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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There’s a great scene in the middle of “Finger In The Dyke” where Soso is meeting with Meadow. This is the same Meadow that Soso had been working with before being imprisoned, and who Piper reminded her of. We can see the resemblance, but this scene isn’t about Meadow. The show doesn’t even bother to catch us up regarding who Meadow is. She is simply a person that Soso used to know, and who thinks it’s “cool” that Soso is surviving in prison.

Soso isn’t having any of it. Every bit of optimism she had when she showed up at Litchfield is gone. She has no romantic notions of prison: prison is stupid, and she feels stupid for being here. It’s a nice moment, but it’s picking up on almost nothing at all. Soso has been seen a few times this season, but she’s never had anything approaching an arc. She’s just someone who lives at Litchfield, which means she’s suffering on a basic level even if we’re not watching it unfold onscreen. Soso’s story didn’t need to be big. She doesn’t even appear elsewhere in the episode. The show just uses visiting hours to remind us that life goes on in Litchfield—or, rather, a cheap approximation of life goes on in Litchfield.

This is not a new observation, but there’s something very effectively episodic about “Finger In The Dyke,” for what is often a show invested in big turning points for its characters. Part of the reason Piper served as a productive entry into this world is because of how intensely serialized her prison experience was over the first two seasons, creating a clear sense of forward momentum, And in the previous two episodes, the show has used individual episodes to focus on clear turning points in characters’ lives, paying off long-term character development as Bennett runs away and Nicky’s addiction lands her in Max. But sometimes there are cases where characters experience things that are meaningful without being momentous, as is the case here as Big Boo tries to convince an evangelical bigot that she’s a born-again Christian to fleece him for cash.

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I noted yesterday that the flashback structure no longer feels essential to the show, but there are obviously characters the show has yet to explore through origin stories, and there is still that tinge of excitement when you’re able to dig deeper into a character that you’ve enjoyed as part of the ensemble for so long. It’s also a better example of how flashbacks can work, providing both necessary context for Boo’s—or Carrie’s—struggles to “go hetero” and a useful contrast for the Boo we’ve seen in Litchfield thus far. Boo tells a potential hookup—after snapping at a teenager tossing out homophobic remarks—that there “ain’t no dramatic origin story here. Just a big ol’ dyke who refuses to apologize for it.” There’s a meta quality to the line, as though breaking down our expectation about what we’re going to see, but she’s wrong about one thing if not the other (which I’ll get to)—this is a decidedly dramatic story, in contrast with the comic role Boo tends to play in the series proper.

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The way Boo’s story oscillates between comedy and drama in the present is typical of the show—she learns Bible versus from Sister Ingalls, gets advice from Pennsatucky on how to convincingly portray the character, and enlists Sophia to put on a new face. But when she turns around and looks in the mirror, she sees her mother, and when she eventually gets into the meeting with the minister she grimaces every time he throws in a “faggot” or a “dyke.” The idea of dressing up is fun right up until the moment it becomes real, because Boo is not about reality. Although we see glimpses of the illegal gambling that probably got her locked up, her story is as basic a human drama as you could imagine: her parents fight her on how she dresses, she clashes with romantic partners over her attitude, and she struggles with how her parents understand the adult she’s become. The distinction here is that all of this is tied to her essence, a butch dyke identity that some treat as a costume.

Lea Delaria has been among the most outspoken members of the show’s cast when it comes to how the show is changing her life as a performer. Typecast in a certain type of role for a long time, the show’s casual depiction of sexuality has given her the chance to flesh out a character type typically reduced to sitcom gags. Here, “Finger In The Dyke” gives the show the chance to go one step further, exploring the specific struggle of fighting hard against the costumes society puts upon you only to discover your inner self is the costume in their eyes.

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It’s here where we can return to Boo’s meta-commentary and the other half of her observation—this may be a dramatic story, but it is not an origin story. We don’t see the moment where Carrie “becomes” butch dyke Boo because she’s always been that person, from the time she was struggling with her mother over dresses. And so her attempt to put on a costume to put one over on Pennsatucky’s church and make some money in the process is a just another in a long line of cases where her identity has been caught up in crisis even if—for her—there has never been any crisis. And although those moments may not be life-changing—she shrugs off this latest incident as a failed con and moves on to shooting the shit with Pennsatucky—they are part of a larger history, drawn out by the flashbacks. You see it when she looks in the mirror and sees her mother, and sees who she was supposed to be, and thinks back to when she chose not to say goodbye. And you see it in the contrast of someone who has seemed consistently confident in her skin revealed to be someone who has gained that confidence as a defense mechanism, and who is just as capable of being vulnerable as those who wear that vulnerability on their sleeve. DeLaria joins a long list of co-stars who delivers when asked to lead, managing to keep the character’s comic spirit alive while fleshing out her dramatic arc considerably.

But that’s how you survive. You find your coping mechanism, and you fuel yourself with it right up until the point you break down. Taystee’s optimism has always been her way of understanding her predicament—just remember how she acted when she returned after being released—but Vee’s death affected her more than she realized. And while Suzanne’s lack of filter gives her the opportunity to express her grief (albeit through violent outbursts and denial), Taystee is too busy keeping a positive outlook and trying to keep Suzanne from getting herself thrown in solitary to grieve for herself. Vee was a mother to her, for better or worse, and this season’s investment in motherhood extends even to those whose mothers manipulated their daughters and enlisted them in criminal enterprise. Their moment of shared grief becomes comedy when Suzanne takes it as an invitation to climb into bed with her, but their moment is real, and breaks through the façade of day-to-day life they keep up to survive.

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That day-to-day life is crucial in a season where the serialized narrative threatens it. Here, the private company’s walkthrough of Litchfield is an episodic storyline with serial ramifications, as the inmates must collectively curtail their deeper problems to put on a show. Some of them struggle in light of the broad misconceptions of women perpetuated by the male representatives (who are, in true Jenji Kohan fashion, about two shades too broad), while others simply struggle because they talk too much. In Daya’s case, she struggles because she can’t conceptualize the day-to-day without knowing if Bennett is gone. And yet this is one episodic story that turns out to be more meaningful than it would have been on a sitcom, but not because they’re successful—it’s because the Maximum Security prison represents a financial opportunity, bringing the two buildings closer together just after sending Nicky there last week.

The season’s pacing may not be entirely calibrated yet, but “Finger In The Dyke” registers as the end of the season’s first act. Not only is there a clear setup for the rest of the season with MCC taking over control of the prison, but we have been successfully reintegrated into the mundane reality of prison existence. It’s not “cool,” certainly, and none of these people will ever be “normal” in the way some might imagine them to be. Even Piper, whose “normalcy” defined her, has begun to embrace prison, and come to understand how her survival is shaping her (albeit with rose-tinted glasses that continue to show her struggles of perspective). And now that we’ve had time to readjust to the flow of life at Litchfield, the show prepares to potentially change everything on a macro level—the question becomes how the micro level responds.

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Stray observations:

  • Since Bennett’s departure means there’s not an inappropriate romantic connection being built, Healy is basically in love with Red now, which…I can’t really even deal with that right now, if I’m being honest.
  • Love the detail that Piper and Red—white women of means—have blankets to replace their mattresses, while Sister Ingalls gets cardboard and the black women have nothing at all.
  • Morello Gonna Morello: Morello—who is taking Nicky’s departure hard—getting cheered up by comparing Boo’s makeover to the contestants on Fox’s The Swan is so Morello. I’d say it was “Peak Morello,” but it didn’t involve breaking and entering or elaborate falsehoods.
  • “You’re right, I’m not normal—I’m queer”—this is a potent statement on its own, but so is the very casual way Boo’s strap-on sex is depicted, shot similarly to how the scene would be shot had it been a scene between a man and a woman. There’s a complicated set of politics operating there, which I’m glad to see the show engaging with.
  • “I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not an absolute moron”—are you sure, Caputo? Because I’m pretty sure Daya is an absolute moron. Who needs doubt? Embrace the truth.
  • Another quick throwaway: Gloria, struggling to discipline her son from afar, knowing exactly how to strike fear in him but in no position to follow through on her threat. Even when you want to be a good parent from prison, and even when you know how, there’s still a fence between you and playing an active role in reforming your shithead son.
  • Alex’s “not birthday” mix for Piper is the kind of thing I imagine Netflix’s social accounts will share in full, but we get “Only You,” “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” and “The Pussy is Mine” here. My personal playlist for the episode extended to “Ring Of Keys,” from the Tony-winning musical Fun Home, which is about a young lesbian seeing a butch deliverywoman as a crucial moment for understanding her sexuality. It felt appropriate.
  • “The great thing about men—they don’t have uteruses”—the show can sometimes be a bit broad with its comedy, but bringing in nutjobs like the MCC misogynists is always Kohan’s go-to strategy for reminding us that the show’s regular “broad” characters are way more grounded than they could be. Not surprisingly, only the more reasonable Mike Birbiglia appears to be sticking around.
  • “Hello white people…and Other”—Black Cindy, with a more well-calibrated bit of comedy surrounding the MCC folks.
  • I feel we can safely say you don’t cast Blair Brown as a Martha Stewart equivalent just to have her come on television so Poussey can show off her foodie knowledge, right?

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