Screenshot: Netflix

Since being introduced in Frieda’s flashback, Carol and Barb have had surprisingly little impact on this season of Orange Is The New Black. The idea of two sisters feuding as the leaders of C Block and D Block is a key part of the culture at Max, but the actual characters have been sketched in slowly while the show focused its available energies on deputies like Duerte and Badison. It was only in the previous episode that Carol’s character came more into focus with Red’s quest for revenge against Frieda, and it’s only here in “Break The String” that we get any time whatsoever with MacKenzie Phillips’ Barb.

Strapping her to a table in medical with Nicky proves to be a good introduction, honestly: there’s some comedy in Nicky talking her through her bath salt hallucinations, but there’s also some pathos to an addict helping a fellow addict confront their disconnect from the world around them. Barb’s discussion with Nicky functions both as a justification for her relative absence as well as a good piece of characterization: she’s been so consistently high that she doesn’t even know that Nicky had previously spent time in Max, meaning that it’s actually logical she doesn’t have much to do with the arrival of new “cookies” in the same way as Carol. She asks Nicky “what’s the point of being sober in here?” While we’re used to characters either holding onto their lives before prison or holding out hope for their lives after, Carol and Barb are clearly lifers, and see Max as their past, present and future—they’re dealing with it in different ways, one active in overseeing her block and the other retreating into a haze of opioids.

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However, it seems like it’s too late in the season to just now be sketching in Barb’s character, and in general “Break The String” highlights the season’s lack of positive momentum. The binge logic of Netflix is typically imagined as the viewer, desperate to see what happens next, rushing forward to complete the story. However, for a long-running show like Orange Is The New Black, it’s just as likely that binge logic shifts to the viewers being desperate for the season’s purpose to reveal itself, pushing forward in the hopes that the point of it all becomes clear—negative momentum, if you will. As with last season, I’m feeling the latter more than the former: instead of positive momentum, pushing you forward excited to see the next twist and turn, the show is mostly just biding its time while having failed to build stories that can fully sustain our attention. I keep watching in part because I’m being paid to do so, but mostly because I want to see what the writers were intending, and how their plan comes together.

“Break The String” thankfully eschews a flashback, and outside of the “Zirconia is jealous of Gloria getting attention from Luschek” storyline I think the individual component parts are mostly fine in isolation. I don’t particularly care about Piper’s quest for kickball, given how obvious it was that she’d get her signatures, but I liked the choice to revisit her feud with Maria, and particularly the moment when Piper’s arm burn is revealed. The season has mostly lived in the immediate aftermath of the riot, but it’s nice to be able to tap into the longer history of these characters, and seeing Maria coming to terms with how far she went when the show arbitrarily escalated her actions is a good bit of self-reflection. It doesn’t do much to make the kickball story—which inevitably turns into the war between D-Block and C-Block when Carol finds out Maria mostly signed up D-Block girls—more interesting, but the scenes themselves were enjoyable.

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The episode also benefits from spending considerable time on Taystee’s trial, although the season continues to resist reorienting itself around it. Caputo’s deposition goes as you would expect: we know our perception of Taystee’s character, and Caputo mostly reinforces that, but then the “facts” get in the way. The slimy MCC PR dude—who doesn’t appear, but clearly gave his own deposition—has the details of what actually happened when Taystee led a group of women brandishing weapons in order to take control of Caputo’s office. Caputo knows all of this, and isn’t under any pressure to lie: he wants to help Taystee, even though she punched him in the face. Taystee has already acknowledged that she was among those who organized the riot by pleading guilty, but these facts complicate her character, and make it more likely that the jury believes she was angry enough to commit murder. There’s realistically no version of the story of the riot that is not going to be spun into an argument for these women being reckless and rabid, because no one other than us has the full perspective on what these women went through and the choices they made.

That’s why Barb and Carol’s story feels so thin and arbitrary in comparison to something like Cindy, who spends the episode in intense pain hiding her betrayal of Taystee—her story has history, and she even continues the lie by revealing another truth (the existence of her daughter) in order to buy herself more time. When you compare that story—two characters we care about, personal traumas, etc.—to Duerte trying to bide herself time by drugging Barb with bath salts, there just isn’t any comparison, and it makes it tougher to feel invested in Daya’s storyline as a result. Aleida’s storyline has more potential as a glimpse into why a former inmate would return to a life of crime: she ends up with no place to live and no money to try to fix it, unable to reunite with her kids, and so she eventually considers Daya’s suggestion of funneling drugs into the prison out of desperation. But the show rushed a relationship between Aleida and that guard who feels underdeveloped in order to get there, and the weight of Aleida’s recidivism feels compromised as a result.

But there is still momentum here: I want to better understand what the show is tapping into with Carol and Barb, and I want to see what specific tragedies unfold in the wake of the coming kickball game. But I wish that momentum felt more positive, and that I was more excited than curious to keep digging into the season.

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Stray observations

  • Red’s new hair comes along with Red’s new vendetta, as her son shows up and lets her know that her husband is seeing another woman. He argues that Red has essentially shut everyone out, having perhaps already prepared herself for the inevitability that she would be like Carol and Barb, in prison until the end of her life. As Red gets closer to Carol, I’ll be interested to see how she confronts this.
  • I’m struggling to accept this romanticized framing of Fig and Caputo’s relationship when Fig is still a monster: I realize that last season started to do some work to separate her from MCC’s brand of evil, but she’s still responsible for the mistreatment of these women, and just forgetting that feels odd to me.
  • Nice moment of Blake acknowledging that the “inmate draft” isn’t as fun as he imagined it to be. Still wondering if we’ll get to see any more of the guards’ side of the story, as we’re quickly running out of season to do so if that’s the plan. I’ve warmed up to the idea over time, I think.
  • I appreciated Taystee acknowledging she didn’t fully understand what the lawyers were talking about at the deposition: Taystee is clearly bright, but she isn’t book smart, and that puts her and so many inmates at a disadvantage.
  • On a related note, it’s weird to me that Taystee’s lawyer isn’t an actual character. I know it’s still an ensemble, and still wants to live in the prison, but Danielle Brooks is the lead of this show at this point, and I wish the show would reorganize around that. But I think that ship has sailed.
  • I’m also a Cult of the Holy Virgin truther, Adeola.

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