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If Orange Is The New Black can’t even make flashbacks for new characters exciting, it should stop doing them

Illustration for article titled If Orange Is The New Black can’t even make flashbacks for new characters exciting, it should stop doing them
Screenshot: Netflix
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At the end of every episode of Orange Is The New Black, the first thing we see after the fade to orange is “Executive consultant Piper Kerman.”


I’ve never actually read Kerman’s memoir, despite covering the show for five years now, and that’s because it never felt particularly relevant: the show is only loosely based on the memoir, and the show has evolved so far from its origins as a show about a privileged white woman going to a minimum security prison that it feels less relevant now than ever. But perhaps that was what made season six the right time to have reality and fiction converge: Piper Chapman wants to write a memoir.

I would actually love to know more about how Piper Kerman feels about the fictional Piper’s place in the show at this late stage. The show really has no sympathy left for Piper, and between last season and this season has framed her privilege as blinding her from the true injustices happening around her. Piper is a fun character, and far from the worst kind of person in prison at Litchfield, but she isn’t writing a memoir because she wants to tell the truth about the riot. She’s writing a memoir because she’s bored, and because a magazine quiz told her that she’s peaking right now and “now is her time to course correct.” It’s self-reflection in the most narcissistic way: she realizes that she has only made prison worse, instead of better, and while she says she wants to “expose the system” by writing a memoir, she spends the rest of the episode brainstorming an ending for her book that makes it look like she fixed prison from the inside. It’s a pretty damning indictment of her privilege, and makes it difficult to imagine Chapman following Kerman’s lead and becoming an outspoken critic of the prison industrial complex. It also seems unlikely, based on historical precedent, that her plan to end her book with a rehabilitation kickball match is going to give her the ending she desires, making her a different kind of agent of chaos than those planning all-out war between the blocks.

This is ostensibly Badison’s episode, but this is another weak flashback that makes their continued use questionable. Amanda Fuller has been doing good work sketching out the character into the most well realized in Max: she was introduced first, got fleshed out by the reveal she broke her arm on purpose to be Carol’s informant, and has been consistently knocked down a peg since. The flashback is ostensibly the origin of “Badison,” and beyond Fuller being a stretch to play herself as a teenager it just doesn’t add much. We technically get more details about her life: “Badison” was her attempt to overwrite “Fartison,” and her anger management issues evolved into something darker by accident when trying to deal with bullies at a correctional camp for troubled teens. But all this does it create a pattern of behavior that echoes what we see in Litchfield, where she uses the Badison moniker as a badge to hide her vulnerabilities, and where she fights to prove herself to Carol, who constantly beats her down.

The flashback doesn’t unlock anything new about Badison as a character: it just reinforces what we already know, with some rather absurd staging to justify how someone could keep enough pressure to spray an aerosol can while falling forward into a fire. If the show’s flashbacks aren’t going to offer significant revelations, they are a waste of time. There’s nothing wrong with the audience having some questions about who a character is and letting their present actions answer them instead of turning to the past.

Uncertainty is a crucial theme for some other characters we check back in on in “Changing Winds.” Ruiz didn’t drown in the bathroom, but the prison is convinced she tried to drown herself, placing her in Psych with Lolly and fighting with the weight of the peace she felt when she was near death, face down in a toilet. Suzanne, meanwhile, gets a message from a reluctant Cindy—sorry, Tova—that Taystee wants to see her, and is struggling with the weight of the secret about the cops framing them for Piscatella’s death, which Cindy wants kept quiet lest it complicate her plea deal. Ruiz’s situation is being treated as the more volatile by the prison, but it’s Cindy’s situation that carries the most stakes: carrying over from last season, Taystee’s trial is the most important story being told, and the interpersonal dynamics that it will create between these women is always going to carry more emotional weight than newly introduced characters or stories.


Badison does get the climactic moment, when the withdrawal in D-Block boils over and drags her down with it, as she gets shanked and passes off the contraband cell phone Luschek snuck in to her new deputy Alex. But it’s telling, I think, that even though Badison is the strongest new character introduced outside of the African woman whose name they still haven’t offered us formally (it’s Adeola, as I noted previously), this still didn’t feel like Badison’s episode, and every flashback felt like it was distracting from the season’s strengths instead of expanding them. Much as Piper became a better character when they stopped pretending she was the center of the story, I wonder if I’d be more accepting of Duerte and Badison if the show didn’t try to center them in these two mid-season episodes, and let them sustain themselves in the present instead.

Stray observations

  • Daya’s in a bad way with the oxy shortage, stealing Barb’s personal stash, and then seducing Duerte to avoid the consequences. Much as I questioned making Daya the center of the riot storyline, given the state of her character, pinning the opioid story on her feels like a missed opportunity. I just don’t care about Daya, if I’m being perfectly honest, and that’s making me not care about Duerte either.
  • Nicky, the resident addict, has been keeping herself busy trying to keep Morello from going feet first into the gang situation, and here adds “counseling Blanca on how to artificially inseminate herself in prison” to her list of chores, setting up a great Ocean’s spinoff where they try to smuggle warm semen into max.
  • “Flava to the Max” seems to be off to a good start, although they probably exhausted the cheese/oxy euphemism.
  • Pennsatucky has made her way back to Litchfield in Ad Seg, and takes full advantage of her knowledge of Linda’s time in prison to get herself into Florida—I found myself thinking about whether or not any of the other women in the prison would have known much about Linda that could compromise her, or if Pennsatucky’s intimate details are distinct, but then I realized it doesn’t really matter.
  • I have no particular feelings about Caputo and Fig having a proper date before he leaves for Missouri, but I was very confused why Fig’s big story about Springsteen was about “Dancing in the Dark” and not getting pulled on stage like Courteney Cox and then Caputo calls her up on stage during “I’m On Fire.” I’m guessing they only had money for one Springsteen song, and maybe it’s cheaper, and it’s a great song, but it makes no sense.
  • Dixon’s return to Max means that there’s only a couple of guards unaccounted for—curious if they’re written off entirely or eventually brought back when Taystee goes to trial.
  • Morello seems to be showing now, so if you have any guess on how much time has passed since the season began, please fill the rest of us in.
  • The explanation for the conveniently placed photo box was already suspect before Piper found photos of the murderous kickball match—why would the prison keep photos of that around?
  • I would read a real version of Piper Chapman’s memoir, provided she survives long enough to write it (you never know), but I’d rather read a book collecting all of the “replace common phrases with celebrity names.” All’s Well That Denzel!

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