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.
When you’re first introduced to a character on Orange Is The New Black, we have reason to be suspicious. The prison is a carefully constructed ecosystem, and the introduction of new blood is a potential cause for disruption. New inmates are coming into the prison all the time, of course, but we don’t meet all of them. And this season, the show has been gradually introducing more and more new inmates at random, whether it’s the women who show up amongst the Time Hump Chronicles book club members, or someone like Lolly who we recognize from elsewhere (and who thus has an added mystique about her). We could extend this also to Pearson, and the new guards, all of whom are not entirely different from Caputo and the old guards, but who are inherently less familiar, and thus suspect.
“Fear, And Other Smells” plays with this suspicion in two of these cases, albeit in two different ways. In the case of Pearson, the show does its best work yet in terms of outlining the failings of the corporate prison structure. So far, the notion has been that Caputo has been rendered powerless, and that all of his suggestions are being tampered out by Pearson—sorry, Danny—before they ever reach anyone’s desk. Perhaps Pearson thinks he’s helping Caputo keep his job by stymying his ideas, but it means that the people who actually know how the prison runs are having no voice in how it’s running. Danny therefore has played like a very traditional villain, the sole representative of the systematic dismantling of Litchfield’s capacity to function as a rehabilitative, decent facility.
But then we follow Pearson to a meeting with the MCC’s CEO, and we see something we might not have expected. He comes into the meeting, where everyone else is talking about economical approaches to prison management—like painting the walls pink at Max to calm down inmates to reduce security costs—but Pearson goes to bat for Caputo’s changes. He lays out the need for legal books so inmates can work on their cases. He outlines that intervening regarding the abuse of the kosher meal program has to be handled carefully, lest a lawsuit emerges to impact their bottom line even further. He even brings up the job training program. He makes a clear and ultimately reasonable case, and he’s shot down—there’s no way to make money, there’s nothing to show shareholders, so why would they do any of this?
The scene suffers somewhat from the broad caricatures of the corporate infrastructure, but it’s more nuanced than when they toured the prison, and at least the woman who told the soap joke was quickly shown the door. And yet it’s even more of an indictment, because it’s not that Pearson is failing to serve as a proper middleman, or sinking Caputo’s ideas while presenting them—he stuck his neck out, something we wouldn’t have expected. And so he’s rightfully frustrated when Caputo has taken off early to practice with his band, and Caputo’s song is ultimately right: Pearson is becoming the Warden, a term that he doesn’t want to deal with but has to if he’s going to do his job effectively. It’s just a job that the corporate ladder doesn’t allow for, and thus a job he’ll struggle to do effectively provided his strings are still firmly attached. Mike Birbiglia isn’t exactly at the center of this episode, but his character feels the most transformed. There is hope for Pearson yet.
I wish I could say the same for Alex Vause. It has been easy to this point in the season to lump Piper and Alex together, given that their reunion was so central in the early episodes, but “Fear, And Other Smells” makes a clean break of it. Piper has a triumphant episode, taking full control of her panty operation by buying the commissary out of ramen, using flavor packets as currency to get women to participate, and then seducing the guard when Alex can’t quite get around to it. It’s a tour de force for Taylor Schilling, who is fully embracing this entrepreneurial Piper and chews the hell out of the absurd stump speech (which will make it tough for her to compete in Dramatic award categories next year, but is some of her best comic acting to date). But it’s also a series of events that clarifies that Alex has no role to play in the operation, much as the episode confirms that she has no role to play in the series.
What do I even say about Alex Vause? We have a collection of flashbacks that ostensibly fill in gaps in her timeline—showing the aftermath of Alex and Piper’s breakup in “Tall Men With Feelings”—but which have nothing to say about that time beyond the fact that the drug lord who wants to kill her is dangerous. We have an increased paranoia surrounding Lolly that gives Prepon a grand total of one note to play, and continues to isolate a character who was already isolated to begin with. She has no ties to anything else happening in the prison, her back story has been mined of anything significant, and—most importantly—the episode still thinks that revealing Lolly is actually staking out her movements in any way increases the stakes for the show. Stakes are increased when the entire prison is impacted—Lolly doing Kubra’s dirty work and removing Alex from the equation would ultimately help the show, not hurt it.
This is, of course, simply my perspective. It’s possible that, if you are a fan of Alex’s or more invested in her and Piper’s relationship, you were legitimately tense as the camera refocused on Lolly’s notebook and the music became ominous, as opposed to rolling your eyes. But it strikes me as a fatal miscalculation in an episode that explores the much deeper stakes of MCC’s cuts from the prison system, suggesting that the threat to a single inmate is in some way more important than the complete destruction of the prison’s support structure. Berdie’s intervention with Soso—who gets typically dismissive and terrible advice from Healy, her actual counselor—has higher stakes than what happens to Alex, because it ties into a larger issue of how prisons deal with mental health situations and the social struggles inmates experience. Alex’s story solely belongs to Alex, and so it’s not a huge shock that the episode limps along whenever it pulls away to her.
Part of the issue is that the show is already pushing itself outward in other areas more successfully, making the pull toward Alex’s paranoia that much more distracting. Pennsatucky’s trip to the donut store with Coates (a.k.a. donut guy) serves no particularly new purpose: we know the new guards are green from the previous episode, and learning he hasn’t exactly had the proper training on the driving protocol does not change this particular narrative. It even echoes Piper being able to pull one over on Bayley off-screen, using her wiles to get him to smuggle out the panties for 5% of the proceeds—these recruits don’t know how to deal with inmates, which is why Coates and Pennsatucky end up feeding day-old donuts to ducks. It’s a light-hearted and observational storyline, not overly concerned with plot or even character development, and that’s a huge part of the show’s DNA even if it doesn’t have a clear payoff in this episode.
Sometimes these moments are big, like Poussey’s breakdown reading the ending to Time Hump Chronicles and her choice to go to Norma’s cult instead of letting Taystee help her through her depression. Sometimes they’re small, like Sophia apologizing to Gloria for blaming Benny for Michael’s behavioral issues when the real issue is how helpless she feels being unable to help her son deal with the basic realities of adolescence (which in Sophia’s case are mixed with the fact her transition complicated the whole “father figure” situation even before she ended up in prison). These are long term stories, played out in small moments of convergence and connection—just look at how Crystal brings up Sophia’s advice about insecure women from the premiere, seven episodes later. None of these characters had had an episode of their own this season, but their ties to the rest of Litchfield make their stories larger than themselves, and crucial to the series.
We can’t say the same for Alex, and I’m not convinced we’ll ever be able to. “Fear, And Other Smells” has enough going around Alex’s story to maintain momentum, but revealing that Lolly has been sent to observe—and potentially take out—Alex feels like a different show. This season—although struggling somewhat with balancing its flashbacks—has proven that it can draw out conflict without having a force of chaos like Vee, and so to see the show turning to Alex’s life-and-death situation for stakes is disappointing, and hopefully not something that becomes a priority for the show moving forward.
- Another week, another really satisfying Daya story, this time coming clean to “Lady Stache” about the baby not being Pornstache’s when she learns that Aleida secretly cut a financial deal behind her back. Bennett’s departure has lit a fire under her, and it’s become clear that this is a turning point in her life regardless of her decision regarding the baby. It’s where I wish the show could have gone sooner, as Dascha Palanco is doing a damn fine job with it.
- It’s not as though I’ve ever necessarily warmed up to Healy, but I struggle to derive any enjoyment out of him embarrassing himself sniffing Red’s jacket when he pulls that bullshit with Soso and then with Beadie. He’s a garbage human and I’m struggling with it this season.
- Morello Gonna Morello: “I really liked eating. It was part of my daily routine.” Sometimes I don’t know if she’s consciously being funny with this stuff or if she’s being dead serious. It’s a fine line, and less certain than with someone like Suzanne (who is almost always being serious).
- Was I the only one reading meta-commentary about audience expectations in the age of binge viewing as the inmates binge read Time Hump Chronicles?
- Speaking of, some smart season-long planning with the bed bugs burning the books, which has been used to hasten Poussey’s fall, create the legitimate books crisis with corporate, and pushed the inmates to read Suzanne’s erotic fiction en masse.
- If there was ever a case where the show needed a “Previously On” sequence, it was connecting this flashback to Alex and Piper in season one—that was a long time ago. At least put up a warning that tells us to go fastforward through to the flashbacks in the episode to refresh our memories.
- “Men just need the promise of sex. And the promise of sex is free”—this is ostensibly true, Piper, but it’s also incredibly reckless, even if the idea of Bayley—who IMDB tells me I’m likely vaguely recognizing from either Amazon’s Mozart In The Jungle or Red Oaks—shifting the power dynamic with Piper or Alex or any inmate seems unfathomable at the current moment.