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Does Orange Is The New Black really think this toxic relationship is anything but toxic?

Illustration for article titled Does iOrange Is The New Black/i really think this toxic relationship is anything but toxic?
Photo: JoJo Wilden (Netflix)
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I am on the record here at The A.V. Club that Netflix’s “Skip Intro” feature does more harm than good, even if I will admit to using it on occasion, but I’ll admit that this season of Orange Is The New Black has probably played better to those who’ve bypassed Regina Spektor and had no idea that Laura Prepon was still credited, and thus Alex is most certainly not dead as Piper feared.

To the show’s credit, they haven’t really treated this as a serious possibility: Piper’s misinterpretation of the message about Piscatella being killed meant that her grief was always treated as a mistake, even before the show dramatically panned across a new group of inmates arriving at Max to a scene of Alex, her arm in a sling after needing a hospital visit and two shoulder surgeries before returning to general population. However, it was still treated as a dramatic reveal, as though “and Laura Prepon” hadn’t made the idea of Alex’s death highly unlikely three episodes ago.


“I’m The Talking Ass” finally pieces together some of the other parts of the credits as well: I actually opened my notes on the episode by remarking that neither Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Aleida or Matt Paters’ Luschek had appeared so far this season despite being credited as series regulars, and like magic they appear. I don’t know if anyone in the audience was impatiently waiting for their return like I was impatient for the investigation to get around to Taystee, but this is certainly the first episode where the full scale of the season’s storytelling feels like it is co-existing. Most of the Ad Seg inmates are in general population, the old guards are being folded in with the new, and Caputo’s back in action as Taystee looks for a way out of a bad situation far from the change she fought for.

Taystee is the first inmate who we’ve seen with an actual public defender, and we immediately see how dire her situation is: the investigators don’t even feel they need to talk to her after Frieda (purposefully) and Cindy (accidentally) provided testimony that implicated her in Piscatella’s death, and when the public defender observes the field of play she sees no hope. I appreciate that the show isn’t making the public defender too comically overworked or incompetent: she has a good read on the situation, in which the Governor wants charges, the U.S. Attorney is trying to make a name for himself, and everyone is under pressure to set an example lest other prison riots popping up around the country continue as a result. She just knows that there is nothing she can do to upset that narrative: Taystee’s fate has basically been determined before she even set foot in that room, unless someone like Caputo can change the narrative around the riot in ways that might reveal something approximating the truth.


For everyone but Red and Taystee, the time in Ad Seg ends here, and we’re starting to get a clearer sense of the damage: Ruiz took a plea to a 10-year extension of her sentence, while Piper gained only six months, which is still enough to make it unlikely that the show extends beyond the end of Piper’s sentence. And while Nicky fights the statement implicating Red, she eventually relents after using phone time in order to explain to Red the drug charges she’s facing if she doesn’t sign it—it’s the latest in a collection of fun scenes of the Ad Seg inmates finding creative ways to communicate, but this time tinged with tragedy and lightened by yet another appearance by the African American inmate who has yet to have her name featured in subtitles and whose name I therefore do not know, but made a fun Terry Gilliam reference here. [Hindsight note as I’m editing, for those as frustrated as I was: her name is Adeola.] Nicky doesn’t want to sell out Red, but even Red understands she has no choice, and at this point all she and Taystee can do is sit and wait, hoping that Caputo or someone else changes the status quo.

“I’m The Talking Ass” feels like the last episode where the show will need to be doing entirely new work. The status quo of Max is starting to take form, as Badison settles back into her role as Carol’s enforcer in C-Block, and we get to know some of her lieutenants. Aleida’s first visit to Litchfield also brings a bit more clarity on Daya’s future, which seems like it’s about to get shorter as she becomes the show’s window into the opioid crisis. The return of Luschek, Blake, and McCullough also gives us a closer view of the “fantasy inmate lottery,” which Luschek revels in while doing his best to ignore that Nicky and other inmates he knew well are among the women he’s gleefully dehumanizing. It feels like all of the players are now on the board, which should allow the second act of the season to fall into place.


However, we need to have a serious conversation about two parts of “I’m The Talking Ass” that I found frustrating. The first is Nicky’s bat mitzvah flashback, which is just fundamentally useless: we already knew she had a bad relationship with her parents, and nothing about this story felt remotely necessary. The episode tries to turn it into a central theme about forgiveness, but we didn’t need the flashback for that theme to be established, and this confirms that at this point the non-Max flashbacks are basically just there for the casting department to show off and nothing more. The idea that they’re spending money on the flashbacks instead of even halfway passable driving plate green screen—the size of the windows in Aleida’s car nearly gave me a heart attack—during the driving scenes is going to destroy me by the time the season ends.

However, while the flashbacks are merely a waste of time, I was legitimately furious at the continuation of the Coates and Pennsatucky storyline. I have so many questions for the writers about what they are trying to accomplish in this storyline in general, but listening to Coates reframe the start of their relationship as “really messed up” thanks to the power dynamics as though he didn’t rape her in the back of a van, and watching as Dixon presumes that the power dynamics were the other way around, made me livid. I kept waiting for a signal that the show is going to at some point get Pennsatucky out of this toxic situation, but then the show did something even worse: I honestly could not believe what I was seeing when the disguised Pennsatucky and Coates are attacked by a homophobe, and Dixon comes to their aid in a way that equates a same-sex couple with a prison guard who raped an inmate, and then pursued a romantic relationship with her.


Again, I kept waiting for the show to have someone—anyone—break down the absurdity of Dixon’s claim, which is neither funny nor poignant. Nothing about this storyline is ever going to be either of those things, but the show keeps going with it anyway, despite the fact they could have just had Coates and Dixon disappear. Heck, it’s revealed here that Maureen—Suzanne’s love interest, and a character whose past was heavily hinted at by Caputo then never explored—died off-screen, so why are we following through on a story that is so toxic? The answer is that the show doesn’t seem to understand that toxicity, a fact that will continue to drag the season down until something approaching sanity is restored.

It’s a sour note in an episode that, overall, fleshes out the world of Max and continues to suggest that the post-riot Orange Is The New Black has a lot of story to tell—they’re just not always choosing the right ones.


Stray observations

  • The one remaining charges mystery: what is going on with Blanca? She says that she has no extra time added, and Diablo visits and makes plans to knock her up, but the investigators’ excitement at her file had to mean something, so we’re waiting for that bomb to drop.
  • Aleida getting sucked into a multi-level marketing scheme felt very “in-the-news,” and not in a good way, but I except it’s something that happens to a lot of former inmates who can’t find other work, and I liked how she discovered she was swindled and successfully swindled someone else in the same episode to speed up the story a bit.
  • However, if there is a single multi-level marketing scheme that is still using CASSETTE TAPES in this the year of our lord 2018, I’m a monkey’s uncle.
  • I was pretty much done with Daya before she picked up that gun, and so I’m struggling with the show pinning the opioid story on her: I sympathize with her, but her story is already so dark, and I just feel like punishing her more is leading to diminishing returns.
  • We can add the other guards to the list of characters who may or may not show up again: perhaps they’re the ones who are testifying at trial, and therefore not entering back into the prison yet, or maybe they’re even more screwed up than McCullough and we’ll visit with them on leave.
  • I was literally writing in my notes that the “radio lady as voiceover” thing was a bit too on-the-nose, but I chuckled when it was revealed that Radio Lady Cathy is Daya’s roommate, so that’s something.
  • We can add Zirconia to the list of inmates who survived the post-riot purge of the show’s supporting cast.
  • Taystee’s story hinging on happening to know a guard at the prison is a bit too convenient, but I figure they needed a way to get Caputo involved, and I’ll allow it if it means Taystee has a chance here.
  • I just want to reiterate again: if you are going to have terrible compositing work on your driving scenes, Orange Is The New Black, I beg you to put the women in cars with smaller windows. The angle on Aleida’s driving scene only accentuated how fake it looked, and I just don’t understand how this keeps happening.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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