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.
“When is it enough for you?”
It happens quickly. The video of Piscatella abusing Alex spreads like wildfire. Public sentiment turns against the state and MCC. Fig is told to agree to all of Taystee’s demands that are within the State’s control. It happens so quickly, in fact, that it’s almost a done deal before the prisoners—led by Maria—can make their way to the authorities.
It happens too quickly, to be fair: unless the show was dramatically lying to us about the timeline of events in the previous episode, the idea that the clip of Piscatella could go viral and inspire mass outrage this quickly is absurd, especially when you consider the discovery of the video and the guards’ escape seemed roughly concurrent. How did hundreds of thousands of people find the video in somewhere between 15 minutes and—at most—an hour? That’s something the show doesn’t want us to fixate on, because it wants our temporal focus on the moment when Taystee could have had a deal and threw it away without knowing she had lost all of her leverage.
In truth, Taystee was never going to have a deal: her hostages were already gone by the time the offer was made, which meant she never would have been able to deliver them as promised. But she doesn’t know that in the moment when she refuses to budge on the demand for justice for Poussey after being told it was out of the state’s jurisdiction. She also doesn’t know it when she’s told by Ouija and Pidge that Maria and Gloria helped the hostages escape. As she runs back to intake trying to stop the invasion she instinctively knows is coming, she believes that she had a chance to dramatically change the lives of everyone in that prison, and instead she chose to fight for personal justice.
That is an oversimplification: justice for Poussey is not just for Taystee and the black inmates, but also technically for everyone. But there is a reason it was ninth of the list of demands, and the realities that resulted in the inmates’ prioritizing of other factors have not change in the midst of the riot. Everyone in that prison cares about justice, but they define it in different ways, and only those who knew Poussey would likely think of justice in terms of her death. This doesn’t make them cruel or heartless: it makes them human, focused on how injustices they deal with every day could be solved through these negotiations, or potentially on similarly “personal” injustices that they’re feeling. None of these prisoners seem indifferent to injustice: they just see different ways of addressing it—some narrow, and some broad.
The goal of “Tattoo You” is to prepare us for the raid that moves its way toward the doors at the end of the episode, moving pieces into place and especially narrowing in on the theme of responsibility that is echoing through the final stages of this riot. Lots of people have reason to believe that they were in some way responsible for what is about to happen. Taystee’s look of dismay that ends the episode is the strongest example of this, but what about Gloria locked away without access to her son, or Maria sitting on the outside with no promises of assistance given her deal is with a company with zero power over the situation? And while those individuals might be most directly responsible for the situation with the hostages, everyone feels some responsibility depending on who survives the coming infiltration. How would Black Cindy feel if Suzanne wakes up from her catatonic state and panics, or doesn’t wake up at all? How does Red live with herself if one of the weapons Piscatella brought into the prison ends up getting one of her own killed in the crossfire? Would Boo feel guilty if her icing out of Pennsatucky leads to tragedy when she’s discovered in the guards quarters wearing Coates’ shirt in his bed?
As Red said in the previous episode, no one person is responsible for any given situation, but nearly every character carries some level of responsibility for what’s happening in this situation. The riot is, after all, a byproduct of the entire first four seasons of development, and the ongoing tensions in Litchfield: if you go back far enough, even those characters who mostly sat out the riot contributed to the chain of events that led up to it, meaning that there is no one—except perhaps Chang—who can reasonably say that this has nothing to do with them. “Tattoo You” is the final accounting, the calm before the storm that the entire season has been building towards. The season has successfully convinced me that there will be consequences from what is about to transpire, and it’s time now to discover just how much tragedy we are about to endure after a season sparked by the tragedy at the end of last season. Poussey got a denouement with her final flashback, but there appears to be no such relief here, as it will be tragedy that brings the season to a close in its final installment.
I imagine that the number of viewers who stopped watching after this episode to read this review are slim, given how much suspense is created by the final shot of Taystee watching the SWAT team storming the doors. But the episode also features a storyline mostly disconnected with that development, as Piper and Alex continue their tense relationship over the course of the season. In a season where these two took a major back seat compared to any other season, the brief calm allows us to explore their history with tattoos, and show us more of their reflection on their self-destructive bond. There is no new information in this story: we knew that Alex was the one who got Piper arrested, and it’s not a huge shocked that Larry would get the Kool-Aid man tattooed on his ass. But it shows us the two characters working through the mess of their love for one another, which reframes their bickering this season as them struggling to have a “normal” relationship when given the opportunity. And after a phone call with her mother, Piper decides their near death experience has given her newfound perspective on her love for Alex, and asks her to marry her.
I’ve never bought into this romance as a core of Orange Is The New Black: it felt like a carryover from the earlier seasons without much relevant to the story as it evolved. And while I thought this was a well rendered story and I didn’t mind a chance to focus on two characters that I’m invested in but were (logically) marginalized this season, it also struck me as a huge red flag about the fate of these two women. Without having watched the episode that follows, my immediate presumption was that it seems highly unlikely both Piper and Alex will survive what’s about to follow. It was so obvious that I’ve convinced myself it’s a red herring, but perhaps that’s all part of their plan. Regardless, though, I do think that the sudden shift toward their relationship seemed like too much of a narrative setup, and maybe not as subtle as the material in the prison itself.
But is anything subtle anymore? It’s not as though the subtleties are going to be noticed by the nameless SWAT team entering the prison—they don’t know anything about these women, as likely to dehumanize them as MCC was. Red tells Piscatella that “in addition to not seeing yourself, you can’t see me,” and it’s the show making the argument that all of this is built on fundamental misunderstandings about prisoners, often built around people’s inability to understand their own humanity. But that lesson is not going to be part of this SWAT raid, and so the question becomes how the show explores the human consequences of the chaos about to descend on Litchfield.
- “May you never have a day’s peace. Never.”—so, given that Michael J. Harney is still in the opening credits on my screeners, I was pretty convinced that Bayley was going to end up in the same mental hospital as Healy, but instead his parents let him get on a bus by himself to see Poussey’s father to try to atone for his sins? I have no idea what’s happening in this story anymore.
- You would think the government would have looked over the images of the hostages carefully and known that Maria wasn’t one of them, but obviously things are happening fast: they should also know that Luschek is missing, which somehow never came up.
- Linda from Purchasing is going to be an interesting wild card: Boo basically has the inmates tar and feather her for being responsible for their suffering, but how far that will extend amidst the conflict ahead is a different question.
- “It’s a fish tattoo of destiny”—what is this, “Stranger in a Strange Land” over here?
- Pennsatucky grabbed a gun while touring through the guards quarters in the woods, which I have to think was far from an accident.
- Nicky doing Lorna a solid was a great little moment of calm, romantic in ways that Piper and Alex really isn’t—while the latter’s domestic squabbles seem petty, Nicky and Lorna have been on a long rollercoaster, and so to see Nicky embrace Lorna’s pregnancy (and offer her confirmation) and then call Vinny is a nice coda for a messy, self-destructive relationship that is nonetheless built on an intense love.
- I just want to reiterate that I am going to need the writers to show me a minute-by-minute breakdown of what happened across these two episodes, because the timeline makes zero sense.
- They don’t actually mention it specifically, but I like the idea that Piper’s history with tattoos as a way of marking relationships continued when she gave herself the infinity tattoo to signal her independence. A lot of season four has faded in the wake of the larger tragedy, but her arc there still resonates with me.