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.

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I’ve spent the past year or so writing about Lost’s first three seasons for the site, and it’s definitely informed my return to Litchfield. In that show’s third season, the usefulness of the flashback structure proved to be finite, with the show running out of steam until it could change up its structure and angle toward its series finale. As a high-concept genre show, Lost could easily reinvent itself, giving the writers greater freedom in how they told stories.

Orange Is The New Black doesn’t really have the same freedom, and “Empathy Is A Boner Killer” offers an example of an episode that has precisely one thing to say with its flashback. It follows Nicky in the period immediately preceding her trip to Litchfield, where she makes a series of decisions that reinforce how selfish she can be. She steals a cab in order to get uptown to score heroin, crashing the car immediately since she has no idea how to drive. She uses the money she takes from her mother for drugs instead of bailing out her friends in the car with her, and she is arrested again in her attempt to steal old books she intends to sell for more drugs. The moral of the story: Nicky is an addict, who will sacrifice anyone and everyone in order to get her fix, and whose self-destruction knows no bounds. She is, as she tells Luschek while attempting to sell Vee’s heroin through him, “a bloodhound for oblivion.”

After the previous episode’s Bennett flashback, Nicky’s is far more dynamic. Natasha Lyonne is incredibly comfortable in Nicky’s darker moments, unhinged in ways that are equal parts a cry for help and a manipulation of those around her. The one problem is that this is not new information. Nothing we see is necessarily surprising, new only in the fact that we’re seeing this particular series of events for the first time. It matches perfectly with how she self-represents in the present timeline, where we learn she stole her own drugs to keep Boo from selling them, and when we eventually learn she stored some for safekeeping in Luschek’s desk even after selling the rest following a close call. Nicky has a clear, compelling, and tragic arc in the present timeline, which raises my question: what would be lost if the writers had cut this flashback and focused on Litchfield instead?

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When the show began, many of the flashbacks answered the question of how these people ended up in prison, but I admit I don’t really find myself pondering that all that often. The community at Litchfield has become strong enough as a story engine that I don’t feel I need to go back into a character’s past to understand them any better. While the quick hits in the premiere were pointed and poignant in the way they picked up on an episode’s theme, here they are deployed as part of a character study that I’m not convinced need their help. We didn’t need to see more of Nicky’s complicated relationship with her mother to understand why she wouldn’t wish being her mother on anyone. Red and Morello’s concern for her as she’s carted off down the hill to the maximum security facility does not need to be framed in the context of flashbacks for it to be meaningful. We care about these characters without the need for further insight into their pasts, and so returning to them to just keep making the same point strikes me as redundant.

There are other values to the flashbacks that could support their continued presence. For one, they allow the show to break the monotony of the prison setting, and diversify the types of locations and characters that feature in a given episode. However, the characters we find in Nicky’s story feel as perfunctory as in Bennett’s, absent any sort of meaningful development that would create storytelling of significant value. Moreover, there is already so much diversity within the prison, and the writers are doing a good job of tapping into it. The show can diversity by shifting from Norma performing rituals to the Golden Ladies gardening to Taystee and Poussey overseeing a book funeral without batting an eye, such that any concerns about needing to leave the prison seem unfounded to me. This is particularly true as the show pushes itself into clearer “setups” for drama and comedy, as in the drama class improv exercise that brings Piper and Alex’s relationship to the forefront here. It’s true that the absence of Larry means there is no meaningful connection to the world outside the prison on a regular basis, but as long as the show has so many other characters to serve, why leave at all?

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The other reason the flashbacks exist is because these characters’ pasts offer the show a chance to explore the larger systemic issues of the system that puts people like Nicky into Litchfield. Although any one individual flashback may add little to our understanding of a character we’ve already seen through flashbacks, it expands the contrast between their respective experiences. Here is where Nicky’s story starts to gain greater significance, as her family’s wealth gives her every opportunity to get out of her spiral but she never gets the specific help she needs. Her mother has tried everything for Nicky except actually taking responsibly for her herself, giving her money and stints in rehab that push the problem further away without addressing the root of it; Nicky is wrong to push all responsibility on her mother, but it’s a two-way street. And so there’s an allegory there for the prison system as a whole, contrasted by new counselor Berdie’s honest efforts to engage with the inmates as people. Therefore, I don’t want to say that the flashback is useless, or that the format in and of itself is broken or unproductive for the show.

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But in “Empathy Is A Boner Killer,” I couldn’t help but want to see more of Nicky dealing with her current situation, instead of reflecting on a past one. The episode does a decent job of sketching out the arc, right down to the symmetry of Nicky talking to Pennsatucky about her desire to leave and Pennsatucky driving the van that takes her down the hill. And the final moments do bring the flashbacks into the equation, as we see Nicky finally gain perspective she lacked as she jumped from score to score in her life on the outside. That’s a fantastic moment, played incredibly well by Natasha Lyonne, but the same lack of perspective was just as evident in Litchfield as it was outside. She didn’t have it when she was lying to Boo, she didn’t have it when she was playing Luschek—she had it when she saw the fences of Max, and realized that she has reached the proverbial end of the line (if not the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel).

I don’t know if the show lacks confidence in its ability to tell stories without the flashbacks, or if they have bigger plans for stories like this one that fade in favor of explicit outlining of key themes or ideas. But this was a case where the flashbacks—once crucial to fleshing out the show’s characters—end up as window dressing for a story that is tragic in its own right, and inflected by relationships that were given short shrift (like her dynamics with Red and Morello, who only drop in briefly on her way out). This is a good episode of the show, either giving Nicky a tragic exit from the show’s main focus or preparing us our first real glimpse of the Maximum Security facility, but every time we went to the flashbacks it felt like going through the motions, something that does not serve the show’s investment in narrative evolution moving forward.

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Stray observations:

  • Whoever’s idea it was to shoot some of the coverage of Taystee and Poussey’s book funeral in front of a green screen should be sent down the hill—the show’s effects work is generally pretty weak, but that was an overreach of the highest level. You can tell there’s some footage from the location (the wide shot and the sharpest angle). But for some reason—weather? Script changes?—they chose to shoot the main two-shot of the characters in front of a green screen, and the composite work is terrible. As I said on Twitter: Lionsgate, if this ever happens again and you don’t have the budget to spend time to shoot on location, call me and I’ll try to rustle up some money. It’s not worth this. Nothing is worth this, as I explore in my breakdown of the sequence trying to understand why they would ever do this (also known as definitive evidence daily reviews is going to put me in the nuthouse).
  • “You have to take a macro view on things”—a bit cute for a returning Figueroa to say this to Caputo amidst giving the season its macro-level focus with the “solution” of privatization, but it works (and brings to mind John Oliver’s segment on the topic).
  • Ruiz gets her first meaningful contribution following her baby being taken away from her, raising some important points about how “families” on the inside fall apart when they’re released. I’m curious if/when the show eventually gets to the point where it tells that story to see how accurate she is.
  • Another week, another case where belief in the power of the spiritual brings inmates something they desire, in this case Angie’s birthday wish bringing her and Leanne Nicky’s heroin. We’ve yet to see an episode use faith as an organizing theme, but it’s recurrent throughout.
  • Morello Gonna Morello: “And we learned about masks, musicals, and chlamydia dell’arte, and that is from Europe!”
  • “That’s why you women ended up in prison—you suck at crime”—Luschek is a scumbag, but he’s a likeable scumbag, and it’s hard to root too hard for him to go down for Nicky given that she was the one who hid the heroin there. She isn’t being put away for a crime she didn’t commit, regardless of his role as an accessory and our affection for the character.
  • Nicky’s use of “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” is not necessarily what I’d consider in character, but I do love the idea of a junkie using the phrase.
  • “All the David Sedarises…Sedari?”—I need someone to make an audio file of the book funeral so I don’t have to risk seeing that green screen again.
  • O’Neill didn’t know Bell took out a home improvement loan, which is really adding to the prison closing anxiety—if they want to go outside of the prison, let’s go back to exploring the lives of the guards other than Bennett.
  • “You literally gave me no choice.” “Even so, I appreciate it.” Love this exchange between Red and Healy, who complete the cycle from the previous week as Red works out her own issues with her husband through serving as Healy’s Russian translator.
  • “Yeah, for books and all printed media”—I don’t know why this line made me laugh so much, but c’est la vie.
  • And speaking of Healy, his rivalry with Berdie—set up in the premiere—pays off, as he tries to pull off playful insults with Vause and does…well, he does a very poor job. I enjoy watching Healy fail.
  • “You’re saying our mouths evolved to give blowjobs?”—I appreciated how this ended up foreshadowing the focus on Fig and Caputo, and their sexual history, later in the episode.
  • “Nuh-uh—that’s a dick”—it’s the smile on Chang’s face that makes this line, so proud her insistence on phallic improv has rubbed off.
  • “You’re not supposed to start an improv with a transaction”—this line (and Soso’s improv class interjections in general) may be great, but my favorite thing was searching Twitter to discover a combination of people talking about the line and people who do improv arguing about the rule before the show premiered. This is a real debate. IMPROV!
  • Director Michael Trim does a really nice job with the episode in general, but I was particularly struck by how Nicky’s discussion with her mother and her lawyer worked so hard to isolate Nicky, with a lot of two-shots of the Lawyer and the Mother before cutting to Nicky. It was really effective. And I just love the shot of Pennsatucky and Nicky that I chose for the header image.
  • Per yesterday’s review: don’t care about Daya pining for Bennett, and not really that beat up about the fact Piper and Alex can’t get it up for hate sex anymore.

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Extra Special Spoiler Warning: So, if you want a sense of what not to do in the comments specific to this episode—don’t hint at whether or not the show returns to Nicky’s storyline after sending her to the maximum security facility. There’s a possibility they do, and a possibility they don’t, and we’re officially at the point where people know the answer having binge-watched all 13 episodes. So if you know the answer, don’t hint at it—be patient, and we’ll discuss in time.