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A full-throated condemnation of ICE fuels a stirring Orange Is The New Black

Screenshot: Netflix
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One of the challenges of writing about Orange Is The New Black using screeners is that there’s no updated cast list on IMDB to try to confirm who’s playing what new characters, and more importantly what their names are. Last season this was the case with Adeola, who went almost the entire season without having a clearly identified name. It’s something that the show seems to do very consciously, honestly: whether it’s a statement on the way these women are treated as anonymous by the system that oppresses them, or just something the writers decided made more sense, this isn’t a show that makes it easy to learn character names. I still don’t know the names of Daddy’s former lieutenants, or half of Taystee’s GED class, and while part of me feels bad the other part feels like their names will be important if and when the show decides they’re important.

Both Karla and Shani have been significant parts of the ICE Detention storyline so far this season, but I still never felt like their names were part of their identities. Some of this has to do with the way others spoke about them: everyone referred to Shani through euphemisms tying her to Nicky, for example, while Blanca primarily spoke of Karla as the woman from El Salvador out of habit. But it’s not until this episode where the contrast between the numbers they’ve been assigned be ICE—read out as they receive mail, or as they’re taken into custody—with the way both women are addressed in their flashbacks that you fully understand the dehumanization of this process. The inmates at Litchfield are dehumanized, but they’re in an environment where they have names, and where Ward’s efforts at reform are even giving them titles. The contrast with what is happening with ICE is stark, and has led many of the Litchfield inmates to take incredible risks to try to help these women retain some part of their humanity in an inhumane process.

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At the end of last season, Blanca was positioned as our entry point into the injustice of the government’s handling of a so-called “immigration crisis,” but between seasons the writers clearly realized that she wasn’t going to be enough. And so we saw Maritza enter into the system, and then we saw the introduction of the kitchen crew as a way to expose more characters to a diverse group of women whose experiences showcase the trauma experienced by these women both before and after they end up in detention centers. And in the end, it’s only Blanca who is able to win a reprieve: the other women end up having no recourse, trusting a system to respect their need for asylum or their ties to the United States and finding that the law gives them no recourse. Blanca’s hail mary asking them to revisit her criminal case—where she was advise to take a plea deal without knowing that it would affect her immigration status—gives her time, but the system is designed to take time away from inmates, moving hearings and rushing orders so that they can cycle through more women (and Polycon can profit in the process).

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As soon as I saw Karla’s flashback, I sensed this was going to tell the stories of the three women we’ve spent the most time, with the pregnant woman trying to force a miscarriage—whose last name is Chaj—being added to the group. The three flashbacks are ultimately not revelatory: the facts—that Karla’s husband had died and she was all her kids had left, that Shani had faced persecution from her family, that Chaj was raped—all come out in Litchfield itself, but the important thing with these flashbacks is seeing these women when they were free. It’s about seeing Carla as a mother, comforting her children after losing their father, unaware that they would soon be losing her too. It’s about seeing Shani, living a normal life, watching as her father refuses to stop the rest of his family from basically killing her for being a lesbian. And it’s about Chaj, fleeing her home in search of a better life, extorted and then raped by opportunistic coyotes before she even reaches the border. We don’t need the flashbacks to feel empathy—the women of Litchfield certainly don’t—but they add to the sense of injustice when the system separates Carla from her children, sends Shani back to her family and likely her death, and refuse to provide Chaj with the abortion she requests.

Screenshot: Netflix
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And although Gloria and the kitchen crew did everything they could, they can only provide final comforts for Karla and Shani. Karla’s phone call with her kids was a moment that completely destroyed me: it seems weird that a character who was just introduced this season could inspire that kind of emotion, but it’s a beautifully rendered scene, and it makes everyone realize the distinct trauma being perpetrated by these policies and this facility. Karina Arroyave captures the pain of this moment beautifully, and you completely understand why Gloria took the risk she did bringing a phone into the kitchen, even if it is inevitable that the phone will go off and create the scenario Gloria was trying to avoid with her date looming. And while Shani and Nicky don’t get a final reunion as Nicky tends to Lorna, her note does get to Nicky, which is at least more than the other women likely got in terms of being able to communicate with people they care about before being carted off to buses and planes.

Fig takes a similar risk. Alysia Reiner has been playing a softer version of the character ever since the riot, really, but it reaches a turning point when she goes to see her doctor after finally getting the pregnant Chaj a translator and learning the truth about her pregnancy. If you read the scene in light of where Fig started in this show, it’s Fig letting her experience affect her desire to have children, displaying empathy but ultimately channeling it into her own life as opposed to doing something for these women. That in and of itself would have constituted significant progress, but the fact that it was a ploy in order to get the drugs necessary for Chaj to induce a miscarriage is a new level of resistance to authority. Gloria might have risked extra time bringing a cell phone into the kitchen, but Fig is risking something too, and for someone she’s known for less time. It’s a significant moment, and a productive coda for a story that—like the show’s larger investigation of the prison industrial complex—will not be resolved. As one group of inmates is deported, another is escorted in, as Blanca sees the wheels of injustice turning as she waits for another shot at breaking out of the system.

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In the end, the women we’ve come to know over seven seasons collectively decided that the women in ICE detention were their responsibility. That’s an incredible burden to take on, and it came with limits, but the fact is that the prison experience is full of burdens like that one. Alex feels the burden of taking care of McCullough, balanced with her love for Piper. Nicky struggles with the failure to see Morello’s grief and intuit what had happened to Stirling, all in the wake of being unable to get Red the help she needed sooner (not to mention the Shani situation). Aleida continues to throw herself into the role of drug kingpin believing that it is the only way she can care for her children, and in the process keep Daya clean. And Taystee, unsure of whether she wants to be responsible for her own death, finds purpose in preparing the GED students and thinking about ways she could help women on the outside in that crucial first 72 hours after release where she herself faltered earlier in the series. Responsibility can be a sense of purpose, but it can also be a weight that brings you down, and the truth is there’s no way of knowing which is which. At any given moment, a responsibility can turn into a burden, and if you’re incarcerated that moment comes faster and more aggressively than you could imagine.

But things are different when you leave prison. Sophia—who runs into Piper after a parole meeting and offers to fix her sad hair—has settled into a productive life with her own salon, and she says it’s because she’s put Litchfield behind her. Piper is at the stage where she’s telling people about her time in prison, owning that it’s part of who she is, but she realizes talking with her parole officer that the “textbook” way to return to a normal life is to cut ties with the people tied to your crimes. But Piper is married to that person, and has committed to waiting for her, but Sophia’s advice is to leave it be. And when Piper ends a high class evening at Zelda’s gala with a visit from a drunk McCullough revealing her affair with Alex and pushing her to “set her free,” Piper runs to Zelda’s apartment, and decides to treat Alex as a burden to be shed.

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It’s a complicated moment because I don’t know who we’re supposed to agree with, exactly. As someone who was never fully invested in Alex and Piper’s romance, I think it’s an honest acknowledgment of how their prison experience defined their connection, and how their separation has led each to reevaluate their lives and make choices that exclude their partner. I am open to the idea that theirs is not a one true love, and that separating would be far from a tragedy. At the same time, to see Piper lured away by the promise of a privileged life is sort of alarming, even if would hope that Zelda’s ties to the non-profit world might be able to connect Piper to Taystee and Caputo’s micro-loans idea. Additionally, do we think the show wants us to see Sophia’s advice as truth when her choice to take a settlement missed a critical opportunity to hold the prison system accountable? Was she not selfish, if understandably so, for prioritizing herself over what other trans inmates will experience from Polcyon and other companies like them? I don’t judge Sophia for her choice, exactly, but it’s enough to make me question if we’re meant to take her advice as gospel.

I’ve spent a lot of this season wondering how people who would defend the current actions being undertaken by ICE in detention centers like the ones depicted are reacting to this season. Now, I have to imagine that those people—if they ever started watching a show featuring so many people of color—bailed once the show’s “radical agenda” became apparent in the early seasons. But part of me wonders if there are people out there who have tried to separation fact from fiction and stuck with this show despite any misgivings, and now find a deeply empathetic and persuasive case for fighting back against the immigration policies being implemented by the current administration. “God Bless America” reinforces that the storyline is a dramatic accomplishment regardless of whether it’s preaching to the choir, but I sort of hope Netflix’s audience is diverse enough to create some introspection, at the very least.

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Stray observations

  • “Which one of these Beckies do you want to be?”—I missed Sophia, even if I’m going to be annoyed a year from now when Laverne Cox gets the show’s only acting nomination for this mostly innocuous cameo. (Vanity Hair’s not a bad name for a salon, though).
  • Caputo says he’s glad to have Taystee back, in terms of her energy, but I just can’t stop thinking about the possibility of a setback in this meeting with her lawyer and her deciding to throw it all away. Chekhov’s Heroin is very, very real.
  • It’s hard to get a clear read on Karla’s immigration case: essentially, the court agrees that her children would be in danger if they sent them back to El Salvador, but because she’s already lost custody of her kids due to her pending deportation, they don’t see sending her back as a problem because they have no problem separating her from her children? It’s a different spin on child separation, but an equally devastating one.
  • Speaking of children: I don’t know if we fully needed Fig to witness children in their immigration hearings to reach her breaking point, but I understand the choice.
  • I thought it was interesting that the episode used Gloria, Flaca, and Ruiz’s punishment as a cliffhanger—my mind immediately jumped to Ruiz taking responsibility as penance, but I guess that will have to play out in the next episode, and I might be downplaying a potential penalty given how many goddamn cell phones there are in the prison at the moment.
  • I mentioned this in an earlier review, but I like how consistently the writers use Blake in situations where we’re meant to see the guards as ambivalent forces—getting Nicky to go to medical, telling Taystee her lawyer is coming—because he’s the only one who feels untainted at this stage.
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About the author

Myles McNutt

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.