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Communication issues plague the season's weakest OITNB

Illustration for article titled Communication issues plague the seasons weakest iOITNB/i
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As Zelda tries to convince Piper to contact Larry and Polly and explore her feelings about the end of that relationship, she tells Piper that “you can’t fix nothing.” Her argument is that unless you actually confront something, you can’t do anything about it: pretending something doesn’t exist will never make it go away. It’s really just a variation on the previous episode’s discussion of how we respond to the truth being set free, but with a specific focus on the proactive role we need to take in righting those wrongs. Piper isn’t supposed to wait for Larry or Polly to reach out: she’s supposed to be the one to rip off the band-aid, instead of hoping it will just pull away gradually by doing nothing.

Red was convinced that doing nothing could make her dementia go away, but that was never going to be the case. Nicky had tried to rip off the band-aid, but Red couldn’t accept what she was experiencing. It’s a storyline that, now that I’ve seen the Veronica Mars revival, is very similar to what that show does with Keith Mars’ memory lapses. It’s about the pride of not wanting to believe that this is the end of your life as you know it, combined with the fear of scaring the people you care about. When Red calls Nicky in to hear her diagnosis, finally receiving the medical care she needs, she’s acknowledging that the time for nothing is over. Nicky is the person she trusts, and Kate Mulgrew is truly heartbreaking as Red receives her diagnosis. Even when you accept the caveats that a UTI exaggerated elements of her condition, the dementia is here, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. And while there was nothing Red could have really done to stop it even when she first started noticing the symptoms, doing nothing meant no one could be there to help her, and give her support in a difficult time.


If “The Thirteenth” is about anything, it’s about how hard it is to communicate that you’re hurting. Caputo’s restorative justice class is built to open those lines of communication, to the point where it works on him as much as the inmates, as his bit of roleplaying puts himself in Fischer’s shoes and fully “a-wokens” him to his actions. Sure, he should have understood how his actions were affecting Fischer before this, but there’s a block that people put up, in part to protect themselves. Caputo made himself the victim because it kept him from self-identifying as the perpetrator, but when that’s stripped away he realizes he can’t just do nothing. Or, more accurately, he now understands why Fischer wasn’t able to just do nothing, and why she came forward. He realizes how hard it would have been for her to communicate what she was experiencing in that moment, and how much he wouldn’t have listened, and his choice to resign from the restorative justice program is an acknowledgment that he has more to figure out about himself before he can with a good conscience guide others through this process.

There is a lot of shit that has happened over the course of the series that no one has really processed. Dixon and McCullough are both still traumatized from the riot, but by all accounts they were never given any real counseling, and by the time the Morello lockdown is over McCullough is already full of cigarette burns and Dixon is using Caputo’s class as an excuse to confront Maria about sodomizing him. And so for every character like Morello who completely falls apart because she can’t process things, and every character like Nicky who feels the guilt from not being there for their friends as they’re dealing with something, there’s other issues just bubbling under the surface. It’s what the show is arguing is happening with Alex and Piper: it’s not just that there’s a secret that Alex is keeping from Piper, but rather that there’s a sense of resentment. Alex’s cell phone technically keeps them in communication with each other, but it’s an illusion: there’s always missed connections, and dead batteries, and enough gaps to create the uncertainties that can create a situation like the one Alex finds herself in.

Alex’s flashback here is basically a justification for her actions, although in general I’d say we’re supposed to feel like Alex is self-destructing in her relationship with McCullough at this point. By retconning Alex and Piper’s first meeting as being part of Alex destroying a previous long-term relationship after her girlfriend got sober, we see how she deals with a situation where she feels like she’s going to be hurt. Alex isn’t someone who’s going to do nothing, but she’s also not someone who’s going to confront the problem head on. She’s going to sleep with the first woman who she meets in a bar, and she’s going to use that to blow everything up. And the origins of her relationship with Sophie—she was a drunk, and Alex had to constantly save her from herself—also gives some sense of why the broken McCullough is drawing Alex’s attention. I’ve spent these reviews writing about how I didn’t think the writers were showing their work on this storyline, but clearly they were waiting to overwrite this flashback to explain things. Alex likes fixing broken people, and she likes breaking her own life before she gets her own heart broken.

I can’t say that I find this explanation has improved Alex’s story much, and in general this hour feels like it didn’t offer much in the way of momentum overall. We get some resolution on some stories (like Red’s dementia) but mostly in ways we’d expect, and we get some events in other stories (Daya’s new Luschek pipeline, Shani’s deporation notice) without really seeing the full scale of the impact. I suppose it’s fitting that it doesn’t feel like a show about inescapable oppressive systems is about to “end” in three episodes given the whole inescapable part, but I will say that this feels like one of the weaker installments of the season, and I’m not just saying that because it involved Larry.


Stray observations

  • Ugh, Larry: Honestly, Larry was fine here, I just figured this is maybe the last time we’re seeing him and I can’t let this recurring feature go without a proper goodbye! It feels like truly forever ago that Larry was a meaningful part of this show, but it was in truth only 18 months ago, and I honestly completely forgot that the toddler was Polly’s son from her previous relationship and not his until they clarified it. How time flies, Larry.
  • Taystee’s GED tutoring is becoming a bigger concern with Luschek taking over the GED class, as she continues to channel her potential as a teacher. She’d be a little less qualified to take over Caputo’s restorative justice class, but who knows?
  • At first I presumed Dixon tazing Morello was just him being an idiot, but the show is framing it as riot PTSD, and I guess that’s fair. Still, it’s unclear how much her mental state right now is a byproduct of how she was treated, versus what she’s facing mentally. And in the absence of Psych, it’s unclear how she’s going to get the help she clearly needs.
  • Suzanne and Lolly: Chicken Murder Detectives didn’t last long, and I’m curious what the show wants to do with that other than comic relief. I’m fine with some comic relief: I think the season has largest steered away from it this season, but I chuckled a bit as Suzanne realized she was treating the chicken like the prison would treat an inmate.
  • Luschek’s insistence that they would be suspicious if he started to carry in books is maybe the most self-aware Luschek has ever been, and honestly if this show ends without him being put in prison I’m going to be disappointed.
  • Zelda’s office had a dog in it and honestly this show needed more dogs, if I had one central complaint as we reach the end of the series.
  • I was writing in my notes how it was weird that Aleida had just disappeared, and she immediately showed up to pathetically taunt Taystee’s GED tutoring session, and it’s true that her sad life was leaking all over the place. I still don’t really care enough about Aleida and Daya for their feud to resonate as a major conflict worth investing in, but the work is clearly starting for this to be the threat of sorts driving the plot.
  • I realize Linda is terrible, but I sort of agree that Litchfield is becoming a bit too Waldorf School, less because that’s bad and more because I question how it would ever happen. Just feels too loosey-goosey compared to the Max we were first introduced to, like they realized they didn’t like how restrictive that was and wanted something closer to Minimum.
  • As of a week before the season premieres when I’m writing this, Netflix has parked itself on Zelda’s Instagram account, but hasn’t posted anything. (Update: It still didn’t post anything.) I am not hopeful that changes between now and when you’re reading this. So many transmedia opportunities missed by Netflix on the whole, really.

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

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