Photo: JoJo Whilden (Netflix)

The stakes of Orange Is The New Black have never been higher than they are in Max right now. As the FBI’s investigation of the riot continues, every word that these women say could seal their fate or the fate of one of their fellow inmates. Sometimes this is on purpose, as when Gloria uses Blanca to help pin the riot on Maria; other times, it’s Cindy getting caught up in exonerating herself in the investigation of Piscatella’s death and mentioning that it was Taystee she grabbed the gun from. With the investigation’s timeline shortened, and the arbitrary sentences (two life, three at a minimum of 10 years) on the board, the future of these characters hangs in the balance.

And so, naturally, we spend much of the episode watching Caputo trying to recapture his “big dick energy.”

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Caputo’s central value as a character is insight into the bureaucracy of Litchfield, which I understand does have its purpose in the longer trajectory of the show—there’s also something very “of the moment” about a powerful man who thinks he’s the good guy but continually looks out for his own self-interest. And through spending time with the warden while he’s on suspension, we learn that Fig has been named as interim warden in his place, information that could be important to whatever happens after the dust settles on the riot. But in this particular moment, when the stakes are so high within Max, spending time with Caputo double-screening porn and Columbo feels like a fundamental waste of time, especially when the show points out that there’s an entire set of inmates in Ohio we aren’t seeing, and others like Lorna who are in Gen Pop at Max but out of sight. There are still many unanswered questions about the aftermath of the riot, but I can safely say that “how is Caputo spending his days” and “who is going to be the new Warden” were not a top priority if this was all we were going to learn from it.

It’s clear, though, that the show’s writers are more interested in Caputo than I am, and given the character’s history within the show I respect that. I have less respect for the decision to continue down the path of Coates and Pennsatucky’s fundamentally abusive relationship, and spending any amount of time with the garbage guards who perpetuated so much abuse. Even if the road trip storyline with Coates and Dixon hasn’t been plagued with some absolutely awful green screen driving plate work, I want both of these men to disappear from this show forever. Does the show think we are rooting for this couple? The story is actually told from Coates’ perspective, as if we are supposed to sympathize with the comic situation of the friend who thinks he’s suicidal and won’t leave him alone to abscond with the inmate he raped repeatedly. Nothing about this situation is funny, and the show is not doing enough to acknowledge how messed up it is, and I want Coates and Dixon and all of the guards to disappear forever.

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There’s just no argument for telling that story for any amount of time without simultaneously exploring the power dynamics, especially when there are so many other stories that you could focus on. Now six seasons into its life, Orange Is The New Black is at that stage where we are instinctively judging the show based on its longevity, wondering if this is the point they’re running out of story. That’s certainly how I felt when I discovered that the flashbacks are still part of the picture: while no longer present in every episode, it’s clear the show has not given up that particular crutch, and so Cindy’s crisis of conscience when caught in a lie by her fingerprints at the pool is punctuated by a parallel story from her teen pregnancy. Yes, the two situations are similar: Cindy may have been pregnant, but she chose to largely ignore the impact it would have on her life, and consciously ignored the child’s existence so as to more easily return to her normal life, much as she does when she knows she’s implicated Taystee but does nothing to warn her since she knows her testimony will save her from serving additional time. But we already knew that Cindy does not acknowledge her daughter as her child from her previous flashback, and other than showcasing the casting department’s skill at finding teenage versions of these actresses, the flashback did nothing to add to Adrienne C. Moore’s great performance.

Cindy is at the center of the FBI investigation, which is an infuriating indictment of the legal system long before we even get to a trial. Even if we accept that Daya has to carry responsibility for Humps’ shooting, she technically wasn’t the one who killed him, but that doesn’t seem to matter; similarly, the corruption that led to Piscatella’s death being pinned on the inmates seems like it will go unchallenged, leaving someone—whether Taystee or someone else—to take the fall. And even if we accept that Ruiz was the one responsible for escalating the mistreatment of the guards, there’s something dark about the way Gloria and Blanca are forced to flatten the riot in order to save themselves, and something even darker about how something in Blanca’s file leads the investigators to leave her on the board nonetheless. This situation has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with optics, with these women just pictures on a board and stories to be told.

It’s why I liked the little Piper story that’s told here, even while acknowledging that Piper is far from the most important character in Ad Seg. There’s a bit of comedy in Piper’s facial injuries leading her to be mistaken for a meth addict, but the purpose of her new bunkmate is to emphasize Piper’s identity crisis now that she’s faced with the realities of Max—her sense of self is collapsing, no longer able to differentiate between the woman she was and the woman she is, and that’s a great glimpse into the privilege of women like Piper. It’s particularly relevant at a time when, despite Piper being in Ad Seg, no one seems to think she was involved in the riot, and no one thinks to even put her on the board as a suspect. While Piper is largely innocent of any kind of role in the worst of the riot, the investigators’ complete disinterest in her is telling, and points to how the show has both decentered Piper and emphasized the way her privilege places her outside of the central struggles faced by most of her fellow inmates.

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I’m open to arguments that Piper is not the character the show should be spending time with, but this episode makes a good case for why Piper’s privilege is relevant to the themes of the season thus far. It doesn’t make the same case with Caputo’s wallowing or Coates’ road trip, and in general slows the season’s momentum even though the central tension remains strong.

Stray observations

  • About five minutes before Healy appeared, I was honestly thinking “I wonder if they’re going to try to abandon some of the inmates like they abandoned Healy,” so that unwelcome reappearance is my fault, sorry. He’s found zen, at least, if only by abdicating his responsibility for contributing to the mistreatment of the women in his care and being a sexist asshole in general.
  • There’s so much tragedy in Taystee lying in her cell as the investigators plan to charge her for the riot even before Cindy’s testimony, simply because she was the public face of the women seeking better treatment. The C.O. testimony implicated her in no way, but it didn’t matter, and that’s an injustice we will no doubt be returning to.
  • Lorna is not well in gen pop, by all accounts, failing to recognize Piper and in general seeming—not unlike Suzanne—that the chaos of Max is breaking down her already fragile psyche.
  • The comedy being interjected into the FBI investigation is very Weeds-like, but I have to admit that I liked the guard obsessed with his gains being locked out of the staff room—still a tonal challenge, but one that I thought paid off, and humanized the investigators just enough to make their actions more reprehensible.
  • There’s a heist movie quality to elements of Ad Seg, whether it’s Cindy writing a message in code and trying to get it to Taystee or Gloria concocting a religious holiday to get word to Blanca about the need to focus on Maria’s role in the riot. I couldn’t help but notice that they very conspicuously had Frieda observe the paper being stuck in the grate—curious what role she’ll play in the “endgame” here.
  • The FBI investigators don’t have time to go to Ohio to interview the inmates moved there, but will we have time for that? Only time will tell.
  • “Why does everyone know Spanish all of a sudden?”—I don’t know, Blanca, but it forces me to watch my screeners with closed captioning because Netflix’s screening site is an all or nothing subtitles proposition that doesn’t translate the Spanish if I don’t, so I feel you.
  • No one at Cindy’s high school realized those jackets would make everyone look like Winnie the Pooh, huh?

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