Web Only / Features » September 18, 2013
Orange Is the New Black, Episode 8: Trapped in the Dryer
Pennsatucky traps Alex in a dryer. Complex emotional growth ensues.
But what we haven't seen, prior to this episode, is that Alex can see straight through Piper—and that after she's cut through Piper's iron-plated, three-foot-deep armor of B.S., she loves what she finds there anyway.
Well, here we go. In even the best TV series—and, at this early date, I do count Orange is the New Black as one of the greats—there will come, from time to time, a bum episode. For Battlestar Galactica’s “Pegasus,” there comes a “Black Market”; for every “Hush” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there exists a “Beer Bad.” Which is all to say: I have watched “Moscow Mule,” the eighth episode of Orange is the New Black, at least three or four times. And yet, for the life of me, I can't remember anything about it, other than that this is “the one where Pennsatucky sticks Alex in the dryer.”
It's meaningful, I think, that when I reach for comparisons to Orange is the New Black, my first instinct is to call upon some of my most beloved sci-fi and fantasy TV shows. If you want to take the train out of Nerd Town and enter the respectably landscaped suburbs of prestige TV, the show also reminds me of The Wire. What they all have in common is a commitment to delineating a world with strict and logically coherent rules and then making it feel thoroughly lived in, with deeply human characters that could only exist under these particular conditions.
Orange is the New Black shares that commitment. What began as a very particular, very personal story—“Piper the Twee White Woman Goes to Prison”—broadened and complicated itself, very quickly, to become the story of a community. With a precision that the nerdiest Klingon Summer Camp attendee would envy, it illuminated the basic facts of life at Litchfield—the dismal commissary goods, the barter economy, the official and unofficial penalties for bad behavior—while also giving us a felt sense of what it was to live within it. The show began to feel like one of those over-stuffed mid-20th-century social-realist novels, with endlessly fascinating characters whose names you can never quite remember running around in the background having their own adventures whilst the heroine has an affair and/or questions her relationship with Communism. At its height—“The Chickening” and “WAC Pack”— this style of storytelling was less about any one character than about Litchfield itself. It pinged back and forth between different relationships and cliques, showing how they were all caught up in the tidal drag of the community. High-quality sci-fi reflects how the world's rules shape our lives, but OITNB does that one better: It also asks how we live together in that rule-defined world. And the “we” in this instance, refreshingly, is “women.”
As we head into the home stretch of the first season, however, the narrative’s focus is contracting again, to become very intimate. In the meantime…well, the show is still shifting pieces. And this is the one where Pennsatucky sticks Alex in a dryer.
This is not to say that there's nothing going on. There's always so much going on! Maria, Daya's pregnant roommate, has gone into labor. Daya is throwing up, which can only mean, in Lazy TV Language, that she, too, is pregnant. Pornstache is amping up his campaign aimed at getting Red to run his narcotics operation through the prison, and he’s putting Red's “daughter” Tricia into withdrawal as a means of coercion. Red, in retaliation, is hearkening back to her time running her husband’s part of the Mob and employing Nichols as her enforcer, expelling Tricia from the family for using. Nichols does not take well to this and rats out Red's means of smuggling to Pornstache shortly after he threatens Morello with rape in order to get insight into Red's operation. There's a lot of plot here, and a lot of pieces being shifted into place for the end game. But, as a result, the episode can feel a little scattered, and can't settle into any of the character moments or little details that normally make OITNB so fun to watch.
But, in the midst of all this plot-thickening drama, there is Piper, and there is Alex, and there is the dryer, in which Pennsatucky has locked Alex. And the chemistry between them the two of them is enough to make you question the very existence of a Larry.
Throughout the show, we've gotten glimpses of Alex away from Piper. We've seen that she goes to the Narcotics Anonymous meetings, that she's friendly with Nichols, that she is—when not embroiled in high-stakes conflict with Piper over which is the Evil, Soul-Sucking Bad Girlfriend and Heartless Bitch Who Ruined the Other’s Life—an utterly delightful and likeable person. But what we haven't seen, prior to this episode, is that Alex can see straight through Piper—and that after she's cut through Piper's iron-plated, three-foot-deep armor of B.S., she loves what she finds there anyway. Even trapped in a dryer, Alex can call out Piper's “Park Slope narcissism,” the way she “acts as if she's not accountable for anything that happens in her life, ever.” She can tell Piper, very calmly, “We were never friends. Not for a second.” And when Alex is trapped, helpless and scared, and Piper is hiding the urge to abandon her by doing her whole hopelessly adorable but-what-could-I-possibly-do routine, Alex gives her a clear, simple, correct answer: “I want you to get me out.”
Now: I do not dispute that the chemistry between Piper and Alex is a toxic, explosive, ruin-your-whole-life-for-dumping-me kind of chemistry. Nor do I dispute that Alex's escalating feud with Pennsatucky – which has included a lot of by-the-book homophobia from Pennsatucky and some seriously disturbing, scene-derailing rape threats from Alex (casually turning one of your romantic leads into someone who uses the threat of sexual assault as a weapon, more or less for the sake of a joke, is the type of thing that can wreck a narrative, and threatens to throw an otherwise compelling character into Larry Territory) is unfortunate from a feminist-dogma perspective. But the chemistry exists. Nothing else in the show can match it. A good deal of this episode is two actresses talking in close-up, and in these moments, you get a convincing argument for OITNB shifting its focus entirely into a show that concentrates on the complexity of a few individual relationships. These women know each other. These women understand each other. And in the few, dryer-based moments we get between them in this episode, we understand, for the first time, how much these women deserve to be loved.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady