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.
Given that Orange Is The New Black attained its status as one of television’s most compelling shows by expanding its focus beyond Piper and embracing the diversity of inmates in Litchfield, an episode built around a parallel between Piper and Caputo would seem to work cross-purpose to the show’s strengths.
But while I don’t think “We Can Be Heroes” goes down as one of the show’s finest episodes, it’s a crucial episode for the season, and does a nice job of drawing out the impact that being part of the prison system does to both administrators and inmates alike, albeit to different degrees. Using the threat of unionization on two fronts, the episode places the individual and the collective in opposition to one another, and probes the value and meaning of humanity. It’s an easy target for the show, given that its greatest skill has been asserting the humanity of even its minor supporting characters, but it’s a productive one for how the episode ups the degree of difficulty.
For Piper, “We Can Be Heroes” is a pretty wide-ranging indictment of her capacity to understand the humanity of those around her. Piper has always been selfish, but there was the sense when the season began that Piper was on the verge of embracing her place within the Litchfield ecosystem. Although there was something entrepreneurial and opportunistic about Piper’s panty business, I initially felt her central goal was “sticking it to the man,” aligning her against MCC. But here Piper’s business transforms into a cautionary tale in the corruptive power of capitalism, as she’s faced with the threat of unionization and never once stops to think about her employees as human beings. They are pawns in her game, a game that—when push comes to shove—exists for Piper to feel the thrill of success, regardless of the cost. She doesn’t stop to think about the fact she is building a legitimate criminal enterprise. She doesn’t pause and realize that the women working for her might understand this enterprise on different terms than her own privileged perspective. Piper is only thinking about Piper.
Earlier in these reviews, I wrote about Alex’s isolation from the rest of the prison, and the way Laura Prepon’s season two exit exaggerated the character’s inability to feel like she was part of the rest of the series. However, here Alex’s isolation is turned around, and what once felt like a failure of the show’s writing becomes a logical character choice. Alex doesn’t want to get involved in something like what Piper’s business is becoming, as she knows—as someone who once got caught up in something similar—that you can lose yourself in it. Suddenly, I find myself respecting Alex’s struggle to embrace her situation—it may not have served the season to this point, but it serves here as a productive counterpoint to Piper, who reveals herself to be invested in the prison community only insofar as that prison community’s serves her personal needs.
The ostensible end of the Piper and Alex relationship, then, doesn’t come down to the affair with Stella (which, extending Piper’s terribleness, she doesn’t come clean about even as Alex lumps it in with her larger paranoia). It ends up being about what Piper does to Flaca, whose only crime was pulling a pamphlet out of the trash and pushing for a union to allow the women participating in this business something approximating fair compensation given the profits being made. Nothing Flaca did meant that she deserved Piper’s punishment, and yet for Piper this is a triumphant, badass moment. It’s like she’s acting out one of Berdie’s imagination exercises, the entire prison her stage on which she gets to exert herself and experience being powerful in a system that strips you of control over your own life. But in the process, she ignores her willful participation in that system’s capacity to strip women of power, which is particularly egregious given that Piper has no conception of what it means to be stripped of power to the magnitude of the women of color and lower class women she predominantly has in her employ.
We see this theme of personhood emerge throughout the rest of the prison, as it does on a weekly basis. It emerges in Suzanne’s relief at losing The Time Hump Chronicles, free from the burden of fame but also left without a real human connection. Her scene with Poussey is the sequel to Suzanne and Taystee’s moment earlier in the season, unpacking the impact Vee’s presence had on their collective dynamic. As Suzanne says, she only wants to be treated like a person, and as much as Vee might have been using Suzanne she was the one person who consistently and unequivocally did so. Whatever her motives might have been, Vee never called Suzanne crazy, and that meant something more than those without the stigma of mental illness fully understand. It’s a strong moment in what has been a subtly strong season for Uzo Aduba, and the scene I intend to screen Clockwork Orange-style for the people who keep calling her “Crazy Eyes.”
It also emerges in the aftermath of the previous episode, which plays out on the margins here because Pennsatucky has fully reverted to a psychological position that denies anything is amiss. The show smartly steers away from Coates himself here, allowing the horror of the previous episode to resonate as Boo discovers Pennsatucky’s bruises. What follows is difficult to watch, as Boo returns to bluntly push Pennsatucky into admitting that what’s happening with Coates is not something that she deserves for being flirtatious, and not something that she should be flattered by. There’s something crass about Boo using Pennsatucky’s lingering fear of lesbianism, but you realize that she’s doing what is necessary to bring her humanity—which Coates is denying her—to the surface. It’s a heartbreaking performance from Taryn Manning in only two scenes, and a powerful turning point in a friendship that started out as comic and has evolved into a mutual respect that makes them one of the show’s best pairings.
Although Pennsatucky may not share any responsibility for Coates’ attacks on her, MCC does. They don’t know this yet, of course, but their slapdash hiring and training processes are creating problems way worse than a computer error allowing Angie—and not Sara Rice, who shares the same last name—to be released. That mistake creates the problem Caputo finds himself fixing for Pearson here, as the new computer system screws up their I.D. numbers, and none of the new guards were capable of checking her ID and finger prints correctly, or—on a more basic level, as Maxwell points out—simply knowing who the inmates are. They have no pride in their work, as this job means absolutely nothing to them, and thus the inmates are just numbers in a system. They have no sense of their responsibility, and yet it’s Berdie—who takes her responsibility incredibly seriously—who ends up on temporary leave thanks to the discovery of Time Hump Chronicles and its genesis as a proposed project for her drama class. “We Can Be Heroes” may be an optimistic title, but it’s clear no one at MCC or anyone who has been hired by them thinks in those terms: Pearson is just a daddy’s boy—Happy Father’s Day!—who flunked out of college and is in over his head, and MCC remains the single largest threat to prison stability (even if people like Healy and Piper are exacerbating the problem on the inside).
“We Can Be Heroes” takes its biggest leap of faith by asking a question I don’t necessarily know many people were asking: What about Caputo? The season has placed him as our direct glimpse into MCC’s management strategy or lack thereof, forced to adapt to increasingly frustrating requests. But on the surface, opening an episode on Caputo having sex with Fig as a way of working through his resentment is pulling us away from where the show has typically oriented itself, and Caputo’s flashbacks start out in that frustrating place of offering insight that doesn’t really unlock much. The episode literally has his girlfriend—and mother of the child he’s supporting as his own despite having been conceived with a former bandmate when they were broken up—lay out the theme for him: he’s someone who always holds the door open for other people, and he expects the universe to throw him a parade for it, and all he ever gets is doors being slammed in his face.
But although none of Caputo’s individual flashbacks end up offering much beyond a surprise cameo by Rosa—“ROSA!” is in my notes—they collectively raise an important question about what this much time in the system has done to Caputo’s sense of responsibility. He only became a prison guard for the benefits that the guards threatening to unionize are fighting for, and so he has no romantic idea of what Litchfield is; in fact, you could argue he resents it for not being the music career he denied himself to hold the door open for his girlfriend. But at the end of this episode he is faced with a decision of who exactly he should hold the door open for: should he step aside and let MCC continue to dismantle the prison, or should he put his neck on the line to help the guards form a union against the odds? Both would be totally in character for Caputo, but he picks the more heroic path and earns a Les Mis sing-a-long in his honor. It’s not a truly triumphant moment, but it shows someone given a choice about the future of Litchfield, who channels his own humanity to protect that of his guards, and in the process that of his inmates. Nick Sandow has to deal with some pretty silly 80s hair here, but he successfully walks that line where Caputo isn’t a hero—he just wants to be one, which is more than we can say for Pearson, and too many other people in a position to make a difference.
The lingering question is how this understanding of the prison system as one governed by humanity trickles down to the inmates. When Angie got to the bus station, she had no idea where to go—she had never thought about her plans for the outside world, and so she finds herself with a bus voucher to New Jersey and $40 and no idea what to do with it. She sits there, unsure of what to do with her freedom because nothing that she’s been shown on the inside has made that seem the least bit attainable. How do you get through to someone like Soso whose one lifeline has been placed on temporary leave, and who is the target of a bullying campaign that is just a basic reality of prison life, but cuts so much deeper when you’re suffering from depression? How can Sophia hold onto her humanity when Aleida’s smear campaign following her altercation with Gloria is emerging as transphobia, or at least couched in the terms of transphobia in ways that unearth struggles she wishes she was past. While “We Can Be Heroes” more or less resolves the physical threat against Alex with Lolly convinced she’s a CIA double agent, it unearths a much more dangerous threat: a series of events that strips the prison of its capacity to identify, understand, and treat the basic realities of life in a women’s prison.
And, much like the birth of Daya’s baby, the moment of truth is coming more quickly than anyone is prepared for.
- Daya is definitely on the edge of giving birth, and so the scene with Ruiz is a nice way of checking in while acknowledging the episode has other priorities. It’s another strong example of the show picking up on threads from “Mother’s Day” and letting them play out through reactions as opposed to major storylines. Ruiz’s loss of her baby was the emotional climax of the opening episode, but this is the first time it has felt like it fully emerged as a central focus.
- “The walls are sticky with loneliness”—Fig’s return does sort of register as the show wanting Fig back more than necessarily the story needing her back, but Alysia Reiner has a firm handle on this character, and I like the idea that after we last saw them together things just sort of kept escalating off-screen.
- Thinking aloud, I wonder how much Caputo’s flashback was intended to help explain the way he handled the Pornstache/Daya/Bennett situation, given he once agreed to raise another man’s child as his own.
- Although Phil Abraham—best known for his Mad Men episodes—again sticks pretty close to the house style, I found for screencapping purposes that there were a lot more wide shots, as evidenced in some of the images above. I often go through episodes searching for something that offers a clearer sense of the overall construction of a scene, but Abraham seemed to gravitate toward it more than some of the other directors, anecdotally speaking.
- Just as Berdie notes Suzanne functions as a six-year-old, Leanne is right out of middle school with this bullying. The tripping incident reminds me of the time in fifth grade a classmate kicked another kid’s chair walking by it, and then the kid hulked out, picked up the chair, and threw it at the guy’s head. Blood on the floor and everything. That classroom also had mold. And a girl attacked another girl with a broom during a fight. And I think the teacher picked up a student and turned her upside down and pretended to drop her in the garbage can? Man, you’d swear Jenji Kohan scripted a year of my life when I write it all out. (I swear I remember all of this. Heck, I think this was even the year we sang “Do You Hear The People Sing?” in choir. I’m actually like 90% sure it was. Now I’m a little freaked out.)
- “I don’t know if you’re a misogynist, or a racist, or a winning combination of both”—Preach, Berdie. Although to be honest, I think the root issue here is the fact that he’s petty and territorial and jealous, and he just rests on the root misogyny (I think racism is a satellite cause at best) as a way to dismiss her credentials. But I don’t have a psych degree, so it’s possible she’s in a better position to judge.
- “Berdie is more supportive of the murder stuff than the sex stuff”—this definitely may not have worked in Berdie’s favor when it came to her “sentencing,” Suzanne.
- Anyone else think about Dwight’s hidden weapons around Dunder Mifflin on The Office as Piper went searching for a cell phone? And what are the chances that Chekhov’s Jolly Rancher Shank comes back into play? (Again, tread carefully if you’ve watched the final two episodes when you’re reading this, I am saying this in a purely speculative capacity.)
- Morello Gonna Morello: Weird to have no followup on the attack on Christopher, but then again, there’s only so much you can handle in a given episode. Is that just going to be a thing that happens outside the prison and never comes back? (Again, don’t say anything if you know. Seriously, just two more days of this. We can make it!)