Orange Is The New Black: “Take A Break From Your Values”/“It Was The Change”

Orange Is The New Black: “Take A Break From Your Values”/“It Was The Change”

Conscience and crisis throw Litchfield into chaos

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.

“Take A Break From Your Values” (season 2, episode 11)

Jesus never spoke to Sister Jane Ingalls. When she first became a nun, she thought it was going to happen eventually. The longer she had one-sided conversations, though, the longer she wondered if there was a reason, and the less she depended on Christ to guide her forward. She started to rely on herself, to trust her own instincts and follow the path she believed was most righteous.

As it turns out, she ended up following what the Church saw as a selfish path driven by narcissism, chasing the arrest records of her fellow nuns and participating in a game of protest “oneupnunship.” Indeed, we learn in “Take A Break From Your Values” that Sister Ingalls was excommunicated before coming to prison, sent to Litchfield not because it was a particularly egregious offense but rather because the Church was no longer willing to pay for her legal fees or give her the protection we presume her status as a nun offered her. She was sent to prison for her crimes, but also so that she could reflect on her actions, with the alleged promise from the Church that they might reconsider if she stayed away from the type of actions that landed her in prison in the first place.

She breaks that promise here, joining Soso’s hunger strike after sensing that Soso, Yoga Jones, Leanne, and Angie didn’t have the experience necessary to make it count. It was as selfless a protest as you could imagine: it wasn’t about pancake syrup, or about the fact that she got a shot for smuggling cornbread to help with her blood sugar. It was about the treatment of senior citizens, returning us to Cavanagh’s compassionate release, and an issue she believes is worth risking her life for. It’s the kind of issue that would resonate if anyone were listening: Where once Ingalls resented the fact that Jesus didn’t speak to her, now she must confront the fact that Caputo has no power to do anything, and the media is only interested in Superstorm Wanda moving up the eastern seaboard.

“Take A Break From Your Values” explores the challenge of one-sided conversations. Piper, having finally read Alex’s letter explaining herself, wants to give Alex phone privileges so she can confront her, and start a dialogue. Healy develops “Safe Place” as a space to have a dialogue, where someone like Poussey could reflect on the struggles they’re facing alone. Bennett wants to talk to Daya, but she’s unwilling to talk to him, still guilty over what happened to Mendez. Big Boo was once in dialogue with both sides, but is ratted out to Red and turned away by Vee for being a snitch. She concludes that she only needs herself, but that’s a dangerous position in a Litchfield increasingly split into factions.

The one person who doesn’t seem to mind one-sided conversations is Brook Soso. The season has done a nice job elaborating on the character without necessarily making her less annoying. Soso is still obnoxious, refusing to stop talking even when Piper confronts her with a Gandhi proverb about the value of silence. She’s still naïve, lacking the leadership to think about how their hunger strike won’t work when not even Caputo is aware it’s happening. And yet she’s refusing to stop even when most inmates would stop, despite the fact she doesn’t have a compelling reason to protest other than the fact the guards forced her to take a shower.

Most people crack from one-sided conversations. Poussey has been having one-sided conversations with Taystee since early in the season, unable to get through to her, and eventually ending up on the wrong side of Vee’s definition of justice. When she arrives in Healy’s group, you understand why she needs a safe space, as the only person she used to be able to talk to isn’t willing to talk to her anymore. She has no one, but she also doesn’t have a safe space. Suzanne is there to ensure her silence, not only about the circumstances of her injury, but about any of the emotional struggles that she might be better off for airing in a public setting. She’s not wrong when she tells Healy that you avoid feelings in prison to be able to survive, and that his efforts to heal these women emotionally are happening just as their physical lives are being threatened.

The system doesn’t understand this. They use a combination of a “Rape The Vote” concert—working title, but it has to have rape in there—and riot gear to try to fix the Mendez situation, with no on-the-ground support to change the culture those rapes represent. Healy, meanwhile, is engaging in meaningful counseling efforts in an environment too volatile for those efforts to work. The right hand isn’t talking to the left, each trying to solve the “problems” at Litchfield in ways that only make clear to the inmates that the happy medium of imprisonment and rehabilitation lies somewhere in between.

The season has been invested in the idea of Litchfield as a society, whether through the presentation of an entirely different society in Chicago back in the premiere, or the expansion of perspectives discussed in a previous review, or most centrally in the introduction of the Big House Bugle. The paper was the place where Daya could speak her mind in animal caricatures, when she couldn’t speak to Bennett directly. It was the place where O’Neill’s love of civil war reenactment could humanize him. It was the place where Healy could reach out to the inmates about Safe Place. It was also the first thing Fig took away when the threat of the hunger strike reached her desk. These women are criminals, and they don’t have the freedom of speech they think they do.

Piper’s pending transfer is the product of this. She has “abused” her “freedom” at Litchfield, talking to reporters and inciting prisoner uprisings with her paper. And yet Fig can’t say that: She can’t actually argue they don’t have free speech, just like she can’t argue that Daya was asking for it when she had sex with Pornstache. She can’t say she’s transferring Piper on purpose, nor does she have to, as random prisoner transfers are common enough to hide her targeted removal of a threat to her corrupt system. Fig doesn’t have to have two-sided conversations: Healy can’t ask questions, Caputo has no power, and there will be no one in a position to speak out when Piper is transferred, or when the workers starting construction on the B Block washrooms turn out to be jackhammering to nowhere in particular.

I said in the previous review I wrote that it was the calm before the storm, not realizing that it was literally the calm before the storm with Wanda’s pending arrival. With talk of inmates stacking sandbags around the lake, one imagines the storm will structure what follows, although the figurative storm would seem to begin with the stabbing of an innocent inmate who looks like Vee at the hands of one of the Golden Girls. It was a mistake, intended for Vee and done without Red’s knowledge, but it promises to escalate the state of things in Litchfield at exactly the wrong time. With the penultimate episode of the season on deck, there’s much more at stake than Piper being unable to talk to Alex, and much uncertainty about who survives Wanda both inside and outside of Litchfield.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Beth Fowler was great as Ingalls throughout the episode, but I particularly loved the scene when she was confronted about the passages in her book. It’s an interesting parallel to Morello’s courtroom scene, as she’s confronted by choices that she’s self-rationalized but threaten her credibility. It also made good use of the cumulative flashbacks, returning to the hippie that gave them a lift and sexing him up for the Mommy Book Club crowd.
  • Black Cindy’s lack of care for the future reemerges after her flashback episode, as she very casually sells out Boo in a way that I don’t think other characters would have done. She’s a rogue agent, even if she’s currently on Vee’s good side, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out when things get darker.
  • Maybe it makes me a terrible person, but I’m sort of with Leanne on fake pancake syrup. I’ll show myself out.
  • “I’m telling you, this rape is the best thing that ever happened to you”—This is disturbing enough taken out of context, but even in context, which rape is she talking about? Mendez? Bennett? Aleida’s always got a bright side, but this one just continues to disturb me, and make me feel bad for Daya for getting wrapped up in it as simple a person she is.
  • Healy is reading Christopher Noxon’s Rejuvenile, which would insinuate he perceives many of the inmates as acting like children. It’s a troubling generalization, although probably not entirely inaccurate in some cases, but I just don’t trust Healy to find such nuance.
  • Ugh, Larry: We’re now at the point where we’re tracking Larry and Polly’s story with almost no resonance on what’s happening in Litchfield, and I just can’t care.

“It Was The Change” (season 2, episode 12)

Crisis breeds conflict. It’s a basic truth, and one that television procedurals have often relied on. Whether a hostage situation or a bank robbery or a major storm flooding the entire prison, placing characters who are already in complicated interpersonal relationships with the people around them through a crisis brings existing conflict to the surface, while creating conflict of its own.

Orange Is The New Black has been building to this moment. “It Was The Change” is the setup, the reminder of all the story threads that are threatening to unravel when the lights go out and the lake water comes out of the toilets. Some of the conflicts seem inevitable, like Red and Vee’s escalating war following the stabbing in the previous episode. There was no way the night was going to end without those two coming into conflict with one another, although Red eventually proves unable to go through with her plan to choke Vee to death after their failed parlay. It’s only in the calm after the storm when things get truly violent.

Vee also breeds conflict, with or without crisis. “It Was The Change” most directly refers to her menopause scare in her flashback, which is an interesting scene to try to parse. The flashback as a whole is a nice bit of narrative construction, going back to show us the moments that led to the final scene in Taystee’s flashback much earlier in the season. It’s the kind of narrative move the show can do more readily when they know much of the audience will move through the season at some speed. They never point out that we’re seeing Vee’s perspective on RJ’s death, the side that Taystee never saw. But as the flashback progresses and we learn of Vee’s NYPD officer on payroll, and RJ’s plans to go out on his own, and as everything descends into a seduction worthy of Oedipus, it becomes clear we’re watching Vee’s careful orchestration of RJ’s death. And it should therefore be no surprise that she does the same to Red, shaking on a truce and then sneaking up on her with a sock with a blunt object in it the next morning.

Orange Is The New Black is very lucky to have Lorraine Toussaint. Vee is constantly walking the fine line between antagonist and cartoon villain. The show has avoided the problem it had last season—where Pennsatucky was undoubtedly over the line into cartoon territory—primarily because Vee is not unstable. Whereas Pennsatucky embodied chaos, Vee wants to create chaos, and then use it to control those around her. She’s a greater threat because she’s going to abuse someone like Suzanne or Taystee, manipulating them emotionally and then putting them in situations where they can either lose control or lose a grasp on who their real friends are. We’ve seen three different glimpses into Vee’s past this season, and none of them suggested a woman who has been misunderstood, or who is hiding behind some sort of sob story. Vee is simply a manipulative sociopath who craves power and doesn’t care what she needs to do in order to attain it.

Toussaint has managed to make that feel more human than it needed to. She sells moments of vulnerability and fake vulnerability in equal measure, such that we never entirely feel comfortable in writing off the character entirely. The moment at the start of her flashback here where she freaks out over the thought of going through menopause felt genuine to me. It showed her insecurity over her age, and over her place in the world. It’s a power play, certainly, as she wants RJ and Taystee to reassure her of her vitality and make her feel better, but there is truth in the insecurity that there isn’t when she fake cowers to Gloria or Red as she tries to get her way. Toussaint has managed the artifice of Vee brilliantly, embodying a greater evil than the antagonists of the first season without entirely taking the series out of its carefully cultivated heightened realist mode.

The rest of the episode asks how the crisis around them reshapes characters’ understanding of their circumstances. Daya has a brief panic attack as the inmates are all crowded together, leading her to push Bennett to turn himself in so they can eventually get out of prison and raise their child together, but it remains an idea more than a reality. Taystee is frozen out by Vee and almost takes it out on Poussey in the flooding library, but she stops herself before the violence continues, realizing what she’s doing and what Vee has done to their friendship. Morello worries that Rosa has died amidst the madness, but it turns out she’s still alive, but close enough to death to remind us she could go before the season is done. Pennsatucky, meanwhile, decides to consider a new political alignment and asks Boo about becoming involved in the gay agenda, but with an exemption from having to eat pussy. Throw in a group sing-along to Meredith Brooks and Lisa Loeb, and you’ve got moments for just about every secondary character amidst the crisis, all with a distinct visual look for a show that spends most of its time under fluorescent lighting.

The biggest plot movement, though, comes in the form of Fig’s corruption and the state of things at Litchfield. Piper’s upset about her transfer because Litchfield has become her home. She’s a bit daft when suggesting to Ruiz that they’ll be “coming from the same place” given the white upper middle class privilege Piper stems from, but she’s taken Litchfield as part of her identity, and wants to stay for reasons beyond making sure she can meet with Alex. With the power out and her transfer imminent, and with confirmation that the reason the power is out is because Fig has allowed the fuel shipments to stop and leave the backup generator unpowered, Piper finally decided to play “High Stakes Harriet The Spy” and break into Fig’s office for proof of the corruption. It all happens as we see glimpses of Fig’s big fundraiser, and get confirmation that Fig is working with her husband to funnel money out of the prison and into his campaign.

In line with Healy’s development throughout the season, Fig is another character that is being humanized without being made likable. Here, we see she’s convinced her husband to give her a child, while simultaneously confirming the oh-so-obvious fact he’s in a relationship with his male aide. We also see her suggest that she’s getting out of the corruption scheme before her husband, who effectively claims that her job—and thus her life—is less important than his based on his political position, pulls her back in. It’s an argument that Fig is one more bureaucrat whose actions are being shaped by someone else’s orders.

She is still a villain, to be clear, and the reasons why she’s a villain don’t change the fact she’s a deplorable human being; it’s why it seems plausible Caputo will forgive Piper’s trespassing in order to use the evidence she collected. But Fig thinks she’s doing the right thing. So does Healy, despite the fact he continues to believe that the number one goal of the women around him is to emasculate him and his kind, and that it all centers on those damn lesbians. The more Healy tries to educate himself on the “social sciences,” the more you realize that he is simply coming at this from the wrong direction, and that there’s no fixing the fact Healy is a throwback to a conception of women and sexuality that is more insidious than he would ever realize. And nothing that happens will change that: it didn’t change when Healy walked away from Piper in danger and allowed the attack on Pennsatucky to take place, just as it didn’t change when Fig received the phone call about the prison power outage and basically just said that it would have to wait until morning. They are so entrenched in their views that not even a crisis can dislodge them.

Meanwhile, we’ll need to wait until the finale to see what else this crisis dislodges.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • While Vee chose the safe choice to fuck Bennett in the “prison guard FMK” game, Black Cindy owns her choice of Caputo. It’s the moustache.
  • I presume I’m not the only person of a certain age who associates the word parlay with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
  • For a second I presumed that Fig was lying about Tiki Barber to win over her accountant and keep him from investigating the FitzCore irregularities, but then there was Tiki Barber!
  • “I have a lot of those, specify”—Boo may be a snitch, but she’s fine being a free agent as long as it gives her a chance to screw with Pennsatucky. And I want to know what her other agendas are.
  • Props to Kate Mulgrew and Lorraine Toussaint for pulling off a tense dialogue scene while awkwardly facedown on the floor—it’s a difficult staging, and they managed to keep the tension in place.
  • As much as I appreciate Healy reading and flipping out over Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, it would’ve been more fitting if he had just watched and misunderstood the TED Talk. Because that’s what people do now.
  • The episode comes to a close with Sara Jackson-Holman’s fitting “Cellophane,” but I still had “Bitch” stuck in my head for a few hours after the episode ended.
  • Ugh, Larry: …wait, there was no Larry. THERE WAS NO LARRY. Someone ring the bells! Start the parade! No, in truth, I think we need to have at least a return to Larry before the season is over, to be able to spin the time spent into some sort of meaningful resolution.

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