Photo: JoJo Whilden (Netflix)
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One of the things that I’ve always admired about Orange Is The New Black is how invested it has been in thematic storytelling. Admittedly, it has an advantage over other ensemble dramas: while any show can technically try to draw parallels between a wide range of characters, it’s a lot easier when the vast majority of your characters share a defining characteristic as significant as their incarceration. But the show has never coasted on that idea. The writers have always found elements of incarceration beneath the surface, byproducts of the prison experience that reveal deeper connections than their circumstance.

As the show reaches its conclusion, this thematic storytelling is really the core of the show. There is no true overarching plot at the moment. Yes, Daya is working to try to create a new supply to compete with her mother and destroying the GED program in the process, but that isn’t the kind of global crisis we saw with Barb and Carol last season, or the riot the season before. The ICE detention story is certainly significant, but only half the characters are experiencing it, and it’s been segmented into smaller stories (Nicky and Shani, Blanca and Karla). And so with “The Hidey Hole,” it doesn’t feel like this is a start of the season’s third act so much as it feels like it’s another chapter in a much longer story, about a core value of the lies inmates tell themselves and others to survive.

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Piper lays the theme out clearly to Alex: “I don’t want to hide anything from anyone anymore.” Of course, she doesn’t know that Alex is lying to her by not telling her about her relationship with McCullough, which is still dumb even if I see how her pity for McCullough’s struggles as a veteran echo the struggles inmates or detainees face. Piper’s lesson this week is that the lies are the corrosive element in her life: she went out into the world trying to pretend that she hadn’t been to prison, believing that it was the only way to re-enter society, but the pretending was what almost drove her back inside. When she does finally come clean, it isn’t what she imagined it would be: her coworkers are understanding, and it leads to something of a breakthrough with her father. If not for Alex’s infidelity, Piper’s life would be about as optimistic as you could imagine for someone in her situation. She’s still struggling to make ends meet, but she’s happy, and doing well in her job, and “free” emotionally in a way she wasn’t when she stepped out of Litchfield at the end of last season.

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But one of the values of the show’s flashbacks has been their ability to remind us that these inmates aren’t just dealing with the reality of being inmates. They’re also dealing with the life they lived before they were in prison, which haunts them in different ways even if the theme is the same. Unlike some of her fellow inmates, Cindy is quite well positioned to overcome her status as an ex-con: with a Rabbi’s recommendation and a gift for spinning a yarn, she deftly turns her prison experience into a valuable set of skills for working at a retirement home, and talks herself into a job. Perhaps it’s Caputo’s restorative justice class, or just her attitude generally, but she has a very strong understanding of what her prison experience has meant to her, and truly believes that things will be different this time. And yet we know that it can’t last, because we know Taystee sent that letter, and we spend the episode waiting for the inevitable bomb to drop on Cindy’s life.

I noted in an earlier review that it was possible we wouldn’t see this moment, but I didn’t really believe that (I just wanted to leave the possibility open, you never know with this show). We needed to see the pain on Monica’s face, yes, but we also needed to see how Cindy would react to the truth—the full truth—being out in the open. The fact that she runs, taking to the streets even after her mother asks her to stay to talk to Monica together, is a reminder that part of the reason Cindy’s life went the way it did was because she couldn’t live with that truth. Her life became defined by the lie, and the idea of living in that is terrifying to her in a way that prison never was. The truth is that there might be a path forward for this family, but none of them can imagine it: neither Cindy nor her mother had ever fully prepared themselves for what would happen if the truth came out, despite the fact that this day was inevitable. It’s a reminder that you don’t need to have been in prison to have a lie eating away at you, and an example of how the show’s fleshing out of its supporting characters has created the kind of emotional climaxes that feel bigger than prison.

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This is the core of Morello’s lie to herself. Her entire strategy for coping with prison has been to lie about her life on the outside, imagining an entire past, present, and future that never existed. The show has used flashbacks—and one joyride in a prison van—to help us understand the depths of her fictions, but it has never really showed us their origin. As with every flashback this season, I don’t know if it was expressly necessary to go back to what appears to be the origins of Morello’s mental issues, and I was a bit confused about how a rock being thrown at a car window would cause that particular accident. But after having heard the romantic story of the couple at the bar, and imagining herself living that life, her fugue state trek to the hotel where they planned on getting married tells us something about how she started responding to trauma in this way. And it does offer a productive parallel to Stirling’s death, her greatest trauma yet, and her attempted breakout when she realizes that the one flight of fancy that actually became real—her marriage with Vinny—is at risk. The flashback is there to show us a truth she tried to hide from herself, the first of many such incidents that would come to define her life both before and after her trip to Litchfield.

In order for an episode like “The Hidey Hole” to be thematically tidy, there needs to be some excising: there’s no advancing on Red’s story, Suzanne is missing, and we get only a brief drop-in on Taystee as Caputo goes on his apology tour after Fischer’s restraining order. But I’ve always appreciated the freeness with which the show has just taken characters off the table, knowing that it’s a big prison, and there’s not a need to serve everyone at every time. It makes an episode like this—and the characters within it—stronger, and showcases why the show still has something meaningful to say seven seasons in.

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Stray observations

  • Taystee continues to exist in limbo: she’s excited to see Caputo in part to share news about her lawyer reviewing the case, but the conversation also has an air of finality, like she’s glad to have had a chance to thank him for everything he did before she kills herself. It’s a really well-played scene, and a reminder that the relationship with Taystee is the only place I can fully deal with Caputo.
  • The show is continuing to use the ICE storyline as a way to highlight women’s stories through our inmates’ relationship with them, and the genital mutilation story from Shani is a clear example of that. I definitely still want to see some more macro-storytelling happening around the detention facility, but it was a nice inflection moment for that relationship and another example of a secret eating away at someone.
  • That poor GED teacher was just trying to help those girls and came to fear for his family’s life instead. Curious if Daya is hardcore enough to follow up and force him back to work, or whether she’ll realize that it’s a bust and try to place her own GED teacher instead. Also confused how “make your social media private” wasn’t part of that four-week training program the prison forced him to take, but let’s let that slide for a moment.
  • I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop on Flaca’s “Clitvack” pranks, as I don’t think humor can survive in that story for long, but it’s a nice diversion, and “Alanis Morissette on repeat” is a nice rejoinder to the Jason Mraz joke a few episodes ago even if I’ll defend Alanis by comparison.
  • I really didn’t need the return of the show’s audio-only Caputo porn.
  • “I prefer to think of myself as the Latina Ally McBeal”—I dunno, Matlock has his own Expressway, so don’t balk so fast, Blanca.
  • Adeola’s distinction between capital-R Racism and casual racism was a nice reminder of what made the character stand out last year, and why reframing her as Daya’s muscle has sort of not resulted in much of value. Like every part of Daya’s story, let’s be honest.
  • So it would appear that Alicia Witt’s Zelda’s is sticking around at least a bit longer, but still with no real signs of explicitly romantic connection, beyond the idea that she’ll be close by if/when Alex cleanses herself of her own lie.

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