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Are flashbacks really necessary for OITNB to bring its story to a close?

Illustration for article titled Are flashbacks really necessary for iOITNB/i to bring its story to a close?
Photo: JoJo Whilden (Netflix)
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Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black’s final season. The thirteen reviews will be going up over the course of this weekend: five on Friday, four on Saturday, and the final four reviews on Sunday. As always, the reviews have been written without knowledge of what happens in future episodes, so please try to keep from spoiling future events in the comments if you’ve seen beyond the episode in question.

I’m pretty sure that over seven seasons I’ve written a good three or four reviews that start with a discussion of the continued utility of the flashback structure that Orange Is The New Black has held onto over the course of its run, but it’s the final season, so I hope you’ll forgive me if “How To Do Life” brings me back to the topic one last time (although, let’s be real, I might come back to it again).

The core of this episode is about the very notion of restorative justice: about making amends, and coming to terms with your crime, and your punishment for that crime. It’s a complicated topic when you have inmates with such varying experiences. It’s very different to talk about restorative justice for Cindy, for example, than it is for Beth the Baby Killer. That’s always been a hallmark of the show, and also something that the flashbacks were a big part of: they were there to help us simultaneously differentiate these inmates from one another and remind us that regardless of their backgrounds, they are now in exactly the same place, if not always for the same amount of time.


The flashbacks haven’t completely lost their utility now that we generally understand these characters better: Gloria doesn’t need another flashback, but the story about the daughters she left behind in Puerto Rico to make a better life and then delayed bringing to New York to the point that they refused to follow her is thematically relevant to the ICE storyline. The news that Maritza isn’t actually an American citizen, but rather a Colombian immigrant whose mother fled a bad situation to arrive in America when she was an infant—a Dreamer, in other words—echoes Gloria’s situation, and at one point Gloria leans on her own choices to help Maritza understand the choice her mother made in lying to her. It’s a moment where the show has a character allude to a situation and then immediately cuts to the flashback like it’s a memory, a strategy the show has used a lot in the past.

But something about this particular moment reinforced that I would much rather be listening to Selenis Leyva delivering a monologue, and watching Diane Guerrero react to that monologue, than actually seeing a flashback. There are some flashbacks where we are seeing things that characters can’t or won’t share, secrets about themselves—like Cindy’s sister-daughter, for example—that they aren’t comfortable sharing. But this seemed like a situation where Maritza was at an incredibly low point, and where a moment of vulnerability and truth from Gloria could have helped her, and also put her own position into perspective. Blanca and Maritza’s situation is worse than theirs, fraught with an uncertainty they don’t share, and I can’t help but feel we were robbed of a more emotional, meaningful connection between these women in favor of Leyva in a bad wig living through a situation that honestly felt like it could’ve been explained in dialogue and saved us five minutes of the episode without damaging its emotional impact.

Every episode this season has been sixty minutes long, and I’m open to the argument that an ensemble this deep deserves the extra time. We hadn’t even seen Frieda this season before this episode, for example, and as Taystee makes plans to take her own life it’s hard not to feel like we’ve been missing a part of her story too. But that’s sort of why the show’s insistence on returning to the flashbacks even while simultaneously balancing a recurring Piper story—here covering her struggles following the rigid terms of her release and the rigid structure of her menial employment—is a case of the show being unwilling to shake up its structure to reflect the state of its storytelling. While there are no longer flashbacks in every episode, the fact they still exist at all is a sign to me that it’s still been a productive way for the writers to break story, or at the very least an efficient way. I just wish it was creating more compelling television, instead of creating the sense that time could have either been spent elsewhere or trimmed to help the show feel a little less bloated.


I don’t even think the show’s bloatedness is a huge problem, to be honest. There’s something fun about seeing characters like Beth pop back up and piecing together what happened, or having Bell and O’Neill return as employees at the detention facility. It’s a big world, and while I sometimes have to refresh my memory on names or backstories, that’s part of the show’s charm. It’s also why the flashbacks feel like part of a version of the show that we’ve moved past, because it’s no longer fair to say that this was a “Gloria Episode” because it featured her flashback. Yes, we see her risk her upcoming release in order to get a cell phone from Luschek, and we learn about her older daughter—and grandchild—living in New York, but the narrative has no “center” like it used to be able to in those early episodes. There’s too much happening for the episode to become “about” a particular character, whether it’s Lorna learning that her son died due to complications from his premature birth, or Taystee’s ultimately aborted suicide attempt that brings the episode to a close.

It becomes much more about the broad thematic connections, delivered here by the educational programs pushing principles of rehabilitation and restorative justice to the foreground. Caputo and the inmates reading about the definition of a crime is laid over Piper, Taystee, Gloria, Lorna, Maritza, and everyone else, and it’s something that the show is smart to commit to this late in its run. Yes, it’s a bit on-the-nose, but the idea that there is some kind of answer out there that each inmate has to find is the core of this show. With Lorna, you have someone whose answer to prison was living an elaborate lie, and whose solution to the tragic death of her son is to return to those lies, this time with a catfish Instagram account designed to fool herself and her friends that Stirling is alive and well. Suzanne writes through her feelings, while Frieda lives in filth, and Pennsatucky throws herself into every single educational program except crocheting simply to get out of Florida and try to keep herself afloat.


There’s a little wink at the audience with Warden Ward’s pamphlets: titled “You’ve Got Time” in a nod to the show’s theme song, they work to try to spin the monotony of prison into an opportunity, and by all accounts Ward’s initiatives have the potential to radically alter their lives and the culture of the prison. It’s all happening very quickly, and it seems probable that Polycon will shut it all down once they start struggling to meet their profit margins, but in the moment it comes down to whether or not these women are capable of perceiving of their time in a different way than they’ve been conditioned to by a corrupt system for months if not years. For Taystee, it’s nearly too late: for everyone else, it’s a race against time, once again giving us a glimpse of hope in an environment where we’re conditioned to believe it will never come to fruition.

Stray observations

  • Daya is starting to settle into her role as a kingpin of sorts, and…I still don’t buy it, y’all. I don’t need her to be on an epic path of redemption, but I just struggle with everything about that character since she picked up that gun.
  • It feels weird to have spent so much time on Hopper in Aleida’s storyline and then have him turn into a pretty one-dimensional toolbag in response to Ward’s hiring as warden? The show never argued he wasn’t a bad person, but he feels like a particularly worse one at the moment.
  • Curious to see if we return to any of the other O.G. guards in addition to Bell and O’Neill, which was a nice little surprise that doesn’t feel like it’s here to do anything other than offer a bit of closure.
  • “Mom’s Bitmoji game is strong”—I don’t know if the actress who played Piper’s mother was unavailable or if they just only had the budget for one parent, but a Bitmoji is a clever way to remind us she exists and what she looks like, honestly.
  • I have lots of questions about Alex’s USB charging situation. Is she selling the battery packs, and then retrieving them when the women have exhausted them, and then smuggling them back to McCullough, who charges them, and then returns them? How lucrative can that really be given the finite charging time and the risk of constant exchange? These are my questions.
  • Piper refusing to jaywalk in New York City made me chuckle—I was walking around Manhattan a couple of months ago, and realized how quickly you fall into the habit of just moving when the crowd moves, so her hesitation was a fun little bit.
  • “Shut up, I’m having a reunion here!”—this is a weird case where Flaca and Maritza’s reunion is honestly probably more powerful to us than it might be to them, since it’s been two entire seasons for us, but…a somewhat shorter but completely indeterminate period of time for them.
  • “If I’m not alive, then I’m not in prison”—Danielle Brooks is still, as with last season, not getting nearly enough to do, but she’s nailing every bit of it.

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

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