Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black season five. These reviews and their comment sections are intended for those who have seen up to this episode—please refrain from revealing or discussing events from future episodes in the comments.
“Why even bother playing a game that’s rigged?”
Janae poses this question to her well-meaning teacher as a high schooler. As a high-achieving student, Janae earns a trip from her poorly-funded public school to an elite private institution. We never entirely learn the intention of the visit: my presumption was that there was some type of scholarship program the teacher wanted Janae to apply for, but the story never gets that far. All Janae experiences is a space of privilege denied to people like her, reinforcing that the system doesn’t respect her and will never truly respect her. Although the image of a white teenage girl wailing her way through “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” serves as a useful symbol of the absence of people like Janae at Riverdale (not that Riverdale), the entire experience proves that nothing she does will ever change the fact she isn’t imagined as the type of person who gets to be a part of that community.
“Sing It, White Effie” is anchored by the story this flashback connects with, as the black inmates work to reframe the public narrative about the riots after the media fixates on the “torture” of Judy King. Taystee’s storyline has been the season’s most consistent by a significant margin. While she has moments of vanity (her shoes) and comedy, she is never not motivated by a quest for justice. She participates in the absurdity of the “slave trade” for Judy King after the white inmates refuse to turn her over for free, but only because it is the only way to get what she wants. In general, the black inmates have the clearest sense of the stakes of this riot: even Black Cindy, who wants to force Judy King to attend to her intimate grooming needs, is the one who initiates the trade that acquires her, understanding its importance to Taystee. And here Janae emerges as a voice of concern, reflecting back on her tearful witnessing of “White Effie” as Judy King prepares to speak to the media and represent marginalized groups she has no connection to.
That Janae emerges in this role is somewhat random: her previous flashback was centered on religion and gang culture, with no evidence—from my recollection—of a deep-seated concern over cultural appropriation. It felt like a flashback you could have given to any character, which limits its ability to serve as character development rather than just a convenient parallel to the story at hand. However, the lack of ties to Janae’s existing character doesn’t change the fact that it is a productive parallel, and one that pushes Taystee to the season’s best moment so far. They had carefully planned that press conference—with the help of Josh from PR—to ensure that they played their cards right, but teenage Janae is not wrong: you don’t play with the cards you’re dealt if there’s no way to win. And so Taystee decides not to introduce Judy King, and instead speaks from the heart, in a heartbreaking performance from Danielle Brooks that highlighted the best that Orange Is The New Black has to offer.
It’s also a crucial scene for the increasing relationship between Litchfield and the outside world. While a big part of the previous episode, we move outward further here as the Governor takes over the riot, Aleida tries to change the media narrative from the outside, and Flaca and Maritza try to become the first “prisonfluencers.” There are elements of satire in the way these stories play out—Piscatella’s emasculation as the CERT team takes over, the photographers hoarding around the windows like it’s a red carpet, the news media’s generalizations—but at their core is the simple fact that MCC, the government, the media, and likely the general population does not perceive of these women as people. Although there’s something absurd about the media leaping to the “terrorist” conclusion, even once that news cycle calms down there’s a fundamental refusal to acknowledge the humanity of these women, which is central to Taystee’s speech. The media didn’t even bother seeking out the inmates’ demands, or asking if there were demands: they just leapt to broad generalizations, reducing prison to controlling an unruly populace and embodying the logic that allows the private prison system to exist despite its inability to offer true support and rehabilitation. Taystee’s speech is an attempt to fight this, but can you? Will any amount of information or awareness keep corporate interests and social judgment from dehumanizing these women? This season feels like an attempt to answer this question as the recently installed administration rolls back an Obama policy that promised to phase out the use of private prisons (despite being in production during the election).
It’s also an important scene, though, given how crucial it is to the future of the riot. Taystee ends her speech by allowing Judy King to walk out of Litchfield, a decision that adds to the power of her words and the importance of the “real” inmates telling their own stories. But from a plot perspective, we were told early on that Judy King was the reason that MCC wasn’t storming the prison, a barrier that has now been removed. Additionally, the aftermath of Taystee’s speech sees a crazed Coates escaping the prison with the gun in hand, meaning that the inmates have lost their primary source of “power” over the hostage situation. This also happens concurrent to Ruiz realizing (with Caputo’s help) that her motivation for participating in the riot—Piscatella arbitrarily adding five years to her sentence in the midst of her war with Piper—has never actually been recorded, meaning that it could still be undone. We’re starting to see the people involved here coming to terms with the fact this will eventually end, and they’re starting to think about where they want to be when that happens.
I’m hopeful this lets the show embrace its dramatic side more consistently: “Sing It, White Effie” lacks the same undercurrent of malice provided by Angie’s turn as gun-wielding executive producer, as the hostages are mostly worried about Stratman’s bowels and the inmates are mainly seen bartering over Judy King with just a bit too much fervor. This season has been a significant litmus test for my feelings regarding the show’s balance of comedy and drama, and the strength of Taystee’s speech reinforces that I really only care about the characters who are tapped into the dramatic angles of this riot. This is not to say that moments of levity—like Alex and Piper’s domestic squabble in their new outdoor abode—are poorly done or necessarily unwelcome, but I am waiting for the moment when the entire prison has to reckon with the gravity of their situation. We’re getting closer to this moment: the peaceful resistance is setting up camp outside, a ringleader of the torture and violence is considering her options, and one would hope that Taystee’s speech will lead to either progress she deserves or rebuke that will push the story toward its climax.
- I really love the dynamic of Josh from PR as he leaps in to help the inmates craft a statement: not only is he acting in his self-interest, but their story also significantly supports MCC’s version of Poussey’s death, which is technically his primary job at this point. He’s a bit of a dolt—“I gotta do the PR!”—but in a way that, similar to Linda from Purchasing, has an interesting dynamic in the day-to-day of the prison.
- Speaking of Linda from Purchasing, we see her briefly wake up and bask in the morning right until she realizes she’s in prison, as though she had forgotten. It was a nice moment.
- Aleida appearing on television to talk about her experience in Litchfield is going to be…interesting, but I hope it doesn’t entirely derail her struggles to find a job, which is also important for the show to be considering.
- I still struggle with the whole Pennsatucky and Coates situation—while I realize that she is setting clear boundaries and that this in some way is empowerment to her, I’m ultimately with Boo that it’s just a hugely terrible idea, so seeing Coates removed from the equation was encouraging for getting to see Pennsatucky’s story evolve.
- The game of “Guess That Inmate” using the files was Chekhov’s Sideplot, as I kept waiting to see what the files were going to be used for: it ended up being Ruiz’s revelation that Piscatella never processed the extension of her sentence, but I wondered if they might foreshadow a future flashback for an inmate like Maureen whose file was teased previously.
- Look, I know that they are attractive young women, and the media circus has officially started, but I still struggle with how Flaca got 10,000 views on her vlog this quickly. Do people really, honestly care about this that much?
- Anyone have any fun stories about deeply inappropriate school musical selections?
- Piscatella’s beard was removed as a “safety issue” but I’m going to guess it was “actor had another role.”
- “Art is always a sound investment”—this is a fun line to give newly critically-acclaimed performer Asia Kate Dillon, currently getting an Emmy push for their non-binary role in financial drama Billions. Also, those Anne Geddes calendars are horrifying, we all agree on this, right?
- As always, small moments are often best: I loved Suzanne showing up for breakfast, panicking when Gloria suggests it doesn’t exist, and carefully stepping around the memorial to Poussey to enjoy her yogurt.
- Netflix Synergy: Both Emily Gilmore and Piper Chapman read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it would appear.