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.
At the end of season three, as the inmates piled through the open fence to the lake, few understood it as “freedom.” It was a fleeting moment of opportunity, which most inmates understood was going to be short-lived. No one tried to “escape” other than Maureen and Suzanne, whose efforts were short-lived once Maureen discovered that “freedom” didn’t suit Suzanne. Everyone else just filed back into the prison, not realizing that their world had been turned upside down by the arrival of new inmates while they were gone.
I return to this moment now because the riot was, at least as first, a similar moment of freedom. The structure of the prison disappeared, and restrictions that once kept them from roaming the halls or exploring the grounds were gone overnight. The difference was that there is no clear agreement on when this particular freedom should end, or what exactly constitutes freedom in this environment. For some, freedom means justice; for others, justice is standing in the way of how they would choose to use their freedom. And in the end, no one is really free as long as their lives are held as collateral for a private prison system, and as a renegade guard acts out an absurd horror movie revenge fantasy for no discernible reason.
“The Tightening” is invested in this question of freedom on a few levels, utilizing a flashback to Red’s final months in the Soviet Union in 1977 to think about what it really means to be free. She is a meek factory worker who gets dragged to a college party where young students wear blue jeans and listen to rock music. She gets swept up in it, believing that the business of smuggling blue jeans into the Soviet Union was a way to encourage real and legitimate change among a younger generation. But then she sees the barriers to freedom: people like her boyfriend, who wilts at the first sign of a crackdown, opting to go into hiding instead of protesting when their salespeople start disappearing. When milquetoast Dmitri approaches Red with the possibility of escaping to America, she realizes that freedom is not about rock music or blue jeans: it’s about commitment to finding a way to break down or—if that proves too difficult—escape the system that is oppressing you.
The flashback serves as a basic origin story for Red’s belief system in an episode where she is convinced Piscatella is in the prison but reads as a drugged-up crazy person to everyone around her. But more than that, it’s also the story of someone who has the appearance of freedom but is not in fact free, and who must understand her personal meaning of freedom in order to find her true self. She says in the flashback that she doesn’t have “a choice” about working in the factory, but it would be wrong to call her a prisoner: her freedom is simply constricted by the social structure around her. And the state of the riot has the inmates in a similarly complicated position: they have more choice than they’ve ever had before, but they are still prisoners, and struggling with how precisely to explore these new freedoms while unable to make truly independent choices. They are trying to do what Red advised, protesting and fighting for their rights, but how much faith should they have in the system? And, more importantly, how many people will value their self-interest over that of the group?
That is the situation Gloria finds herself in when she gets on the phone with MCC and is told she can visit her son in the ICU if she releases the hostages. It’s a somewhat frustratingly simple storyline: Gloria has been suddenly placed into a compromised emotional state, is given a tempting offer with no guarantee of follow-through, and then seems willing to sacrifice the entire negotiations as a result. I buy that Gloria might feel that way, but it’s frustrating from a narrative perspective to see a situation out of left field dramatically change her character arc so quickly. It gets across the point that they have newfound access to the outside world, which will influence their decision-making, but there is a suddenness to the whole situation that strikes me as hollow when taking the entire season’s arc into account.
I’m more interested in the notion of freedom being prescribed by Lorna Morello, who is exhibiting her right to live in her own fantasy. It’s still possible she’s actually pregnant, but Lorna doesn’t actually want to take a test: she actually hides them from sight as she dispenses medication. Instead, she goes and visits Suzanne, who spends the episode tied up in her bunk after Leanne and Angie commit a hate crime by putting her in white face with baby powder. When she gets there, though, she decides that part of their freedom is freedom from the definition of “normal” forced onto them by doctors, convincing Suzanne not to take her medication. And while I am in full support of both Lorna and Suzanne in terms of treating them as something other than just “crazy,” there is an argument to be made for freedom within limits, rather than the anarchy of Suzanne without any medication at all. But at a time when the inmates are able to define their own sense of freedom, these types of decisions will become more common, and create even more chaos as the riot reaches its climax.
The actual negotiations get almost nowhere: they cover a single issue, the education program, parsing out the chain gang from season four which gets complicated by Black Cindy blabbing about the dead guard in the garden and requires Caputo to come in as an extra negotiator to help plead the inmates’ case. They don’t even resolve the issue: as Linda from Purchasing notes in failing to fit in with the inmates, MCC would sue the state for breach of contract if they tried to raise the budget for the prison, meaning that there might not actually be any justice to be found at the end of this process. Taystee is working hard to make this negotiation happen, but the definition of “freedom within limits” that the inmates are seeking requires a level of investment that MCC is never going to willingly make.
The one variable, though, is the liability problems created by Piscatella’s one-man horror show. It’s a storyline that fundamentally bothered me: yes, I appreciated the play on the different horror tropes as the story progressed on some level, but at its core the horror homage makes light of a situation that I find fundamentally absurd in its violence. My whole issue with Piscatella last season was that he was a one-dimensional villain that had no clear motivation for his cruelty, so to reframe him as a literal monster and turn it into an horror homage only steered into the skid with the character’s problems. Nothing the show has done this season has given us any additional context into who he is, and so giving in so wholly to Red’s conception of him felt like the show abandoning the grounded realism that started this riot for a sensationalist turn. It’s a freedom that the chaos of the riot gives the show—we saw similar horror aesthetics during the previous night with Judy King—in terms of formal experimentation, but story wise for me the escalation was too sudden and too rooted in a troublingly thin character.
What it does do, though, is immediately raise the stakes: although you could argue that the guards have been in mortal danger throughout the riot, this is the first time where you feel like things could go very wrong very quickly. The clock is ticking on the feeling of freedom within this riot, and now it’s time to figure out what kind of world they’re going to return to when it’s all over.
- “Previously on the fucked up prison channel”—this makes me wish Taystee actually recorded “Previously on” sequences for the show like she’s the narrator.
- I have to think that Piscatella is dramatically damaging MCC’s legal standing here, given he is still an employee and is operating as a vigilante rounding up inmates with no particular goal as far as we understand one.
- “Somehow she found a sexy loner we’ve never seen before to hook up with”—I’m not sure I love how self-aware this line is about the revolving door of random inmates that sometimes pop up, but it made me laugh and fits with the journey through horror tropes.
- So in terms of horror, we have the initial attack to establish the threat, the abduction, the creepy phone call, the sinful couple, the targeting of the one black victim, the creepy twins, and “you can tell the killer is behind the hero by the reactions of the eyes of victims whose mouths are taped shut.”
- What are the chances that Piscatella would choose the exact same room that was the entrance to Frieda’s bunker, allowing Red to stumble on it? Pretty good, apparently. (And I have to think those still in the bunker will play a role in however that situation resolves itself).
- Aleida mostly shows up outside the prison to do some yelling, but I appreciated getting to see Diablo and Leanne’s mother making friends in the family holding area.
- “Once you go Clarence, you piss off your parents”—Angie and Leanne are close to outright villains this season, but I admit they do sometimes still make me laugh.
- I’m getting a bit impatient with Flaca and Maritza, though: is this social media story just the writers’ way of saying “look how quickly social media corrupts your life once you have access to it?” I hope we get some sort of payoff for the YouTube channel by the end of the season.
- “Everything that was criminal becomes normal, day by day” is how Red describes the growing freedom in the Soviet Union, whereas in Litchfield it’s been the opposite: “everything that was normal becomes criminal, day by day.”