Web Only / Features » June 13, 2014
Orange is The New Black, Season 2, Episode 1: It’s All About Piper
If you are not a fan of cockroaches or Piper, you are out of luck.
The show excels at making the point that the dehumanizing effects of prison life can stem not only from open abuse of power, but from simple neglect.
Okay, pop quiz: What are the two least appealing ways you could possibly pitch an episode of Orange is the New Black? If you answered “it’s an episode entirely about Piper” and “it’s an episode about touching gigantic cockroaches,” in that order, you are correct. You are also out of luck, for the season premiere of Orange is the New Black is an entirely Piper-centric episode, set outside of Litchfield and featuring almost none of the other recurring characters, in which she spends much of her time hunting for gigantic, disgusting cockroaches. She carries one of them around in her bra.
Which is not to say that it’s a bad episode. It’s just to say that Orange is the New Black has attained much of its enormous and rabid fan base by building Litchfield prison into a big, complex, lived-in world. (Right next to me, in a Brooklyn coffee shop, two women are having an enthusiastic discussion about this show, and Laverne Cox specifically; in a year of TV recaps and coffee shop work days, I have not encountered this kind of everywhere-you-look love for any other show). Orange is the New Black has a ridiculously deep bench: There are at least 16 women in the main cast, and each could plausibly carry her own arc. Meanwhile, Piper—the show’s nominal lead, a fluttery, self-obsessed WASP who’s serving a year in Litchfield for drug trafficking—is, like Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or McNulty on The Wire, usually the least compelling part of her own show.
It’s not Taylor Schilling’s fault, or even the show’s fault; Piper is, I think, designed to be irritating. She exhibits all the privilege enjoyed by many of the show’s white and middle-class viewers, and asks all of the obvious, if stupid, questions they would ask, simply so we can get the answers to those questions, and see how out-of-place her sort of entitlement is in prison. Given that her character is often a walking exposition prompt (“tell me, fellow inmate, are prisoners treated well in solitary?” “No, indeed they are not; I shall now elucidate many reasons why solitary confinement is unpleasant”), Schilling does a remarkably good and nuanced job of building Piper’s oblivious, Gwyneth-Paltrow-goes-to-jail shtick into a recognizably human character. And, true to showrunner Jenji Kohan’s promise that Piper was a “Trojan horse” through which to tell the stories of a wider, more diverse group of women, Piper does wind up ceding the spotlight a bit in the later episodes of this season.
That said, it only makes sense that we’d need to start the season by catching up on Piper’s plotline: The last time we saw her, she had been dumped by her fiancé Larry, tanked her relationship with her girlfriend Alex, and was in the process of apparently beating fellow inmate Pennsatucky to death with her bare hands.
Since the beating—which was brutal, but not unprovoked; Pennsatucky, if you’ll recall, had cornered Piper in the prison yard, and intended to kill her—Piper has been in solitary. She doesn’t know whether Pennsatucky is alive or dead, whether she’ll have time added to her sentence or not, whether she’ll be re-sentenced for murder or not. And, like any reasonable person, she’s decided to soothe her troubled mind by painting murals on the wall with her breakfast. (“I hate cooked yolks,” Piper indignantly informs a guard, still not getting the whole “prison” thing.) All this uncertainty makes it all the more terrifying when she’s yanked out of her cell in the middle of the night by guards who refuse to tell her where they’re taking her or why, and put on first a bus, and then a plane, with no clue as to what her destination might be.
Director Jodie Foster (who directed last season’s stand-out episode about Sophia Burset’s transition) does a great job with this sequence, which is genuinely frightening. Some people have faulted OITNB for underplaying the danger and degradation of prison life; one side effect of its broad empathy and compelling characters is that you almost wouldn’t mind hanging out in Litchfield, which, of course, is the precise opposite of the point. Still, if there’s one feeling that OITNB has always excelled at portraying, it’s helplessness: the degradation and anxiety of not being able to control basic things like getting your medication, or eating lunch, or going to the bathroom. The show excels at making the point that the dehumanizing effects of prison life can stem not only from open abuse of power, but from simple neglect. This sequence ratchets that feeling of helplessness up to 11: Not only does Piper not know where she’s going, not only do the guards refuse to give her information, not only is she handcuffed too tightly for asking questions, but she needs to pee and can’t even get to a bathroom without earning the goodwill of a guard. It’s wonderfully done.
Which is something I feel the need to point out, because the rest of the episode? Not so hot. Piper eventually winds up in Chicago’s co-ed Metropolitan Detention Center, which is grim enough to make Litchfield look like a weekend in the Hamptons. One of her roommates has killed 13 people. Another—after obsessing over Piper’s astrological chart and eventually climbing up into Piper’s bunk at night to lick her face—reveals that she bit her girlfriend’s tongue off. One of the male prisoners fixates on Piper and starts issuing rape threats. When Piper starts to make friends in the prison yard, they promptly beat the friend she made on the plane—a fabulous, and criminally under-utilized, Lori Petty—into a pulp for having an annoying voice.
There are lots of careful parallels to the pilot: Just like last year, Piper immediately falls afoul of her fellow inmates and has to “make it right.” In this case she accidentally steps on a cockroach that’s been trained to ferry cigarettes between cells, and is ordered to find a replacement cockroach. The inmate who fixates on Piper and licks her face is, basically, a scarier version of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, who fixates on Piper in the first season. And that leads us to an unfortunate parallel: The man who threatens Piper with rape is a man of color, meaning that the most offensive thing about that Suzanne plotline—the “scary black people all want to have sex with this poor white lady” factor—is also present in this episode. OITNB: Can we just not with this particular bit of racism?
And, just like last year, Piper unexpectedly runs into Alex in prison. It’s Alex who finally tells Piper that Pennsatucky survived the beating, and reveals the reason for the trip to Chicago: Kubra, the head of the drug trafficking ring they both worked for, is finally standing trial. They’re being called to the stand to give the testimony that puts him away.
And Alex would really, strongly prefer not to give that testimony. If Kubra isn’t convicted, she explains, he will almost certainly retaliate against both Piper and Alex for testifying against them. Alex plans to lie on the stand, and claim that she never met Kubra personally, and she needs Piper to tell the same lie, so that Alex doesn’t get added time for perjury.
Enter many boring flashbacks of Piper's childhood,where Piper encounters circumstances where she is pressured to lie. Aside from a brief glimpse at Piper’s grandmother, who seems like the only kind and stable adult in Piper’s uptight emotional ice-planet of an upbringing, there’s very little we learn here that isn’t conveyed much better in the main plot line.
Meanwhile, Piper retains the counsel of a very fed-up Larry’s Dad (when Piper tries to play him by affirming that “Larry is what I miss most,” he snaps back “Larry is a who, not a what,” which is the distinction Piper fails to make with people in general). Upon his advice, Piper insists to Alex that she has to tell the truth, because it’s the right thing to do.
If Piper’s too self-absorbed to make the distinction between “what” and “who,” Alex is too selfish to make the distinction between her choices and everyone else’s: Piper uses people for comfort, but Alex treats the people in her life like extensions of her own agenda. I love the on-screen chemistry of these characters, who are both terrible girlfriends, and even friends: You’ll notice that it takes all of thirty seconds for Alex to start pushing Piper into doing just one little favor, breaking the rules just a little bit for poor old Alex, which is exactly what landed them both in prison in the first place. And you’ll notice that Piper immediately spins this into a story about the incredible specialness and suffering of Piper—so morally upright! So put-upon! So pure!—rather than taking Alex’s very real fear into account.
But Alex’s manipulations are, as usual, effective: Piper freezes up on the stand and says that she can’t recall ever meeting Kubra.
“I was there for Alex. She was what I paid attention to,” Piper says. Then corrects herself: “Who I paid attention to.”
I’m still not sure Piper has changed enough to know the difference. But Alex hasn’t changed a bit: While Piper’s back in her cell, having now been dumped as a client by Larry’s dad, in waltzes Alex, wearing street clothes. She decided to tell the truth after all, she says, and as a result, she’s been set free. Oh, and Piper might be facing some perjury charges and added time. So there’s one last parallel to the pilot: Doing even one, little, tiny favor for Alex Vause will, without fail, screw up your life irreparably. And, because Piper failed to recognize that—because she cared enough about Alex to bend the rules—she’s going to Litchfield prison.
The only consolation, of course, is that—just like last year—when Piper goes to Litchfield, we do too.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady