Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black season five. These reviews and their comment sections are intended for those who have seen up to this episode—please refrain from revealing or discussing events from future episodes in the comments.
Orange Is The New Black has a complex relationship to “villainy.” In the first season, Piper was our primary point of entry, and so any of the other prisoners who antagonized her—first Red, then Pennsatucky—could arguably function as a villain in the context of the story being told, with Pornstache perhaps the other “villain” in Litchfield. But even then, the show was resisting the argument that any one prisoner is an outright villain, and began fleshing out all characters such that calling any one of them a villain would be misleading. In season two, the show replaced these “villains of perception” with an outright villain in Vee, a force of corruption who came from the outside with a desire to upend existing systems and bend the prisoners to her will. She was swiftly removed—read: run over—after a single season, and replaced by the private prison industry, wherein the system itself became the villain that slowly but surely put the lives of all of these prisoners in danger. The show still needs antagonists to act on this potential—Maria in season four is a good example of this—but this season has primarily reinforced that the greatest threat here is a system that does not treat these inmates as people, a fact that makes this riot a long march to a very dark conclusion.
But last season, the show made the decision to introduce a different type of villain in addition to the macro-level threat against these women. As part of demonstrating the incompetence of the prison-industrial complex, the show populated Litchfield with new guards who were not just bumbling and incompetent—they were outright evil, motivated by a sadistic love of punishment and hatred of women. Humphrey gleefully tortured Maritza, and even the equivalent of bumbling guards—Coates and Dixon—either raped women or casually discussed having raped them in the past. And they were led by Piscatella, who came from Maximum Security with sheer disgust for the inmates, dehumanizing them at every opportunity. While the system was responsible for Piscatella being hired, you could not say that Piscatella was created by the system: he was just a cruel and vindictive person, and his reign of terror was a weak point for a show that typically seeks dimensionality in its characterization.
My hope had been that this season would help us better understand Piscatella, or at least use the riot as an opportunity to give his character more dimension. But as the season wore on, it became clear there were no such intentions: Red seeks to embarrass him with the tablescaping, and starts investigating his tattoo and his actions at his previous prison, but we see so little of Piscatella himself that there’s really no development there. It’s just light foreshadowing, reinforcing the facts about Piscatella that prove central to his flashback in “The Reverse Midas Touch.” The story sticks exclusively to the information we have been given, showing us the story of Piscatella’s first love: an inmate named Wes Driscoll, who he begins a relationship with while a guard at the prison and saves from a vicious attack before burning and killing the prisoner responsible in the showers. It takes the pieces of the puzzle we’ve been given so far—his sexuality, the tattoo, the employment file—and just puts them together, as though that’s supposed to help us understand why Piscatella broke into a prison with riot gear, abducted Red’s closest associates, and enacted an elaborate revenge scheme on Red to embarrass her and make all of her “children” see that she is really old and feeble.
I have no clue that the show expects me to take from Piscatella’s flashback. Am I supposed to think better of him that he was protecting his lover when he murdered another inmate? Are his insecurities about his sexuality supposed to justify his casual affair with an inmate that violates the power dynamics and constitutes sexual assault in and of itself? Is his experience with homophobia meant to clarify or contextualize his deep-felt misogyny in ways that make me less frustrated with how one-note the character registers as in the present day? Was there truly a belief on the behalf of the show’s writers that what we saw in that flashback was supposed to make his Purge-like takeover of the prison into something other than a cheap escalation of tension that abandons dimensionality in favor of sheer villainy for the first time in the show’s history?
As noted, Vee was certainly a villain by the end of season two, and the Bunker group’s trap laid for Piscatella reads similarly to Vee’s comeuppance at the hands of Rosa—the show punishes its villains differently than it punishes its antagonists like Maria. However, Vee was deeply integrated into the ecosystem of the prison: she had a history with Red from her previous stay at Litchfield, and her relationship with Taystee offered another key point of articulation. While she was a villain, her relationships to the other inmates made her a multi-dimensional figure. By comparison, though, Piscatella’s feud with Red feels vindictive without any particular purpose: his flashback didn’t try to explain why older Russian women would be a trigger for him, or why his response in this situation would be public displays of violence like he’s running the police force in a dictatorship. All of the theatrics that Piscatella pulls in this episode—the screaming, the broken arms, the knives to throats—are disturbing and extreme, but the only logic we have for why they’re happening is that Piscatella is a villain, and nothing about his flashback or his storyline within the show has done enough work to make that feel truly earned.
It also extends the show’s balance problems, as we are constantly pinballing between Leanne and Angie galavanting through the prison to find a finger transplant and something out of a horror thriller. The show actually cuts directly from Stratman taking Leanne to orgasm to Piper screaming in terror, a choice that only points out how wrong it feels for the stakes to be life-and-death in one storyline and far less than that everywhere else. Tension is escalating throughout the prison: Humphrey is dead, Maureen’s wounds are getting infected without proper medical attention, Gloria is working against the other inmates for her own self-interest, Linda is starting to panic, and as the news report shows these riots never end well for those involved. In these stories, the tension is growing gradually, as the natural complications of 400 women locked in a prison without proper provisions or any type of order begin to emerge in full force. But whatever subtlety has played out in the overall state of the riot was abandoned for Piscatella’s rampage, which feels like an arbitrary way to create danger instead of a natural evolution of either a character arc or a story arc.
The show doesn’t always do clear arcs with characters: you could argue, for example, that Suzanne hasn’t had clear motivation these past two seasons, largely reacting to the situation around her as opposed to working toward any particular goal. But that is part of the dimensionality of Suzanne as a character, as her mental illness makes situations like the cruelty of the guards or the chaos of the riot into tests she has to face while battling her illness. Off her meds, Suzanne sees everything through a different lens, and in her first scene removes her “ghost” face to reveal her true self, a theme that runs into Piscatella’s dressing down of Red. But that thematic connection has nowhere to go, meaningful for a character like Suzanne for whom identity has been a clear struggle, and meaningless for Piscatella whose cruelty has been casually deployed without any real interest in developing the character further. Whereas Suzanne’s attempted delivery of Humps’ dead body to Taystee connects with the ongoing negotiations, Piscatella has no interested in his guards or the negotiations—he risked his life and his job just to torture Red, a motivation that makes zero sense until you realize the show needed a source of conflict while needing to delay progress with the negotiations.
Those negotiations, indeed, go nowhere in this hour. It becomes an exercise in Fig and Caputo working through their sexual tension, arguing over the education program and whether or not Caputo was personally responsible for some of what happened to these women. At one point, Fig tells Caputo that “you’re not going to reinvent the prison-industrial complex in your shit-stained boxers,” and she’s absolutely right. However, that conflict—central to the past three seasons—is where the show finds its strongest and most dimensional drama, and has provided more than enough material to bring this season to the brink of another tragedy. The idea that the season needed a monster to abduct and torture women in order to create a sense of danger is an insult to the work the show is doing elsewhere, and a fundamental failure in terms of doing service to this story and the rest of the characters involved.
- As expected, Frieda’s bunker group proves to be the saving grace for Red and the other inmates, although Alex ends up with a broken arm in the process. It’s unclear if Piscatella is dead or dying from Frieda’s poison, but it probably doesn’t matter for the time being.
- The closest we get to a clear distillation of Piscatella’s misogyny is his belief while men understand and respect violence, women don’t, and so they make him feel like a fool. But that’s enormously thin, and does nothing to help Brad William Henke out of a poorly drawn villain figure.
- Linda from Purchasing continues to get a crash course on the conditions created by MCC, this time in a heart-to-heart with Pennsatucky who talks about the lack of room to breathe following the changes at the prison. It’s a really beautiful scene, begun by a sing-a-long to the Big Red jingle, even if it ends with Pennsatucky sucker punching her for monopolizing Boo.
- If that was actually dynamite in Frieda’s bunker, I’m going to go ahead and say it was Chekhov’s dynamite. We also get more of her backstory in the prison, as she was having a fling with the volunteer who ran the swimming pool, and remained pen pals following its closure.
- Taystee being willing to filter her ideas through Caputo is complicated: she eventually needs him for “credibility” on Humps being alive (which he’s not, of course) but that goes back to the concern about letting the white man speak for the inmates, especially given his complicit nature.
- Gloria’s very brief attempt to free the inmates did not convince me that this story was well developed: it was just a very sad effort, and disrupted in a very predictable way.
- “Did that coffee shop even happen? Seems like forever ago”—again, the show goes meta, here to consider the weird temporality of the condensed timeframe.
- I know I shouldn’t be shocked at the casual racism of Leanne and Angie, but I still had to pause for a second on “Doctor McCurry.” I also still have no idea why nurse dude has just been chilling in medical for two days without making any attempt to contact the outside world or interact with the prisoner leadership to trade his services for some type of assurances regarding his safety.
- “Latina Fey vs. Kate Dominican” was a nice little moment with the Latina inmates (who are named Pidge and Ouija, information that the show is really not helping me learn without looking it up).