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Taystee remains the face of OITNB's riot, but her truth isn't what everyone wants to hear

Illustration for article titled Taystee remains the face of iOITNB/is riot, but her truth isnt what everyone wants to hear
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Although in the worst of circumstances, Taystee has been given a rare opportunity. Because of her role as the face of the riot, and because of the federal investigation choosing to focus their efforts on holding her responsible for Piscatella’s murder, she is now the face of the incarcerated people of America. People are writing her letters offering their support, and journalists are contacting her to tell her story. Taystee’s also lucky that her old friend Tamika is one of her guards: there is no way MCC would have let the request from ProPublica get to Taystee, but her friend has her back, and wants to help her get justice.


However, Tamika does this with a limited understanding of Taystee’s opportunity. She expects that she will advocate on her own behalf, focusing on her own trial. She seems entirely unprepared that Taystee, having been beaten and mistreated by the guards since her arrival at Max, would point to her mistreatment as an extension of the failures of the guards going back to Poussey’s death. Tamika was all about helping her friend until her friend “betrayed” her by telling the truth about her mistreatment, and focusing her attention on a corrupt system in which Tamika herself is complicit.


I will be honest and say that I’m still struggling with the likelihood of one of Taystee’s former fast food co-workers ending up as her prison guard, but I can see why the writers would stretch credulity. The flashback—another weak one, outside of the Method Man cutout—serves to show how much their roles have reversed, and when Taystee starts speaking truth to power Tamika bristles at the idea that the former co-worker who bossed her around is now disrespecting her authority. While Tamika is not corrupt and evil like Hellman, or corrupt and aloof like Luschek, she is still a human being who takes Taystee’s decision to badmouth the guards personally. There’s also the sense that she feels that in spite of the fact she is the one who got her life together, it is still Taystee that is respected and doing something with her life, even from behind bars. She could have disciplined Taystee or had the guards beat her some more if she wanted to physically harm her: instead, she withholds her mail, denying her the satisfaction of feeling important, far more important than Tamika has ever felt herself. Tamika may exist primarily as a justification to be able to tell parts of Taystee’s story that require a guard sympathetic to her case, but the history gives the story some interesting shades, and fleshes out Taystee’s storyline well.

Taystee’s storyline is also important because we see what she’s doing with her opportunity and contrast it with what Piper is doing with hers. Piper is worried about Alex falling in with Carol’s gang, sure, but when she learns Luschek is the one smuggling in the cell phones she realizes she has leverage: she’s privileged enough that she’ll likely face only a shot and a few days in ad seg for her “crime” of possessing the cell phone, whereas Luschek will lose his job and potentially face even more punishment now that he’s in a more intense environment at Max. But Piper doesn’t use this leverage in order to make real change: she uses it to get the ending to her hypothetical memoir, pushing him to reintroduce kickball in the middle of winter. It’s true that Piper might not have been able to do much else through Luschek, but she could have at least tried: instead, she’s convinced herself that prison will be better if the blocks compete against each other on the field, and it’s a response that is in stark contrast to Taystee’s approach when given the chance to tell her story.


To be fair to Piper, there’s an argument that her desire to find some kind of uplift in Max is a survival mechanism, and everyone needs one of those. For Piper, it’s about trying to make life better for everyone, although in Piper’s case that means something no one asked for and designed to serve her own selfish interest. For Red, this means working not to make her life better, but rather to make Frieda’s life worse, eventually stumbling her way into Carol’s barbershop appointment and discovering a willing ally in her fight against the friend that betrayed her. For Nicky, who’s been through this before, it’s organizing a hare-brained scheme to impregnate Blanca, not realizing that her survival mechanism would lead Carol’s crew to the insemination room (read: law library) to collect their flesh for Blanca’s dealings with D Block to smuggle in Diablo’s sperm (what sentences this show can inspire). The thread connecting these stories is that no one wants to just “live” in Max—they need to keep themselves distracted, and work to keep their heads above water. It’s better than submerging yourself, which is what Daya’s done, too far into the game to pull out and losing herself in Daddy’s drug-fueled empire.

Although not groundbreaking in any way, I like the way this episode pulls together these various survival mechanisms. The other major one is Alex, whose integration into Carol’s squad is a reminder of how different her life is than Piper’s. Piper was never cut out to be a criminal, and has never fit in in prison as a result. But Alex was good at what she did, and rose through the ranks quickly, and has to survive for years in Max where Piper has left than a year left on her sentence. It might be best if Alex could avoid getting pulled into a gang war, but what if it’s actually the best way for her to survive long enough to be herself months away from her release, with Piper on the outside waiting for her return? As scattered as the show has been, and as pointless as the flashbacks are, putting the characters into the crucible of Max is reinforcing the very diverse futures that await these women, even without considering the additional time that was added to their sentences.


Stray observations

  • Daya was mugged before she could take all of her score back to Duerte, but she managed to grab a few pills at least, which should keep Barb from spiraling too far. It’s weird how the show is treating Barb and Carol so differently in terms of their prominence: it makes sense we wouldn’t see much of the addict, but it’s a bit unbalanced in terms of storytelling.
  • Cutting to a flashback immediately after “What happened to the old Tasha Jefferson?” gets a shot, right?
  • Alex used her time with the illicit cell phone to catch up on Pinterest during the post-stabbing lockdown—did Pinterest even exist before Alex was put in jail? I realize the show has zero sense of time and it’s somehow more or less present day despite the fact that Piper’s sentence isn’t over yet, but damnit I’m never going to stop complaining about it, tough cookies.
  • Every time Adeola appears but doesn’t introduce a new “famous person’s name in place of a common phrase” I just wonder what the writers were thinking.
  • I’m glad they’re showing Aleida struggling with the multi-level marketing situation, but why is she treating it like a door-to-door sales business? I realize she was in prison, but is she not using Facebook, even? Of course she can’t sell that kind of product door-to-door! (I also do not care about the guard wanting to date her and have no idea what the show is trying to accomplish there).
  • I want the record to show that from now until the end of eternity, Method Man’s IMDB page will credit him as appearing as “Cardboard Cutout” in this episode, which is a gift that we can never repay.

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

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