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

When guards “freestyle,” OITNB’s inmates become less free

Illustration for article titled When guards “freestyle,” OITNB’s inmates become less free

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 up to 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 most distinctive qualities about Orange Is The New Black is its unwillingness to introduce characters as we’ve come to expect from television shows. There are a lot of new faces around Litchfield in season four, but very few of them were introduced with traditional efforts to have us remember their names or learn anything about them. This goes for the new influx of inmates as well as the new guards, creating a game of spending scenes focused on people’s chests to get a glimpse of their ID or the embroidery on their uniform.

This is not new for the show: after all, Blanca was first introduced as a crazy woman talking to Diablo on the toilet, before eventually becoming fleshed out and now emerging as a central force of civil disobedience. But the longer the show runs, the larger the gap between the characters we’ve spent four seasons with,and the random people who are just being introduced becomes. The show has conditioned me to expect that any character could emerge as significant, but it has also conditioned me to fuss over which one it might be, which can get a bit tiring. Am I supposed to know the two white women who we see here talking about the new education classes forcing them to learn empathy for other people? I know I’ve seen them before—and one of them is the NeoNazi who would go back and tell Hitler to take the Suez Canal—but am I supposed to be paying closer attention? Is the other’s illiteracy going to become some type of plot point? How closely should I be paying attention to every small moment in a show that is sometimes just about observing prison life?

I don’t feel bad about not learning the new guards’ names: they’re all awful people, and so I imagine most viewers have come up with demeaning nicknames to mentally distinguish between them. But I feel some guilt about dehumanizing the new inmates in the same way: in my case, I’m trying to write through these reviews as efficiently as possible, and that’s meant not stopping to pause and learn names, or scanning through guest credits. But should I feel guilty if the show itself isn’t giving us the information to learn their names? The show could have given us much easier access to the names of the women on Maria’s crew, and they could have done much more work to clarify the name of Piper’s bunkmate so that we didn’t run into this problem. The show is choosing to offer little clarification as to the names of these characters, so should I really feel any guilt over this?

I outline this scenario because it demonstrates the fine line when it comes to guilt as an emotion. To feel guilt—to really feel it, to know that something you did is wrong—is powerful. We see that with Red and Nicky, as the former faces yet more evidence of her failure as a surrogate mother. We are passed the point where Red wonders if something was her fault: when it comes to her daughters, she knows that she should have done more, and is absolutely unequivocal about it. And that’s ultimately what appears to convince Nicky to get clean: Red isn’t just inconvenienced by Nicky, nor is she mad at her. She is devastated by the idea that Nicky is headed down the same road as Tricia, and that guilt seems more powerful to Nicky than any attempt to convince Nicky getting clean is in her own self-interest. As someone who struggled so much with her own mother, to see Red react this way—out of fear and guilt, as opposed to anger—hopefully reaches her on a different level, and shows the power of guilt when deployed honestly and wholly.

But, to echo that show about the unnatural blue meth that Angie describes to her fellow inmates, guilt doesn’t work in half measures. The season has been consumed by the idea of guilt: the way it hangs over Alex and Piper, the way it pulled basic empathy out of Luschek for the first time, and the way it has pushed Gloria to do what she can to help Sophia from afar. But there is a difference between wondering if you should feel guilty about something and actually knowing you should feel guilty, and parsing out that difference can be challenging. Should Piper feel guilty about not believing Alex was in danger, when from an objective perspective even Alex knows she sounded crazy? I don’t really know, which makes my take on Piper right now sort of unclear. She and Alex spend “Turn Table Turn” searching for their own fantasy, eventually deciding that they aren’t willing to do anything that would add to their sense of guilt: that means no cheeseburgers, but it also means no handjobs for Bayley, and they consider that a win in the long term.


Obviously, though, guilt carries most heavily in Pennsatucky’s relationship with Coates. As noted in the review of the previous episode, I do think that Coates’ apology was genuine, and we’ve seen the guilt he felt about that event manifest throughout the season: we saw him bristle at the way the new guards were treating Maritza, for example, and the nature of his apology demonstrated the way his guilt has made him relive the choices he made with Pennsatucky in search of what went wrong. However, that he is sufficiently guilty does not mean that Pennsatucky should return to her relationship with him, as she suggests she might here. Boo takes a hardline stance at Pennsatucky returning to her rapist, and rightfully so, but it speaks to the role of guilt. Pennsatucky cites her own guilt about her crimes, and wonders whether it’s fair that she would expect someone to forgive her and yet not be willing to forgive Coates, and that’s the nature of guilt: it burrows into you, convincing you to see things in ways you might not otherwise see them, and in ways outside observers don’t understand. I do not deign to fully understand the guilt that Pennsatucky or anyone in Litchfield would feel, and thus cannot realistically sit in judgment of them for their decisions—I can want better for them, but the show has always committed to exploring the deeper psychological dimensions of incarceration, and we’re seeing that play out here.

Those psychological dimensions are also emerging in the rise in civil disobedience, as the situation with the random frisking and harassment reaches a breaking point. The episode pulls out the racial elements of this treatment, both through its close focus on Blanca through flashbacks and through the fact that Sister Ingalls can’t get punished for transgressing to save her life (before Gloria volunteers to be attacked to speed up the process). Much like Maria’s flashback, Blanca’s uses the one thing we know about her—her relationship with Diablo—as an anchor, and then fleshes out a particular element of their character. And while Maria’s Dominican upbringing had a more global function in articulating the specificity of the Latina inmates, here we have much more basic origin story: here is how Blanca learned to stop kowtowing to the elderly white woman she took care of and learned how to use disobedience to gain power.


It’s not the most essential of flashbacks: we’ve had all season to get a sense of Blanca’s interest in civil disobedience, and while the image of her having vigorous sex on a chaise lounge in an old woman’s bedroom is pretty badass, there isn’t a great deal of global value in her power play. But her actions in Litchfield come at an awkward time given what we know about what’s happening behind the scenes at Litchfield. We know that the SHU is nearly full, which means that the guards no longer have their most efficient form of discipline at their disposal. And the moral of the story in “Turn Table Turn” is that this has terrible consequences when you’ve hired former soldiers as guards: the instruction to “freestyle” leads to Blanca’s “Abu Gharib-y” punishment standing on a table in the cafeteria, and Maritza literally having a gun put to her head as one of her “Would You Rather” scenarios comes terrifyingly to life thanks to Humphrey.

Caputo spends the episode dealing primarily with the aftermath of Judy King and Black Cindy’s kiss making its way into the world, but the central tension of the season comes down to when his guilt over what is happening in the prison will lead him to actually do something. Caputo has spent the season wondering if he should feel guilty, but his own self-interest (and libido) has kept him moving forward despite seeing the consequences of his actions at every turn. The tension we move toward the final act of the season, then, becomes what will happen first: Caputo coming to terms with his guilt and acting, or something terrible happening that can’t be undone, creating more guilt than he or anyone else could ever manage.


Stray observations

  • So while we’ve heard MCC talk about the new structure as a dormitory, anyone else really not trusting that? The plans only called for a cube with a roof, and so what they choose to put inside of it can be determined later, and the longer it goes without clarification the more I wonder if they’re building something that will only make their lives worse.
  • Piscatella may have very little understanding of how to treat his inmates like people, but he’s not wrong that Luschek is better suited to working at Gamestop. That’s pretty spot-on.
  • Okay, if that many people were hiding cell phones, I really do refuse to believe that they couldn’t find a charger for that phone. And I also question how, given the apparent lack of chargers, Luschek was able to check every phone for the Judy King photo. This has been “Myles gets irrationally annoyed by the show’s lack of internal consistency vis-à-vis the availability of phone chargers in prison.” Carry on.
  • Given my continued enjoyment of Yoga Jones’ love of the finer things, I’ll be interested in whether that manifests as a flashback episode or not: she’s one of the major recurring characters who hasn’t had one (although we do know what she did to end up in prison), and she’s been around more consistently here, which makes me feel like that could be inevitable.
  • Uzo Aduba is likely going to just keep getting nominated for Emmys, and that’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened, but given Suzanne’s minor role so far this year I hope that for next year (when this season will be eligible) the Academy is able to look at the rest of this ensemble as well—Kate Mulgrew, for example, is absolutely heart-wrenching in her scene with Nicky. (I also hope they look to Taryn Manning from last season, but I doubt it.)
  • Another flashback, another absence of “What they did”: I wondered about elder abuse, but I admittedly still don’t entirely understand what qualifies as a federal crime, which I’m not necessarily sure the show itself has committed to on all fronts. (Again, the show hasn’t trained us to understand what qualifies as a federal crime, which makes me think they will fudge it where necessary.)
  • I know Nicky is the greater risk to herself, but I hope that Red or someone can do something to help Morello as well: there’s something very dark about asking your sister to spy on your husband and then accusing her of trying to seduce him by welcoming him into their family. It’s totally in character, but what will ever stop this cycle?
  • Just so we’re clear: Sister Ingalls has a phone up her vagina, correct?
  • The show’s slow passage of time—about a day an episode, right now—has really stretched out Aleida’s exit, so I’m officially on the record as believing that something is going to go very wrong. They’re dwelling on the emotions of it too much.
  • “Hold up—you’re Jewish?!”—we don’t go back to this wonderful bit of surprise from Judy King, but I loved the suddenness of it.
  • “I thought it was just one long show”—Pennsatucky, summing up everyone’s thoughts about USA’s blue sky period, which is coming to an end. If you haven’t, go read Noel Murray’s recent 100 Episodes feature on Royal Pains.
  • I, too, often wish the wrath of Khan on people.
  • Big episode for TV references: the white women want the TV on Thursdays to watch Bones, and Bayley gets visibly excited when Piscatella jokes about watching The Bachelorette. (Mind you, if “football season just started,” we’re in mid-Fall, so there’s no way The Bachelorette is actually on, but I’m just going to presume that Piscatella willfully misspoke.)
  • “I think it’s more June/October”—I love how Judy King moved herself back two months but ALSO moved Black Cindy up one.