In a shift from Orange Is The New Black’s first two seasons, we will be covering the show on a daily basis this year, with regular reviews posting at 7 p.m. Eastern on weekdays, and 1 p.m. on weekends. These reviews will be written without foreknowledge of what takes place in future episodes, and thus will feature no spoilers for later episodes. In the meantime, please be respectful of those moving at a slower pace and avoid spoiling or heavily alluding to future developments in the comments.
I saw Pixar’s Inside Out on Thursday night, after watching this episode. I won’t be diving into spoilers for that film, but it has had a profound effect on me. It’s built on the idea of personifying the thought processes that lead to our emotions and decisions, and after leaving the film I started thinking about my reactions to this show in the same light. Which of the five characters in my brain suddenly made me someone who likes Piper, even while thinking she’s the worst? The movie’s conceit is obviously not realistic, but it’s tangible, which has at least given me the illusion of giving reason to the way we react in certain situations.
I realized returning to my notes on “A Tittin’ And A Hairin’” that this is part of what Orange Is The New Black’s flashbacks are designed to do. It’s difficult to watch Pennsatucky consider her relationship with Coates in a romantic light after the events of last week’s episode—we have been conditioned through Daya and Bennett’s relationship, and Pornstache’s general relationship with female inmates, to be incredibly cautious about these power dynamics. But whereas Piper flattering the baby-faced Bayley has a certain innocence to it, Coates turning Pennsatucky into a dog in the previous episode was a whole other level, and so to see that Pennsatucky thinks of this as the start of something real is disheartening. How is she seeing the same signs that we’re seeing—the degrading donut retrieval, the physical contact, the forceful makeout session—and reading this as anything other than inappropriate?
The risk for the show has always been making those flashbacks too “clean” of an answer for why someone acts or reacts in a certain way, but this is now two episodes in a row where the answers we get offer complex stories in their own right, and where the tragic conclusions of those stories have clear reverberations in Litchfield beyond “solving” a given character’s mystery. The first flashback ostensibly gives us an explanation for why Pennsatucky has had issues with men—building on the flashback in “Mother’s Day,” we see her mother’s reaction to Tiffany’s first period, and she passes on a lesson regarding how one survives as a woman once you enter puberty. Her advice is clear but simple: men are going to want to have sex with you, and it’s easier if you “just let them sting you.”
But that origin is complicated as the flashbacks continue, her mother’s advice complicated by a dude right out of a romance novel (fitting, and likely purposeful, as Suzanne’s Time Hump Chronicles works its way around the prison). Whereas Pennsatucky is literally trading sex for Mountain Dew, Nathan makes a genuine connection, and starts to teach her what it means to be in something closer to love. She has no conception of what a relationship is, or how sex is supposed to work except as a transaction, and it’s obvious Nathan has a profound effect on her. And when you think about the way these memories intersect, you see Pennsatucky as someone who wants to believe in Coates’ nervous banter, and his seemingly genuine interest in making sure she’s okay. But given her mother’s advice, you can understand why the signals would get mixed, and how time spent in prison would make someone who seems to care about what happens to you within the context of romantic interest register as positive regardless of the warning signs.
But the truth about Pennsatucky’s story is that it can’t prepare us for what happens to her, in either her flashback or in Litchfield. “A Tittin’ And A Hairin’” explores the limits of flashbacks as a way of revealing an inmate’s inner thought process, as there is nothing the show can do that would allow the audience to fully understand Pennsatucky’s emotions as she is raped twice over. In both cases, the rapes are not dissimilar from when she was selling sex as a teenager, and so you sense there is a part of her that stops fighting because this is only affirming a previously held view ingrained in her by her mother. But there are emotions she experiences in these moments that the episode makes evident, without necessarily making them perfectly legible. Taryn Manning captures the pain and sorrow in each, but there is also the sense of resignation, and the sense of sadness in what was lost, and in the idea that she keeps coming back around to what her mother taught her about her what men would want to do to her body. And while we might understand what that means, we—or at least those of us who have experienced nothing like this—can’t understand how it feels, and the episode never expects us to.
There has been a lot of talk recently on the depiction of sexual assault on television, spurred on by Game Of Thrones and Outlander, most specifically. Although Orange Is The New Black has engaged with rape in the past, it commits to it here and does so with clarity and purpose. The storyline suffers from the show’s lack of real estate, with Coates’ shift from awkward guard without enough training to rapist rushed in the way a lot of elements of the show tend to be, but it points to how quickly the power relationship between guard and inmate can escalate, and benefits from a clear disinterest in titillation. Although there is nudity in Pennsatucky’s relationship with Nathan, that scene is played in direct contrast to the porn on the TV, and there is no titillation in any of the scenes that follow. This is a dark series of events that speaks to how horrifying rape is but also how easily it can happen, and how the emotional state of rape victims is compromised by the sheer weight of navigating life as a woman (especially when intersected with issues of class, as is the case with Pennsatucky).
Although this story is obviously heavy, and resonates the most heading into the final three episodes of the season, “A Tittin’ And A Hairin’” is not content to rest on it. It also works to draw out a related parallel story with Suzanne, whose new groupie Maureen senses that she could use some inspiration to cater to her lesbian audience. It becomes the late-life alternative to the speech Pennsatucky is given by her mother, as Morello walks Suzanne through her potential first sexual experience. It’s another testament to the show’s ability to draw on our knowledge of these characters without having to show us a flashback—we know why Suzanne would have been sexually repressed as a child, and we’ve seen in Litchfield how her advances on Piper were dismissed as comic. And so while she ultimately doesn’t open that broom closet door, she has a lot to move past, and the story offers thematic value while also doing nice work in building a story without needing to pull us away from Litchfield.
Where the episode tends to run out of steam is its effort to bring conflicts to a head, something that the show struggles to do without someone like Vee to serve as a direct antagonist. The reveal of Morello’s long game of trying to get one of her prison boyfriends to gain revenge on Christopher is dark, but it also feels underdeveloped, and showcases the challenge of creating big climactic moments out of more subtle stories without much time to develop as the season progresses. The same goes for Gloria and Sophia’s battle, which has always felt like it has been pitched as confrontational rather than earning that confrontation. The idea of two mothers turning on each other as they project their struggles as parents onto others rings true, but Michael’s sudden transformation doesn’t, and the conflict engine hasn’t been given enough time to develop. As much as this is a prison, and as much as it’s therefore logical that any number of simmering interpersonal conflicts can result in someone getting shoved into a concrete wall, the convergence of these escalations called attention to their artifice, and kept them from feeling like meaningful climaxes in their own right (and we can throw Leanne and Soso’s hallway showdown into this as well).
And then there’s Alex. The reveal that Lolly was actually just a crazy person convinced Alex was working for the NSA is deflating, but not surprising, given how heavily telegraphed the journal and the discovery of the journal were in the previous two episodes. It would be too simple if she was working for Kubra, and it would work against the fact that this isn’t a story about Kubra. Yes, it is possible that he could reach out to try to kill Alex in prison for testifying against him, and so her paranoia is not without reason (I think Stella would make a good suspect, if we want to go that route). But it’s also part of a broader trend, as her paranoia is what ultimately led to her breaking her parole (even if Piper’s call got her caught), and it’s driving a wedge between her and everyone around her. Just as Lolly sees the NSA everywhere, Alex sees Kubra anywhere, and it’s unfortunately alienating the one person she could talk to about it.
Piper is horrifyingly selfish here, in ways that make it difficult to reconcile with the more likeable, upbeat character that we’ve seen this season to date. She has never exactly stopped being selfish, but she has taken a clear place in the prison ecosystem by being proactive, and it worked right up until the point where someone close to her is spiraling and she more or less rids herself of the burden in the interest of exploring something new and exciting. The story pits Alex’s resistance to the Litchfield community—which is reinforced here as everyone rallies around the TV hoping Judy King will serve her sentence in Litchfield—against Piper’s assimilation, albeit to the point where she turns her back on their history, and embraces a fluid understanding of sexual connection that betrays someone she cares about on the grounds of her being annoying.
While the individual effectiveness of all of these different storylines varies, making the pileup of climaxes more chaotic than I believe was intended, what holds it together is the idea that we have the information necessary to understand but not solve the conflicts therein. Orange Is The New Black wants us to have context for understanding everyday events that happen in prison, whether they be small or large, but it never wants us to overestimate how much we can know about the emotional state of those involved. And while this can sometimes be frustrating, and we might not always respond to these situations in the same light, it helps draw us into the show’s dramatic potential, and wrecks us when things go as horribly wrong as they do here.
- I feel like I’ve relegated Daya’s story to the strays a lot, but it’s tough when she is really off in her own world, this time with Delia going to visit Pornstache on her own to pass along news the baby doesn’t belong to him. It’s a good scene, and says a lot about how the idea of being a parent keeps you alive (tying into Gloria and Sophia’s conflict), but it definitely feels at the fringes of the “conflict,” and thus from the analysis above. We’ll see if it begins to converge presuming that Daya will, in fact, go into labor before the season is done given that she’s become noticeably more pregnant.
- Lovely having Maritza and Flaca back together, here being recruited by Piper alongside Ruiz—it was never exactly clear how Flaca’s leaving impacted their dynamic, but it seems they’ve reconciled off screen, which is good to see.
- I am going to go out on a limb and say that Luschek flaunting his newfound wealth and Ford happening to know that Luschek’s brother-in-law unloaded some heroin is going to come back as the season progresses.
- Similarly, even without having seen subsequent episodes, I feel like the show’s bait-and-switch on Judy King is pretty toothless given they cast Blair Brown. It’s the kind of storytelling that doesn’t ring true if you know anything about how television works, which doesn’t exactly work in the show’s favor.
- Black Cindy’s continued investment in converting to Judaism for the kosher meals is a nice choice for the show, punctuated with comedy but informed by the idea that she’s actually going through the work of learning about the religion in a way that you wouldn’t typically expect. I’m enjoying it a lot.
- “I HATE PAPAYA”—the content of this episode warranted a more serious review, or else I would have started each paragraph with me yelling what was immediately on my mind. And then you could all write “THIS IS STUPID” in the comments. It would have been a grand old time.
- There’s something really nice and small about Red using the vegetables from the garden to teach the Latina women how to cook ratatouille and providing them will skills that would benefit them on the outside—that’s something that the new food program took away, and it’s just a nice beat in an episode that somewhat sidelines the MCC storyline (beyond evidence of the training issues with the new guards, of course).
- Morello Gonna Morello: So, per the title of this recurring feature—was this always her intention? Or was she surprised by the dude’s willingness to stand up for her, and saw an opportunity in the moment? I read it as the former, which is dark, but I suppose perfectly in character. Surely this is going to come back to bite her, though, given that he’s on her visitor list and all.
- Taryn Manning did a lovely job in this episode, but I’m not entirely convinced that she’s able to play Pennsatucky circa 1998 (which I’m drawing from the use of The Offspring’s “Pretty Fly For a White Guy”). Were they supposed to be in high school? I was a little perplexed at the period in her life that we were seeing here.
- I know I call her Maureen in the review above, but I still feel like we’ve never heard Maureen’s name in the show, or am I going mad ten episodes into this marathon? I just pulled that from a comment thread where someone had obviously looked it up.