Wow, Piper. How long has it been since you arrived in prison? A few weeks? And you're already looking like a pro, minding your own business, staying out of people's wrecking-ball paths, trying to make this time inside go by as quickly as possible. And the immediate threats are mostly gone: No one is trying to hump your leg (though I really miss Crazy Eyes' crazy eyes and pet name of "Dandelion"), you're getting fed and doing your job, and semi-regular visits and phone calls are connecting you to the outside world.
There's no avoiding the monster that is the system, though, and now that Piper is no longer fresh meat she's become a part of that system. I'm talking about politics, people! Kind of actual real politics. The WAC (Women's Advisory Council) is the closest thing this prison has to elected representatives, and like our government, it's flawed and full of shit. But while it figured into both of this week's episodes and was central to many of the storylines, it was nothing more than the start of a relationship-building mini-arc to further explore the dynamics of the prison. And that's good.
Shaking up the ant farm is always a great rule of thumb to keep a drama moving right along, and seeing otherwise lower-rung characters crawl up out of the drain to jockey for power while the pack leaders stood aside was a fantastic way of setting fire to previous character connections and gluing together new ones. For example, Red sat this one out because she's wise enough to know that the WAC and its requisite campaigns mean nothing, but Pennsatucky came in as a real contender. There was no real changing of the guard, but the WAC storyline provided an opportunity for OITNB to elevate those who would otherwise not have a turn in the spotlight, and to establish some history for characters down the road. It also served as a way to pit the cliques against each other, as each race group would get one representative, which is as good a way to split up prisoners as any under the circumstances.
This sort of device works best with large ensembles because it continues to individualize characters. Just look at that picture above. There are tons of extras in there for sure, but we've met almost half of them in some context or another. When we started this series, it was Piper versus the world; then, the authority figures were established, and then the groups were made distinct, and now we're on an individual character level. We're chipping away at the slab and getting a feel for every little piece that comes off, as well as seeing the larger picture. ONITB's handling of its cast and characters has been remarkable, and it's definitely one of the show's greatest strengths.
But okay, enough about characterization and Tim's attempt at the writer's workshop. These two episodes also felt a little lighter, as though Orange Is the New Black was taking a breather from the nightmares of prison. The last pair of episodes we talked about featured two pressure-cooked stories: the missing screwdriver and the legend of the chicken. This time around, there was nothing quite as threatening on the docket. Yeah, there was the missing phone and poonanny pics, but it was far from the witch hunt of the screwdriver. And maybe that's what OITNB needed during its difficult midseason stretch.
While I wouldn't call the backstory we saw for Nicky in "WAC Pack" a break from the show's M.O., she certainly got shafted in comparison to previous flashbackees. Two measly rewinds, that's it? One was with her mom after Nicky had just gotten out of surgery, and the other was with her prison mom when she had a bad case of withdrawal right after entering prison. There was no story to them, just quick check-ins that told us what we already knew: Nicky has tangled with drugs, and it sucked. And that's probably the toughest part, because we didn't learn anything about the character at the center of the flashback, which is my favorite part of this show.
In contrast, "Blood Donut" completely turned the tables on what we knew of Janae Watson. We met her as the angriest woman in the joint, but found out that she blew a promising future as a collegiate track star after trying to fit in and landing with the wrong crowd. And what a transformation from actress Vicky Jeudy, who traded tight dreads for long, straight locks and a sneer for a smile. She was almost unrecognizable in her old days, a perfect example of how Orange Is the New Black plays with the inside/outside versions of its characters.
Maybe I'm being a big of a jerk here, but there's still one thing I'd like to see from future flashbacks. I want to see more women who 100-percent completely deserve to be in prison because of their choices. A lot of what we've seen so far has deflected the characters' responsibility in being behind bars. It's always someone else who got them there. Russian mobsters, a lesbian drug dealer, an unrequited love, a bitch of a mom, or, in Watson's case, a thug (we didn't see enough of Nicky to really get her story). This show has played fairly with everyone and every type so far; now I'd like to find out that one of these characters is truly awful just because some people are truly awful. Not everyone can pass the blame on someone else. That's probably why Sophia and Claudette's stories hit me the hardest; they're the closest to being entirely responsible for their incarceration, and they not so coincidentally, gave us the best look at who they are (and used to be) because they took actions into their own hands. It's the old proactive vs. reactive argument. Wouldn't you want to see Yoga Jones' flashback paint her as an out-of-control maniac who was the bad influence instead of just a product of another bad influence? She gets busted, finds yoga, and *bam!* she's transformed her life for the better. Let's see the prison system work, people!
We're halfway through OITNB's first season and things are looking as sharp as ever for the series. Honestly, I'm not seeing much a need for improvement anywhere, and aside from Nicky's criminally miniscule backstory, all my other quibbles are just items to put on my wishlist. Keep giving your characters their due and you'll be great, Orange Is the New Black.
– How are you feeling about Larry? To me, he's coming off as one of the most realistic characters. As he said to Piper, her imprisonment doesn't just affect her. He's on the outside, alone. His career is in a sorry state, and he might get his big break if he quits writing about masturbating and starts writing about why he's masturbating: because his fiancee is in jail. I like this angle on his plight as a left-behind man rather; it's more compelling than the immediate temptation of other women. Through this struggle, the other problems of living life as a lonely male will surface more naturally. Let him figure out what he's going to do with The New York Times, have that experience shape him some more, and then throw another woman at him. Because that will happen, right?
– Mom theme all over "WAC Pack"!!! Piper and her mom, Nicky and her mom, Nicky and Red, Aledia and Daya, and whatever else I missed.
– Some of that lightness of these two episodes may have accidentally carried over to some of the stories. In "Wac Pack," there was an early scene where Piper, Alex, and two others are sitting in the cafeteria together. But why were Alex and Piper sitting at the same table? This was way before Piper's half-apology to Alex in the laundry room. Yet here they were, just sitting together even though they couldn't be in the same room together before. I was also surprised by how little time the episodes spent on Piper believing Alex didn't rat her out after Larry lied to her. I figured we'd see much more of Piper digesting that information.
– Also related to the above: The big turn at the end of "WAC Pack," when Piper was announced as the rep for the white girls, wasn't as big as I thought it would be. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to label Piper as a total outsider, since Morello, Red, and the rest of the Caucasian group had a reason to be upset with her. But other than putting her head-to-head with Pennsatucky, her "victory" was largely ignored by the others.
– We met a new character in Lauren Lapkus's Susan, a new guard at the prison. What do you think of her so far?
– Daya and Bennett's relationship continued to slink along at a leisurely pace. It's still sweet and a cue for that adorable piano score, but I'd like to kick it in the ass a bit and get it moving. I want to know how Aleida reacted to Bennett turning her down (if he DID turn her down; we're taking his word for it). Maybe that's coming down the line? The closet time between Daya and Bennett where she pantsed him and found out he had a prosthetic leg was an effective way to reveal that detail, but I'm not sure where it's going or how it factors into their love story. This could be set-up for a flashback where we see how he lost his leg below the knee, but for right now, it's "Okay, he's part plastic."
– What did you make of Healy's home life? He's married to a woman who's looking for a green card and there's zero love in the room. Plus he has to share his wife with her mother and listen to them speak Russian while he shovels his mashed potatoes around with his fork and looks sullen. It's heartbreaking because the guy has been such a great presence in the prison lately. But in these two episodes we saw that he's getting fed up with everyone's sh*t and he's close to losing it. The inmates are rowdy, Caputo is all over his ass, and his home life is his own personal prison. He also gave Piper an odd stare at the end of "Blood Donut" while she ran the track. He seems like a nice guy on the outside, but I think he's being set up for something drastic.
– Pornstache! Mendez is still the show's funniest caricature. What an ass. But Pablo Schreiber is owning the role. What kind of transaction do you think he's working with Red?
AIRED ON 6/17/2016
Season 4 : Episode 13