Sigmund Freud was wrong about many, many things. But, in light of “Fool Me Once,” we might consider being a little bit kind about poor Sigmund. Because somewhere along the line, he picked up on something fundamental about human behavior when it comes to making bad choices.
Take a toddler playing in her crib. Children this age will often take a toy and, on the spur of the moment, throw it across the room. Of course, when the child realizes that throwing her toy away means losing it, that she can’t play with it any more, she’ll cry. If you’ve spent much time around toddlers, you have seen this happen. Freud apparently saw it happen, too.
What Freud realized, though, is the part of this routine that has driven every single babysitter in the history of the world to the edge of bleak despair: If you try to solve things for the child, if you pick the lost toy up and bring it to her playpen, she’ll throw it across the room again. Then she’ll freak out. You’ll bring it back again. She’ll throw it. This will happen over and over, until she gets sick of it. The weird part of this game, Freud noticed, was that repeatedly losing something, and repeatedly freaking out over it, seemed to be the point.
This has passed into theory as the “repetition compulsion:” The fact that miserable or traumatized adults never seem to get sick of playing this particular game. They spend their whole lives throwing the same toy, making the same bad decisions — they’ll date 19 versions of the same alcoholic, work their whole lives for a string of equally terrible bosses — for reasons that are still being debated to this day. It could be a desire to self-destruct, it could be a means of numbing themselves, it could be a perverse way of pursuing insight. Some think it’s just habit: Once a certain form of distress gets engraved in your neural pathways, you tend to be more comfortable with that distress than with unfamiliar stimuli, like happiness. But there are probably as many reasons for the repetition compulsion as there are people. In “Fool Me Once,” we get to see several reasons why the people in Litchfield keep throwing their toys.
In the case of Claudette and Taystee, they repeat their mistakes because they don’t have many other options. Taystee comes back to Litchfield, in this episode, and Claudette leaves it. But both of these choices come down to surrendering to what feels like an inevitable, and grim, destiny.
Claudette’s icy Fortress of Solitude has been melting all season long, as she allows herself to take visits from her lifelong crush Jean-Baptiste (the amount of romance between these two characters is The Notebook levels of tear-jerking) and to file for an appeal. She’s even allowed herself to believe that the appeal will be successful. When she tells Piper her plans for her first night as a free woman — “I’m going to eat dinner at dinner time. At seven o’clock. Like a person” — the emphasis Michelle Hurst puts on the word “person” could make you cry.
But when her appeal is denied, she’s got to re-swallow several decades’ worth of repressed emotion all at once. It doesn’t work. It couldn’t work. So when Officer Fischer starts screaming at her, Claudette — who’s spent her life trying to get beyond the idea that she’s just some scary killer — tries to choke her to death. Claudette’s going to Maximum Security, and we won’t be seeing her in Litchfield again.
Which makes it even harsher that this Taystee picks this precise moment to show back up. Claudette encouraged Taystee to have faith, too, back when her own walls were coming down: to believe that she really was a smart girl, that she really could be a legal secretary, that despite having spent her life in institutions, she wasn’t destined to end her life in one. Taystee, meanwhile, took one look around at what “free” meant for an ex-con with no family or material resources — three job interviews a week with no offers, constant surveillance, a $900 debt with no income and no place to live — and walked herself right back into Litchfield. She took the freedom she’d been working for all season, and threw it right across the room.
“Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone,” she says to Poussey. “Don’t nobody ask how my day went. I got fucked up in the head, you know? I know how to play it here.”
And, aside from being yet another showcase for the intensely great chemistry of Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks — their Battle of the Tearful Soliloquies here strikes me as something you only do for two actors that you know will be able to sell every second of it — this scene is also the show’s most direct and effective condemnation of class and the prison-industrial complex. Taystee didn’t have to come back to Litchfield, which is precisely why Poussey tells Taystee off, at length. But the scene itself doesn’t indict Taystee; it calls out the poverty and lack of support that made lifelong imprisonment look like her best option.
Which is worth keeping in mind because, like it or not, this is the episode where we get to know the life story of Pennsatucky.
Pennsatucky is the one female character on this show who hasn’t quite gelled; her conception (the poor hick fundamentalist anti-choicer) seems like lazy liberal-baiting, an encouragement to build a more progressive and inclusive society by hating a whole new set of stereotypes. And her backstory — as a meth addict who had a series of abortions and was traumatized and hurt enough by the process to kill a nurse who made fun of her — is bound to make feminists such as myself uncomfortable. But as a story of how Pennsatucky found faith, and why she needs it, it works better to humanize her than you might expect.
Without her faith in Christ, Pennsatucky is broken. She was broken when she first walked into that abortion clinic, before she became religious, and she’s broken when she realizes that her “faith healing” ability was a lie from Piper, that her relationship with God could be used to fool her. Pennsatucky killed that nurse because she “disrespected” her. But if you’d spent your whole life never being respected, by anyone — being poor, rural, uneducated, the victim of conservative policies and the butt of liberal jokes — couldn’t you, eventually, get angry enough to kill someone? Even if you never pulled the trigger, wouldn’t the rage build up?
But Pennsatucky’s target happened to be politically convenient. Which resulted, eventually, in an exploitative Christian law firm picking her as a hero in the War for the Unborn, making her both a martyr and a saint. Pennsatucky’s vision of God, encouraged by the story the law firm spins for her, is an ugly one: He’s hateful, he’s violent, he’s bigoted. But when she walks into that courtroom, and hears a room full of people cheering and screaming her name, I believe that she does have a genuine religious conversion. If you had never mattered to anyone in your life, encountering all that love at once would be a spiritual experience. It would be a miracle. It would be a sign that somewhere, all along, you were worth something. And you just didn’t know it until He showed up.
Pennsatucky spends a lot of this episode being furious at Piper for lying to her about the faith healing, and later, trying to convert her to Christianity to make things right between them. (To give the writers credit, Piper’s speeches about the joys of atheism are precisely as insufferable and inconsiderate as most well-meaning liberal speeches on this topic.) But Pennsatucky has to be furious at Piper’s lie, because it threatens to expose an even scarier truth: The idea that she was never worth anything, all along. That her lawyer, and those people, didn’t care about her. They cared about proving their point. Pennsatucky decides to kill Piper for her “disrespect” — re-throws her toy, makes her big mistake all over again — because the other option, realizing how profoundly she’s been exploited and disrespected by the fundamentalist Right, would destroy her ability to function.
So Piper’s life is in danger. Which, in classic Piper fashion, she doesn’t even notice. She’s busy throwing her Alex and Larry toys, working out things with her ex — Alex decides to make Piper process her emotions by groping her; Piper later pushes Alex across the room and into a wall screaming “FUCK YOU,” then tells Alex that she loves her; man, these two are great for each other, aren’t they?— and fielding Larry’s last-minute, desperate proposal for an immediate prison marriage. It’s a grim scene all around. To be fair, if I had to choose between being murdered and getting married to Larry, I would have to spend some time considering my options. But, more to the point: No matter how hard these three people are freaking out over their losses at the moment, we can be sure that, the moment they get what they want, they’ll throw it away all over again.