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OITNB gives Piper nowhere to hide

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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.

When I wrote my review of the season premiere, I noted the possibility that Orange Is The New Black could abandon flashbacks altogether. Now, obviously that didn’t happen, and for good reason: while it’s true that the number of characters who haven’t had flashbacks is dwindling, and the value of repeat flashbacks has proven uneven over the course of the series’ run, they have a basic value of giving us a break from the bleakness of Litchfield. While comic stories like Judy King making out with Black Cindy to sell the photo to the tabloids help to lighten up the show, it’s different when we can get outside of Litchfield’s walls and see who these people used to be. Even when we know they’re doomed to end up inside of Litchfield, and even if those scenes are dark in their own right, seeing a glimpse of their full humanity is crucial to the show’s sense of balance.


And so when episodes choose to eschew flashbacks—the premiere, “Piece of Sh*t,” and now “Friends In Low Places”—I don’t think it would be fair to say they just ran out of ideas. The premiere had enough unresolved plot business that the flashbacks would have proved a distraction, while “Piece of Sh*t” used Nicky’s time in Max as a pseudo-flashback that served a similar structural function. But whereas those were practical or logistical reasons for not having flashbacks, the choice in “Friends In Low Places” feels more thematic. If flashbacks offer us an escape from Litchfield, then their absence here reinforces the reality these women face: if something bad happens to them, they have nowhere to run, unless they build themselves a time machine, or lose themselves in fantasy worlds that are tough to imagine when there’s a swastika branded into your forearm.

Building on her harrowing performance in the midst of her branding, Taylor Schilling is playing Piper at her most broken. It’s satisfying insofar as it has made Piper responsible after her hubris at the beginning of the season: her “gangsta” routine was a joke from moment one, but the show has known this going back to her vacuous triumphant speech at the beginning of the panty business. But comedy soon turned into tragedy, as can happen on the series: whenever the show introduces a storyline that seems comic, there is always the chance that it could turn toward drama. There are exceptions: Judy King could have retaliated against the black women before learning their true motives, but instead she played along, meaning a (seemingly) happy ending for all parties. But Piper’s business was always too big, too conspicuous, and too vulnerable given the clueless woman running it—it was always going to go downhill, and I haven’t necessarily felt a great deal of sympathy for Piper as it all fell apart. She deserves the guilt she felt about Ruiz, and the shunning by her fellow inmates.


That having been said, I don’t think she deserves this. This remains subjective: it’s possible that some feel Piper has earned a swastika brand on her arm, and I’m not going to say those people are wrong to feel this way. But it’s hard to watch Piper so destroyed, and I would argue the absence of flashbacks is to mimic her inability to run away from her pain. She eventually turns to smoking crack in an attempt to feel something other than devastation, a choice that could signal a turn toward drugs, but it seems more likely that it’s just another way to signify how much of a low point this is for her. She tries calling Cal to get a taste of her former life, but his happiness only reinforces how much she is missing, and how disconnected she is from her family and what matters to her. Schilling does some of her strongest work bringing that pain to life, and the episode uses it to open other wounds, with Alex coming clean with Piper and Nicky, and creating the groundwork for Alex and Piper to come to better terms.

The swastika brand is taken care of with some additional pain, but its impacts won’t wear off so easily. Every time Piper looks down, she can pretend that it was always a window, but she’ll always know it wasn’t, even if their efforts to match the branding work perfectly and the different colorings don’t make the swastika visible anyway. But that’s the nature of prison, constantly finding ways to trick your brain into thinking you’re not isolated from the outside world as much as you are. Nicky—who uses drugs as her escape, but is guiltily looking for other ways to fill up her days—pokes holes in Morello’s fantasy with her husband, a cruel trick given how much she cares about Morello and how much she knows those fantasies are meaningful to her. Nicky has never been one for delusions, or even the more basic optimism that Morello is holding onto where Vince’s fidelity is concerned. Nicky has never seen the outside world in that way: there has never been anything out there for her, in the way there is for Piper and others.


What happened to Piper and Alex is specifically scarring (pun unintended), but they are not the only ones. Some of these struggles are new, like the “educational program” that serves primarily as forced labor (even if they’re allegedly building a dormitory that will ease the overcrowding problem). But others linger: while Piper lives the immediate aftermath of her confrontation with the Dominicans, Pennsatucky has spent the season co-existing with her rapist. Even if she were to be able to block out the specific horrors of what Coates did to her, she has to keep seeing him every day, especially since he took a long time to take the hint. But I’ve really appreciated the way this story hasn’t backed away from its slow burn: it took her a good length of time to confront him, and it took him a decent amount of time to interpret what she said. Even when she basically gives him an opening to apologize by wondering what he’d do with a time machine, he resists reality in favor of a Judas Priest memory, before eventually realizing his own defense mechanism and coming clean.

It’s been interesting watching the Pennsatucky storyline in light of the Stanford rape case dominant in online discourse as I wrote this two weeks ago. Most specifically, I thought it was really effective the way Coates had no answers for his behavior. He has come to understand that what he did was wrong, and he’s clearly thought through his actions to realize his anger, and the way he treated her like a duck, constituted assault—she did not list those specific offenses, and so he has been offscreen thinking over the events from those weeks together. But he doesn’t understand why he did it, which is frustrating but also refreshing, in that he isn’t trying to ascribe blame in an effort to excuse his own agency in the situation. Whereas Brock Turner’s defense lawyers tried to excuse his sexual assault by focusing on “drinking culture” or “hookup culture,” Coates is searching for answers on a more introspective level, and that’s a good first step (especially since it seems unlikely at this point that he’ll actually be punished for his actions otherwise).


The longer Orange Is The New Black runs, the more layered it becomes, and the more stories like Pennsatucky’s will linger in the background, potentially not coming up for multiple episodes. The absence of a story, however, does not mean the story is over, because realistically there are very few stories that “end” in prison. Sometimes it’s because of the dangers of addiction, as we see with Red realizing that Nicky is pawning off her makeup mirror and other stolen goods for drugs, but other times it’s Crystal’s quest to simply find out whether or not Sophia is still alive. We’ve seen that story only in bits and pieces, but here it lands on Caputo’s doorstep, which is the only place he would ever be willing to engage with it, because he’s trying to live in his own fantasy world where MCC isn’t confining an inmate to solitary with no reasonable cause. Caputo’s efforts to simultaneously mentally distance himself from MCC—treating Linda as a representative of MCC, even though he is just as much acting on behalf of the corporation—while advancing his career within the organization is the season’s biggest fiction, but he isn’t trying to hide a specific thing he did, or a thing that happened to him. He’s trying to live his entire life with blinders on, a futile effort to hide a dark truth that is going to continue to have consequences even with a new dorm on the horizon.

While there is still comic relief to lighten the mood, and there will likely be more flashbacks before the season is out, darkness is consuming Litchfield, and that’s about where you’d expect to be at this point in the season. As Red notes, “When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window. And then you remember there is no God.” And that type of pragmatism is one of the many perspectives that one can adopt to survive, and one of many that has been tested—and will continue to be tested—this season.


Stray observations

  • So in “binge-writing” these reviews, I am testing your trust regarding whether I would be so dishonest as to go back to make myself seem smarter by predicting future events. So I want to be very clear that when I predicted that Lolly’s exposition about the Freedom of Information act would come back up in the future, I had not seen this episode. I am simply very highly attuned to layered exposition (a true superpower, I know), and to potential opportunities to use the “Chekhov’s ______” joke construction, which is my very favorite. But let’s not talk about my smug cheering when Crystal brought it up.
  • Ugh, Larry: I really thought Piper might be so desperate she would call Larry, so that was a relief, at least.
  • For a show that often plays fast and loose with the passage of time, I thought it was interesting that Nicky specifically noted how long she was in Max (94 days): a long time to her, but it feels like a short period of time given how long she was gone in the context of the show.
  • I won’t dwell on this every week, but I still am having trouble buying Maria going “Full Drug Kingpin,” and both her refusal to acknowledge Maritza’s discomfort and her takeover of Aleida’s spot in the salon seemed unnecessarily antagonistic. We’ll see if that’s to complicate Aleida’s early release, or just part of a larger antagonist arc, but I’m still missing a piece of the puzzle here.
  • Cause and effect: Nicky needs drugs to escape, so she steals from Red, who uses her makeup to escape. Often, for one person to feel free, someone else needs to feel confined.
  • I realize why the cell phone storyline needed a dead phone (to delay the photo and let the story play out in Judy King’s head), but how did Alison go so long without losing battery on the phone to begin with? What kind of insane phone battery is this?
  • “My mother gonna see me kissing a white woman”—given what we know about Cindy’s relationship with her mother, I like how that’s her go-to concern. Says a lot without saying much.
  • Of course Bayley listens to old-time radio podcasts.
  • “Everybody was a moron in the 80s”—I appreciate that Judy King’s struggle to acknowledge the racism that informs some of her thoughts and actions (albeit without an explicitly racist intention) is being met by Yoga Jones being unable to acknowledge her hypocrisy about embracing the perks of living with Judy King. It makes it a fair fight.
  • Related: It’s always weird when the show drops a storyline, and so the fact that Luschek has not been seen since getting Nicky back into Litchfield seems odd, given that it promised potential conflict between them, and they set up his sexual favors to Judy King.
  • I hope that the objectification of the construction instructor doesn’t ever go anywhere, and he’s just there for the women to objectify him. It would be a nice change of pace, as far as the larger television landscape is concerned.