Orange Is The New Black: “Low Self Esteem City”/“You Also Have A Pizza”
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Orange Is The New Black: “Low Self Esteem City”/“You Also Have A Pizza”

We’re introduced to Sideboob as Piper’s fumbling towards agency

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.

Low Self Esteem City” (season 2, episode 5)

When Gloria and her kitchen crew evacuate their sewage-flooded showers and expect to leapfrog Vee and the black inmates she now decidedly controls, it is suggested they’re “violating an unspoken social contract.” It’s true, and it’s the biggest change in Orange Is The New Black’s second season. While the racial divisions were mapped out last season, and the potential for conflict was explored on various occasions, the idea of open conflict between them was never really brought to the surface.

Gloria’s ascension, Red’s plans for reclaiming her power, and Vee’s plans to reassert the power of the black inmates have changed this, and “Low Self Esteem City” brings their conflict to the surface. The issue is that Gloria doesn’t know she’s in open conflict, pushing hard against Vee but then giving her exactly what she wanted. Red knows what Vee is capable of, but Gloria is operating with newfound power, and she has the attitude without the experience to back it up.

The episode is paired with some background on Gloria, a single mother running a convenience store with two side businesses: a spiritual candle concern run by her sister, and an SNAP fraud scheme she’s using to pocket a lot more cash than the candles are pulling in. She also has an abusive boyfriend, and the episode tracks a now somewhat familiar story of someone committing a crime in order to escape an untenable life situation. Perhaps because the spiritual candles—“Catholic Plus”—were working their magic, Gloria ends up escaping in a way: she may not be with her kids, and she may be in jail, but her money and the abuser’s insistence on an auto-locking door combined to take him out of the picture.

What’s interesting is that, compared to many of the other flashbacks, it is very closed-ended. It’s part of an episode that ends up feeling very small, as though it was held back from exploring any of its storylines in greater detail. It starts to put Vee’s plan into motion but doesn’t get to the plan itself. You see Red starting to clean up the greenhouse, but there’s no forward movement on the sewer pipeline. We see Piper learn about her grandmother’s illness and reach out to Larry, but their substantive interactions are held for the following episode. Big Boo and Nicky’s sex battle continues, but with no sign of a resolution. We get the littlest taste of Sideboob’s extensive song catalog, but with no time to explore what is surely a treasure trove of early B-sides waiting to be discovered. Given how transitional the rest of the episode feels, the way Gloria’s flashback wraps up so cleanly—fire’s effective that way—seems jarring, too cute for a show that’s often better with lingering impacts.

Of the episode’s transitional stories, I was surprised to find Caputo and Healy’s the most engaging. The prison infrastructure was obviously a big part of the first season, but it was primarily focused around the corruption of Pornstache and the temptation of Bennett, two extreme examples. By comparison, Healy and Caputo are company men, who inherently believe in the importance of their jobs even if one of them is a garbage human being and the other is not without his flaws. Healy stumbling onto the Side Boob gig works to humanize them, and it’s Caputo who comes out the better. Healy is still a misogynist dick, arguing that it’s “creepy” to talk about women’s issues with an actual woman, but he at least seems moved by Caputo’s suggestion that they should at least be able to keep the women safe and clean. The idea of actually enriching their lives—the job fair—is completely off the table, a charade not unlike the political ad for Figueroa’s husband that plays in the bar as they drink. All they can do is try to find a way to work within Fig’s corrupt system—where even completely necessary plumbing repairs are ignored the second Fig can get rid of the outside plumber Caputo brought in—to try to keep the inmates from losing their basic decency.

It’s an interesting extension of focus, but it’s also one that gets caught up in the transitional nature of the episode. Everything’s either in the start or the middle—none of it is particular bad, but the episode ends up feeling inconsequential, most notable for working to retroactively justify the appearance of Piper’s grandmother in her flashback (presuming, of course, it was the same grandmother). Compared to the other episodes so far this season, this just lacked the same depth of investigation in both the past and present.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • A nice spotlight for Selenis Leyva, who does a solid job with what was a fairly trope-heavy flashback, giving us glimpses of the Gloria we know and flashes of vulnerability we’ve never seen in Litchfield.
  • The show definitely finds Healy interesting, and his relationship with his wife remains an interesting exploration of masculinity. It’s just also an exploration of masculinity around a character that’s pretty loathsome, and which pops up infrequently enough that Katya never registers as a meaningful character.
  • “All problems are boring until they’re your own”—the episode may have been light on major events, but that’s a pretty good summation of the show, Red.
  • “She was talking about wrestling while crying!”—Is Fischer just as morbidly curious as you’d expect someone would be regarding their phone calls, or does she really believe in security? Her motives are unclear.
  • Of course Caputo—or should I say “Capudog?”—plays bass. Of course.
  • “They fucking with us this way because of our people’s natural predisposition for hypertension”—That’s just mean.
  • OITNB Lesson: Never call a black guard “sister.”
  • Ugh, Larry: Larry’s mainly a vessel for some topical Cronut-based humor—Bagnuts, as it were—this episode, so there’s not too much to complain about. I know, I’m shocked too.

“You Also Have A Pizza” (season 2, episode 6)

Orange Is The New Black is a show that handles structure well. “You Also Have a Pizza” is anchored by a major holiday (Valentine’s Day), a prison-wide event (a Valentine’s Day party), and a direct address device where the inmates reflect on the meaning of love, all on top of a flashback for Poussey and the continuation of a range of ongoing storylines. It would be too much for most shows to handle, as they’d be drowning in structuring frameworks. However, at some point Stephen Falk’s script throws caution to the wind, and accepts that the world being built can weave in and out of on-the-nose thematic devices and large collections of characters without skipping a beat.

It works because the show isn’t insistent on events like this being earth-shattering. The early parts of the episode are setting up significant stakes. Red works to regain her place in the prison with contraband, trying to regroup her people in the face of the threats to come. Vee convinces Taystee to abandon the library to join custodial, ensuring her full control of the tobacco pipeline she’s establishing out of the warehouse. The Latina kitchen crew is taking full advantage of ”sleepy hollow” and using Bennett as a pipeline for their contraband needs. At the same time, a crackdown is coming from Fig, with shot quotas and mandatory pat downs. By the time the episode gets to the Valentine’s Day party, you’re thinking that this will be the moment where everything goes to shit.

And then it doesn’t. Bennett and Daya steal away to have sex in Caputo’s office, but no one stumbles in on them despite the fact that there is in fact someone—Cavanagh—stumbling around Litchfield while it’s happening. Poussey and Taystee have a tense confrontation, but nothing that explodes into any broader conflict. Leanne fully rejects Pennsatucky and ousts her as dictator of the “white trash,” but Pennsatucky goes outside to seek comfort from Healy instead of seeking some kind of revenge. Even Big Boo and Nicky’s “bang contest,” potentially incredibly disruptive, ends when they both realize they’re tired of chasing pussy and switch to a cookie-eating contest instead (…oh, I see what they did there).

Fischer’s comparison of the inmates to a Dickens novel—picked up by Buzzfeed’s Jace Lacob in his review of the first six episodes—is perhaps a bit too on the nose, but the show’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t work too hard to make every story hit a particular note in its Dickensian goals. Yes, it wants to talk about social justice and identity politics, but it also doesn’t reduce characters to serve those goals. Flaca and Maritza are minor characters, and early in the episode their discussion of their boyfriend and daughter, respectively, on the outside on Valentine’s Day fits into the episode’s investment in the meanings of love and the impact of the holiday while imprisoned. But when we reach their final moment, as they drunkenly make out with each other, it isn’t played as a revelatory moment of what women do in such situations. They quickly laugh it off, and then settle into a quiet moment of contemplation. The characters never feel like they’re living through a Dickens novel, even if the show is structured as one, and those moments are crucial to maintaining a naturalistic tone in a show that could become burdened by narrative construction.

It’s also the test of a strong flashback. While Gloria was somewhat lost in the moral of her story, Poussey wrestles free from her flashback’s reinforcement of the meaning of home that recurs throughout the episode. Hers is the story of a girl with no home, a Military brat who we meet in Germany having been promised that this was her father’s final stop, and falling in love with a young German woman. They’re separated by the German’s homophobic father, but Poussey’s response isn’t just about that. It’s about confronting social stigmas surrounding your sexuality while having no stable sense of home to ground you. It’s difficult enough for Poussey to confront her identity as a young black lesbian, but she has to do so all over again in each new “home.” Here she was finally settling into something meaningful, something she had been promised would be permanent, and it’s torn away from her. She is seconds away from pulling a gun, as Samira Wiley manages to show us years of pent-up frustration that we don’t see onscreen but emerges in this single heated moment.

We can draw thematic conclusions, but we primarily focus on our new understanding of Poussey’s understanding of herself and the people she cares for. When she threatens Vee, she is largely ignored, too small and too seemingly light-hearted to move to that level. However, when you consider how she has been forced to shut people out emotionally in the past, and how her friendship with Taystee—even if it’s not what she truly wants from her—is under siege by Vee’s plans, you understand that she more of a threat than Vee realizes. The scene where Poussey closed her eyes for what she thought was a kiss was a bit too cute in emphasizing the disappointment she’s forced to accept each day, but the flashback did nice work changing our perception of the character in the present based on the actions in their past.

The episode’s other major story development returns to Piper, who has been sitting on the sidelines since her return to Litchfield. She reemerges here as Larry—yes, we’re discussing Larry outside of the stray observations, although stay tuned for Ugh—visits Litchfield, and the two unformed blobs of human beings bounce off each other. He resents her for making his entire life about her, she resents him for making his entire life about her (the moon to her sun), and they each leave incredibly self-conscious about what they’re doing with their life. After rejecting Larry’s attempt to pass off the Litchfield story as his own journalism, Piper instead decides to take it on herself, in a storyline I like to call “Piper Chapman in Fumbling Towards Agency.” Piper has no idea what she’s doing as she starts fishing around for information on how little work is being done at Litchfield, but a tense encounter with Healy sees her stumble her way into a prison newsletter, a decent cover for the kind of questions she wants to ask, and the justification for the “What is love?” talking heads that punctuate the episode.

Some of those get a bit cute, but do you know what? Cute works on this show. You can get away with Piper’s notion that love is like coming home from a long trip when you also have Flaca and Maritza’s five-person massage while “A Light That Never Goes Out” plays…oh, and there’s pizza. There’s obviously a level of Dickensian argumentation structuring the show, but it’s a playful structure, and one that winks as often as it underlines the issues at play. “You Also Have a Pizza” manages this playfulness nicely, and makes an overstuffed episode feel more natural than it has any right to.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • The expansion of the guards’ perspective continues with a social night out at a Sideboob show, which Fischer turns into a group hang to Caputo’s—sorry, The Gay Edge’s—dismay.
  • Building on my discussion of Morello and Suzanne as two different outlets into mental illness, the two share a moment of reflection after Suzanne finds the wedding invitation in the trash, and it’s clear they understand each other better than they might even realize. We can also add the missing Golden Girl Cavanagh to the list, whose prison break is surely to throw a wrench into things regardless of her dementia.
  • “U Know Who”—In case you thought Pornstache was gone forever, think again. The show uses mail to remind us of two different characters who are missing more because of actor scheduling than storytelling, with a letter arriving for Piper from “AV” as well.
  • What was everyone’s favorite rumination on love? Suzanne’s felt the most nuanced to be, but it really is tough to beat the pizza. And I don’t even like pizza.
  • Since I saw at least a few people asking on Twitter, the song over the end credits was “Valentine” by Jessie Ware & Sampha.
  • I appreciate how quickly characters just enter into the world: we get a brief glimpse of Brook initiating a new inmate, and then she pops up again as a Ferris Bueller truther. I know someone suggested an “Ugh, Soso” feature, but I find the character fun in small doses.
  • Ugh, Larry: Well, at least we got that kiss out of the way, conveniently right when Polly’s husband returns from his vision quest. I am whatever the opposite of riveted is. I also promise we’ll address the issues with Larry in more detail when he feels like less of a post-script, should that happen before the end of the season.
  • Advance Warning: The next review will be a bit different, as it will deal with the seventh and eighth episodes together as opposed to separately. So, more than usual, make sure you’re caught up on both episodes before then.

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