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What, friends, is the chicken?
The chicken, from the moment we and Piper Chapman see her in the prison yard, is clearly not meant to be at Litchfield. The chicken, we learn from legends of the chicken, is not meant to be domesticated or contained at all. The chicken is a survivor. The chicken has outwitted and outrun all those who would do harm to the chicken. The chicken contains whatever it is you most want or need or miss, and the chicken can pass through impassable barriers, and the chicken will always win, for the chicken is, in her nature, free. And she is, always, a “she.”
For the chicken, it would seem, is the soul of every woman at Litchfield. She’s also the driving force behind some of the silliest, most gleefully absurd comedy that Orange is the New Black does in its first season, from the utterly odd yet somehow hilarious roll call of bird name — “pheasant,” “spruce grouse,” “American Bald Eagle” — to Red’s now-infamous pronouncement that “all I wanted to do was eat the chicken that is smarter than other chickens and absorb its power.” (If you have a social media feed of any kind, and you could somehow hear that line WITHOUT immediately typing it verbatim into the nearest open window, my congratulations.)
It’s also a sign of the next step Orange is the New Black is taking in its storytelling. Whereas the first four episodes could be segmented neatly into Things That Happened To Piper (“Piper Arrives,” “Piper Makes an Enemy,” “Piper Makes a Friend,” “Piper’s New Roommate”), with other inhabitants of Litchfield gradually gaining space to dominate the narratives, the fifth episode’s main driving engine is something that happens to a community. It’s not about any one person, but about a group dynamic, with the Women Who Run With The Chickens fever spreading from one group to the next to the next. And in the middle of all that, the time spent with disparate couples of women — Nichols and Morello breaking up, Sophia and Sister Ingalls learning to like each other, Alex and Piper in their mutual battle of spoken-aloud passive-aggressive subtweets — is almost evenly spread out.
But that’s an “almost,” which means it’s finally time to talk about Daya and her mother Aleida. Right next to the show’s goofiest and silliest plot, there’s one of the harshest interpersonal tangles this show has portrayed. (When you’ve reached the point of “revenge-propositioning each others’ boyfriends,” it’s fair to say that the parent-child dynamic has been bent past breaking.) Daya is the kid everyone knows, the Obligatory Household Grown-Up. She stays at home, she feeds and disciplines her younger siblings, and she gets in the way, when she can, when her mother lashes out. She’s the soft place for everyone to land on. But she’s also a teenager, and she’s being expected to take on responsibilities that would be too much for a woman twice her age. She likes anime. She likes passing notes to cute boys. What she gets, instead of that, is her mother’s boyfriend making a pass at her, in front of her mother, and her mother blaming her for it. Come home, take care of the kids, a little incest, a little victim-blaming, then you make dinner. That’s Daya’s life, and she’s got nowhere to land if she doesn’t create it.
Because Aleida is a hard, hard woman. Which doesn’t mean she’s evil, or inhuman — this show doesn’t do “inhuman,” at least not with inmates — and it doesn’t even mean that she doesn’t want to protect her children. (Look for how neatly she maneuvers her boyfriend, Cesar, away from her children’s food; look for the moment of calculation on her face before she kisses him.) It’s just that Aleida’s idea of “protecting” is shaped by a world where looking for a soft place to land is a fool’s errand. Everything in her life is transactional; Cesar endangers her children, Cesar is why the kids have toys. Daya hates her, Daya knows how to take care of the kids in case she has to take the fall.
“If you want to fuck a guard, fuck a fat one. They’re more appreciative. Let you sneak in cigarettes, bring you McDonald’s,” Aleida tells her daughter.
“I don’t fuck dudes for McDonald’s,” Daya tells her mother, rightfully appalled.
“But you fuck ‘em. So what you fuck ‘em for? Love?”
The thing that will make you cry, if you think about it too much, is that it’s an honest-to-God question. (In another, “Hey, Symbolism!” Moment for the show, Daya literally does not speak her mother’s language.) It’s a multiple-choice answer, and for Aleida, one of the choices has been crossed off the test. She’s so far removed from love, she thinks it’s funny.
So if everyone is out on that yard running like wild to find their wishes, to grab hold of their best self and absorb its power, well: Aleida doesn’t go looking, because she doesn’t believe in it. And Daya doesn’t go looking for it, either, because what she wants and needs and misses is someone who will love her back.
That’s a brutal tragedy, hidden in this willfully absurd story about a magic and infinitely desirable feral chicken. There are glimmers of hope around it. Alex’s genuine look of shame after she’s driven Piper away from the AA meeting is the first glimpse we’ve seen of something beyond her snotty, taunting facade, and it’s lovable. Sophia and Sister Ingalls dancing around each other and overstepping each others’ bounds and learning to respect each other remains one of my favorite bits in the show, a quiet and quietly revolutionary portrayal of how to make a friend. But most of the women on this show are still chasing the chicken. And — as the last shot confirms — it’s still pretty far out of reach.
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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.