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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

OITNB needs villains, but how much time should it spend on them?

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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 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.

Ugh, Healy.

I understand the function that Healy serves on Orange Is The New Black. If the show has an interest in the ways that these inmates are being served poorly by a broken system, it would be ineffective if there was not some level of personal responsibility within those failures. It’s not just that there are good people working in prisons like Litchfield who are hamstrung by corporate interest: it’s also probable that there are misogynistic, homophobic garbage people like Sam Healy whose misguided understanding of power and responsibility carry significant consequences. Healy may not be twirling his moustache or actively conspiring to destroy the lives of the women around him, but his fundamental ignorance makes him a loathsome presence: a villain who considers himself a hero.

But as much as I’ve come to accept the show’s investment in Healy, it is becoming increasingly clear that the show’s writers are far more enamored with Healy than I am. I don’t think they agree with his perspectives, to be clear, but their efforts to generate some type of sympathy or affection for Healy in recent seasons have been difficult to swallow. There were last season’s flashbacks to his sick mother—who we also learned earlier had electroshock therapy—that sought to contextualize his views through mommy issues, and there was a romantic relationship with Red; together, they felt like the show was angling to better explain what motivated Sam Healy, while also using the relationship as a way to suggest that he was not incapable of basic human decency.

I applaud the show’s efforts to make Healy into a well-rounded character in the abstract, but I would argue that those efforts had unintended consequences. The relationship with Red may have made Healy seem more human, but it also made Red seem more naïve for agreeing to associate herself with such a dirtbag, and so there was no net benefit. It felt as much of an indictment of her character as it was a credit to his, an example of the show using our respect for one character as an effort to flesh out another, but breaking down that respect in the process by failing to properly contextualize why she would be so willing to look past his flaws. It’s true that sometimes we fall in love with the wrong people, but I need to be frank: I draw the line at believing any self-respecting woman, even one in prison, would reasonably look past Healy’s flaws. I just don’t buy it, and no token “mommy issues” flashbacks were going to change that.

Accordingly, “Doctor Psycho” started an uphill battle with its Healy storyline. To its credit, the episode never tries to paint an overly sympathetic portrait of Healy. Fleshing out his mother’s electroshock treatments and eventual abandonment of his family due to her mental illness, the flashbacks stop well short of using the tragedy of this story to say that Healy is justified in his beliefs. But it’s hard not to see the show’s flashbacks as in some level designed to draw sympathy—even in cases like Brook’s where they function on some level as an indictment, there is typically an implication that context will help us accept these characters’ flaws and mistakes. And so while Healy is seen pursuing an inappropriate relationship with one of his cases as a social worker, and physically constraining a homeless woman he mistakenly believes is his mother, the core thesis here appears to be that Sam Healy wants to help women because he saw what happened to his mother, even if his ways of going about helping them functions in fundamental opposition to how women actually feel.

And I just don’t care. I didn’t feel like this story added anything to my understanding of Healy, nor did it feel like a productive use of time relative to the other stories that could be told. My opinion of Healy is never going to change, and these flashbacks lacked the type of global value that has been offered in other cases—there were no meaningful ties to the season’s interests in fleshing out issues of race or class, and they didn’t do much to change our perspective on Healy’s latest run-ins with the inmates (including forcing Judy King to teach a cooking class against her will because it makes him feel important). I see the value in making Healy a messed up part of Litchfield, and have him intersect with stories like Judy King’s special treatment or Lolly’s delusions (which he looks past the truth of thanks to his experience with his mother, potentially saving Lolly’s life in the process), but I draw a line at treating Healy like a complex character who deserves to be studied in greater detail. The backstory they develop here just isn’t enough to move past the odiousness of this character as he’s been (effectively) drawn by the writers and Michael J. Harney.


“Doctor Psycho” ultimately organizes itself around Healy, but the more important development is the return of Sophia to the narrative. We have no clear sense of how long Sophia has been in solitary confinement, but seeing Sophia stripped of her signature styling remains alarming, and Laverne Cox captures the impacts of isolation in her portrayal of a woman who is as disoriented as she is angry. She resorts to flooding and fire, which might seem like extreme actions until you realize the injustice being done to her, and Caputo’s efforts to lie to her about Crystal’s support of the prison’s—really MCC’s—decision. After on some level defending Caputo in the previous review, it was disheartening to see how quickly he resorts to a lie, and how unwilling he is to allow his humanity—he has no intention of allowing her to remain in the flooded room, unlike the guard who feels inconvenienced—to dictate the way he interacts with her directly. And so as much as Sophia setting fire to her room represents an action that will likely only solidify the prison’s justifications for her isolation, it also feels like her only option, the type of desperation that’s natural when the system—whether represented by corporate stooges like Caputo or ignorant schmucks like Healy—fails you.

For most, such failures are still felt gradually, without the erratic pacing that led to Sophia’s time in solitary. The overcrowding situation means that Marisol and Martiza don’t get to eat breakfast thanks to the shift ending before they could be served, and the new inmates can’t purchase anything at the commissary thanks to a lack of jobs to make money, but these are ultimately being portrayed as minor concerns. Class issues continue to be an issue throughout Litchfield—the lack of jobs, Judy King’s privilege, Taystee’s cushy new position—but they are not yet at the point of explosion. We finally hear the name of Black Cindy’s Muslim bunkmate—Alison, who Janae has befriended having grown up in a Black Muslim household—but their feud remains simmering, not boiling. For the most part, the show is still interested in day-to-day moments, like Poussey and Brook talking about lucid dreaming, or Judy King and Luschek flipping creamers and talking about Wonder Woman and polyandry. But as the threats to the everyday—the body under the garden, the rise in competition for panties businesses—grow, those moments will grow more scarce and challenging, and you can see the seeds being laid even when there is no significant movement beyond a few people getting tackled and Piper and Maria having another standoff.


The everyday is important in prison. It’s important when it’s about to change, as it is for Aleida when she learns she’s up for early release. It’s good news in lots of ways: she was just deeply concerned about who was going to take care of her kids (and grandchild), and now she’s in a position to care for them. But that road is hard, way harder than what she’s experienced as a model prisoner, and she’s terrified of having to work from scratch. Similarly, Daya is undoubtedly glad that her mother will be out there, potentially eventually taking care of her child instead of a foster parent, but she has also relied on her mother, even during their difficult times, and will miss her. For all of the ways that Litchfield can be dehumanizing, Aleida and Daya represent the way it can also serve as a support structure, and their respective lives will be changed when they become separated.

But there is no support to be found in the everyday for Pennsatucky. The confrontation between Pennsatucky and Coates has been inevitable: she can’t reasonably avoid him, and her concern for Maritza mean that she has incentive not to ignore him. And so after another run-in at the cooking class, Coates finally feels like he has to say something, and Pennsatucky stands her ground: she directly asks if he’s had sex with Maritza, and confronts him about raping her. His response is about what you’d expect: he does not react violently, or angrily, but rather expresses disbelief, having thought that saying you love someone gives you the right to violate them against their will, and overcomes the basic facts of the guard/prisoner relationship he remains so ignorant to. It’s a heartbreaking moment because you can tell Pennsatucky has been sitting on this for weeks, carrying it with her—she has been forced to see him, and think about him, and when you’re in prison there’s a limit to how far away you can get from that type of experience. She went to the cooking class as an escape and ran into her rapist, and the show was smart to build to this moment with moments like that rather than more explicit traumas—the aftermath of rape does not always announce itself, and the show and Taryn Manning have done strong work making that struggle visible.


The show and I are clearly in disagreement as it pertains to the amount of time we should be spending on figures like Healy, but I understand the instinct. Orange Is The New Black would be a worse show if it turned Coates into a villainous monster instead of someone who does not understand consent, and a worse show if it didn’t offer us some insights into Healy’s well-meaning bigotry; the disagreement, as evidenced here, is how much time we spend there, and at what point the show starts to overcommit to the humanity of its monsters.

Stray observations

  • So it was sort of hard to ignore her name in the main credits since the premiere (many of you spotted it), so it wasn’t hugely shocking to see Nicky among the solitary inmates forced out of their cells by Sophia’s fire, but it was still nice to see. I’ll be curious to see how her reintegration plays out, and if we get a flashback to her time in Max.
  • So my screeners don’t have subtitles and are tough to rewind in the moment, so my notes just had Maria and Piper’s right-hand women down as “Cheeks” and “Heavy,” the only names they’ve ever been referred to onscreen. I’m not super happy with the latter, in particular, but it does sound like a fun buddy cop film, and I appreciated the latter’s claims to pacifism.
  • “We’ll get you something softer, like cottage cheese or deviled eggs”—it was weird enough that Healy thought a random homeless woman was his mother (projection much?), but he couldn’t have gotten her some soup? He went straight to cottage cheese? Gross.
  • I always appreciate when the show seems to directly respond to something I write, so I enjoyed my questions about the lack of people being released getting answered so efficiently.
  • I don’t know if Lolly’s claims about the Freedom of Information act not applying to privately-run prisons are true, but presuming they are, that bit of exposition feels like something that will come up again outside of her drone-related conspiracy theories, no? Let’s call it Chekhov’s Exposition About the Freedom of Information Act.
  • On the one hand, Piscatella is terrifying; on the other hand, he’s also the only one who saw Lolly’s psychotic breakdown and felt like he needed to assist her. While the type of treatment they would have forced on her is questionable, at least he wasn’t just watching her rant crazily, which is all the other new guards did. (Speaking of—one of those guards did CapitalOne commercials, right?)
  • “Even students at Yale University couldn’t take this class”—I’m sure they’re really missing out on a vaguely racist knife-free cooking class, Healy.
  • “I have a cousin that lives in Modesto. That’s like modest with an o”—Suzanne’s brain is fun.