Features » June 20, 2014
Orange Is the New Black, Season 2, Episode 2: Taystee’s Own Worst Enemy
Taystee is torn, in some fundamental way, between ambition and self-sabotage.
As brilliant as Taystee is, and as hard as she works, she’s always fighting an internal voice that tells her that she should just give in.
Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson was one of the biggest breakout characters of Orange is the New Black's first season—warm, funny, and smart, she was exactly the sort of person we’d want to know in real life. But she was also torn, in some fundamental way, between ambition and self-sabotage: One week, she'd be working her ass off to get an early release as she dreamed about becoming a paralegal. Then, just a few weeks later, she'd intentionally break parole to get back into Litchfield, saying that she couldn't survive outside, that she wasn't capable of it, and that prison was the best she could do.
It was a statement about how hard the world is for people with criminal records, yes—particularly poor and marginalized people. But it also seemed to speak to some divide in Taystee herself. It's not giving away too much to say that this season of Orange is the New Black is, basically, a fight to see which part of Taystee will win out. And in this episode, we glimpse where that fracture originated: We finally get to see exactly how Taystee grew up. Which means we also get to meet Vee—one of the scariest and most toxic mother figures this show (which has a great fondness for toxic mother figures) has ever created.
In Litchfield, the ladies are preparing for a “Dress for Success” mock job fair. It’s a chance to finally catch up with all the many characters who are not Piper—Red is still languishing in a pit of unkempt depression, having lost her job and family; Gloria and Aleida are engaged in a struggle to, um, help Daya cure her constipation; Big Boo had sex with her dog, which I never want to hear or think about again—and it’s also a dog-and-pony show arranged by corrupt administrator Fig, who’s had her embezzlement sniffed out by a journalist.
Fig, you see, wants to demonstrate how many wholesome self-improvement programs she provides to Litchfield’s inmates. And as far as that goes, the “Job Fair” is about the least helpful program you can imagine: For the “interview outfit” competition, the horrendous Dress for Success woman running the thing puts Morello in a sailor suit, Leeanne in what looks like a pastel-toned version of the horrifying ‘90s monstrosities Dana Scully wore in early X-Files episodes, and Cindy in the only plus-size dress on the rack, a 900-year-old pinkish-brown thing that looks like it may have begun its life as an exceptionally boring curtain. She summarily eliminates the three of them first, making nasty comments about how awful they look. Like everything else in Litchfield, what looks like “help” turns out to be an exercise in dehumanization.
Nevertheless, Taystee is playing to win. She specifically picks the winning outfit from the last job fair in order to get herself through the outfit-judging process; she’s sure that, if she aces the mock job interview that comes next, she’ll be offered a real job outside the prison, just like what supposedly happened at the last job fair. Taystee is very familiar with the auditioning process, largely because she (as we learn in her flashbacks) spent much of her childhood auditioning for love at “Black Adoption Fairs,” where she’s promised she might meet her “forever family.”
But the forever family doesn’t come. Taystee can recite the periodic table; she can sing; she’s smart, she’s affectionate, she’s charming. But she’s never enough. Into that void slithers Vee, the friendly neighborhood drug dealer, who tells her that she’s not young, not cute; she’s “too dark,” and her hair’s “ratsy.” She’s never going to find a family to adopt her, Vee says, but hey: There’s always the drug business. Why, Vee just happens to run just such a business—using orphaned children as dealers—and she provides a very comfortable home.
It’s a horrifying scene, in large part because of the casual way Lorraine Toussaint plays it. I mean, this is a woman predatory enough to break down a small child’s self-esteem as a means of roping her into criminal activity, yet Toussaint delivers all these devastating comments as if she’s just making small talk. She frames each insult as a bit of helpful honesty, which, of course, is how it works. Abusers aren’t trying to scare you away, after all. They’re only trying to convince you that you deserve what they put you through; that they’re the best you can do. This first time around, Taystee sees the lie in what Vee’s saying and rejects her offer. But the hooks are in. The damage has already started.
Because it turns out that this is how it’s going to work for the rest of Taystee’s life: She’ll spend years telling Vee that she doesn’t want to be a dealer, and she’ll try incredibly hard to make something of herself. But Vee never lets up. Every time Taystee talks about wanting something more—a family, a career on Wall Street, even just a crappy job at a fast-food chain—Vee tells her that it will never happen, and that dealing is her best shot. (“You're from this neighborhood,” Vee tells her when she starts talking about Wall Street. “You don’t get a career, you get a job.”) Until, finally, after fleeing from an abusive foster home, Taystee joins Vee’s operation. It looks like a home; it feels like family. And all she has to do is bag heroin, living with the chance that she—like her “brother” RJ—might one day get cornered by the police and shot. Again, it might appear to be help, but it’s only dehumanization: Taystee can get a place to live and something like love, but only at the cost of giving up on herself, of agreeing with Vee that a future as a drug dealer is all she deserves.
So this is where that conflict started. Vee is the person who told the essential lie that Taystee is always trying to disprove: As brilliant as Taystee is, and as hard as she works, she’s always fighting an internal voice that tells her that she should just give in.
But she does a very, very good job at fighting it. With Poussey’s help and unconditional adoration during their prep time, Taystee absolutely crushes the “mock job interview” round, and it’s simultaneously thrilling and heartbreaking. Taystee, we see, would be great at just about any job on the planet. She’s not only smart (in addition to everything else, we learn this episode that she’s great at math, can memorize anything, and once, as a teenager, formulated an effective branding strategy over dinner) but the sheer focus and force of will she applies to even a process like this one is awesome to behold. She works like someone who needs a chance to prove herself—which, of course, she is, and which is exactly why she’ll probably never get it.
The saddest thing about what Vee tells Taystee is that parts of it are correct. Being a woman of color raised in the foster care system, with a criminal record and whose only work experience is “food service” and “selling heroin,” means that you’ll probably never get that one big chance, even if you are the smartest and hardest-working person in just about any room.
Because the job interview, too, is “help” that doesn’t help her. When Taystee asks Fig about the chance of getting that real job, Fig screams at her and calls her a child. She tells Taystee she doesn’t deserve a reward, and that “You do your best because it’s what you’re supposed to do.” Which is the story of Taystee’s life: She’s always done her best because she’s supposed to, and she’s never gotten anything like a fair payoff for it. In fact, she’s so used to it that, when Fig offers her the meager prize of $10 in her commissary account, she’s actually grateful.
“That’s something,” she says.
Just like the false protection of Vee was “something,” or a little bit of attention at the adoption fair was something, or a job at a fast-food chain was something. There’s always something, it’s just never what Taystee deserves. And, right as Taystee is getting ready to give up one more time—to settle for less than she knows she can do—Vee walks in as Litchfield’s newest inmate.
Taystee’s spent her whole life following Vee’s vision for her future rather than her own. And now, the woman who broke her down is standing right in front of her. It can’t be anything like a happy reunion. It’s just a sign that the old fight is back on.
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.