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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Even without a flashback, the past disrupts a moment of calm in “Bitchfield”

Illustration for article titled Even without a flashback, the past disrupts a moment of calm in “Bitchfield”

Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black season five. These reviews and their comment sections are intended for those who have seen up to this episode—please refrain from revealing or discussing events from future episodes in the comments.

There is no flashback in “Full Bush, Half Snickers,” which is not in and of itself uncommon: beginning in the fourth season, the series silently acknowledged that there is no longer as clear a narrative demand for backstories for these characters, and so there will be occasional episodes that do not rely on this device. This is the second such episode this season, following the premiere.

However, this does not suggest that the past isn’t important to these episodes. Indeed, if anything the past is more important here than it has been in other episodes, as the moment of peace in the midst of the riot creates space for reflection. With the immediate aftermath of the riot over, the characters are starting to regain perspective on their lives, and turn their attention toward the types of psychic traumas that they were previously grappling with. Suzanne’s storyline is an outsized manifestation of something everyone else is experiencing: in the absence of the structure of prison, and past the point where the riot registers as an immediate and pressing danger, what will the inmates do to keep themselves occupied and away from some of the problems—grief, guilt, etc.—that plagued them on the outside?

My favorite example of this is in the case of Black Cindy and Alison, who take the lead on the Suzanne situation as Taystee is focused on working with Piper on a memorial to Poussey. They decide to start playing guard, giving Suzanne the hostages as fellow inmates and building a routine that will keep their friend from falling deeper into her illness. It’s a mostly silly storyline, as the guards whine about their mistreatment, and Black Cindy in particular relishes the opportunity to partake in the activities the guards reveled in with her (including ogling Josh from PR). But as the guards are playing a story game, Alison recalls that it’s the type of game that her daughter played, which on the surface serves mostly to activate the story from her flashback a few episodes ago. But then we cut to Cindy, who is taking in the story and seems almost taken aback by the way Alison misses her daughter, and it clicked in my brain that Cindy is working through her guilt about her own daughter within this interaction. Despite being raised as her sister, Cindy has a child on the outside, and yet that has never been a motivating factor for her: seeing that emotion from someone else, though, triggers something, and is one moment of many in the episode where our knowledge of the characters’ pasts comes to bear.

In some cases, this is mostly isolated for the audience: while the rest of the inmates see Daya’s mural as a general criticism of the guards, for example, for her it’s a deeply personal reflection on Bennett’s abandonment. But in other cases we see characters’ histories become public record, as in the case of “Lorna La Loca.” Everyone knows about Lorna’s delusions, and her pregnancy becomes one more chapter in her lengthy story. But we know that Lorna did actually have sex since she came to Litchfield, which means she may not be delusional, and the episode asks us to use that knowledge in order to interpret the state of things. The same goes for Gloria’s relationship with her son Benny, or any other number of points where our cumulative knowledge of these characters helps shape our perception of their current existence.

This is not always the case: the show rarely hangs the entire weight of a characters’ backstory on them in a given episode, and some of the lighter comic relief characters—like Flaca and Martiza—often float through life without their flashbacks ever coming into the picture. I don’t actually know if I’d given much thought to Black Cindy’s flashback so far this season, for example, and so it seemed meaningful that we saw quite a few characters’ pasts resurfacing over the course of the episode. It was perhaps especially notable given that there was a significant story in the episode that featured no characters who have had flashback episodes: the pop-up coffee shop situation involves a collection of side characters that have no real history, with a “killer barista” characterization brought to light on the spot for Asia Kate Dillon’s character Becky to help justify the storyline. The relatively empty nature of those characters suited the point of the story: as they indulge in musical performance (Sankey) and impressions of other inmates (Ouija), it’s a moment of levity amidst the riot, which is then shattered as soon as they realize Angie and Leanne stole the coffee and the riot starts anew. The story matters less because we know less about the people involved, but the story also doesn’t really pretend it’s more important than it is. It’s there as a light-hearted diversion, comic relief that evolves into a simple but effective reminder that “Bitchfield” is not a stable environment.


Orange Is The New Black would be a much darker show if its characters constantly walked around announcing their dark pasts: Lorna’s past is darker than most, but she mostly tries to put on a smiley face, and I can see how some might briefly forget about her mental illness. But it’s on full display here when Vinnie freaks out at her pregnancy announcement banner, and it’s a complicated moment: Vinnie seems more confused than angry, but Lorna can’t interpret it from afar, and will obviously interpret it in the most hurtful of ways. And while Suzanne’s mental illness—because of how it manifests and because of the fact her friends are attentive to her—is treated seriously, Lorna’s is a joke, and is treated accordingly by all involved. No one really wants to grapple with Lorna’s delusions, and I can’t entirely blame Nicky for wiping her hands of it, but at the same time this is the point at which people need to be acknowledging the complexity of Lorna’s past, and the ways the riot would activate this. The inmates have none of the support structure they would normally have, and while that support structure was ineffective and poorly trained, it at least was there to potentially intervene in situations like this one.

The best way for the inmates to replicate this is through communication, but there are clear limits on this. Pennsatucky got through to the majority of the inmates with her speech about rehabilitation, but Leanne and Angie are still angry, and bully her accordingly. And while conversation only leads to further argument between Taystee and Brook, the library monument allows them to grieve in a shared space, and communicate through the books Poussey loved (with Taystee bringing the book she took from the library on the day they met). But not all conversations will be facilitated in this way, and the communications with the outside world will be uneven: Gloria was perfectly content in the bunker until Gina boosted the cell signal and she started getting messages about Benny. Vinnie’s advice to Lorna is to find a safe place and ride out the riot, but in the context of this chaos there is no safe place: the riot and its impacts will find you, whether it’s through violence or the introspection that comes with this unstructured environment.


“Full Bush, Half Snickers” is very clearly a transitional episode: it creates a sudden shift to calm in order to explore the “community” created by the riot, and then it destroys that calm in order to “reset” the chaos of the riot in moving to the back half of the season. Combined with the lack of flashback, it feels like an hour that will fade from memory as the season continues, but we may look back on it as a crucial palate cleanser as we shift the arcs into focus.

Stray observations

  • I guess the logic behind giving Blanca a makeover was so that she could fake seduce the nurse who still has no clear reason to still be in the prison and not a hostage, but I guess we got a good eyebrow joke or two out of it, and Red’s plan to go after Piscatella is coming more into focus after being comic relief for too long.
  • Ouija’s impressions clearly read as the writers building in something that actress Rosal Colon did on set, and they are a great set of impressions, I have to admit.
  • I had legitimately 100% forgotten Bennett existed, and I’m honestly mad the show reminded me.
  • Weird to not have any kind of followup on the stories that happened outside of Litchfield in the previous episode—the realtime nature of the season means that this isn’t necessarily illogical, as only a few hours probably passed, but it’s a bit disorienting at times.
  • “20,000 Leagues Under The Vajayjay Shit” is a movie I would watch, whereas that long gestating 20,000 Leagues reboot is not.
  • Remember Hapakuka? Well, she emerges here to complain that Lorna didn’t ask about Burger King, after a brief appearance hiding under her bunk earlier, so I’ve got no idea what they’re trying to add up to there.
  • I realize that it’s sort of my job to learn characters’ names as the reviewer, but I’ll be honest: nothing about the characters without backstories is reinforcing their names for me. I don’t think I ever recovered from the influx of inmates at the start of last season, and while the white supremacists were clearly named during the “Fuck, Marry, Kill” sequence earlier, I feel the show hasn’t done the same for the Latina inmates introduced last season.
  • Nice to see Alison praying—as I write this, I’m obsessed with the Norwegian teen drama Skam, which is focusing on its Muslim character this season, and the various daily prayers are a big part of that. Interesting to see if the chapel remains a place of peace once the rioting restarts.
  • I liked Piper’s role in community organizing, and her quick correction from “our labor” to “your labor”: it’s nicely self-aware, and I care more about Piper in this capacity than I do about her relationship with Alex. (Also: of course Piper is a Slytherin.)
  • “Maybe I should learn how to read”—throwaway punchlines are honestly the most successful comedy for me on this show most of the time.
  • The episode’s other development is Linda from Purchasing shacking up with Boo, which offers some nice moments for Lea DeLaria if not a whole lot of development for Linda herself.