I have my issues with the haphazard plotting that Orange Is The New Black can fall into during the middle section of its seasons, but I can’t deny that the show knows how to use it to its advantage as its stories start to converge. I went into “Double Trouble” feeling like the season had failed to generate much momentum, and laughed when the show turned Carol and Barb’s overnight stay in AdSeg into an anti-climax, as it encapsulated the season’s delay tactics. But while they return to their blocks declaring war on each other, the real interest in the episode is how the rest of the story starts collapsing in on itself.

It all happens very quickly, and with a new wrinkle thrown in last minute: MCC is now PCC, PolyCon Correction, and it comes with a rebranding video and, beneath that glossy surface, a new Prisoner Ranking system to prioritize long-term inmates that make the prison more profitable. This eleventh hour introduction might seem like bad storytelling at first, but such destabilizing forces work to stir up all that chaos, and echo the prisoner ranking that the guards were already doing for the Fantasy Inmate game. It also comes with the fact that PCC will be giving the Top 25 inmates an early release at the end of the week, timed perfectly with the pending war between blocks during the kickball game.

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I’ve been skeptical about the time spent on the Litchfield guards this season, but as the shit starts to hit the fan I’ve come to appreciate how our understanding of their corruption has complicated the playing field. When Piper suggests going to a C.O. to try to resolve her problem with Litchfield’s primary agent of chaos, Badison, Alex is right that she’s entirely naïve: although she’s very aware of her white privilege at the moment, Piper is still counting on the guards to be invested in the stability of the prison, which is barely true even if they weren’t literally profiting from chaos. But when she goes to Ginger, much as we saw when Badison tried to shut down the kickball game, we know she’s going to get nowhere, and I was actually shocked when Ginger didn’t try to instigate further. The fate of these inmates in any given situation is tied to whatever guard happens to be in their presence: not all of the guards are as corrupt as Hellman or as desperate as Ginger or as traumatized as McCullough, but who’s on duty when the kickball showdown goes down will fundamentally determine how much of a bloodbath is coming in the finale.

Piper’s next step in her quest to stop Badison is a good example of the show taking a story that was fairly uninteresting—Hopper’s mid-life crisis drug smuggling for Aleida—and turning it into a compelling conflict. Piper has no idea that Hopper is trying to lay low in light of his escalation of the drug trade, but when she shows him the heroin and promises to be his inside source, I honestly had no idea how he would react. I initially thought the show was leaning toward Hopper punishing Piper and knocking her out of the Top 25, which was supported by the emergence of Hellman’s fake incident report, but the opposite ends up making more sense: he fudges the numbers to make her No. 1, earning her an early release and removing a potential threat to his own drug trade.

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I’m not convinced that Piper is going to be released early: it seems just as likely she’s going to be among the victims of the kickball game, as I’d sort of expected late last season as the show leaned into the romance between Piper and Alex. But it’s a nice way of showing how chaos envelops everything. Alex technically “saved” Piper by agreeing to work for Barb, but Badison’s plan went into action anyway, and was stopped by Hopper’s drug trade that no one could have known about. The show does a good job of not making this feel like pure coincidence: each choice is understood, if not equally developed, the various threads of the season coming together to result in a potential release for Piper, a darker kind of business school for Alex, and one more reminder that the guards are the ultimate agents of chaos in this prison despite being the ones responsible for keeping the peace.

McCullough and Ward’s discussion in the ladies room nails down the bizarre either-or proposition that functions within the prison system: still traumatized by the riot, McCullough is trapped between seeing the inmates as “horrible people who have hurt me” and “regular people who just want to play a game.” She knows that the hate she feels in the first case is unhealthy, and wrong, but her rightful anger is mixed with the culture that dehumanizes them casually, and without concern. Literally quantifying the inmates is not as awful as what the guards do in Fantasy Inmate, necessarily, but it’s one more step in the process of prioritizing profits over people, and only works to reinforce the idea that the guards are there not to facilitate the rehabilitation PCC fabricates for a video but rather to punish and “keep order.” Ward hears that conversation and realizes how readily she dehumanized Taystee, pushing her to visit her trial and think about her as a friend, and not just an inmate.

Everything we see of Taystee’s trial makes me wish we were seeing more of it: I can only take so many cuts to anonymous black faces in the audience, with no understanding of who they are or what the social media coverage of the trial looks like. Telling so much of it through the lens of Caputo is logical, perhaps: he’s someone from the “other side” who has quit his job and dedicated himself to helping one of his former inmates. But he’s also a white dude, and the trial has been framed through the lens of social justice, and I wish we were seeing more of that. Danielle Brooks does a fantastic job with Taystee’s testimony, but not seeing Frieda’s testimony or any other insights into the case beyond news of a new autopsy has made it feel like we’re missing key parts of the story, and parts that would be more interesting than Caputo’s investment in the case.

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There’s a risk with penultimate episodes that they just become the show reminding us what’s been going on during this season, waiting for the inevitable climax: I said in the previous review that the season has a Fireworks Factory problem, and I don’t think that’s any less true now, but I left this episode more excited for the Fireworks Factory than I was before, and feeling like the show’s various threads were maybe stronger than I’d realized. I don’t think this necessarily justifies some of the shoddy storytelling that’s created issues all season, and I still don’t really care about Carol and Barb’s war as much as I think I need to for the season to really come together, but there’s no doubt based on this hour that the show understands what it needs to do to get you to stay up for an extra hour to see the season through (and then realize the finale is actually ninety minutes and watch it in the morning instead, obviously).

Stray observations

  • Sometimes the show avoids feeling like it’s built on coincidences, and sometimes Red’s visitation from her grandchildren happens to coincide with Frieda’s return from court. I didn’t love how plain her choice between the two became, and didn’t feel I fully understood her choice in the moment. It does likely keep her out of the kickball fray, though.
  • I was immediately sure that Gloria wasn’t actually broadcasting when she went on her rant about the inmate fantasy league: she’s also headed to solitary, but that scene was a struggle for me. How did Alvarez not hear her? Is Flaca really so aloof she thought they could say that on air? (I mean, maybe, but that seems like a stretch to me).
  • Okay, I know it’s for dramatic effect, but I really feel like they wouldn’t let someone enter the courtroom in the middle of someone’s testimony? Or am I just presuming there is some basic decorum that there isn’t? I won’t pretend I’ve spent a lot of time in courtrooms.
  • “All I wanted was for the person who killed my friend to be up here where I am now telling you why he murdered an innocent person instead of me explaining why I didn’t kill a guilty one”—this is a powerful piece of writing, and again made me wish that we were getting more of Taystee’s story. Making her a side story in the season was a fundamental mistake, and I sure hope Danielle Brooks’ scheduling forced their hand or something.
  • So who do we think was the Lucky 26? And, less importantly, how could Hopper just make Piper No. 1 and print off the sheet of paper, without also reprinting the entire rest of the list? And won’t someone notice that someone involved with the riot is being released? I still have many questions, as per usual.
  • I get that Maria’s turning her back on God, but I don’t know how her lesson from getting 10 years for leading the riot for no good reason is to join another riot when no one is forcing her to? I just don’t follow.
  • So how long has Badison been in prison if she’s seen The Hunger Games? Is there a movie time we aren’t seeing? And hasn’t Suzanne been in prison too long to have seen Scandal? This has been “Myles still has many questions, yes he knows it’s a pathology.”
  • I don’t like making predictions, even though I am stopping to write these before watching more screeners, but I do wonder if Carol and Barb didn’t make a truce, and are planning to effectively pull a Frieda and let the two Blocks tear each other apart to clear the decks and give them a refresh. We know already that Carol lied to Badison—she said the guard never took her eyes off of them, when we know she fell asleep—so I wonder if they might be colluding.

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