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 (except for today). 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.
On a week-to-week basis, Orange Is The New Black has a tremendous luxury. Although Jenji Kohan is on record as missing the benefits of collective viewing in Netflix’s all-at-once model, she and her writing staff have the luxury of not having to worry about reorienting the audience with every new episode, knowing it’s highly plausible they are starting it having just finished the previous episode moments before.
However, whatever handcuffs this releases Kohan and her writers from, the same cannot be said for season premieres. Although Netflix will make it easy for people to blast their way through multiple seasons at once if they are watching the show for the first time, the show’s existing audience will be returning after a lengthy hiatus. And whereas the second season premiere isolated Piper and told a story primarily about her and her alone, this is the first time that the show’s very first episode is having to bear the burden of reintroducing us to one of television’s largest ensembles.
“Mother’s Day” bears this burden, although not always inconspicuously. Given the loose framework of a Mother’s Day celebration being organized by the inmates, the episode weaves in and out of people’s stories, giving us just enough time to reorient ourselves to where we are, who they are, and where conflict might arise. Kohan’s script largely follows the action, opening on Pennsatucky driving the (new) prison van to the party store so the guards can pick out some suitable decorations. It’s a scene that has to do three things at once: It has to remind us about Rosa and the events of the end of last season, it has to set up the Mother’s Day celebration that will become the framework for the episode, and it has to introduce us to a new flashback structure that will recur throughout the episode.
Said flashback structure—where flashbacks occur sporadically, and for a wide range of characters—may just be utilized here in the premiere, but it works particularly well at allowing the show’s bouncing ball to make it way around the prison. This is more conspicuous early in the episode, particularly when a scene at the Black table in the cafeteria is followed up with a stop with the Latina women in the dorms. These feel like check-ins, quickly reminding us of what’s happening in each community. Suzanne is still holding out that Vee is alive, which tells us that news of her “death by Rosa” has yet to circulate with any certainty among the inmates (or that she’s alive in a hospital somewhere, I suppose), while Daya’s pregnancy is complicated by news that Pornstache’s mother has been in contact. It’s part of an extended sequence of events that brings everything into position: Nicky’s drugs in the laundry room vent, Alex’s return after violating her probation, Morello’s suspension from driving duties following her role in Rosa’s escape, etc.
It’s not a bad sequence of events, but it’s a tad on the overwhelming side. That’s part of the show’s appeal, but Kohan’s voice—irreverent, quick, multitudinous—is often easier to work with once you have been reacclimated. And as “Mother’s Day” grows, it sheds its burden by embracing its decentered quality. Episodes like last season’s Valentine’s Day episode were among the season’s highlights because of how they brought all the characters together, creating small moments in conjunction with the “main storylines” that were being followed throughout the season. By dropping us into one such episode, it takes a second to realize there isn’t going to be a centering force, because there are not yet any main storylines, meaning we’re going to have to find our own bearings as the episode progresses. The episode does not—as it could—use Alex’s own reorientation as a surrogate for the audience, choosing instead to let us find our own way amidst what Caputo calls “complicated ladies in a complicated place.”
As the Mother’s Day party begins in earnest, the floating narrative focus pays off significantly. This is helped by the new flashback structure, which is almost disarming in terms of how short the given flashbacks are. United by a common theme of parenthood, we never spend any significant time with one flashback or another, and they vary wildly in terms of tone and context. Whereas Poussey remembers a touching moment reading from Calvin And Hobbes with her mother, Healy remembers his mentally unstable mother drawing on the walls and throwing ashtrays at his head; whereas Aleida fondly remembers the simplicity of Daya’s birth, Sophia’s recollection of the pending birth of her son is fraught with complication. You never exactly know when a flashback is going to come when you don’t know “whose episode” it is—we get a glimpse of Nicky working through her pre-established mommy issues, but when Suzanne gets what seems like a good moment for a flashback after Healy keeps her from the party due to her past issues with children, one never comes.
There are “plots” that run throughout the party, most significantly the ticking time bomb of Daya and Bennett’s baby. First you have Aleida’s boyfriend taunting him about it in front of his co-workers, and then you have Bennett’s awkward attempts to bond with her family—still believing in the power of love, like the idiot he is—drawing Caputo’s attention. But while this story eventually brings the party to a close as one of Aleida’s daughters goes missing and prompts an alarm, it serves only as a loose framework to establish clear benchmarks as the story progresses. The episode is far more interested in moments like the metaphor of the empty piñata, or inmates owning some children at “Duck Duck Goose,” which speak to the world of the show in a way that serves the premiere well.
That said, the episode’s theme of motherhood does offer more profound dividends amidst the comedy of kids unable to hit ping pong balls through an overly fast windmill on the mini-golf course. The episode is clearly invested in the dichotomy of Litchfield inmates who have kids and those who don’t, along with those who have mothers and those who don’t. This complexity is best captured by the interaction between Poussey, Black Cindy, and Taystee as they run the cups game. Here you have someone in Taystee whose mother figure spent all of last season working her over, someone in Black Cindy who holds no responsibility over her daughter (who is being passed off as her sister), and someone in Poussey who lost her mother and holds onto her memory for support. On the surface, it’s another scene of characters shooting the shit about having kids, but their backgrounds make it more complicated, which we see in the way the exchange sticks with Poussey and not the others.
The Mother’s Day party works because this is clearly not a normal day, and yet the degree of normalcy will depend on the person involved. For some, the party is a means for an end, like the (new, right?) inmate who smuggles in cocaine in her baby’s diaper and leaves the baby alone on the ground outside a porta-potty to snort it. For some like Pennsatucky, it’s an opportunity to put your own life into perspective, as she holds a Mountain Dew-sponsored funeral for the babies she aborted. For mothers like Red and Sophia, it’s an excuse to see their families, who in Red’s case continue to keep up the charade that her beloved store remains operational. For yet more, though, it’s just a day that’s a little different than another day, where Yoga Jones gets to spread her message of self-discovery to a younger generation, and Morello gets some fresh air while distributing toiletries.
And yet, “Mother’s Day” still needs an emotional hook. We get glimpses of emotion from Piper and Alex throughout the episode, including a teary moment of casual intimacy in the chapel, but the show’s freedom from Larry’s external presence makes even Piper’s bullshit about the system being responsible for Alex’s return to prison—as opposed to a combination of Alex’s panic and Piper’s intervention—seem light and airy. Plus, although both have their own mother issues that emerge in that conversation, they have no real ties to the event at hand. Instead, the episode poignantly turns to Maria Ruiz, who has what she believes is the perfect day with her daughter right up until the point her baby daddy tells her that he’s leaving before their daughter understands that her mother is in prison.
It’s a gut punch of a moment, and suffers from being so sudden, and staged in a weird baby handoff situation that doesn’t seem like a place where the sullen and silent character we saw visiting with Maria last season would raise such an issue. It may have made more sense for him to send a letter, but it dramatizes the way a day can go from transcendent to destructive at a moment’s notice. When you’re in prison with a child on the outside, you lose control, something that Bennett is struggling with in light of the situation he created with Daya. That baby is caught in limbo, about to enter a situation that would be complicated even if another man wasn’t being fingered as the father for fear of creating an even bigger scandal.
“Mother’s Day” lays some other groundwork, introducing a new counselor and sketching out the new Litchfield in light of Caputo taking over for Figueroa, but it never lets the burden of plot drag things down. Big Boo outlines the plans for Vee’s drugs to Nicky, but the episode doesn’t get caught up in that story outside of having Red problematically concrete over the greenhouse tunnel that was supposed to play a role in said plan. There is plot to be found here, but the episode never allows itself to center on it, nor does it center on anything for more than a brief moment. The result is a sketch of Litchfield in the present moment, working us back into its rhythms and—by the end—delivering on what the show does best.
- Welcome, again, to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black. Happy to be back writing about the show, although on a slightly different schedule—in line with recent precedent, we’re going daily, which means single-episode reviews at an accelerated schedule. This may be tougher if you have to spread out your viewing and still want to engage in discussion, but I’ll do my best to keep active in discussion threads for some time after they’re posted so we don’t entirely abandon each discussion once a new one arrives.
- “I’ll butter your toast”—I love how disarming this opening is, and even once it gains context it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s just patter, which is a great way to dive into things.
- I had a brief moment of confusion with Morello claiming to have kids—we obviously know it’s a lie, but it doesn’t seem like the other inmates were as certain, with only Ruiz—whose spot in line was being threatened—taking a hard line on the issue.
- I was thinking recently about the show’s smart use of Laverne Cox’s brother to play Sophia before her transition in the first season, and so I was excited to see the show return to that period here.
- “Crackheads, Wookiees: You gotta let ’em win”—not entirely sure I buy Piper making this reference, but I’m going to allow it. As Piper settles into a less central role in episodes like this one, she’s finding her sense of humor.
- What kind of monster would make a dollar store piñata out of Calvin And Hobbes books? (The kind that needs the comic to show up there to support Poussey’s interest in the spiritual, but shhh.) (Edit for more brackets: So returning to it on Netflix proper—the screener site is a little wonky—shows that this is actually just a newspaper. My bad. I think I was just presuming they would highlight the way people binge-read comic strips.)
- Another great small moment: Ford punking the guard with shirt stain issues. Small, and ultimately “meaningless” in the grand picture, but a lot of fun. As long as the episode don’t move over an hour, I’m happy to get an extra few minutes if it means more small moments like that.
- Pennsatucky’s baby names: Blake, Bonnie, Boyd, Bethany, Braeden, and Buddy Jr. And maybe she’d have named another one after Big Boo, given her love of Bs and Boo’s lesson in Freakonomics. This scene picked up nicely on the budding friendship between these two women, most prominently established in last season’s finale.
- It feels weird to not be writing an “Ugh, Larry” segment here, but I’m not complaining—while the character had a purpose, it ran out, and so to see his absence unremarked upon really helps the show recenter away from Piper (at least in this episode—we’ll see about the rest of the season).
- However, on that topic, I’m glad the show had Piper’s claim that Alex was a victim of the system ring so false. Taystee’s story in season one was a case of the system screwing someone over—the system was working for Alex, and while it’s not a great system, she was not a “victim” of it in the same way Taystee was, even if we set aside that Piper was the one who lied to her probation officer.