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.
Yesterday we had a lengthy discussion in the comments about the end of “Fake It Till You Fake It Some More.” In my review, I talked about the final scene—revealing the Whispers work room—as Flaca gaining purpose, her past life as a part-time seamstress for her mother having unknowingly prepared her for this exciting new job opportunity that represents significant mobility in the context of her life in Litchfield; many of you, it turns out, had read it completely differently, seeing it as a depressing and tragic return to the job she had desperately wanted to avoid as a teenager. Her emotions—tears in her eyes, a slight knowing smile—could be twisted to support either reason, while the song choice in “Mama Said” could confirm either if you contort hard enough.
And so it would be tempting to turn to the following episode and look for evidence to support either reading. But the problem is that while Flaca appears in the episode, there’s very little to go on. Her story doesn’t really continue here, unless we want to read into her joking around with her coworkers as a sign she’s either content with her work assignment or hiding her disappointment from an outside gaze. Again, the ambiguity remains, because the show’s storytelling focus moves around enough that when a minor character is elevated for an episode, we have to adjust to the fact they’ll be back into the relative background when the next episode appears (particularly in Flaca’s case, since she’s been separated from Maritza, who she typically confides in). If we’re going to get greater clarity on Flaca’s real state of mind, it will have to be in bits and pieces, and we may be waiting until the very end of the season.
This, logically, brings us to the central focus of “Ching Chong Chang.” As it plays out inside Litchfield, Chang’s storyline is “a day in the life”: here is this enigma of a woman, who Pennsatucky points out as someone who barely speaks, who nobody knows well at all. She runs the commissary, but everything else about her is illegible, whether it’s brushing her teeth with salt or—going back to the improv episode—her fascination with dongs. And it turns out, when we follow her in a way that no one else does, she remains an enigma. She makes patties out of peas and Fritos and microwaves them, and she has a secret store of oranges and a cell phone in the storage shed to watch Chinese dramas. It’s an incredibly observational storyline, and well played by Lori Tan Chinn, allowing us to see Chang being Chang when everyone ignores her.
It doesn’t stay observational—the show uses its flashback structure to dig further into the enigma of Chang, and understand more of how she became the woman she is. And it’s here where “Ching Chang Chong” struggles, not so much because Chang’s back-story is unproductive, but rather because it is conspicuously productive. It represents a case of the show seemingly reverse-engineering a flashback story to serve a larger interest, using the blank slate of Chang as a vessel to tell a story about conventions of womanhood in an episode that marks this as one of the season’s key themes. It’s not a bad story, nor is this a bad episode, but I struggle to shake the sense that the flashbacks are overly ambitious in turning a blank slate into a dramatic origin story knowing that they’ll likely never have time to acknowledge it again.
I do not mean to entirely devalue the idea that, when we see Chang pop up in a future drama class or have a conversation with someone in the bathroom, our sense of that scene is in some way enriched by knowing that she was an unwanted, “ugly” sister who became the head of a smuggling operation by way of saving her boss from near certain death. But whereas we know that someone like Boo or Flaca will find themselves in the midst of lengthy conversations, and that they have the potential to be paired off into new character groupings (as Boo has with Pennsatucky, for example), I would be surprised to see the same thing happen to Chang. And so her flashback rests more than usual on how satisfying it is as a stand-alone story, unlikely to be followed up on at a future point either in more flashbacks or—perhaps more crucially—in the day-to-day of the prison, where suddenly making the character more visible would go against the very premise of this episode.
There just ends up being too much going on. The structural link to the drama class exercise—where Berdie has inmates writing short scenes from their lives for others to act out—brings Chang’s story into the prison, and seems to want to make a case for why Chang has stayed so invisible for so long: Even when she tells the truth, as she does right up until the point that the man who spurned her as a potential wife kills himself in acknowledgement of female power, people don’t know how to react. She quickly backs away and claims she made it all up, perhaps sensing that she has shown them too much to continue silently eating her oranges and spending time with her stories in the storage shed. Because she is not conventionally beautiful, and because she is older, no one stops to think about who she is, which is part of why the show gives her such an exaggerated flashback—this is the insane true story that no one will ever know.
But it’s too exaggerated, especially given how tightly it connects to the other storylines in the episode. The larger theme here is the idea of what it means to be a real woman, as Chang’s marked face and plain features make her a burden on her brother, and the women in the prison’s new lingerie sweatshop spend more time flipping through the catalogs discussing beauty standards than doing much real work. It’s a cogent issue for the show to explore, but it’s hard to shake the sense that the episode is designed to explore it. It hits all the buttons: there’s Piper “believing” in the potential empowerment of lingerie from her position of privilege, there’s Black Cindy, Janae, and Flaca breaking down the racial representation of the models in the catalog, and there’s Piper claiming it as “slave labor” and getting rightfully chewed out by her black co-workers. This kind of check-the-boxes approach results in many scenes that address important issues, and I appreciate that the show continues to deal with them, but it strips the episode of much of its dramatic potential in the process.
There’s a more subtle thread here about the lengths women go to be women, perhaps best captured in Sophia and Gloria’s conversation. We’ve discussed Sophia’s commitment to “going full MAC counter” in the show before, but Gloria raises the issue again, and we’re reminded Sophia has fought too hard to give up her made-up look in prison (and, per her discussion with her son in the premiere, has a somewhat skewed idea of how men should treat women to go with it). Similarly, after Morello spent previous episodes without makeup, she puts it back on—in various different guises—to impress a revolving series of creepy prison pen pals with her tales of progressively absurd criminal prowess. But it suffers from Red putting too clean a name on it, telling Healy—butthurt over her false seduction to try to get back into the kitchen—that when you put a woman in prison “you leave her with one coin—it’s tawdry and demeaning, but if she has to, she will spend it.”
This idea has clear thematic value to the series, but there’s so much of it in the episode that I ended up feeling numb to it. I was actually far more invested in the ongoing saga of the prison employment situation, as the guards are continuing to protest their cuts in benefits, and Caputo remains trapped in the middle. Watching as Pearson works over Caputo and manages to make him personally responsible for screwing over his employees is in and of itself a nice case for how bureaucracy swallows itself, but the poetry of O’Neill’s red velvet donut nemesis applying for one of the jobs offers the episode its clearest sense of episodic resolution. Piper apologizing to Chang—“Thank you, lesbian”—and Red returning to the kitchen are nice moments, but the sheer volume of thematic work lumped into “Ching Chang Chong” meant it had less impact than it might have if the calculus had been more carefully controlled.
- Although I can’t speak for the entire A.V. Club, my opinion on red velvet is that O’Neill is right: it’s bullshit. Also, I went to buy donuts immediately after I finished writing this review.
- Alex and Piper’s conversation about how “prison blindness” can make you never notice people who have been in prison all the time gives the show the chance to introduce Ruby Rose’s Stella, whose progressive views on gender are her first introduction into the series. Curious how her friendship with Piper plays out, given it was played in part through attraction here in her introduction.
- Speaking of new inmates: Weird that Lori Petty shows up again—we last saw her with Piper on the plane to Chicago—in the van with Pennsatucky, but she never runs into Piper. Was her arrival just so the show could speak to the fluidity of religion and the special privileges attached to it in the context of a season invested in faith? Curious to see where—if anywhere—that goes.
- “Shabbat shalom, bitch”—although, I suppose it’s worth it for that alone, yeah?
- Kind of weird that Taystee coming clean to Poussey about trying to get her off the sauce happens off-screen, which made their discussion of AA a somewhat stilted “Poussey is going to pursue love now” transition point instead of a more important moment for the pairing.
- While I appreciated Chang’s badass tire iron moment, it was a bit sad to see the show go straight to the “Asian dudes would totally fight using Kung Fu, right?” go-to. (Edit: Or Tae Kwon Do, rather. Had missed that the other guy had been Korean. My bad.)
- Chang’s flashbacks would appear to take sometime in the mid-80s, at least after Michael Jackson unveiled the Moonwalk in 1983. Every time I return to this clip, I realize how often Jackson lipsynched, but no one cared, because dancing.
- Sister Ingalls’ performance as “Chang” really cracked me up—I think it’s the Cold War of it all.
- “You like Bo Derrick in Tarzan, 1981”—is Chang a walking Mr. Skin like some people are like a walking IMDB? (She means Tarzan: The Ape Man, to be specific).
- Morello gonna Morello: Favorite fake story, anyone? Biggest jewel heist in Chandler, Arizona? Most wanted arsonist in Winter Park, Florida? Top contract killer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Personally, my favorite moment amidst this was her slick use of Daya’s comics as her favorite anime. She’s in her element with this elaborate web of lies situation.
- Although I’m comforted that Red was mostly using Healy, every time I see Healy it’s like a trigger for how much I’m going to dislike the show going all in on their relationship. I want better for Red and Kate Mulgrew.
- Piper trying to improve the efficiency of the Whispers operation, and the floor chief not even caring, starts us toward a connection between the bureaucratic, corporate way products are made versus the way corporate prisons treat inmates. Will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Important “GreenScreenGate” Update: So you may remember over the weekend, when I wrote about the green screen composite work I found so distracting in episode three, “Empathy Is A Boner Killer,” and linked to my incredibly thorough post breaking down the scene. Well, I got an email from the show’s post-production producer last night, who informed me that the Book Funeral scene was entirely filmed on location, features no green screen or compositing work, and there’s no clear explanation for why myself and at least a good collection of others think it looks like it does. So not only have I wrongly cast aspersions (my apologies to the production team), but I’m left with yet another enigma to solve, this time exploring how my perception has been skewed, and whether or not those who agreed it looked terrible would have spotted it independent of my marking it as a compositing issue. I’ve updated my post with some possible options, and Criticwire broke down the situation a bit more. Sorry to have dragged you all along on my existential journey, but I hope that if nothing else we gain from this a clear sense of the dangers of binge-writing about a TV show and getting too far down the rabbit hole.
Also, at the risk of undermining my mea culpa, I wasn’t wrong about the blocking creating a continuity error. So I’m not completely losing my mind. Just mostly.