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OITNB traces the burdens of being in, having been in, and returning to prison

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The choice to follow Piper’s story as the only persistent story thread in Orange Is The New Black’s final season is logical: as much as the show evolved from its Piper-centric first season, there is something narratively satisfying about being able to have shown an entire prison journey over the course of the series. We met Piper as a privileged white woman, and we got to see how prison changed her, and so her post-release story is different than Aleida’s, and exploring it has helped the show come “full circle” even before the very explicit callback to “The Chickening” in this episode.

Now, this is not to say that I’ve loved Piper’s stories in and of themselves. Her wilderness retreat turned pregnant sheep slaughter was more or less a waste of time, in terms of the “comedy” of it all, continuing her struggles to understand how to live life as an ex-felon without really adding much. Are a few fun moments of her Mommy Group “friend” winking at Piper’s felon status worth this much time, creating yet another arbitrarily hour-long episode? No. But by the time Piper and Zelda (Alicia Witt) end up under a tree burying a sheep’s fetus, the excursion brings Piper to the point where she can fully acknowledge to someone just how much prison has changed her. It was only four percent of her life, but “it was enough to change absolutely everything,” and that right there is the thesis of the show, and particularly of her character arc.

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And it was important, pacing wise, that Piper didn’t come to that realization immediately. When Piper was leaving Litchfield, she had the language for how it had changed her, but as soon as she left the process of reintegration forces you to have to reconcile who you were before prison and who you were inside, and that language gets lost. The logic of parole is that you’re supposed to avoid anything that reminds you of who you were in prison, whether it’s the people you spent time with or the things that you did. She’s trained to hide the fact she’s a felon, treating it like a secret instead of accepting it as who she is. It seems possible the show is heading toward Piper Chapman channeling Piper Kerman and turning this into a memoir (or a podcast, or however they want to skin that particular cat), but even if it’s headed down a predictable road the pacing has been productive, and Taylor Schilling was excellent under that tree trying to work out who she is now that she’s gone through this experience.

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The psychology of having been in prison is different from the psychology of being in prison, which is different from the psychology of being back in prison. Really, Aleida was always going back to prison: her reclamation of her life involved all of her old patterns, running drugs through Hopper and screwing Cesar in the back of his car on the side. But Aleida isn’t distraught over her situation: she has Hopper taking care of her kids instead of them being split up in foster care, and being on the inside gives her a chance to force Daya out of her leadership position and help her get clean. The authority she takes on in her return to prison is partly a defense mechanism. She knows she screwed up, but at the same time she’s always resigned herself to being a screw up, because she didn’t have a connection like Piper’s father, or a support system that wasn’t itself intertwined with the criminal elements that led to her arrest in the first place. It’s almost alarming how easily Aleida returns to prison, with the only tension being the increasing number of guards who have leverage over Hopper (which they’re currently only using for Tony Robbins vacations and happy hour invites, but could escalate).

Meanwhile, despite my skepticism, it does seem that Taystee really has been given a new lease on life, even if she hasn’t exactly signed on the dotted line yet. There’s still no word as to whether or not Suzanne’s story will actually help her case, but in the meantime she’s keeping busy, and we get a rather charming pair up between Taystee and Pennsatucky after Polycon refuses to pay for a GED tutor. Even before Chekhov’s heroin comes into Taystee’s possession, the dilemma is very clear: her tutoring Pennsatucky both keeps her occupied but also shows her a potential future. She seems passionate about helping Pennsatucky once she learns about her dyslexia, looking up strategies and implementing them. If Ward’s programs don’t keep getting destroyed, maybe she could serve as a GED instructor in her own right, if she’s really going to be in Litchfield forever, or even on the outside if things go her way. The show is creating a sense of hope for Taystee, while dangling the end of her life in front of her, and we’re left to wallow in the uncertainty. She doesn’t know what she wants her life to be, or what it could be, and that’s paralyzing in a way that Danielle Brooks continues to capture so well.

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Red is the episode’s other focus, and what she doesn’t know is a whole other problem. It’s another completely pointless flashback right up until the end, where its pointlessness becomes the point. Red’s story about the young neighborhood boy who she got killed while trying to keep him safe doesn’t add anything to our understanding of Red’s past, but when Nicky discovers that Red had already sent his mother an identical letter a decade earlier, it reinforces the very specific pain of the dementia Red is going through. It’s not just that she’s lost in the kitchen, or struggling to keep track of small details: it’s that she’s reliving parts of her past, feeling the guilt she felt then, all coming back in a rush. The flashbacks are her memories, still there but discombobulated, the trauma floating around and returning to her in ways that we can’t really understand. Dementia is terrifying enough as it is, but for it to be compounded by her experience both before and within prison is an extra level of trauma, and even if I contend that the mostly dull flashbacks weren’t expressly necessarily to tell that story, I at least appreciate the memories themselves ended up carrying meaning to the story beyond, well, existing.

When Suzanne realizes that the chicken from season one has messed up her chicken count on her first day as Mayor of New Cluck City, she decides it gets to stay, despite Lolly noting that 13 is a bad omen. And I guess that’s where Orange Is The New Black lives as of this episode: either you can look at the stories unfolding optimistically, or you give into the fact that everything could fall apart at a moment’s notice. I’m still thinking the show won’t be diving too far into the darkness as it concludes, but there is still darkness to come, and the sheer number of locations it could emerge from is keeping the season on a knife’s edge.

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Stray observations

  • The less said about Alex and McCullough the better? I think the show is trying to draw a parallel with Hopper and Aleida, or something, but I just really don’t care and find the whole thing sort of inexplicable. The one story that’s just not working for me at all this season.
  • There’s also a parallel between Alex continuing to help McCullough out of sympathy and what Gloria is considering doing—and what Maritza already did—for the women being detained by ICE. But the ICE storyline still feels really trenchant and meaningful, whereas the Alex stuff is just…happening.
  • Enjoyed the way they dated Red’s flashback with the idea that people were still paying a lot of attention to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Remember that?
  • I chuckled at Taystee and Ward joking about not knowing Linda’s white people references, but I hope they check out Ricky Jay, and I’d appreciate if they end up getting really into Michael Bolton as the season goes on, to be honest. “How Can We Be Lovers” is still a jam.
  • The show played Flaca’s hose accident with Sunglasses as comedy, but it feels particularly dangerous, and I’m curious how the show ultimately wants to resolve that kind of tension.
  • I mean, it was pretty obvious that Ilya was dead the second he was introduced in the first flashback, but watching The Americans definitely helped me feel extremely confident he was a goner.
  • I appreciate the uncertainty that comes with guest stars on this show sometimes: Alicia Witt got an “and” credit in the guest star roll, but it’s entirely possible she never comes back, just as it’s possible she becomes a major presence in Piper’s life.
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About the author

Myles McNutt

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