Welcome to TV Club’s coverage of season four of Orange Is The New Black. Reviews will be posting daily at 2:oo pm EST, leading to the review of the season finale on June 29. These reviews are written from the perspective of having only seen up to the episode in question, and so we ask that you respect the pace of other viewers and avoid spoiling details from future episodes in your comments.
“People Persons” is ostensibly about the immediate aftermath of the discovery of a body in the garden. It swallows every story: Blanca and Piper are freed from their time standing on tables, lockdown is initiated, and everything reorganizes around responding to this sudden and—if you don’t know the whole story—alarming discovery.
But on another level, the events of the episode are not about the body in the garden. The specific context of the crisis matters to the people involved: Alex is anxious, Lolly is questioning the defense mechanisms she developed to reconcile what she had done (the hologram theory), Red gets the troops in order, and Frida is prepared to be targeted given her murderous past. And I suppose it’s fair to say that the way the guards react has something to do with the specificity of the fact that it was a guard who was killed, even though no one actually knows who the guard was, which should raise some important questions that get glossed over. And, obviously, Healy piecing together the truth about Lolly’s story is a shock, sending him on a walkabout for ice cream and a dip in the lake.
However, outside of those factors, what goes down here has nothing to do with the crime, and everything to do with the culture of Litchfield that has been growing throughout the season. What happens to the women who are corralled into a room as “suspects” has nothing to do with what happened in the garden. They are there because they have been profiled, or their records reflect potential involvement, despite the fact that they had nothing do with the greenhouse or the garden or really anything that could be tied to the crime. They are not being treated as human beings: they are being treated as files, and then ridiculed and harassed and assaulted, before eventually being turned on one another in a prison brawl straight out of a bad movie. With Humphrey as the ring leader, the guards imagine a world where the inmates are treated like animals behind glass, and it’s a disgusting display that wraps up exactly the wrong person—Suzanne—in its madness.
I’d noted last week that Suzanne’s story has been sidelined this season, but it emerges here in the first repeat flashback of the year. I had a somewhat complicated reaction to this flashback. It’s a tragic scenario, and the inevitability it creates serves the episode well: from the moment we see Suzanne’s attempt to make friends converging with the young child, we know that something is about to go very wrong. It’s an effective backstory and calls back to Suzanne’s guilt over having hurt someone in her conversation with Maureen in the premiere, but I struggled with the execution a bit. The kid seemed too old to be as terrified as he becomes in the midst of their confrontation (a peril of not knowing his precise age, or enough about him to know his feelings about Suzanne or strangers in general), and the staging of how he eventually ends up falling over the fire escape didn’t entirely work for me. In thinking it over and rewatching, what I think happened is that I struggled to put myself in the same headspace as the boy, given that I know not to be terrified of Suzanne. Uzo Aduba’s performance successfully shows us a Suzanne who saw herself as a “people person,” and had yet to learn this tragic lesson of what being too friendly could do, but I found it hard to see her behavior as being so terrifying that he would climb out the window and end up so close to that ledge. But that’s ultimately because of how much the show has humanized Suzanne, and so my struggle with the flashback is a credit to the show as a whole if also denoting that I think the logic of the encounter could have been articulated more effectively.
But those concerns aside, focusing on Suzanne here was a good way to remind us of the type of people most affected when something like this happens. Red is an easy suspect here: she runs the gardening club, she has power within the prison (and thus knows a lot of what’s going on), and so Piscatella isn’t just picking names at random. But Red is also capable of handling herself with Piscatella, and the same cannot be said for Suzanne. Suzanne is there because her mental illness has marked her, and makes her an easy target for guards who don’t understand the way her behaviors are markers of fear as opposed to any malicious intent. Suzanne can absolutely be violent, but it is a reputation built by situations like this one where she is actively forced into physical contact, and responds more in an effort to stop the situation from happening than in an effort to embrace it. Berdie said last season she has the mental capacity of a six-year-old, and yet the prison system only sees her as a threat. And while there are some people who might understand Suzanne, none of them were involved: Healy was off processing the fact that he wrote Lolly off as a crazy, while Caputo was called away to MCC, and chose not to return to the prison as he’d intended. There was no one there with the experience and knowledge necessary to know who Suzanne Warren was, and that’s no way for a prison to be run.
This is not news, I know—Litchfield has been running itself into the ground all season, to the point where the incompetent guards from last season now seem like saints just because they’re reacting negatively to what’s happening. Neither Coates nor Bayley ever actually stops anything: Coates points out Piscatella is ignoring Caputo’s orders but is forced to back off, while Bayley questions the mistreatment of the inmates about to be questioned but never intervenes, even as Suzanne starts slamming her fist into Maureen. They’re both cowards, but they can no longer say they are ignorant to what’s happening around them: Bayley is clearly startled, but he also tells Coates “I guess you can get used to anything,” as though he is willing to just accept that this is how prison is supposed to work. It’s a startling realization: we know what Litchfield used to be like before MCC, but Bayley and Coates do not, and so they don’t realize just how far it’s fallen. Bayley notes his feeling that this could be “an important night in the history of the prison,” but he doesn’t have the data necessary to realize that “important” in this case is code for “point of no return” and not “natural evolution.” As far as they are concerned, what happens in “People Persons” might just be what happens in prisons, and that’s why it seems so impossible that they can ever get out of this spiral.
The episode works in some stories of characters who have no connection to the investigation: we get Pennsatucky taking care of Nicky amidst her withdrawal, reflecting on what it means to be clean and the meanings of rehabilitation, and then we get a silly Judy King/Luschek/Yoga Jones molly trip/three-way that maybe tipped the scales on comic relief a bit too far (although I loved Judy’s totally calm demeanor in the aftermath). And, amidst all of this, there was the light at the end of the tunnel for Sophia, as Danny and Crystal deliver the photos to his father and hopefully prepare to bring that case to a close. But it’s hard to focus on any of that amidst the larger injustice, which is—rightfully, and effectively—swallowing everything around it.
It certainly swallows Sam Healy. This is a difficult story for me to parse: as I wrote previously, I think the show’s time with Healy is of questionable value, and yet obviously it’s important we understand his point-of-view given the way he reacts to the guard’s death. But I struggle with how to engage with this story. I can’t relate to Healy’s guilt because I know that the guard was a hitman, and thus know that Healy is misplaced in his devastation. I also struggle to feel too bad for Healy given that he’s finally waking up to the truth about his competence: while what Healy does may be shocking, it shouldn’t be shocking to him that he’s bad at his job, and so I find myself judging him for reacting this way. As bad as this sounds, I would have been totally fine if he had walked into that lake—not on a “rooting for him to commit suicide” level, to be clear, but a “this story development makes sense and gets rid of a character I despise, so I’m cool with that” level at the very least. But I couldn’t shake the sense that this was part of a larger effort to make me feel sympathetic toward Healy’s broken moral compass, and that impression led me to struggle with the way his story plays out: the season is interested in how we lie to ourselves—Pennsatucky brings it up with Nicky as well—and Healy fits that pattern, but the ambiguity over what the show wants us to do with his reaction here walks a line between productive and distracting.
What happens to Lolly in the aftermath of Healy’s return is tragic, yes, but it’s also probably the best case scenario. Someone was indeed killed, and Lolly’s paranoia—fueled by her mental illness—led her to defend Alex in a manner that was difficult for them to explain away. There is no self defense if there’s no evidence that the guard was a hitman, and there was no way of trusting the system to differentiate, meaning that there was never really a scenario where they could have gone to the guards about what happened. Someone was always going to be held responsible, and Lolly was ultimately the one who attacked him (although Alex technically killed him, we’ll see if that comes back in the autopsy), and so her trip to Psych is horrifying but ultimately not an injustice. And if the body was never going to stay buried there forever, then do we really want Alex (who was about to die) or Red (who was not really involved at all until the coverup stage) to get involved? And does Frida—while lousy with murder raps—deserve to go down for it simply because she was the one who stepped up to avoid immediate detection? If this situation was going to go south, is Lolly going to Psych not the best case scenario?
I don’t like the way that reads: I don’t like that we consider a mentally ill person being sent into the torture of a prison psych ward, unable to understand what’s real and what’s not, and with no support structure, a “best case scenario.” And yet watching this show is about resigning yourself to the fact that there will never be a situation without consequences: while what happens to Suzanne was entirely avoidable, and the byproduct of MCC’s mismanagement, Caputo’s lack of a backbone, and the new guards’ lack of any type of proper training, something was going to happen when a guard showed up dead in the garden, and we—and the show, and its characters—will have to deal with that.
- Binge-viewing sometimes pulls away from stylistic elements, but “People Persons” features a really strong montage, as we move left to right across all of the inmates in a series of tableaus. Not sure it had a whole lot to say, but it was arresting, especially since all the lights are on.
- The one benefit of judging the inmates by their files: a bit more detail on their past. There were five frozen bodies in Red’s fridge when she was arrested, for example, and Piscatella rightfully presumes the Russian mob had something to do with her ending up in Minimum Security.
- Perhaps it just shows how disconnected I became with elements of the Suzanne flashback, but I was spending much of the climatic scene trying to figure out what PS2 game they were playing. I think it was Sonic Riders, but didn’t get a close enough look.
- I do wonder if the show moved too quickly in having Piscatella randomly transferred to Litchfield—I know why it happened (to create this storyline), but when he talks about his respect for criminals who stab him, and shows no interest in getting to know them as people, I’m not sure I understand why he would want to work in Minimum necessarily. What was in it for him? I think I’d like more context for his decision.
- So do we think there was actually anything in the garden when Coates was guarding it and got spooked? We clearly saw the corn rustling, but was that just what he was seeing? Or could someone have actually been tampering with the crime scene?
- Can we have a moment of silence for Taystee’s watch? It didn’t deserve its fate, but it was probably doomed to it, given Taystee’s pride turning it into an easy target for Dixon (whose “Jigaboo” act was a thing and a half).
- I brought up Maureen’s file in the previous review—we still haven’t paid that off, so was it there just to help explain why she might be brought into this room? We’ll see if they follow up in the season’s penultimate episode.
- Also, am I the only person who thought that Maureen was volunteering to fight Sankey on behalf of Suzanne, instead of volunteering to fight Suzanne? I was very confused for a second there.
- Linda admitting that she’s never even been inside a prison—because “it never seemed necessary”—would be chilling if it didn’t feel so obvious already. It’s still an incredibly dark note, and I’m in disbelief that Caputo would still go home with her afterwards.
- “It depends on if you want to be aware or oblivious in the end”—well, what would we choose, y’all?