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OITNB explores the (slim) possibility and (false) promise of hope in a broken system

Illustration for article titled iOITNB/i explores the (slim) possibility and (false) promise of hope in a broken system
Photo: Nicole Rivelli (Netflix)
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Perhaps the single uniting thesis of each season of Orange Is The New Black is that a system that is supposed to rehabilitate these women has instead systematically broken them. There is no way to be whole as an inmate at Litchfield: whether it’s the detainees stripped of their humanity, or the inmates stripped of their freedom, there is always something missing, and the system has never done the work of trying to fill that gap with resources to help them put their lives back together.


Pennsatucky gets the spotlight in “Me As Well,” as she realizes that the fun GED class that she’s totally nailing is about to turn into a nightmare. Finally getting the kind of experience that the prison should have been providing from the time she arrived if they had prioritized educational programs, she’s come face-to-face with her issues with literacy, which we learn through flashbacks is dyslexia inherited from her father. The actual flashback is pretty pointless, just some Daddy Issues combined with some bass fishing, but the core of the issue is that she always believed that she was just stupid like her deadbeat father, without realizing that her problems with reading stem from a learning disability. It’s a conversation that should have happened two decades earlier, but it’s happening now, and watching her face light up when she realizes that she and the Fonz has the same disability is a beautiful moment. It’s a moment where the system is working as it’s supposed to work: she is going to get the help she needs to possibly have a future on the outside.


But not everything can be fixed with a private tutor and extra time on the GED. The women in Immigration Detention have been denied legal representation, and their access to the law library—computers with internet access so they can search LexisNexis—is entirely dependent on the mood of the ICE agents on a power trip. In the eyes of ICE, they don’t deserve the resources to fix their situations, and Blanca’s advice to her El Salvadoran rival Karla is hard to swallow. The idea that you need to kiss their ass when they treat you like animals is fundamentally dehumanizing, but it’s the only way they might find the space within a broken system to save themselves. After an episode off from the ICE storyline, it was a welcome return here, as the timeliness of the story is connecting to key themes of social justice that unite the series’ sometimes scattered storylines.

There is a spectrum of brokenness operating in the episode. For Piper, she’s struggling to take Alex’s advice about branching out sexually, trying one night stands with random finance bros who talk too much and drug addicts who think the problem is that Piper’s having sex sober, and not that she’s not having sex with Alex. It’s a low stakes problem in the grand scheme of things, played mostly for “Are you using my toothbrush?” laughs, but the stakes are very real for Piper given how restless she feels separated from Alex, and will become more high stakes as Alex gives into the (still underdeveloped to me) sexual tension with McCullough. I still don’t know if we need to check in with Piper in each episode, but to this point in the season her story exists to remind us that for someone recently released from prison the brokenness lingers, and is always at risk of creating a situation like the failed drug test, with much harsher consequences than what Piper received. Aleida’s brokenness is the endpoint of that story, a cautionary tale that reinforces how the show covers so much ground when it comes to the challenges these women face both outside and in.


The problem is when someone is broken in ways that they can’t communicate to the people around them. Red and Taystee are the two people in the most outright danger at this juncture, and watching their stories has me pleading that they are able to get the help they need before it’s too late. In Red’s case, the women in the kitchen clearly know she’s struggling, but Nicky really believes that she’s getting better, and is shocked to find her huddled in the kitchen terrified by the fact she’s losing her mind. It’s unclear if there’s any way to undo what happened to Red when she was in solitary, and whether there will be resources for her like there was for Pennsatucky. At a time when the prison is reintegrating the Psych inmates—hey, Lolly!—and basically just planning to medicate them, it doesn’t seem like the hope that some of the women might find in chickens or restorative justice classes will extend to a case this serious.

Taystee, though, is in a dark place, and I really don’t know where the episode leaves things. We have every reason to believe that she is either in possession of or about to be in possession of the drugs that she plans to use to kill herself when Ward confronts her about Suzanne’s work of non-fiction, the story of what really happened in the pool at the end of the riot. Taystee wants nothing to do with it, because it only confirms that she never had a chance, and that she fought so hard against a setup she had no way to overcome. And while Ward sees it as hope, that strikes me as deeply naïve: why would a judge believe Suzanne, whose sanity would surely be questioned by prosecutors? Obviously, I don’t want Taystee to kill herself, but I also realize how broken she is, and that the idea of trying again to revisit her case only to have it all fall apart will only break her more. I realized watching the final scene that I have basically resolved myself to Taystee spending her life in prison, which is deeply cynical of me, but the show has conditioned me to see things through that lens. If they’re headed in a more hopeful direction, I am obviously supportive, but I feel like anyone who’s watched six and a half seasons of the show isn’t coming into this with a savior complex. We’ve been trained to take our victories where we can find them, and accept that the rest may be beyond saving.


This is not the lesson that Joe Caputo learned about how to solve problems. Susan Fischer’s “Me-Too-ing” of Caputo is honestly less explosive than the cliffhanger last week treated it: she doesn’t actually name him in the story, and while current and former guards all intuit that it was Caputo, the fact she doesn’t identify him leaves space for him to see this as a cause for self-reflection and move on with his life. But he doesn’t do that, because—and this is important—Joe Caputo is a bad person. He was never as bad a person as the people at Polycon, or even Fig, but he absolutely sexually harassed Fischer, and even if he’s right that she was poorly suited for some of the harsher elements of being a guard, he fired her without a warning, and without any recognition of the work she had done. And that this all happens in a doorstep confrontation where Caputo just keeps digging himself into a hole until he pops a stitch in his balls is the purest distillation of his awfulness to date, and it’s honestly refreshing that the show didn’t back away from it. It’s not like Caputo stumbles on his words or says the wrong thing: he is a terrible person in that confrontation, and deserves every bit of the reckoning that is coming to him. I don’t believe that he is incapable of redemption, but after the past couple of seasons romanticized the character, I am absolutely here for this takedown.

As with many episodes this season, there’s a bit of bloat here, and I’d cut Pennsatucky’s flashback in a heartbeat if given the chance. But the core stories remain strong, and there is a solidness to the show’s investments that has it more anchored to real stakes than at any point in recent memory.


You’ve Got [To Be Kidding Me Regarding The Issue Of] Time

Okay, before we get to the rest of the stray observations, I just need to take a second here. So you know if you’ve been reading these reviews that I have some issues with the show’s timeline, in which loosey-goosey narrative choices mean that six years have essentially passed culturally despite the fact that Piper was not in prison for that length of time. And in general, the show has gotten away with this, because it’s often avoided being explicit regarding how long Piper was in prison, and therefore never created a clear instance where the absurdity of its timey-wimey universe was explicit.


But in this episode, Piper puts a number to it at her NA meeting: she was in prison for 18 months. And that’s fine, and about right all things considered, but then in the very same episode Caputo makes the argument that it was okay his band was called Sideboob because “it was a different time.” And I know you’re about to argue that we’re meant to judge Caputo for trotting out this bullshit justification for his casual sexism and that therefore it’s actually not a continuity problem, but I don’t think we’re supposed to think Caputo is that awful, and therefore I still raise a stern and ultimately futile objection to this assault on me, the only person who cares about this. I apologize for the disruption. Let us get to the strays.

Stray observations

  • The romantic music over Nicky’s love connection with Shani is…a choice? There’s some parallels between Nicky’s sex stuff and Piper’s, but overall I don’t really know what they’re giving Natasha Lyonne to work with here, and the material with Red is so much more interesting.
  • Caputo raises the argument that it’s white supremacy when you change the skin color on emojis, so I just want to point out that I do this personally mostly because I am extremely pale and think it is important that my online communication reflects this.
  • I’m sort of hoping that it’s the chicken therapy that ends up helping Red, given that their arrival immediately took me back to season one. Doesn’t feel like it’s a coincidence.
  • As with Caputo, I appreciate that the show is completely leaning in to how much of a garbage human Healy was, but it makes me wonder why we wasted so much energy on his flashbacks all those seasons ago if this was how the show felt about him. I wonder how much changes in the writer’s room are influencing some of this revisiting of past behavior.
  • And on a related note, the idea that Michael Harney gets a “Special Guest Star” credit and Lori Petty doesn’t is some bullshit.
  • In case you were wondering, everything Nicky explained about Cover Up is extremely real.
  • I imagine I’m not the only one who thought about One Day At A Time when the NA hookup shouted it at the end of her inspirational speech.
  • “That was consensual blackmail”—I mean, Caputo is all garbage, but this particular bit of self-justification did make me laugh.
  • “You should feel good. Think about all those words you wrote!”—I am going to take a screencap of Pennsatucky saying this and print it out and hang it in my office, to be honest with you.
  • Surely erotic Bosch fanfic about “Hairy Bush” exists, right? I just sort of presume that there’s erotic fanfic for everything.

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

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