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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Is there any hope for salvation in OITNB’s Litchfield?

Illustration for article titled Is there any hope for salvation in OITNB’s Litchfield?

Welcome to TV Club’s coverage of season four of Orange Is The New Black. Reviews will be posting daily at 2:oo pm EST, leading to the review of the season finale on June 29. These reviews are written from the perspective of having only seen up to the episode in question, and so we ask that you respect the pace of other viewers and avoid spoiling details from future episodes in your comments.

What is Litchfield?

Forgive the existentialism for a moment, and resist answering “Uh, Myles, it’s a prison, are you okay?” I know it’s a prison. But how would you describe it? Is it a dangerous place where bad people go to learn a lesson? Is it a place where women who made mistakes go to be reformed and then welcomed back to society? Or is it something else entirely?

Orange Is The New Black’s fourth season is taking the show’s ongoing interest in the “idea” of Litchfield to its logical conclusion, both within Caputo’s efforts within MCC to improve lives and within the inmates and guards’ respective actions in response to the influx of new inmates. When Nicky returns from Max, she notices that things are different: pat-downs in the hallway, guards who won’t even answer simple questions, Nazis who are perfectly comfortable identifying themselves as such, and strict limits on hugging as she reunites with her family. After three seasons of humanizing these characters and this prison, the fourth season has threatened that humanity on a systematic level: while Vee was an agent of chaos in her own right in season two, the extremism here is less tied to any one individual, and more tied to how the cascading effects of the overcrowding have led to symptomatic racism and harassment.

“It Sounded Nicer In My Head” is the first episode that has felt like it really wanted to focus its attention on Piper—the flashbacks may be about Lolly, and Nicky might be the guest of honor at the party (the first of the season, but the latest of many in the show’s history), but Piper is the one who is “woke” as the kids might say. She never intended to associate herself with a white power movement; she had no expectation that Ruiz would get more time, which was unprecedented as far as she understood; she thought she was trying to help her employees, but they never really cared enough about the money to want her to go to such extremes. Piper’s mistakes were not innocent, and I have no particular sympathy for her as she’s not invited to Nicky’s party and doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But when Hapakuka lures her into a trap set by the Dominicans, who proceed to brand her with a swastika, I can’t root for that. But I also don’t necessarily see it as a reflection of Ruiz, or the Dominicans; I see it as a byproduct of how they are all victims of the shifting culture of Litchfield.

That we still know so little about any of these new characters seems a bit strange when you consider how well we know the ones who have been in Litchfield since season one, but that’s the point: they are not people to MCC, and so why would they automatically be people to us? The show is using them as a collective antagonist, who disrupted the status quo in ways that can’t be turned back. Healy tells Lolly that “everyone wants to go back in time, sometimes,” and the show is pushing us to want to do the same for Litchfield. It wants us to remember a time when conflict arose because of petty interpersonal squabbles, and could be resolved in ways that could result in women becoming grudging friends or at the very least civil with one another (which we did see with Black Cindy and Alison, at the very least). Litchfield has never been a utopia, but it’s hard to see what it’s become and not look back on what it used to be. The choice to continue having Caputo run into his former guards outside the prison—here Bell as a crossing guard—gets us thinking how much better things might be if they were there instead of the veterans, and how much we wish to turn back the clocks and undo the privatization of the prison.

But much as Lolly’s time machine won’t work, there’s no turning back here. The futility of Litchfield righting itself is growing more debilitating—in a constructive way as far as storytelling is concerned—the longer the season goes on. Caputo’s educational initiative was never going to work: he has a highly romanticized idea of what he can do as Warden, and so you knew he was never going to keep his promise to Pennsatucky. But I never thought his educational program would be transformed into unpaid labor masquerading as education—it never entered my mind because I will never be able to think like Linda from Purchasing, because I am a human being and she is a monster. It’s a bit absurd that Caputo would have his lover in his phone as “Linda from Purchasing,” but it dehumanizes her in ways reflective of her fundamental lack of ethics or empathy. But is there any way for Caputo to overthrow MCC? Can a prison even realistically be deprivatized? Is there actually any solution to the cancer that is the root cause of every bad thing happening to the characters we care about? There is no equivalent to Rosa running over Vee in a stolen prison van: there may be no saving Litchfield as we knew it.


Could anyone have saved Lolly? We see a few people who try to help her in her past (brought to life in part by Lori Petty, and through actress Christina Brucato doing an eerie yet impressive impression of Petty as a younger version of the character), and she seemed to have something of a stable existence as a homeless woman before gentrification threatened her place in her neighborhood. We see the roots of Lolly’s conspiracy theories—time as a wannabe investigative journalist—and we also see the way she warded off the voices as long as she had access to a makeshift rainstick. But as Lolly notes to Healy, there is not one moment where her problem starts. Her separation from society was gradual: she loses her support structure of work and family, resists the structure of group homes and the forced socialization with other people to feed her paranoia, and then her “home” in the streets gets disrupted by the passage of time. Shopping cart wheels break down, condos replace vacant lots, and eventually Lolly is perceived as a threat simply for going about her business, and the voices keep her from being able to explain herself reasonably.

This is not to say that Lolly’s life couldn’t have been different. Maybe she could have been diagnosed sooner. Maybe her work could have supported her journalism and helped modulate her paranoia and put her in a position to get help without being treated as though she was crazy even when she wasn’t. But unlike Piper, who made her moves out of self-interest and could have avoided her path numerous times, Lolly never really made a move. She just tried to keep her head down as society caught up with her, which speaks to the danger awaiting characters who are living outside of the overcrowding chaos at this time. That will not last, and while none face the same psychological challenges as Lolly, they must all reckon with the same sense of the world closing in around them, and the number of people in a position of authority who would be willing to—or capable of—helping them is dwindling day by day. Lolly might have Healy’s support now, but even he—odious as he might be—seems to be fighting a losing battle against Piscatella’s fundamental disinterest in understanding the underlying human issues behind Lolly’s behavior, or any other actions being taken by the women of Litchfield.


This is not to say there is no hope for the women of Litchfield. The episode ends in a horrifyingly dark place, with a hysterical Piper being branded against her will as her former friends enjoy what could be one of the last parties of its kind (soundtracked by Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”), and it’s hard to watch Nicky find another drug pipeline in Angie so quickly (resolving Warren & Morello: Poop Detectives’ first case in the process). But in addition to balancing that with comedy—Judy King’s racist cable access puppet show, the hijinks of the women trying to capture a photo of her—we also get Aleida, who is the one person who we feel has a chance to escape. Daya’s frustration with her mother’s disinterest in studying for the GED reflects our own, and so it’s a beacon of light when Judy King compliments her nails, and she starts to realize something she could reasonably do when she gets outside. It’s not a big moment, not does it solve the problems she’ll face finding work, getting small business loans, or just surviving on the outside, but it’s at least one moment in a foreboding episode where you feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Whether or not there is any light, of course, will depend exactly on what type of place Litchfield is at its core, and whether any of the current chaos can be reasonably undone in the remaining six episodes.


Stray observations

  • Another episode, another quick moment between Alex and Piper, both paranoid and isolated, but unable or unwilling to connect with one another.
  • Good strategy of withholding Ruiz throughout the episode, before then having her appear in the kitchen—again, still not entirely sure if I buy her motivation pre-revenge, but it resonates now.
  • There are a number of comic runners the season keeps going back to (as they did with Red’s sleeping problems in the previous episode, with limited success), but Yoga Jones’ love of the good life is my favorite. “Why do we have a Seltzer machine?” cracked me up, and watching her navigate her love of privilege is just fun in a season that’s not really able to be fun except in the utopia of Judy King’s semi-private room.
  • Another bit of slow burn for the Sophia storyline, with no appearance but news of her injury getting from Nicky to Gloria and Sister Ingalls.
  • I mean, you knew an amalgam or Martha Stewart and Paula Deen was going to have something racist come up, but I liked her candor about the sex tape. It’s also interesting to me that we’ve yet to have a single moment to my recollection of Judy King on her own since her arrival at Litchfield: she describes a visit from her husband/boyfriend, but we don’t see it, and so we’ve yet to get a real sense of her own perspective. I imagine that will change if/when we get a focus episode later in the season.
  • “The name that sounds like a Phil Collins song”—Morello, trying to describe Maureen Kukudio.
  • I like that they’re using parasites from the lake as a justification for Lea DeLaria’s weight loss—the perils of a show with such a slow passage of time means that “continuity” becomes more of an issue with weight, but this is a nice way of allowing for those changes.
  • “I really do not feel comfortable being part of a brand” vs. “I don’t think racism should be a group activity—it’s private”—which do you think is the better/worse justification for not taking part in a white supremacy gang?
  • “I would say that wolves exist which I am helpless to defend you against”—oh Piper, this sentence doomed you, but it made me laugh if that makes you feel any better.