As you might infer from its title, “Tall Men With Feelings” — the last big stage-setting episode before Orange Is The New Black’s finale — is almost entirely about how people deal with pain.
Pain is a dangerous thing. It can certainly bring people together: Witness the warmth of the inmates’ impromptu funeral for Tricia, where everyone, even the apparently disengaged Chang, shows up to give some kind of comfort to her friends. But that’s just half of the story. Pain also makes people act out; it leads people to forget how their actions can impact others. Even witnessing someone else’s pain can bring out the worst in you: It can make you unkind, selfish and emotionally distant. In the wake of Tricia’s death — and, lest we forget, Healy’s helpful little call to Larry about the “lesbian affections” that put Piper in SHU — there are a whole lot of people in emotional turmoil around Litchfield. In almost every instance, they decide to deal with it by hurting someone else. Most of the time, they don’t even really understand what they’re doing wrong.
Maybe it’s best to take this, then, as a series of case studies. There are a lot of ways to go wrong when reacting to pain, whether it’s your own or someone else’s. Consider this episode as a map of routes not to take.
Pornstache and Bennett
Unfortunately, lots of the heavy thematic lifting in this episode is done by two of the show’s weakest characters, with Pornstache taking the lead and Bennett serving as his sounding board.
Orange is the New Black’s problem with these characters is the precise inverse of the problem with most mainstream media: Whereas the show’s female characters are almost invariably written with depth and nuance, the male characters are only interesting insofar as they affect the women. Pornstache is a (nearly literal) moustache-twirling villain; Bennett is a two-dimensional Disney prince. So a scene where they go out for drinks and have a conversation might seem, at first glance, like a good time to make a trip to the bathroom.
It’s worth looking closer. Because for Pornstache, pain takes the form of narcissism. After having abused and killed Tricia, he honestly believes himself to be a victim, a guy who nearly lost his job over some worthless junkie; he views his callous attitude toward her death as a way of putting on a brave face and hiding his own all-important emotional needs. When women approach him at the bar, he calls them “fucking sluts” to their faces, then wonders why they don’t care about his feelings — or, for that matter, why none of the inmates he sexually harasses or terrorizes ever think to ask about his day.
“These fucking bitches look at me like I’m some goddamned piece of meat, like a fucking sex toy, but I’m a human being, man. I’m a person with feelings and emotions,” he complains. Then he drops the title: “They think I’m so tall my feelings don’t get hurt.”
Pornstache is committed to harming women, but he’s also entitled enough to be hurt when his victims don’t love him. This particular strain of toxic self-pity will come up again — and again, it will be a man who voices it, which may be a particularly feminist take on the matter — but that’s not to say that the women have no poison of their own to spread.
Red and Daya
Red has always been about power and control. Sure, she defines her network of subordinates as a “family,” with her as its matriarch, but Tony Soprano was the head of a family, too. Red’s focus is on resource — she uses her fellow inmates’ desires to get what she needs and controls the flow of what passes in Litchfield for wealth. And when Pornstache threatens that resource, she turns to Daya as an unwitting agent of revenge against him.
When she learns of Daya’s pregnancy, Red presents herself as a savior, telling Daya that if she has sex with Pornstache and frames him for rape, she can both avoid getting sent to Maximum Security and keep Bennett from being convicted as a sex offender for their relationship. (Two things: First, they’re not technically “framing” him if Daya can’t legally consent. Second, given what we know of Pornstache’s sexually abusive history, and specifically his history with Tricia, this feels like a form of justice. Hinging a plot line on a false rape accusation is still problematic, though, no matter how you slice it.) Daya, reluctantly enough, goes through with the plan.
As nauseating as it is to watch Pornstache have sex with one more coerced and helpless woman, the real chill in these scenes, comes from seeing what’s underneath Red’s maternal act. She plays the fairy godmother to Daya, making compassionate speeches and sympathetic faces at all the right times. But it’s all for show: The moment Daya turns her back, the kindly middle-aged Mommy is gone. What we see, instead, is rage. Rage for Tricia, yes, but also rage for how Tricia’s death proved how all Red’s carefully acquired power wasn’t worth a thing. The sex between Daya and Pornstache is unmistakably a violation of Daya’s body and her autonomy, and Red is a perpetrator of that violation. By the end of the episode, Daya is breaking down in messy sobs while Red orders her on to further degradation.
Red’s retaliation against Pornstache almost seems like fitting consequences for him, except that her pain drives her to hardly notice the innocent people she’s hurting along the way.
Piper and Alex
In the midst of all this, the flashbacks show us how Piper and Alex fell apart the first time around. And it’s not a good showing for anyone.
First: Piper, who is more than willing to enjoy the luxury and travel involved in having a drug dealer as a girlfriend, is entirely put out by the fact that her girlfriend has to spend time drug dealing. Alex, meanwhile, giddily walks all over Piper’s boundaries, trying to drag her into performing yet more trafficking services for the cartel. After they fight and break up, Alex hides Piper’s passport so that she can’t leave.
And then Alex’s mom dies, and things get really ugly. Piper offers some surface-level condolences, but retrieves her passport and walks out on Alex rather than doing anything at all supportive, like helping her to arrange the funeral. Alex is obviously distraught, but she’s still got an angle: She’s milking her (legitimate) grief to keep Piper around, to force her back into a relationship. She hid the passport before she got the news about her mother.
Bailing on a live-in partner the moment they’ve lost their only parent is massively selfish behavior; it’s saying that your pain is so important that you can’t be accountable to anyone else’s needs. Trying to trick someone into being in a relationship they don’t want is massively toxic behavior; it’s saying that your pain is so important that no one else has the right to decide on their own response to it. And this isn’t just a story about a bad breakup in the past. Ten years later, Piper is still selfish, and Alex is still manipulative. All the elements of the original catastrophe are still in place. It’s not just that Alex and Piper are bad for each other: Neither of these women, at this point in their lives, should be in a relationship with anyone.
And yet, here they are, with each other. Which leads us to:
Larry and Larry’s Career
Oh, sure. There might have been a woman named Piper involved in Larry’s plot line and/or affections, at some point. But right now, Larry is avoiding Piper’s calls and neglecting to inform her that he’s going to be on NPR talking about what a great guy he is for dating her. Piper has to learn the big news secondhand from the other inmates. The only thing Larry really loves — and this, I suspect, has been true all along — is getting attention for himself.
And he gets plenty of attention, all right. While Piper is making her peace with Crazy Eyes — in one of the saddest, most surprising scenes in the series, in which Suzanne gently cares for Piper after she’s fallen and hurt her knee, apologizes for acting out, explains how frustrating it is for her to be mentally ill and how abusive the prison’s psych ward is, and then, finally, asks why everyone calls her Crazy Eyes — Larry is on the radio, telling charming little stories about the “crazy woman” who wrote an “awful poem” for Larry’s fiancée. Oh, and her mean old roommate who probably killed somebody. And all these other wacky, dangerous, inhuman criminals Piper’s locked up with, and how it sure would be awful if Piper were sleeping with one of them, wouldn’t it, now?
Yes, Larry knows that Piper’s been sleeping with Alex. And yes, he’s legitimately hurt by this fact. But here’s something else he knows: Saying a cruel word to the wrong inmate nearly got Piper starved to death back when she first got to Litchfield. Now, he’s exposed every cruel word she’s ever spoken in a public forum, with the whole of Litchfield listening in. The narcissism of Larry’s pain is so consuming that he’s perfectly fine with the idea that Piper might die for cheating on Larry. His callow exploitation of these “funny prison stories” might just be one more sign of his self-absorption, but it’s clearly fueled by real anger, and he has every reason to believe that one or more of the people he’s pissing off could take action against Piper. And when he finally picks up the phone, after setting up what might very well be her death, all he can do is scold her and scream at her and say things like “God forbid I get to dictate the conversation,” as if he hasn’t just dictated the shape of her life for the foreseeable future.
And then he tells her that Alex named her as an accomplice, just to spoil one more relationship for her. Just like Pornstache, Larry’s self-pity dictates that, if he has to suffer, everyone else must, too. At that exact moment, Pennsatucky emerges from the terrors of the psych ward. One more person in pain has been suddenly added to the equation, and she has every reason to blame Piper, given that Piper’s confessed to the gaslighting that put her in psych. If all this pain has shown us anything, it’s that more agony will no doubt ensue.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are 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 them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.