s anatomy lesson goes on the list of great O’Neill moments this season.
  • I wrote this entire review with “Almost Paradise” on repeat, and have no regrets.
  • Ugh, Larry: Look, if he’s going to sleep with Polly, just get it over with. I can’t take this playing house bullshit if that’s where it’s going to end up. My stream buffered right before the final scene ended, and so I was stuck in my displeasure for a good minute and a half, and nearly suffered a rage blackout.

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