Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Overcrowding brings new dynamics of race & class to OITNB

Illustration for article titled Overcrowding brings new dynamics of race & class to OITNB

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.

The idea that Orange Is The Black balances comedy and drama is neither newsworthy nor particularly groundbreaking: it is just a fact of the show, part of its identity on a textual level regardless of how it’s played out in Emmy designations or arguments at particularly thrilling (read: nerdy) social gatherings. It no longer feels particularly productive to debate whether the show is a drama or a comedy—at the end of the day, the show is the show, and giving it a genre doesn’t change that.

However, as the show undergoes its most significant transformation with the overcrowding storyline, the balance between comedy and drama is naturally tested—although the MCC storyline had similarly global implications for Litchfield, the effects were less all-encompassing, and less immediate. No one can escape the effects of overcrowding, and how the show chooses to articulate those effects becomes a question of genre the way it plays out in “Power Suit.”

Overcrowding can be funny. Red’s biggest problem with having a new roommate (Alana) is that she snores, and she spends the episode brainstorming potential solutions to the problem. Piper’s experience with Larry—ugh, of course Larry snores—offers little help, and the prison-provided earplugs can only do so much. It’s only after a variation on Sister Ingalls’ “tape something to their back” plan that said bunkmate stops snoring, albeit by flying off the bunk, busting her nose and heading to the infirmary. Red briefly considers going with her, but settles in for a restful night’s sleep instead. The story has no dark edge—yes, Red briefly jokes that “she would be so quiet if she were dead,” but the only stakes here are Red’s restful night’s sleep. It’s simple, it’s silly, and it exists only to explore the comedic dimensions of overcrowding.

The same could be said for Black Cindy’s feud with whom she dubs “Scarfy.” First and foremost, it’s profoundly strange that the show has yet to give the new inmates names within the context of the show—perhaps it’s a meta-commentary on the way the prison treats them as a number (building on the joke in the premiere about the prison rosters that Luschek never managed to get to Caputo during count), but it makes it very difficult to write about these stories. Regardless, though, Black Cindy’s feud with her new bunkmate is a classic sitcom story about people sharing space, eventually devolving into a prank war. But unlike Red’s battle with snoring, the “comedy” here is inflected by the two women’s respective religious beliefs: Cindy essentializes her Muslim bunkmate based on her hijab, while her bunkmate questions the validity of her claims to Judaism. The insulting war is mostly harmless fun—the Diet Coke was shaken up, not pissed in or something more insidious—but it comes with the complication of religious difference. I wish that the bunkmate—her name is Alison, for the record—were more fleshed out, but it’s important that the comedic implications of the overcrowding aren’t taking place without acknowledging how they intersect with the identity politics of the prisoners involved.

“Power Suit” builds on the premiere’s introduction of the overcrowding storyline by addressing the unspoken racial dynamics of the new prisoners that was visible in the premiere: the vast majority of them are Latina. Smartly, though, the episode uses it as an opportunity to puncture the perceived homogeneity of the “Latin Quarter,” with the influx of Latina prisoners drawing out crucial distinctions between Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans among the inmates. This situation perhaps escalates a bit too quickly, as is typical in the context of a fictional narrative, but it makes sense that people in a tense and crowded situation would fall back on culturally-reinforced racism as a way to deal with the stress. And so while we see a more expected form of racism in the white inmates fighting with Blanca over watching the Dominican World Cup qualifier over travel porn, we also see Daya lashing out at the Dominicans for creating more work in the kitchens and clogs in the bathroom, breaking apart even the existing community of Latina inmates.


Blanca and Ruiz end up at the center of this conflict: Blanca as the most fervent believer that the new inmates give the Dominicans the potential to function as the most powerful force in a Latina majority, and Ruiz as the topic of flashbacks that work to articulate her past experience with such conflict. Maria’s flashbacks have a number of functions: there’s a classic case of daddy issues (which is a bit too rote), and we get the origins of her relationship with “man of few words” Yadriel (which I thought was charming). But it’s mainly about the way a united Latino community became splintered, and how her father’s hatred of Mexicans framed her Romeo & Juliet romance with Yadriel and ultimately drove her away from her family. Although these memories ostensibly explain why Maria likely ended up in prison, they are primarily there to help articulate the way conflicts within Latino communities shaped her childhood.

The way this plays out in Litchfield is a bit vague: Ruiz stops Blanca from enacting immediate revenge on the white women who pushed her down a flight of stairs, but eventually orchestrates their beatdown in the salon, and takes her seat at the dominoes table to work alongside Blanca. I’m not sure I entirely understand what changed following her initial frustration with Blanca’s hardline stance, or how her flashbacks could help explain her decision to come around to Blanca’s side. Is her act of unity a response to losing access to her daughter? Is it just about Ruiz being a smarter, more experienced operator when it comes to dealing with these types of situations as compared to Blanca? Although I welcome flashbacks that don’t go out of their way to “explain” characters, I had trouble tracking Ruiz’s transformation—the focus on race relations is a good use of the overcrowding storyline, but I don’t know if the story itself was as focused as it could have been.


There’s more focus in the Judy King storyline, which offers a treatise on class in much the way overcrowding articulates issues of race in Litchfield. Judy King never asked for special treatment, it’s true, but she also had no problem accepting it, which stands as a significant marker of privilege. Blair Brown has been given a fun character: self-aware but also self-important, Judy King is not the racist Healy believes she is, but she is still prejudiced, and she still has no problem living as the 1% in her semi-private room. She’s smart enough to know that Healy is an idiot, and knows exactly how to convince Yoga Jones—the inoffensive roommate Healy assigns her—to embrace the privilege and look past her discomfort with the special treatment, but her celebrity has blinded her to the way her privilege will be read by the other inmates like Taystee who aren’t able to participate. Much as Piper’s efforts to transform herself into Litchfield’s resident demagogue are doomed to blow up in her face, there is a limit to how far Judy King can carry her privilege.

The interest in the 1% also extends to Caputo, who has Piscatella in his old job as he’s now the one attending important MCC meetings and plotting how they could hire veterans as new prison guards—and house them in the cabins so conveniently established in the premiere—to get incentives from the government. Watching Caputo try on an $1100 suit is meant to be discomforting, particularly in light of the episode’s welcome reminder about Sophia’s fate representing what he’s sacrificing. From the time Sister Ingalls asks regarding Sophia’s whereabouts in the meeting in the chapel, the episode reconnects us to Sophia without actually seeing her: Gloria, guilty over her role, asks her son to get word to Crystal about Sophia being in solitary, and then Crystal arrives to speak to Caputo, who brushes her off to get to his meeting. He knows that what’s happening to Sophia is wrong, but he’s now a representative of the people who made that decision, and has to sacrifice his relationship with the inmates (as further evidenced by his discomfort with Taystee and Poussey’s shoutouts from the crowd). While remaining off-screen, Sophia has become a symbol of what Caputo no longer has the right to care about if he’s going to please his corporate overlords, a conflict that will no doubt continue to play out as the story continues.


Caputo defends himself against Crystal’s argument by claiming that she doesn’t really know Sophia. There’s two ways of reading this. The first is that he’s criticizing her for not knowing that Sophia was transgender when they first met, which is a dick move if true. However, there’s also an extension of the premiere’s interest in how being a prisoner changes you. We know that Sophia went through some bullshit to end up in her position, but being in prison has undoubtedly affected her, as it has affected everyone. Do you still know someone when they’ve been in prison? Can you? Caputo may be using this as a defense of his own inaction, but it’s a question we’ll be continuing to ask as we see the impacts of overcrowding and special treatment reverberate in the episodes ahead.

Stray observations

  • As I was writing this review, I experienced a moment of panic when I realized that the new veterans program could mean the return of Bennett. Not only could this make sense in the context of that story, but it also makes sense in terms of Cesar’s arrest, and Aleida’s guilt over placing Daya’s baby into the foster care system. I hope I’m wrong, and it’s just a way to explore how it’s a terrible idea to put veterans suffering from PTSD into Litchfield without proper training, but I still got anxious about it.
  • I liked staging the first all-prisoners meeting in the chapel—since it’s a location we’ve seen large groups of inmates in before, it really captured the overcrowding as compared with the cafeteria, which can only be so busy at any given time.
  • “Glitchfield” is catchy, but it also extends the dehumanization of the prisoners, so thumbs up to that particular nickname.
  • We’re mostly without stories for a lot of side characters right now, but we got Poussey promising to defend Soso, Suzanne hoping her soul mate somewhere on Earth speaks English, and Alex failing to properly respect Morello’s post-wedded bliss. I’ll be curious at what point we start seeing these and other characters—see: Taystee—integrated into the larger arc.
  • It’s weird that Piper’s bunkmate (played by Jolene Purdy) isn’t introduced with her name (her last name is Hapakuka, per captioning later in the season and close looks at her name tag), but I like her diffusing manner with regards to Piper’s “swagger,” and the way she negotiates herself into a better role within Piper’s secret service rather than just the panties business. It would have been easy to give Piper an eager Yes Woman, but this works better.
  • I have fond memories about our big arguments over whether Yadriel was a sociopath or just super quiet, so I liked being able to revisit the character, and the nods to his less-than-talkative demeanor.
  • That having been said: how old was Maria supposed to be here? I realize they also had Taryn Manning play Pennsatucky as a teenager last season, but when the schoolgirl uniform got involved I was so confused as to what age Jessica Pimental was supposed to be playing.
  • Suzanne’s glee at having porta-potties added to her cleaning duty made me chuckle.
  • Random cameo alert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Gabrielle Ruiz as one of the singing inmates in the opening of the episode.
  • Ugh, Larry: I’m frankly glad they mentioned Larry again, so we can once again bask in the fact we no longer have to deal with him.