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Orange Is The New Black tries and fails to place a new character on the same level as its existing ensemble

Illustration for article titled iOrange Is The New Black/i tries and fails to place a new character on the same level as its existing ensemble
Screenshot: Netflix
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When Orange Is The New Black first started using flashbacks, their primary purpose was to provide insight into who these women were before they became inmates at Litchfield. The show opened with Piper’s transition from civilian to inmate, but over time the flashbacks gave us a stronger sense of the journeys the other women went through, decentering Piper and allowing the show to evolve into a true ensemble.


The function of the flashbacks has changed since the show has exhausted the “origin stories” of most of the prominent inmates, functioning primarily as thematic focal points for the episode they appear in. But with the move to Max, the show has a new cast of characters to introduce, and so it makes sense that they would revert back to the previous flashback model in order to connect us to their stories.


But as sound as that logic might be, Duerte’s flashback here is a struggle for me. “Daddy,” as she is known around D Block, has been one of the more consistent presences in the season alongside Badison, but to be honest I don’t think I had ever thought about her origins at any point in time. Whereas Badison is a little off kilter, and has been positioned as vulnerable in ways that raise questions, Duerte has been a less dimensional character, predatory with Daya but in ways that never really pushed me to consider her story. I have not been instinctively seeing every inmate at Max as another new story to explore: I have largely been seeing them as byproducts of their environment, without the potential to seriously integrate into the ensemble.

Within the episode proper, the writers work on fleshing out Duerte by making her the architect of her own destruction: she didn’t know that the guard smuggling oxy into the prison was using the cheese business to do so, and thus blows it up with the rat prank without understanding the consequences. She’s still getting pressure from Barb—who makes her first present day appearance, played by MacKenzie Phillips—to continue the assault on C Block, and she also has to deal with a guard who’s cutting off her supply chain, and a group of women who are about to go through some intense withdrawal. It’s a tense situation, and it’s no surprise she ends up sitting in the showers, where Daya finds her to thank her for helping her through the pain. But with so little time to get to know the character, I don’t feel any sympathy for Duerte—I actually found Daya’s sympathy for her absurd, even, given how creepy her pushing the oxy on her had been. The only concern I have in this story is what chaos will unfold when the withdrawal kicks in.


Ostensibly, the flashback is supposed to generate sympathy, but even there I don’t think the show did enough work. We learn Duerte was pimping out young women to powerful men, luring college students with significant debt by promising quick money. The fact that one of the women died on her watch is not her fault, per se, but she continues to take his money, even when he requests the young woman Duerte has taken as her own partner. There are some parallels to her actions in Litchfield—specifically in her willingness to sell out the people she cares about, a contradiction that could continue to play out with Daya—but it doesn’t make her any more sympathetic, and doesn’t feel like it offers any specific insight into the justice system in the way that other new character flashbacks have. I left the episode with a clear understanding that the show wants Duerte to be a significant new character, but with none of the investment that I consider necessary for that to be successful.

This is especially true when there are other stories happening within Max that are more compelling, along with other women out there somewhere in the system whose stories we are more invested in: there’s a lesson in the disappearance of characters like Boo and Maritza, sure, but I still think their existence within this world makes it more difficult to accept new characters “replacing” their place in the narrative. Similarly, it’s hard for new characters to gain momentum when the core of this story is in Red and Taystee’s return to Gen Pop—although the show continues to push the war between Carol and Barb as a seasonal narrative, with Badison and Duerte as the lieutenants, it’s hard to invest in that narrative when you sit it next to Taystee refusing to accept guilt for Piscatella’s death, and drawing the support of Black Lives Matter and the ACLU to help fight her case. On the one hand you have a petty prison conflict that may have lasted for generations, but has only been part of the show for a few episodes, and feels more like an outside threat to our characters than a true part of the narrative. On the other hand, you have the culmination of over five seasons of mistreatment, filtered through the lens of racial injustice and the one character who really blossomed within the chaos of the riot season.


That’s not a fair fight, but the show still chose to put Duerte in the ring here, with uneven results. It’s telling that the episode ends with Taystee’s return and Cindy’s realization that she might be forced to testify against her friend—that story is resonant, whereas Duerte’s feels like a footnote that we’ll have forgotten by the time we’re halfway through the next episode.

Stray observations

  • So raise your hand if you, like me, were very confused when Sophia just showed up out of nowhere in Florida scrubs to chat with Gloria about her potentially entering into pre-menopause. Has she just been chilling in Florida this whole time, and we just haven’t seen her during our visits with Freida and Suzanne? Or during any of the time in common areas? The shift to “Rec” gave us a better sense of those common areas than before, but still: I know Laverne Cox has limited availability, but the magically disappearing and reappearing inmates situation is throwing me for a loop.
  • Speaking of which: some of this episode felt like it was happening some distance from the rat prank (the Oxy is just running out for example) but they’re still cleaning rat poop out of the cheese room, and just now picking a new radio host? The temporality is all out of whack.
  • They had seeded Flaca as a radio host, but Cindy is a good choice for her partner, and “Flava to the Max” will be a nice, logical way to insert some levity into the show that doesn’t feel as forced as some of the show’s comic sideplots have been in the past.
  • Aleida’s story continues to be the show’s way into post-prison life, a story they abandoned with Taystee: I see why they made that choice, because Aleida’s fight to get her kids back gets at more of the different challenges women in her position face, as she takes parenting classes and figures out how to get enough bedrooms to satisfy government requirements.
  • I appreciated that there’s a guard or two who don’t appreciate in the auction, as we learn when Luschek gets called out by Young for evoking slave auctions—I’m curious if we see that conflict escalate, or if they’re just too much of a minority.
  • We know how Freida survived as long as she did, but the fact Barb and Carol are still running things at Max is more curious, especially if we presume they’ve gone to war like this many times before. The implication is that they shield themselves behind their lieutenants, never doing their own dirty work, but we’ll see how that plays out now that we’re flies on the wall.
  • The Gynecologist visit puts a bunch of stories on the table—Gloria’s pre-menopause, Blanca’s narrow window to have children—and I appreciated that he wasn’t a total creep: just a bit odd, which played well.
  • Linda and Fig continue to be quite the team: Linda has no idea how to actually deal with the problems happening at a corporate level, and Fig has no interest in dealing with those problems in any kind of ethical or comprehensive way. It would be funny if it wasn’t putting all of these women at greater risk.
  • Blanca pisses off Red by telling her that she pled guilty to the riot charges but someone managed no additional time on her sentence: that still doesn’t add up, and we still don’t know what the investigators were so excited about in her file, so that’s the Chekhov’s gun that feels the most relevant at this stage in the post-riot proceedings.
  • I note that Piper has been decentered, and at this point the show is continuing to use her and Alex as they did last season: as brief moments of romantic levity, here planning a prison wedding as Piper works to distract herself from shit pranks with dreams of her post-prison existence. I’d say either of them could be collateral damage in the war ahead, if they want to add yet more tragedy to this situation.

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

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