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.
It had to happen eventually. As Cal comes to visit Piper to fill her in on his baby crazy wife, it just slips out—anxious about the fact he still doesn’t have a job, and is still living with his parents, he mentions that everyone is getting jobs…including Larry.
It’s a jolt for Piper. She’s curious what job it could be—it’s a Regional Editor for ZAGAT, which, ugh, Larry—and you can tell she wants to know more. But she shakes it off and tells Cal of her other plan: she wants him to set up a website so she can sell used prison panties she’s smuggling out of the Whispers sweatshop, made from the remnants they’re asking the inmates to throw away.
Piper’s entrepreneurial spirit is, on a basic level, a moneymaking operation. We could also think about it as a way of sticking it to The Man, which is of particular value now that the man is a vilified corporate America working overtime to make Litchfield even less effective than it was before. But we can also understand it as Piper searching for a new connection to the outside world, the “real” world she left behind. Piper is starting to come to better terms with her prison life, at least as compared with where she started, but this is an opportunity to build something at a time where she’s being told she can’t, and to aspire to the life she once led (and which Daya and Morello work to make her moderately more conscious of as class floats to the top of the series’ critical cultural cocktail).
Not everyone had the life that Piper had on the outside, but when you’re stuck in prison the outside world can seem almost dream-like. And as Flaca’s character arc has shown (at least as I read it, as discussed in previous reviews), the fact is that the things you might have dreaded or found beneath you when you were on the outside can become a breath of fresh air when you’re on the inside. Just look at Gloria, whose problems with her son begin when she puts fractions in terms of working in the kitchen—it’s a job that represents progress for her, and stasis for him, and it doesn’t have the effect she expects it to. While she thought she was working her ass off to hold onto a job that gave her power, she saw that power diminished, and quit in part out of frustration but also out of gaining perspective that Red—who just lost her own connection to the outside, her beloved store shuttered—has herself lost in gleefully returning to her former role.
Although it can serve as a meaningful coping mechanism, straddling the two worlds is difficult—Gloria struggles to be a good parent, and then her alliance with Sophia bleeds into Litchfield when Michael very suddenly learns about swearing and the impact of disobeying your parents from Gloria’s son (which is frankly a bit absurd, but let’s stick with it for thematic purposes). And so Piper is taking a significant risk creating a panty smuggling operation, even if her actions function in a grey area (since they are still meeting their work order for Whispers, only stealing from their designated trash). But she’s doing it because being in prison makes the idea of running a business selling used panties to perverts into the American Dream, regardless of where Piper would have stood on the idea when she was on the outside herself.
Norma’s flashbacks in “Tongue-Tied”—oh, now I get it!—are a minor part of this episode, and like others this season struggle to create a substantive narrative. We see Norma visit a cult meeting, we see Norma joining the (polygamist) cult, we see Norma left as the only remaining follower of the cult, and then we see Norma finally break down and push the cult leader off a cliff. They are glimpses of a story, more than they construct a story in and of itself, and the fact that Norma barely speaks in them limits our insight into her character (although both Annie Golden and the actress playing her younger version emote effectively without dialogue). On a basic level, we can read this as a history of her status as a follower, creating a parallel narrative to her return into Red’s orbit here. After the episode opens with the title sequence for the hit new sitcom Everybody Loves Norma, she immediately moves into a subjugated position once Red is back in the kitchen. And while she might not push Red off the cliff at the end, she does walk out on her when Caputo drops the bomb about the new plastic bag meals, and heads to the chapel where her own disciples are waiting.
However, I’m much more interested in how we can contrast Red and Norma’s respective efforts to embrace their prison experience. Red’s approach is, by its nature, parasitic—she gains her sense of purpose from ordering around those close to her, controlling everyone in the kitchen and using that power to feel important. Norma is the greatest example of this, but we can return to Red endangering Gina’s life back in the first season (which reemerges here when Gina is the one who comes to the kitchen to talk to Norma, and wants nothing to do with Red). It is not that Red is inherently a terrible person, but rather that her ability to deal with being in prison depends on a modicum of control that impacts those around her.
But what Red has always taken for granted is that Norma is perfectly content to be in this relationship, because she is benefitting more than Red might intend. She put up with her polygamist cult leader husband—who evoked equal parts Unbreakable Kimmy Schmit and The Simpsons’ Movementarians—because she continued to see the value of her service right up until the moment he chose to give up believing in what he preached. She wants to serve, because as someone who doesn’t speak, she feeds off the energy of those around her, and because she has committed her life to searching for deeper meaning (and was given leave to do so by a man who claimed to see her without hearing her). And so her turning point isn’t that she realizes that Red is taking advantage of her—she’s known that since the beginning. She is just suddenly in a position where she has other people who embrace a more positive symbiosis, giving her the opportunity to build a community—one might even call it a cult—around her spiritual awakening.
“Tongue-Tied” follows other characters as they search for their purpose in a system that limits it. Poussey, having been searching for a sense of purpose, stumbles upon Suzanne’s chosen form of imaginative release from her prison surroundings, erotic fiction, and decides to serve as her editor (which is crucial given that Berdie has curtailed Suzanne’s creativity for being, you know, pornographic). But then you have Lolly, who finally runs into Piper and explains to her how Litchfield is already her escape compared to the other prisons she’s been to. The relativity of the situation is crucial, which is equally central to why the MMC corporate folks don’t understand why failing to train guards properly before they enter into gen pop is a bad idea. They don’t care to learn how the prison used to work, because they want to live inside their corporate bubble, just as people who buy Whispers—in contrast to the people who buy Piper’s Prison Panties (trademark pending)—don’t want to know they were made in prison. MMC’s purpose depends on not treating the inmates as people, which means failing to acknowledge the parasitic relationship they have with these women (as opposed to the prison in which they are enclosed).
“Tongue-Tied” doesn’t pull us outside the prison beyond Norma’s flashbacks—its other ecosystem is the guards and the training exercise, which continues to be fleshed out in part by reminding us that they are forced to embody the straddling of the two worlds. When new recruit Bayley—who Alex immediately identifies as a potential panty mule—has his first day in the yard, he has no idea how to react to prison conflicts because he has no idea what a prison conflict is. But do the other guards, really? Is anyone who isn’t a prisoner able to have the perspective to understand why women would believe in Norma’s spiritual healing powers when there’s not necessarily a rational reason to do so? Perhaps Orange Is The New Black’s biggest accomplishment is that it has so integrated us into this world that I’ve never stopped to question it, which helps this hour work its way through the symbiotic relationships spread across Litchfield.
- While I totally would have gotten the “Look at you, Google” response as I recognized the various sexual perversions discussed in the Whispers annex, Cal definitely knows more about panty sniffing than I do, so I guess I’m not as much of a generalist as he is.
- Speaking of the Whispers Annex, I’m really interested in the dynamics they chose in casting their workplace sitcom (more or less). The isolation creates some really interesting conversations, and the makeup is bringing out some of the best in Piper given her separation from Alex. Taylor Schilling has been doing good work, and I’m curious to see how her endeavor progresses.
- I’m less curious about Alex’s continued paranoia, but I imagine we’re supposed to read into Lolly ignoring Piper when she’s with Alex but then remembering her when they’re alone as a sign she might be the one sent after Alex. I’m Team Lolly.
- “Ain’t all movies Jewy?”—Black Cindy’s desire for a cultural jewish education through cinema to pass an inevitable “Jewish test” for their Kosher meals is great, although short-lived given the likelihood of maintaining the same food quality once their new regime brings in prepared foods.
- Cal’s return reminds me of the great joke when he appeared earlier in the season where Piper said he looked like he was in a World War II reenactment group, a sly inside joke for those who know Michael Chernus has that look for WGN America’s Manhattan (which, incidentally, is really good and worth catching up on ahead of season two).
- “It’s two people connecting…with four other people…and aliens”—put Suzanne in a Hollywood pitch meeting and I’d say she’s got a three-picture deal ahead of her, no?
- Just Googled what a Pangolin looks like, and the idea of a swollen one is not helping me understand Suzanne’s vision precisely, but I can’t say the show didn’t teach me anything.
- Whereas we saw Aleida in a romanticized moment before what would obviously become a difficult upbringing for Daya in the premiere, here Daya remembers a day where she and her mother found hope amidst chaos (albeit, as Aleida notes, because they had money to spend). Seeing her rationally work out the pros and cons of her potential deal with Pornstache’s mother shows she’s learned from her mistakes with Bennett, and has become smarter in the process. I like this Daya a lot.
- That said, how much time is supposed to have passed here? Daya seems way more pregnant than she was during the bed bugs episode, right?
- “The flow just moves sideways”—just like Pearson’s bullshit! Birbiglia is really bringing this particular type of villain to life, isn’t he?
- Morello Gonna Morello: “Do you hear yourself sometimes, like when you speak?” Truth to privilege, Morello. Truth to privilege.