We're now four and five episodes into Orange Is the New Black, and Piper's practically an old vet in prison. Not to the point where she's got a teardrop tattoo on her face, but she's definitely gotten past the initial shakes of the squat-and-cough and petri-dish showers. And the series has smartly moved on from those newbie shocks as well. We're seeing fewer flashbacks to Piper's life on the outside, which pretty much confirms that Orange Is the New Black is committed to telling stories about all the wacky women in this prison and not just Piper, as if that wasn't clear enough already.
This pair of episodes used Piper as a lens to explore how the entire "system" works, both in terms of the broken rules and regulations enforced by the guards and the unwritten rules that exist between the prisoners. And it's a crazy system! The missing screwdriver of "Imaginary Friends" wasn't just a problem for Piper, who accidentally stashed it, it caused collateral damage for everyone. And how was the problem solved? Leschak bought an identical one from a hardware store and replaced it because his job was on the line, but mostly he just wanted the problem to go away. And when Piper unknowingly set off a chicken-finding frenzy, the guards just wanted everyone to calm the F down. Prison is all about maintaining the status quo, and Piper keeps messing that up. She's our fish out of water and our entry point into this fascinating place, our cautionary tale of how not to behave in prison (rule number one: Don't end up there in the first place).
But as much as Piper's in the clink to ruffle things up through the kind of misfortune that could only befall a ditzy bad-luck magnet, I'm really liking how she's not just there to make others' lives better and be their Dr. Phil. It would be easy to throw her into this looney bin and let her be a savior to all the women inside, but that would do a huge disservice to the rest of Orange Is the New Black's characters. Piper is our de facto protagonist, but she's merely a visitor to this place that can so clearly function and exist without her.
Case in point, in "Imaginary Friends," Ms. Claudette's journey actually had nothing to do with Piper. And in "The Chickening," which gave us some background on Daya and her mom Aleida, I'm not even sure that Piper and Daya ever spoke a word to each other. These women—all of them coming from more troubled and disadvantageous situations than Piper—don't need some Barney's-shopping blonde girl to be their great, white salvation. Yes, we saw Piper solve a problem for Red with some jail-made back cream, but that's when we were still settling into the universe of Orange Is the New Black. We needed to slowly disconnect from Piper as our anchor, and we did it in maxi-pad-covered baby steps. Now, just like Piper, we're getting slightly more comfortable, but we still have lots to learn. I'd expect that soon, the perspective will shift again and we'll see stories that show Piper establishing more solid relationships within her new world.
If Sophia's story from "Lesbian Request Denied" was about maintaining a sense of self while incarcerated, Ms. Claudette's story in "Imaginary Friends" was about getting back to who you are after losing sense of yourself. In flashbacks, a young Claudette was taken aback by Baptiste's kindness, which rubbed off on her. But her life was changed when Baptiste showed up with his new pretty wife, transforming her into the hard, controlling, sourpuss of a woman we know today. And yeah, it was a major contributing factor in her decision to kill that jerk who abused one of her young cleaning ladies, because Claudette had been extended a kindness when she was just a young girl, too.
But lo, her heart was not completely blackened; when Baptiste sent her a letter saying his wife Josephine had died and he desperately wanted to see Claudette again, it gave Claudette something she had been missing since she'd been locked up: hope. She told Healy she wanted her case opened up, something she'd previously opposed because she felt like there was nothing left on the outside for her. And that newfound glimmer of hope changed her outlook on life. All of a sudden, Claudette didn't mind Piper's "book-mess" and arranged the books nicely on her table. All of a sudden, Claudette had a reason to attend Mercy's farewell party and wish that one day she would be the one leaving. That final shot with Claudette staring right into the camera as Mercy left? Gorgeous, emotional, and staggering. We didn't see the rough Claudette worn weary by years of prison, we saw a remorseful woman who wanted to give life another chance. If you teared up, you weren't alone.
"The Chickening" delved into the troubled relationship and backstory between Daya and her mom Aleida, and played it against the cute, burgeoning schoolyard/prisonyard romance between Daya and Bennett. The combination of nasty and nice was almost uneasy to watch, and as much as we wanted to believe things were going to turn out okay, I couldn't shake the feeling that they wouldn't. Daya and Aleida are stuck in a spiral of one-upping each other (Daya slept with Aleida's drug-dealing boyfriend when Aleida went to jail, and Aleida duped Bennett into meeting her in the utility closet as payback), but there's no way this is anyone but Aleida's fault, thanks to her terrible behavior as a deadbeat mother while Daya took care of her sisters. The lack of closure for Daya and Aleida's story sets up plenty for the two to do down the line, and this is going to be war.
But what I really liked about "The Chickening" was its theme of toxicity, which was spread throughout the hour. Prison is a poisonous environment and "The Chickening" set out to prove that, but family and relationships can be just as toxic. First there were physical poisons: the asbestos and mold from the broken ceiling in the chapel, and the drugs from Daya and Aleida's flashback. And then there were the stronger, metaphorical poisons: Alex and Piper couldn't even be in the same room together, and Aleida was slowly destroying her own family with her selfish behavior. They all glued the episode together quite nicely.
However, the message that I took away from "The Chickening" was the idea that everything is just out of reach for Piper. The mythical chicken became her White Whale, a symbol of a better life. And at one point, she had everyone in prison searching for that bird, even though of course none of them were going to find it. The closing shot of Piper, just one chain-link fence away from the chicken, summed up her situation: She won't be able to find that better life until she does her time.
– "He's not an eggplant, he's retarded!" I can't wait to hear that whole joke, though I think it will be even funnier if we don't.
– "This is more depressing than a Tori Amos cover band."
– "I have been here for less than two weeks. I have been starved out, felt up, teased, stalked, threatened, and called Taylor Swift." Taylor Schilling delivered that line perfectly.
– The saucy exchange between Nicky and Morello in the chapel was too good. Morello: "I need to start tightening up, you're making me feel like a cave." Nicky: "Baby, it's a cunt. It stretches." Morello: "Sometimes I feel like you're trying to climb into my womb." Nicky: "What can I say, I got mommy issues."
– "Almost the same thing happened to me, but it was tuna salad." Crazy Eyes is the best!
– As great as all the ladies are, we shouldn't overlook the guys. All the guards, with a special nod to Pablo Schreiber as Pornstache, convey the irritation, exhaustion, and power trips that come from being in control of so many bad girls.