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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.

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Writing about a show like Orange Is The New Black episodically can be challenging. This is true for any ongoing series, admittedly, but there’s a speed at which false presumptions or immediate reactions can be unwritten that makes it feel like a minefield. When I wrote my review of the season premiere, noting it was possible the show was done with flashbacks, I knew that it was very likely I’d turn on the second episode and immediately discover that my thought—albeit framed as a possibility—was going to seem silly. However, I personally feel it’s important to capture my reactions to each episode as they happen, to reflect the fact that not everyone is moving onto the next episode: as much as it may be possible for people to watch an entire season in a day, it’s just as possible to watch an episode a day, or every two days, or every two weeks, and it would be naïve to believe that even those watching at a faster pace don’t stop for a moment and question certain developments.

For me, my central nagging issue with Orange Is The New Black thus far this season has been the sudden rise of Maria Ruiz as Piper’s foil. The character had never struck me as someone who would emerge as a major force of power in Litchfield: the OITNB Wiki, as of a week before the season’s debut, had a section for “Personality” that simply contained “(still missing).” (She has a real section now.) And so the fact that she would emerge as the ringleader for the Dominicans struck me as random, and nothing in the initial stages of her war with Piper offered much in terms of clarification, and it went on for enough episodes that it started to impact the effectiveness of this central source of conflict.

But as is so often the case, I only needed to wait an episode or two to get the clarification I desired. In “Piece of Sh*t,” the “pieces” start to fall into place, and in the process settle some of my initial confusion. I say “some,” though, because the answers offered in this episode are more based on the narrative than on the character herself. I still don’t precisely know why Ruiz made the decision to go after Piper: perhaps it was her separation from her daughter, which was her only story development of any kind in the third season, and which left her without a purpose and thus willing to embrace her role as the leader of Spanish Harlem. Piper argues here that her underwear business gives her “purpose,” and so it makes sense that Maria’s competing business would be serving a similar function, even if the show hasn’t exactly articulated that with much clarity (despite having a flashback episode to do so).

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What makes more sense, though, is why the show wanted Ruiz to be the woman in the position she finds herself in here. Piper has dug herself into a hole, creating a “task force” so vigilant in its racism that it has sniffed out Maria’s competing organization, thus making her own workers highly vulnerable. Piper is uncomfortable with the racial profiling she created, but she’s more uncomfortable with the idea of giving up her business—it’s all she has now, and so despite that being the easiest option to avoid greater harm, she chooses instead to target Maria’s operation similar to what she had done with Stella. She does it under the guise of protecting her own employees, but in truth she’s doing it because it reinforces her sense of power and authority so she can keep holding onto the idea that she is revered as opposed to just hated.

However, in order for this to work, Piper’s victim needs to have something at stake. Piper wanted to shut down Maria’s operation, but she certainly wasn’t intending on adding three-to-five years onto her sentence, which is what Piscatella decides as opposed to a more traditional trip to solitary. This type of law and order is new for Litchfield, stoked by concerns about gang violence, and shows the impact of someone from Max coming into an environment and not realizing the perils of taking hardline stances. Maria is the ideal victim here: the only thing we’ve known about her is how she is being separated from her child, and so we know immediately why adding to her sentence would be a particular hardship. No inmate would be happy about having time added to their sentence, but that pain is most legible for Ruiz, and so her sudden leadership position now makes more sense from a storytelling perspective.

That said, the gap between the story they’re telling and the choice she’s making, logic-wise, could be smaller. I want to better understand why Maria took the steps she did, and why she is so willing to risk even more to begin bringing drugs into Litchfield through their existing distribution pipeline. The decision strikes me as intensely irrational: Maritza’s solution to their distribution problem felt temporary to me, and the guards are not going to suddenly stop the random searches. I realize a prisoner in a highly emotional state won’t always be thinking clearly, but this again feels like the character making a decision for the purpose of the narrative: the show wants to explore the fact that hardline prison practices are as likely to cause illegal activity than squash it, as evidenced by the free-flowing drug trade in Max we bear witness to in “Piece of Sh*t.” And so Maria makes decisions that I’m still struggling to track to her own character, even as their connections to Nicky’s reemerging story arc are apparent throughout this episode.

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We knew we would eventually be returning to Nicky, whose time in Max serves as the equivalent to the show’s typical flashbacks here, although the context proved interesting. In another example of the show’s effective use of puzzle-logic storytelling, the pieces fall into place well: in addition to using Nicky to give us another (dark) glimpse of Sophia, and a check-in with Stella and other inmates who were sent to Max over the course of the series (with one major exception we’ll discuss in the strays), the show utilizes Luschek’s relationship with Judy King as an alternate angle. This is still Nicky’s episode, don’t get me wrong, but the episode opens on Luschek, and uses his guilt over Nicky’s fate as a way to explore the long-term consequences of the type of actions Piper is taking with Maria. Luschek doesn’t care about any of the inmates, really, but he feels bad about what happened to Nicky, and his efforts to do something about it create the circumstances to allow Nicky to transition back into the main narrative.

Such transitions could be too convenient, but the component parts work well here. Luschek and Judy’s relationship has been a fun little runner dating back to the premiere, and so to see it turn earnest here was a good look for both of the characters. And while the episode stretches a bit too far drawing a contrast between Luschek’s approach to most inmates and his feelings of guilt with Nicky as he sits and plays FIFA while Gina bleeds intensely in front of him, it’s consistent with his character, and Matt Peters does a nice job articulating his particular failings as a human being. The episode also balances this with enough scenes of Nicky’s life in Max that when we eventually get to Luschek’s visit to Max, you can related to both sides: Lyonne gives a tour-de-force performance in their confrontation, but the story feels multi-faceted, and a productive continuation of last season’s storyline despite so much time having passed with Nicky offscreen.

The story is also helped by the fact that there are clear consequences for Nicky’s reintroduction. The final moments play up the tragedy of Nicky’s transfer back to Litchfield coming just as she whores herself out to a guard in exchange for heroin; Luschek’s relationship with Judy King—she of wealth and lawyers—ultimately won Nicky her freedom from Max, but not before she was willing to sacrifice her sobriety to achieve some kind of release. It’s a dark development, made darker by the likelihood that Nicky is returning just as the stream of drugs into Litchfield is about to start again, creating even more temptation. And to top it all off, Luschek doesn’t get away scot-free, effectively being forced into sexual servitude by Judy King in the interest of keeping his job. It’s good that Nicky is back, as I like the character, but it would have rang false if it had been too convenient, or if there hadn’t been consequences to its efficiency. The story here struck the right balance between convenience and resonance, which will hopefully pay off in the back half of the season.

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It’s productive when we think that way, knowing on some level that our judgment of a story development will be tentative until we see how it plays out in the future. We might have questions about Sophia’s absence, but we’ve also developed a trust in the show to follow up on her story, whether here or in the future after the bloody cell she left behind in her exit from solitary. And the uncertainty with which we view stories has its own value: given how consistently the show has been quietly and contemplatively exploring Poussey and Brook’s romance, for example, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that it would be unlike the show to have something pure that goes untouched by the chaos around it. While Caputo is indoctrinated into believing there is a silver bullet that could solve Litchfield’s problems, we know otherwise, which creates moments of uncertainty I can’t ignore in reviewing the show, but which ultimately contribute to its success provided the show holds up its end of the bargain.

Stray observations

  • So, what about Claudette? We got a glimpse of the Golden Girl who stabbed the wrong black woman in season two, and Stella showed up, but Claudette was the first character “written off” to Max. Actress Michelle Hurst was in a car accident in 2014 that meant she couldn’t return for season two, but she has since recovered, so I’m curious if they ever considered building her into this story (or if she could still show up in time).
  • Another episode, another scene of Alex being too mad at Piper to talk to her about what happened, and Piper not just being upfront about her own situation. The season seems to be setting up that their respective struggles go back to their inability to communicate, so I’m curious where they’re heading on that one—not exactly convinced they’d be that much better together, but that seems to be the argument.
  • I appreciated the lack of explanation offered for what happened with Sophia—I’m presuming she used the staples from Nicky’s magazine (the pages were splayed out in a fashion that suggests this), but a lesser show would have shown a closeup of the staples.
  • Speaking of puzzle pieces falling into place: the episode thankfully wastes no time connecting the dots between Taystee’s “Make money selling photos of Judy King” plan and Alison’s cell phone.
  • Continuity: we learn (or are reminded?) that Bayley’s first name is Baxter, and when he notes his father’s really into dogs, we recall his early comments about his father’s dog-dyeing business. That throwaway felt like a pretty straightforward Jenji Kohan “let’s throw in a non sequitor about a weird cultural phenomenon” note, but now it’s character development! What a world.
  • “Kip Carnigan” is a very good name for Caputo’s new inspiration. And props to the production designers for giving Linda such a large laptop to be using in bed—it’s just the right size, I’d say, to make her look suitably ridiculous.
  • As odious as Healy is, I will say that his approach with Lolly currently appears to be focused on actual counseling, which is refreshing even if I remain convinced he’ll try to forcer her into electroshock therapy in due time.
  • “I am always the car in Monopoly”—Alison and Black Cindy eventually come together over their respective fascination with a different religion (Scientiology), but their argument also gave us this wonderful, silly joke.
  • The paparazzi payday storyline also reminds us of the class distinctions: for the black women, on the outside, that kind of money would be increasingly meaningful—Piper, though, is only in the business of panties because she wants something to keep herself busy. She seems unconcerned about the financial side, which distinguishes her from her employees.

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