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

TV’s first maxi pad shortage further knocks OITNB’s world off its axis

Illustration for article titled TV’s first maxi pad shortage further knocks OITNB’s world off its axis

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.

One of the central arguments of Orange Is The New Black as it gets deeper into its run is the fact that no one decision or individual shapes the treatment of the inmates. While there are larger root problems that came with the privatization of Litchfield, the way those have played out have depended as much on individual actions as they have on blanket policies, especially given the fact that private prisons are not intrinsically prone to prejudice or harassment. Rather, they create overcrowded prisons where conflict is inevitable, where inmates lack proper resources, where guards are hired for their financial value to the company as opposed to their suitability to the job, and where small actions or inactions can lead to the type of chaos on display in “We’ll Always Have Baltimore.”

Piper has been sidelined throughout this season, her “empire” getting smaller and smaller, but she reemerges here without really intending to. Piper did not create the shortage of maxi pads and jobs necessary for women to afford tampons, nor did she play any role in the shifting racial dynamics in the prison around her. However, by going to Piscatella—who is deathly concerned about possible gang activity—and explaining that the Latina women have been gathering in larger groups, Piper sets off a chain of events she would never predicted given her self-centered worldview. The not-so-random searches inspired by her intel leads to the sexual harassment of Latina inmates at the hands of guards whose behavior even Coates thinks crosses a line, and when Piper agrees to form a version of a neighborhood watch group—Community Carers—she ends up creating a “White Lives Matter” organization that draws the prison’s confederate flag tattoo demographic. But it happens because in a volatile prison environment, people like Piper can be just as destabilizing as people who have actual weapons or seek to create actual violence.

Obviously, the systemic issues in Litchfield don’t justify Piscatella’s willingness to embrace racial profiling, and it certainly in no way rescues the odious new guards—who brain their colleagues, play Call of Duty: Guantanamo, and get day drunk in their cabins—from our judgment. But “We’ll Always Have Baltimore” doesn’t exist in a vacuum: we’ve seen every major decision—the choice to let the existing guards go, the logic behind hiring the veterans, the process of Piscatella’s move from maximum security—that led to this. Yes, Piper’s desire for power and her willingness to rat on Maria’s gang to help her own business is an indictment of her character, but I think it’s fair to say that she didn’t have a full understanding of how her light suggestion toward targeting Latinas would spiral into an all-out race war as quickly as it does here. As viewers, though, we have all the clues, which makes it easier to detect the likelihood of this situation going downhill the second she walks into Piscatella’s office to try to charm a gay man into finding her adorable, only succeeding because she’s appealed to his most sincere concern over gang activity.

There’s an actual detective story in “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” notably, although it would appear that Warren & Morello: Poop Detectives will be a serialized narrative spread out across multiple episodes. Indeed, the same could be said for Taystee’s newfound access to the internet, which is introduced here but doesn’t reach any type of resolution. The mystery of the shower pooper is almost too silly, and there’s obviously a comic dimension to Taystee’s time online, but the latter case is touching on a larger number of issues. We see photos taken by the drone Lolly freaked out over showing up in a tabloid magazine and Taystee Googling the value of such photos—by taking Caputo out of the office, it gives Taystee a chance to start pulling some pieces together, and brings Taystee closer to the Judy King storyline and the class stratification among the inmates.

Taystee may not yet have cashed in on the value of her photos of Judy King, but the tension over income inequality is only growing. The tampon storyline is an efficient convergence of every reality the show has sketched out so far: budget cuts mean fewer maxi pads, no jobs means no money for the newer inmates to buy tampons, and even then there’s inequality between those working in the Whispers sweatshop and their fellow inmates, who are in some cases earning one tenth as much for their labor. It’s also a problem specific to a women’s prison, and something that the people running MCC have no time for given that inmates are not human beings with biological cycles to them. Litchfield will never get more money for maxi pads, even if Piscatella manages to get through the automated phone system to talk to an actual human being—MCC is more than happy to let the free market fulfill the need, completely ignoring that income equality makes that a fundamentally broken solution. It’s a brief glimpse at the fact that Piscatella is not entirely without humanity: he may be overly focused on law and order, but he sees the issue with the lack of maxi pads as one that should be addressed, even if doing so is not his top priority.


Similarly, I don’t know if you could say that the flashback in “We’ll Always Have Baltimore” was really the top priority here. Maritza’s flashback is fairly straightforward: she was a low-level con artist working as a cocktail waitress, and then she was brought into a larger operation to steal cars from a dealership, and we see her problem-solving after unexpectedly ending up with a third wheel. The solution is inelegant but effective—this is not the story of when Maritza got caught, but rather the story of how she had to think on her feet. We see a similar situation play out at the guards’ cabins with the attempt at smuggling the panties out to Maria’s cousin, where once again quick-thinking saves the day (although one of the guards is onto her). But central to the whole scenario is how she is forced to sacrifice to do so: she is willfully felt up to give Marisol time to stash the panties to begin with, despite having so steadfastly rejected the harassment of the guards on her previous trip. But when you’re in a prison system that isn’t going to protect you, or provide for you, women will increasingly be forced into situations like these—Maritza is making a choice to be objectified or harassed in order to steal cars or smuggle goods, and it’s an unfortunate if necessary skill for the reality of being an inmate in a privatized prison environment.

CorrectiCon is a classic hellscape in the Jenji Kohan style: Weeds loved being able to offer insights into inherently corrupt organizational structures, and the private prison business offers significant material. There’s the topically-relevant “menstruation cup” as the economical solution to Litchfield’s problem, the laser guns that are tested like they’re part of a ride at Disneyland (or Fake Disneyland), and the panels where it’s determined that austerity actually makes inmates happier. Caputo remains positioned as a liminal figure between the world of Litchfield as we know it and this corporate prison dumpster fire (did I already call anything else a dumpster fire in this review? *Checks* Nope. Phew. Can’t be too careful these days): he knows that there is something empty about this process, but he also buys into the rhetorical emptiness of the big-shot warden whose “stop thinking about the days, and start thinking about the years” is mostly just an excuse for short-term cost-cutting in favor of empty long-term planning. Caputo’s soul remains up for grabs, and while he’s letting his dick do the talking with Linda (especially after defending her against a returning Danny, whose conscience grew ten sizes since we last saw him), I’m not willing to write him off just yet.


Piper falls face-first into a terrible metaphor as she opens the first meeting of Community Carers, arguing that they are going to fix a “societal STD,” and that they are the medicated cream. But as unfortunate as this metaphor might be, it speaks to the truth about the problems in Litchfield: like an incurable STD, it’s possible that all you can do is treat what’s wrong at Litchfield right now. Perhaps Sophia could get out of solitary, and perhaps they might get some extra money for maxi pads, but what possible solution could there be for the larger conflict that has marked the season thus far? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel here? That question hangs over “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” and the season, like a cloud, and there’s no sign of clear skies in the forecast. It makes for a productive episode, if not necessarily one that stands out.

Stray observations

  • I feel like there’s a real argument that generations could be defined by whether they understand a woman given a dramatic makeover is being “Princess Diaried” or “She’s All Thatted.” Although the former just sounds more natural, I’ll admit.
  • I wonder what came first: the idea of introducing a Muslim inmate, or the realization that a hijab would be the perfect cover for a cell phone, which will likely play into one storyline or another.
  • No “neighborhood watch” storyline will ever not remind me of The Simpsons’ cat burglar episode, so I hope Piper gets a Rapmaster 2000 soon.
  • But(t) seriously, I’m going to need resolution regarding Warren & Morello: Poop Detectives. I don’t want this to be left hanging. It’s too important.
  • I always check to see if TV shows buy URLs they introduce within the series, and DannyTalksTruth.com is not a real website—I was hopeful this might change by the time it goes live, since I hate to be disappointed when I search out URLs included in shows, but alas—if it’s not there yet, it’s not going to be there.
  • “Shanks for the Memories: A History of Prison Weapons”: I’d attend this panel.
  • Taystee online was fun in many ways, but I particularly like that she landed on “Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos,” which is—in case you didn’t know—a real thing.
  • Taystee’s attempts at Caputo’s password: “warden,” “plantguy,” “sideboob,” and “sideboobrulez.” I love how she went right for the “z.”
  • While I see every TV story about a con and think about the Sawyer flashbacks on Lost, having it be an actual flashback to a con sort of makes it inevitable. (Also, there were flashbacks to a con and a field trip to a con. A very con-heavy episode. And now I’m thinking about RomConCon. RIP Happy Endings).
  • Anyone else think it’s weird that the show has just sort of forgotten Bayley’s role in Piper’s business? It hasn’t been mentioned all season, and even as the business starts to go sideways we haven’t seen his reaction to any of it. I mean, I know Bayley’s busy citing the failings of the Broken Windows Theory, but it seems like there’s a scene missing of his reaction to all this.