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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Orange Is The New Black is still juggling tones, even in its most consistently dramatic season

Illustration for article titled Orange Is The New Black is still juggling tones, even in its most consistently dramatic season
Screenshot: Netflix

Although I’d argue this season of Orange Is The New Black has been fairly uneven in terms of its storytelling, one thing is more balanced than ever: this is, at its core, a dramatic television show. Whereas even during the riot it felt like there were characters and storylines that existed solely for comic relief, there is no sense of that here: the stakes are too high in Max for pure comedy, and one benefit of the streamlining of the supporting cast is that many of the characters reduced to punchlines are off in Cleveland.


That being said, though, the show’s tonal issues have not disappeared: instead, they’ve popped up in other places, no more so than in the choices made in the depiction of young Carol and Barb, also known as the Little Debbie Murderers. These two characters are meant to be the season’s structuring mechanism: Frieda tells Suzanne that they are the origin story of the war between C-Block and D-Block, and that they pull everyone into their orbit to perpetuate the conflict that started decades earlier. And while Barb is a little manic, Carol is a stone cold presence in C-Block, and the way each wields influence was central to the development of Duerte and Badison as their lieutenants. But the first time we met Carol and Barb was during Frieda’s flashback early in the season, and my impression there was shaped by two performances that were…let’s say “big.”

Not all of the performances in the show’s flashbacks have been great: the casting directors are occasionally more focused on whether or not the young actresses look like their adult counterparts than they are on their acting ability, a choice that seems logical when you consider how limited the flashbacks are. However, I don’t think this is a case of either of the two actresses cast as young Barb and Carol being bad actresses: I think the problem is that the direction has pushed them into portraying cartoon villains, and the script rushes right into their sociopathic plan to murder their younger sister to keep from having to move around the country without trying to understand what could have driven them to this point. There is no attempt to flesh out their characters in this flashback: it exists solely to provide exposition that Frieda could have just explained to Suzanne later in the episode, but with a tone that makes the whole thing more absurd than frightening.

The obvious comparison here is with Vee in the second season, who served a similar role in destabilizing the Litchfield experience. However, Vee had history in the prison and with Taystee, and you understood how her mothering instincts would converge with her self-interest. The show eventually turned her into an outright villain, but there was tragedy in that for Taystee in particular. But the argument here is that Carol and Barb have always been villains, a choice that makes it difficult to care about the minutiae of their crimes or what, precisely, caused them to turn against each other so violently. Was it just that they were bickering siblings, with Carol always criticizing Barb for having a life while then stealing from it to try to win favor? Or was it just that they’re bad people? Because that doesn’t make for an interesting story, and robs this flashback of any meaning beyond tonal whiplash the show has otherwise avoided this season.

I understand why the show fell into this trap, because the structure of the season doesn’t depend on Carol and Barb drawing any kind of sympathy. We saw a bit of that with Nicky in medical in the previous episode, but jumping forward a month sees both women plotting, and the season becomes about which of the characters we care about will be pulled into their age-old war. Red has fully consumed the Kool-Aid, Nicky discovers, as the show dips its toes into the political waters as Red calls Nicky’s claims about Carol “fake news.” Gloria is transferred to D-Block and finds Daya high as a kite, working with Aleida to funnel Cocaine into D-Block, believing that she—like Barb and Carol—is in for life and might as well go along with the ride. Nicky has an invite to Barb’s plan to attack Carol at the hairdresser’s, but she sees Red is going to be present, and is doing everything in her power to keep her family from falling into chaos. And meanwhile, Piper is organizing a kickball game that will be more fuel for the fire, unaware of the fact the guards are only letting it happen to try to create conflict and score points in their fantasy league.

Piper’s kickball journey brings us back into Florida, as she enlists Pennsatucky and Suzanne to join with C-Block to compete with Maria’s holy ringers from D-Block, and we get a great showcase for Uzo Aduba. Suzanne is a great character to capture the season’s thesis, which is why a couple of monologues from this episode featured heavily in the trailer that Netflix released ahead of the season. If more of the season was spent on her feelings of alienation, and on speeches like the one she gives Piper or the one she gives Frieda, it would be in a better place. But the show has had to spend too much time setting things up, without much benefit: they took time to establish characters like Duerte and Badison that still feel extraneous, and committed to the legend of Carol and Barb but in ways that cheapen their present iterations rather than strengthening them. There’s compelling stories to be told as these women adjust to life in Max, but the scaling of the overarching narrative has been out of whack, and we’re reaching the point where we just need to get to the kickball game (read: fireworks factory) already so that we can better understand what the season wants us to take away for the long term of the show.


Stray observations

  • I know that the nature of the show’s ensemble can require some episodes to focus on certain characters and not others, but it’s insane that at this point in the season an episode goes by without Taystee being in it. We do get some movement as Cindy stumbles into a phone, finds Caputo’s number, and plants a seed to investigate the coverup of Piscatella’s murder, but it feels weird to de-center Taystee within her own story and replace it with more weird romanticizing of Fig and Caputo.
  • Morello has been hearing about the “Me Too” movement from the outside, and I again assert that this show’s approach to contemporary events is untenable for a show that could not be taking place any later than 2015. I am going to die on this goddamn hill.
  • I have less issue with the show sneaking in an oblique reference to the persistent molestation of young women in women’s gymnastics in the flashback: a little on-the-nose, but the whole point is that such activity has been a longstanding problem, so it makes sense it would be discussed at the time.
  • Speaking of time: based on “Maniac,” this flashback was allegedly taking place in the mid-1980s, implying that this was the setting for Frieda’s first flashback (which doesn’t match up with the age of any of the three women, given they’re roughly 70 and this is set 30 years ago). So how old do we figure Barb and Carol were supposed to be? The situation implies high school (they’re still at home, sharing rooms, being forced to move with family), but even if we accept that they were tried as adults, how old do we think they are? Are they twins? How many years apart are they that they would both be tried as adults? I have so many questions.
  • The speed of the Hopper and Aleida story is exaggerated by the month that passes between episodes, but that made it feel pretty anti-climactic when he stumbled on Aleida’s drugs stashed in the containers. And how is it that no one noticed that the containers weren’t really empty before? Wouldn’t you pack something in with the drugs in order to keep them from moving around? I reiterate: many questions.
  • Also, I obviously don’t want Aleida to go back to prison, but I also want the show to stop having scenes in cars with terrible driving plates, so let’s just say I’m conflicted.
  • I have zero clue what they’re trying to accomplish with Luschek and Gloria, but the romantic way they played their little scene was just strange. And why he transferred Gloria to D Block is unclear, except to put her where the story needed her (to confront Maria and counsel Daya).
  • Dixon and Pennsatucky get a chance to reconnect, and it’s…just weird, right? I just don’t know what we’re supposed to do with that—he’s proud of her for leaving Coates, which is good, but the overall tone of the thing just weirds me out.
  • McCullough has had to stop Lyfting because people don’t like it when you cry, but you have to think her desperation for money could lead her to some dark places as the kickball game looms.
  • “I’m sorry I tried to Flowers In The Attic you.”

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