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.
Now that Orange Is The New Black is officially a “drama” according to the Emmys, episodes like “Bed Bugs and Beyond” are a reminder the show’s creative team disagrees. “Litchfield is infested with bed bugs” is a sitcom logline at its core, and plays out as you would expect. All the women are forced into paper uniforms, stripped of their mattresses, and in some cases stuck in garbage bags or their underwear as though to strip them of even their most basic decency. But that’s mostly played for laughs, only becoming dramatic when the bedbugs unearth a larger truth about Litchfield: it’s being closed, and soon.
That’s the first sign of larger “plot” momentum in the season, and it unfortunately comes in an episode burdened with two of the show’s least interesting storylines. Returning to the flashback structure of the previous seasons, “Bed Bugs and Beyond” digs deeper into the life of John Bennett, who’s defined by his irrational belief that love can conquer the fact his relationship with Daya broke the law and created a baby that is doomed to be lost into the foster system if not for the fact that Pornstache’s mother wants to adopt it. He is an idealistic imbecile, and always has been, but that he has been so unfailing in this failing has almost become impressive. Here, finally, the show gets around to smashing his thick skull and making him realize that illicitly raising the baby you had with one of your inmates on your own is maybe not the life choice he wants to make.
It’s a necessary moment for the show and the character, but I sure wish we didn’t have to spend time on it. Bennett and Daya’s storyline has been defined by its fundamental lack of development, as they are both too stupid to admit their “romance” is doomed. It makes for incredibly frustrating television, as I feel like I’ve now spent three seasons remarking on their stupidity, with no movement in the characters to suggest that there is a chance of making this work. I sense the writers are still taken with the couple, with scenes like the proposal played—through music, etc.—as though through rose-colored glasses. But my rose-colored glasses have been off since the end of the first season, when my initial appreciation of an innocent love story dissipated when I realized these two people were never going to wake up.
Daya threatens to wake up here, with her mother pushing for Mrs. Pornstache—Mary Steenburgen, getting to play comedy for the second time this year after Last Man On Earth—to adopt the baby after she makes some salient points and offers to pay both mother and daughter on a monthly basis. And Bennett gets his wakeup call when he visits Aleida’s “domestic partner” Cesar, who holds Daya’s brother at gunpoint to eat soggy microwaved French fries—“vegetables”—and has a baby with another woman he’s bribing the kids not to tell Aleida about. It’s one big “Scared Straight” episode for Bennett, which is perhaps why the episode spends its flashbacks exploring his time on the front lines of Afghanistan.
Those flashbacks are a struggle. On the one hand, I understand the appeal: with the show depicting ”the war” itself through drone strikes, the barracks are—in the show—mainly a space where soldiers goofed off, in this case shooting videos dancing to “Hollaback Girl” or gathering around the TV to watch machines kill people. It’s not dissimilar to what happens in Litchfield, a connection that works in theory but ends up saying very little in practice. We have no time to get a real sense of character in the flashbacks, and the “plot”—Afghan soldier befriends Bennett, tries to warn them of betrayal by other Afghan soldiers, gets shot for his troubles, and then Bennett’s friend jumps on the grenade instead of him—is trying to do too much with too little. What’s the story here? What’s the point except to paint Bennett as a coward, such that when he leaves the crib on the side of the road—which, dude, Craigslist—we see it as a pattern of behavior? And is that really worth an entire episode devoted to a character who has such little value compared to the inmates he’s supposed to be responsible for? The answer to that question, now into the show’s third season, is a definitive no.
While I’m incredulous regarding the show’s interest in Bennett, I understand the attraction of Piper and Alex. Not only are these characters who have a strong history outside of prison, but we’ve also seen a lot of their history play out in the show, making them an easy place to turn in order to draw out the cumulative storytelling that occurs when characters are confined together. In this case, the challenge of building relationships becomes the focal point as Red’s meeting with her family uncovered Piper’s lie about the restaurant, and breaks down the cheery façade she’s putting on for Alex after having forced Polly to make the phone call that led to Alex’s parole violation. Her desire to turn over a new leaf leads to the truth emerging, and subsequently leads to a sex fight in the condemned library.
And I really wish I cared more about it. It’s not that this isn’t a well-drawn set of storylines, or that Schilling and Prepon—back as a series regular—don’t draw out the complexities of their relationship. However, it just feels like their problems operate independent of anything around them—whereas Bennett and Daya’s idiocy at least explicitly intersects with the system and implicates Caputo and others, Piper and Alex are able to float above the surface. And so checking in with them is disorienting because it seems like they are not really part of the prison community, which is exaggerated here by any other characters they could interact with—Nicky, Morello, etc.—being tied up elsewhere. The scene where they barge in on the black women covering themselves with disinfectant is a great example, as there’s no way their two stories could ever mix. And this segregation is not simply based on the racial differences (a segregation the show is obviously invested in exploring), but rather the way Piper and Alex’s problems have taken on an epic scale that removes them from the day-to-day life at Litchfield.
That’s the struggle when it comes to episodes like this one that don’t bring everyone together to work toward a common goal. That isn’t feasible in each week’s episode, but in cases like this it means we aren’t able to spend enough time with Litchfield at large. There’s a great stitched-together tracking shot that shows us how various inmates are preparing to sleep without mattresses, and it’s one of the best moments in the episode, and builds on lots of small glimpses of those characters throughout the episode. But when it eventually lands on Piper and Red I feel like I’m being ripped away from where I really want to be, and I like those characters at the end of the day.
This isn’t the case in all episodes, but it’s exaggerated here by combining the oversaturated Piper and Alex drama and the tired Daya and Bennett saga in a single episode. Every time “Bed Bugs and Beyond” settles into moments that sketch out bits of Poussey’s emergent spiritualism, or Suzanne’s efforts to keep her cool, or Nicky and Boo’s drug saga, the show has something approaching momentum, and something at stake when we learn that Litchfield may not be long for this world. But every time it goes back to its main storylines, that momentum disappears, and we’re left with a reminder that one of television’s most fleet-footed shows can be dragged down like any other.
- “That Warrens a severe response”—I want this on a t-shirt, and said t-shirt better not say “Crazy Eyes” anywhere on it, Netflix. I’m warrening you.
- “Ain’t like I’m not an expert on muffins”—whereas I hope to see this on some coffee shop chalkboards in the near future. The episode’s foci may have been a bit unfortunate, but the dialogue is still on point.
- “So what, I have imitation crabs?”—I like this trend of opening on non-sequiturs from supporting inmates, and Flaca is always a surefire bet in this area.
- Continuing a trend from the previous seasons, Ruiz’s trauma over potentially losing vitiation with her daughter is entirely sidelined, although we do see her amidst the bedbug chaos.
- I watched these first two episodes a day or so apart, so I missed Daya’s sister sctraching her head at the end of “Mother’s Day.” Nice touch, show.
- “YOU ARE AN IDIOT. IDIOT. IDIOT”—this was in my notes about Bennett, and I feel like I need to post it here to get it out of my system. Phew. That feels better.
- It was hard not to watch the episode and wonder just how long the show was planning on keeping Bennett around given he has a full-time network gig on How To Get Away With Murder. The limited order on that show could allow him to recur some after this, but it’s just as likely he’s gone for good.
- Vee Truther Watch: So that’s two weeks with characters mentioning Vee’s death with certainty, and we’ve yet to definitively see a body. I mean, I’m still pretty convinced we saw Rosa kill her when she ran her over, but until I hear someone who’d know better confirm it, I think the show is playing enough in the soap opera space to resurrect her.
- Although Piper did re-emerge as more of a central figure here, I like the show’s renewed commitment to knowing she’s the worst with the way she answers questions people don’t even ask so she can show how worldly she is. While the show may be drinking the Daya/Bennett kool-aid, it has cooled on Piper, which helps.
- Along similar lines, it was comforting to see Healy’s efforts to work through his wife leaving him still inflected by his inherent disrespect for women. I always worry they’re going to sand that off, but then it rears its ugly head again. It’s almost comforting.
- Okay, so Music Licensing Issue #1: How long ago was Bennett in the army that they licensed “Hollaback Girl?” I mean, it’s possible it was a music licensing issue—they would have had to license it before shooting, which means it needed to clear in advance—but the chronology of drone strikes, the Afghan conflict, the lipdub trend, and the growth of YouTube would make “Hollaback Girl” a kind of weird choice. And yes, I’m overthinking this.
- And speaking of music licensing, Issue #2: no Midnight Oil during the mattress fire is a disappointment. I always cherish music choices that directly describe what is happening onscreen, and so I don’t care how much it would have cost or how obvious it would have been—it should have been here.
- In case you haven’t been following the site’s video output, the great DVR Club feature is also covering OITNB right now—you can see Gwen and Cameron break down this episode here.