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.
Sometimes, Orange Is The New Black doesn’t feel like it’s in its fifth season: because of the way the show has fleshed out its central characters, and the inherent stakes of their time in prison, there’s a freshness to parts of this story that keeps the show from feeling like it’s just repeating old patterns. The riot is, in many ways, designed to help with this, a way to differentiate this season and make it feel like the show—which has been renewed through season seven—isn’t long in the tooth.
And then there’s a Linda from Purchasing flashback.
“Pissters!” has a clear purpose in the season: with the immediate aftermath of the riot coming to a close, all parties involved are starting to think about where things are going to end. On the outside, MCC is clear that with Judy King still inside the private company wants to end this as quietly as possible, and so there are no plans on storming the prison. Instead, they ask for a list of demands, and the episode becomes a test of whether or not the inmates are capable of working together to help this riot generate real and meaningful change.
The list they generate through democracy does not dramatically change the order of things, but it’s a nice summary of everything these prisoners have lived through over the course of the series. Although the episode gets some laughs with some particularly silly suggestions thrown out, the final list of ten is inherently reasonable, in most cases just asking for solutions to clearly present problems: new guards to replace the ones who were poorly trained, reinstating the GED program, better health care, etc. While some—like conjugal visits and internet access—could be read as luxuries, the core of their concerns are about gaining a reasonable standard of living, something that a riot should not be necessary to achieve. Even the Hot Cheetos and Takis in tenth place—the meth heads stuffed the ballot box—is spun by Alison to be about health and nutrition, lest anyone think they were only concerned with frivolous things.
The show’s choice to embrace the private prison debate poses a crucial question based on this list: is something like a GED program a luxury, and thus something that criminals should be excluded from? The question of punishment versus rehabilitation is part of any exploration of incarceration, but these demands bring it front and center. We have seen the conditions that inspired these grievances, and even if I agree with Alex that the torture went too far in the previous episode, I might argue that the whole riot was worth it if MCC is forced to reinstate some type of standard of living for these women.
We don’t actually see MCC’s reaction to the list, though, which means we don’t know if these are negotiable issues. In some ways, despite the fact it only ranked ninth among the demands, Bayley being arrested and tried could be the simplest, given that it would technically serve MCC’s interests as well. Enacting everything else would not only affect their profit margins, but it would also force those at MCC who make decisions to actually acknowledge how bad things are at Litchfield, and how much they are failing at even the appearance of humanity.
This seems to be the point of highlighting Linda from Purchasing, which struck me as a bad choice when the episode started and never really came around for me. The basic function of the flashbacks seems to be suggesting she’s perhaps playing possum a bit with Piper and Alex, having a past of lying her way through a situation in order to leverage her big sister’s death into control of the sorority. Linda’s had moments where she’s seemed like a deer in the headlights, but here she very comfortably lays out her forgery backstory when Maria asks about it, and successfully blackmails Alex and Piper into helping her by bringing up the dead guard details she overheard. While she didn’t plan on killing her big sister in the snow—she just wanted to get back into the party to flirt with “Cute Jim” (this was his character name according to the subtitles)—she adjusts pretty quickly once she starts talking to the cops, and this makes you wonder how she’ll adjust when she realizes she’s delivering food to the hostages, which—unbeknownst to her—now includes Caputo.
But honestly, though? I don’t think I care. The value in flashbacks is fleshing out our understanding of the characters, or providing some type of thematic structure to the episode as a whole, and this accomplished neither for me. Beyond stretching whether or not Beth Dover is able to play a 21-year-old, it felt like we were getting pulled away from a story that matters to get at best minor insights into a character who was a joke last season, and still feels like more of a punchline than anything else. In the prison itself, I see Linda’s purpose: I liked, for example, when she started pitching in suggestions for improving life in Litchfield, noting that what she had thought she was purchasing—the poly-blend uniforms, the food—was clearly not what had been advertised. But the idea that Linda’s sorority days are a better use of our time that an actual inmate’s flashback, or no flashback at all, just doesn’t track for me. Maybe the season as a whole will unlock some deeper meaning to Linda from Purchasing’s role to play here, but as it stands it registered as the show running out of viable flashbacks.
I can imagine some feel similarly about Bayley, who returns after sitting out the first two hours of the season. The show is clearly invested in showing Bayley’s perspective on what happened at the end of last season, even after he’s left Litchfield. While the immediate aftermath of the riot has calmed down slightly in the prison, it’s still very real for Bayley, who is incapable of processing what he did. The show is going to have to be careful about how it positions Bayley’s character: although I essentially agree with Caputo that scapegoating Bayley for what happened ignores larger systemic problems that need to be addressed, that doesn’t mean that I think Bayley isn’t responsible, or that he shouldn’t be held accountable, or that I have any sympathy for him. The scenes here establish what we need to know—he’s walking around in a daze, getting drunk and trying to turn himself into police—but I hope we don’t spend too much time on him, given the better stories being told elsewhere.
That’s the thing about “Pissters!”: although it comes at a bit of a down moment in the riot, as an eerie calm settles in while the inmates eat their first meal, the truth is that the riot has created lots of story possibilities. The show may be in its fifth season, but it is currently in a rich storytelling space, and so to have an episode that spends time on stories that register as narrative dead ends is a bit of a disappointment. Once you’ve seen a terrified Judy King run down one dark hallway like she’s in a horror film, you’ve seen the other scenes that do exactly the same thing, which makes for an episode that carries significant weight for the central storyline but struggled to find meaningful material to fill in around it.
That said, though, there were some moments that still worked. As much as the recurring elements in the episode struggled, I loved small moments like Piper realizing Janae was wearing her sweatshirt, and Alex’s suggestion to let it go as it was “another life.” Perspective is so easily shifted when you’re struggling to survive a place like Litchfield, and the riot can shift this perspective so easily. And that’s why the episode’s most powerful moment is Suzanne frantically creating a memorial to Poussey when she returns to the cafeteria, her grief overwhelming her the second she enters the space. In an episode where Brooke is advised that there’s no way to cheat grief, it’s a resonant moment that reminds us there remains much at stake in this story, even if this episode didn’t always tap into that successfully.
- “Democracy is bullshit”—this was too real.
- I was really confused why Yoga Jones was so upset at the Nazis for being outside smoking—I know she’s something of a teetotaler, but it’s a riot! (She was upset because it forced her to go outside and identify Judy King, I know, but it was still dumb.)
- Small moments are always a speciality of a show with an ensemble this size, and I loved Boo discovering Caputo’s suit and strutting through the cafeteria. Just a great little victory for her.
- We have an answer to one mystery: Coates is hiding in the ceiling, and creeping on Pennsatucky using a cell phone as a vibrator.
- Daya continues to be pulled between Gloria and Maria, and while I still don’t entirely get the choice of Daya grabbing the gun I liked the moment in the kitchen: the blocking makes a big deal about Gloria unlocking the knife box, and beginning to cut oranges, and you wonder if Daya might try to take the knife to regain the weapon they need in order to maintain control. However, all Daya does is take an orange slice like a toddler, which speaks to her immaturity and the difficult position she’s in. I still want to know why she picked up the gun, but there’s been some well-realized smaller moments thus far.
- I wasn’t sure what Red had noticed on Piscatella’s wrist in the previous episode (the scene was too dark, honestly), but we learn here it’s the initials of Wes Driscoll, who seems to be either a prisoner or a guard. I presume he’ll be part of the continued efforts to gain leverage over him (aided by some type of pills, which gives Kate Mulgrew some scenery to chew).
- Favorite suggestions on the Inmates’ list of demands? I have lots of questions about what Beyoncé meant—was it actually Beyoncé herself, or just access to Beyoncé-related material in general?
- Okay, so again, I’m not going to dwell on this too much. But how would Bayley stumble onto the video that Taystee made if it hasn’t actually gone viral? The show is playing fast and loose with the idea of how many people have seen this video, and I’m going to need some clarification eventually. (I know I’m never going to get clarification.)