Friends: We have come, at last, to the day every Orange Is the New Black recapper dreads. There is a monster at the heart of this show, a human vortex so hideous and destructive that many would prefer not to speak of him at all. But speak we must. For the first time, we are forced to consider Larry.
To date, he’s mostly been a bore, verging on an irritant. He pops into the worst experience of Piper’s life to visit, and invariably either freaks out over the possibility that she’ll “turn gay” or attempts to pressure her into sexual acts. But in this episode, Larry becomes a full-blown villain. He’s received an offer from the New York Times to write about Piper’s imprisonment. When Piper tells him she’s uncomfortable with the idea, he goes ahead and publishes it behind her back.
Which is not the worst thing he does. The worst thing he does is this: He goes to a bar, to celebrate, and begins whining about Piper. Her imprisonment is so hard, for him! He deserves to have a girlfriend next to him at the bar, so that he doesn’t “look like a loser!” When his friends ditch him, he starts flirting with the bartender. And when that doesn’t work, he begins yelling at the bartender about how angry he is that he can’t have sex with her, and making mucho inappropriate comments about this female service professional’s ass, and insisting that this is, somehow, all Piper’s fault.
Piper’s upset because she’s been starved, sexually assaulted, stalked, verbally abused, impoverished, placed in indentured servitude, and forcibly removed from her own life. Larry’s upset because he can’t sexually harass a woman without feeling sort of guilty. This scene doesn’t only make Larry look weak. It makes him look stupid, heartless, misogynistic and monstrously selfish. The Larry-Piper-Alex “love triangle” has been simmering all season long. But from this point forward, no reasonable viewer will be able to root for Larry.
Which is a shame, because the rest of the episode focuses on some of the show’s most lovable characters — namely Janae Watson, recently released from SHU, and Taystee, who may be getting released from Litchfield altogether.
The Women’s Advisory Council — hand-picked by Healy — has assembled, just like the Avengers, except that they can’t actually do anything. The team: Maria Ruiz (Daya’s pregnant roommate, who wants more pillows), Piper (the self-appointed Captain America, who wants the reform of every single bad prison policy, and also a promotion to GED teacher so that she can serve as a more effective White Savior), and Chang, an elderly Asian woman who either (a) has Alzheimer’s, (b) doesn’t speak much English, and/or © does not give half a shit for any of this WAC business. Either way, Chang isn’t talking. And finally, there’s Taystee, the only member who actually campaigned to be on the council, and we finally know why: She could be released, very soon, and she needs a recommendation from Healy in order to make it happen. Which means that, being a smart woman, she’s going to give Healy precisely what he wants so that she can get what she needs.
This isn’t good enough for Piper, however, because Janae is finally out of solitary, and she knows it was Piper’s mistake that put her there. Janae, we learn, was a supremely gifted track and field athlete in high school, with scholarships, college and a happy future in front of her. What Janae did not have in front of her, however, was Dudes. Since she was a little girl, she’s been a prodigy, and every time she showed other people what she could do, she had some boy or another accusing her of “showing off.” The mute look of confusion and loneliness on Janae’s face every time she gets shut out or ignored or insulted is just a heartbreaker, and the strongest selling point of what is probably OITNB’s strongest feminist story line. Janae is good at something, actually good; so, why is being good so bad?
Any strong-minded or talented woman in the audience can connect with that look. And lots of them probably know that this kind of confusion has an expiration date on it. Once you figure out what’s really going on, and why those boys really dislike you, it tips inevitably into rage. And Janae figures it out in the worst way possible: She finally finds a dude who doesn’t seem scared of her. He’s a robber, and he figures Janae will be really useful for the getaway. When he figures out that she’ll be getting away, and he won’t, he throws one last bit of shame her way. It slows her down. And here she is, in Litchfield, serving his time — failing so that some man can succeed, the way she was always intended to — with a rage the size of the world eating her alive.
Meanwhile, Taystee is figuring out exactly how to make the world allow her to succeed. This is the first serious plotline for Taystee, who has largely served as comic relief up to this point, and it’s a pleasure to see more depth and vulnerability added to the character. Then there’s the fact that more Taystee also means more Poussey, and the chemistry between the actresses — just as Danielle Brooks’ elastic voice is made for hitting laugh lines, Samira Wiley is a grand master of the bewildered reaction shot — is enough to make you understand why there’s a fervent Internet fandom devoted to their scenes. Taystee, Poussey and Cindy run over Taystee’s testimony, her word choice and her hair (should she go for the unthreatening, Eat, Pray, Love-invoking “Viola Davis,” or leverage Chris Brown hate with a “2009 Rihanna” model?), and we begin to get a sense of just how high the deck is stacked against Taystee, and how much that must weigh on her. In what seems like a slap at big parts of OITNB’s audience, the group tells her to pray for a review committee of white women who will feel good about themselves for being nice to her.
Speaking of over-compensating white ladies: Piper, whose saintly self-concept makes her unable to tolerate three seconds of dislike from any other human being on the planet, has landed square in the middle of Janae’s very justified anger. And, in a horrified bid to retain her title of Nicest Lady In The World, she’s leveraging every institutional connection she has — selling out Satan Stall Lady and her contraband cell phone, going behind Healy’s back to ply a soft-hearted guard — to get the track re-opened for Janae. She succeeds, and the smile on Janae’s face when she gets to excel for even a minute will make you cry. But the look Healy’s giving Piper, as the episode closes… Well. That look communicates a level of hate matched only by the look on my face when I see Larry.
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.