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.
The arrival of the “Corporate Inquiry Rabbi” is the kind of device an ensemble show loves. Even if we look past its thematic value in a season invested in the meanings of faith, central to “Where My Dreidel At” beyond MCC’s investigation, it gives the show an excuse to run through the various inmates’ attempts to defend their Judaism. Here, it’s a rapid-fire selection of terrible explanations, culminating in Black Cindy’s attempt to claim the plots of both Annie Hall and Yentl as her life story.
But what works about Corporate Inquiry Rabbi is that he is not without humor, which is the case of so many “investigators” who come into medical or legal shows and start doing interviews with various characters. He does not dismiss Black Cindy out of hand—he smiles recognizing that she’s seen Annie Hall, and she eventually diagnoses the situation without dismissing it. Black Cindy has confused cultural Judaism with real religious conviction, and as he corrects her he never seems angry. He knows she’s lying, and he knows she’s being opportunistic, but at the same time she has made a significant effort to use popular culture to understand what it means to be Jewish.
That’s more than most of the inmates had done (and enough prompting to convince her to try to convert for real), and more than people tend to do when it comes to a religion different from their own. Just look at how Norma’s budding religion, so valuable to those within it, is questioned by the Catholics before they even understand what it is. The woman leading the hymn lesson is not wrong to claim that there are distinctions to be made between religions and what is being formed around Norma, but her unwillingness to hear them out is a defensive barrier that serves no one. But at the same time, it’s a legitimate question: Norma’s “religion” is built around the notion of faith healing and miracles, but in a few situations we’ve seen that this is far from true. We saw Nicky store the heroin in the light before it fell and gave Angie her birthday “miracle,” for example, and so we have reason to be skeptical about details others have used to form their belief system.
But when Leanne steps forward with an impassioned and nuanced articulation of what this faith means to her, it’s not an attempt to use “evidence” to prove that Norma is or is not a faith healer. Her set of principles is not exactly groundbreaking, but she rests on the notion of “kindness and acceptance,” and talks about the desire to radiate out into the world and create change. It’s compelling, right up until the point it’s dismissed as atheism because it lacks an explicit religious conviction as opposed to a humanitarian one. It’s faith without the capital-R Religion, which may not be able to get easy access to the chapel but has the potential to hold deep meanings for those belonging to it.
One of the trends I’ve charted throughout these reviews is the idea of flashbacks that seem as though they’ve been designed to serve a certain theme, and one could look to Leanne’s flashback here as another example of this. Although foreshadowed by her knowledge of German earlier in the season, Leanne’s Amish background emerges suddenly, and comes to embody the core themes of the episode. She was someone who chose to remain with her faith even after experiencing the wider world—read: cocaine and peanut butter cups—during her rumspringa, but those mistakes caught up with her, eventually forcing her to give up her faith in order to save face for her family. The flashback taps into the unique nature of rumspringa, in which Amish youth are in the liminal state between belief and turning their back on that faith, and extends that to Leanne’s life more broadly: she is trapped in an eternal Rumspringa, wanting to go home but unable to do so lest she bring shame to her family. And that undoubtedly serves the episode’s interest in how these women understand and articulate their own faith, and the barriers that stand in their way.
But it works significantly better than other flashbacks this season, for two reasons. One is that it’s the most strongly constructed flashback of the season thus far. What I like about this arc is that it never feels linear—rather than showing us a decision and then showing us the consequences the decision, Leanne’s story offers a more complex set of actions and reactions that continually force Leanne to change her position. She starts by making a conscious choice to return home, but then her arrest forces her to wear a wire and take down the cartel in order to stay there, at which point she’s unable to stay home given the way the community shuns her family for getting their children arrested. It’s an origin story, but it doesn’t try to explain her entire life, and it doesn’t work overly hard to explain why she’s in prison—it tells the story of the time she voluntarily gave up her faith, a sacrifice that left a hole she filled with drugs. It’s poetic in its own right, and Emma Myles brings it to life with a strong dramatic performance.
The other reason it works, though, is that it doesn’t try to get too cute with how it connects with the Litchfield storyline in the episode. This isn’t a story about Leanne, and her flashbacks don’t necessarily “explain” why she does what she does. The episode draws out the contradiction in Leanne’s treatment of Soso, ostracizing someone from her faith when she herself was ostracized from her own, but it also adds shades to her need for a belief system given the reluctance of her departure and her continued devotion to her family and the Amish way of life even when she was forced to walk out for good. She may know what it feels like to be shunned, but she still holds onto tenets of that way of life even if she can’t practice it, and in her failed apology to Soso she struggles with the stigma of who she was.
It’s a messy storyline, but that’s what makes it great: there is no spiritual awakening, and there’s no simple answer that brings this new religion into cohesion. Leanne’s justification for letting Soso go is tied to her flashback, but it isn’t cleanly explained by it, and instead embodies the complex nature of belief that makes trying to bring a group of loosely collected believers together to determine tenets of faith so challenging. It’s the culmination of the season’s investigation into the issue, and one that Leanne’s flashback serves without overly restricting the nature of the conversation the show wants to have on the subject.
The rest of “Where My Dreidel At” is a bit more scattered. As much as Leanne’s story offers a dramatic anchor and the Corporate Inquiry Rabbi provides light comedy, it’s tough for the show to reconcile Piper’s Prison Panties with Alex’s Paranoia Corner, and merging the two stories through Piper’s attraction to Stella isn’t helping things. We’ve reached that point in the season where there’s a lot going on, but it’s one thing to offer a check-in on Suzanne’s growing celebrity and on the fact her unfiltered erotic fiction is creating real connections with inmates in a way she’s struggled to in the past. We can tie that into Soso’s continued failure to relate to Chang or any other inmate, but what do we tie Stella’s seduction of Piper into? How does the show’s investment in Lolly’s interest in Alex—which clearly has to be something of a misdirect given that Alex discovers the notebook here—tie into anything beyond itself?
I’m struggling to find a clear answer, which I think is a failing of the show’s reintegration of the Alex character—caused in large part due to Prepon’s absence in the second season—more than inherent to the story. The show can tell stories without ties to central themes. Just look at Sophia and Gloria, whose war between mothers has played out over multiple episodes without doing much more than vaguely tie into the season’s interest of motherhood beginning with the premiere. Gloria resists it becoming an issue about Sophia being transgender, but there are clear stakes for each of them, especially when Sophia realizes she has misjudged Benny—who ran away when Michael was arrested for assaulting a classmate for looking at him funny—but chooses not to give Gloria the satisfaction of an apology.
It’s an intriguing power play, and we never get a clear sense of why she doesn’t apologize—does she think Gloria had no intention of backing down, when we know she was thinking about it? Or does she not want to admit to herself that the problem could be her, perhaps internalizing the impact of her transition (which Aleida blames in talking it over with Gloria)? While not about faith or belief, at least in the specific sense focused on in this episode, it is a story about motherhood and identity, topics the show has broader interest in, and which inflect this conflict in interesting ways. And it’s impossible to see Coates’ obsession with Pennsatucky independent of the gendered power structures, and as a twisted inversion of Daya and Bennett’s innocent romance with long-term consequences I’m anxious to see unfold given the discomfort I felt here.
By comparison, the show has not done the work to make Alex’s struggle resonate beyond itself, and the same goes for Stella’s arrival to complete a new love triangle. For a show that can do such a great job transforming supporting characters into leads for an episode by connecting them to complex themes, it’s unfortunate they continue to struggle to tie lead characters into those same ideas on a consistent basis, something that the rest of the season will need to grapple with.
- I suppose there’s a base argument that Ruby Rose’s Stella exists solely as an object of sexual temptation, as so clearly outlined by her lengthy nude scene in the bathroom here. I sincerely hope the show doesn’t mistake that for character development.
- I’ve generally found Piper’s giddiness regarding the panty enterprise to be fun, but the worm starts to turn here a bit: I enjoyed her obsessing over reviews at first, but then it just keeps going, at which point you start to see how it’s all gone to her head. If Alex’s paranoia is creating an issue of isolating her, Piper’s business is equal to it in terms of missing perspective.
- So, this is embarrassing, but I had no idea that the woman who has been one of Norma’s central followers was the crying woman on the phone until she showed up during Sophia’s phone call. No idea.
- Speaking of which, it’s weird we don’t know the names of so many of Suzanne’s followers, right? They have lines and something approximating characterization, but the lack of names—at least through dialogue—fascinates me and strikes me as a conscious choice.
- “No Spoilers”—it would appear Frieda didn’t read the featured comment. Shame on you, Frieda.
- “YOU CHURN BUTTER. YOU HARRISON FORD IN WITNESS. YOU A TOTAL WEIRDO”—Chang, continuing to suggest a strong love for 80s movies (which was, not coincidentally according to the flashbacks, also around the time she first came to the United States. I like the idea that she her understanding of Amish culture is comparable to Black Cindy’s understanding of Jewish culture).
- Morello Gonna Morello: “Makes me glad I’ve got both my feet on the ground”—I enjoy how the other inmates roll their eyes at this, even without knowing what we know.
- “Who doesn’t like zippers?”—Leanne should take her baptism standup routine on the road.
- Story Corner: So rumspringa will forever make me think of Claire Danes and former TV Club editor Todd VanDerWerff, and…do you know what, I’m just going to leave you with that and allow you to piece together the story. It’s more fun that way, provided you don’t take it in a Suzanne direction.
- I liked Red’s impassioned denial of responsibility for the food in the kitchen as a comic runner in its own right, but the absence of Healy made me so much more excited about it. So that’s one plus to the wonky Red/Healy dynamic, I guess.
- The continued development of the Judy King story—if not the story itself—is fascinating to me. It’s clearly seeding her arrival to the prison (she more or less admits guilt in this bit of news coverage), but I wonder what led them to so explicitly foreshadow a future inmate in this way. This kind of breadcrumbs storytelling perspective is new for the show, and it’s creating a pretty significant burden for when it eventually reaches its logical end point.
- “Don’t even talk to me about SHRIMPS”—lots of great lines in the Corporate Inquiry Rabbi testimony, but Danielle Brooks just destroyed this line reading for me.