Allow me to begin this recap with a personal confession. There is nothing that fills me with more joy, or more trepidation, than the prospect of an Orange Is the New Black episode centered on Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren.
To begin with the trepidation: Suzanne’s initial characterization was one of the most troubling things about Orange Is the New Black’s first season. She was introduced as a predatory, unstable black lesbian who was so obsessed with Piper, the blonde white WASP protagonist, that she began to stalk and harass her. It was a cocktail of racist and homophobic stereotypes, with a hefty dash of nasty ideas about people with mental illnesses thrown in the mix. The fact that, for most of the season, the character in question had no real name — she was referred to exclusively as “Crazy Eyes” by her fellow inmates — made it all the more dehumanizing.
Of all the inmates on OITNB, Suzanne rests at one of the most charged intersections: Black, queer, and mentally ill, she’s triply at risk for prejudice and bigotry. Considering that nearly 50 percent of incarcerated people are black, and that 45 percent of those in federal prisons have received treatment or a diagnosis from a mental health professional, it’s fairly ludicrous that Suzanne is the only inmate on Orange Is the New Black to be both black and mentally ill. Nevertheless, for a while, it seemed doubtful that the show would take her seriously. She was deployed as a threat, or as comic relief, but not as a person.
Then, however, came the joy. As the season progressed, Suzanne became one of the most compelling characters on the show. Lots of this was due to the fantastic work of Uzo Aduba, whose range and timing allows her to turn on a dime from comedy to pathos, or vice versa. But the writers also began to drop in hints that developed Suzanne beyond her initial characterization as “the crazy one.” She was a transracial adoptee. She wanted to be an actress. She seemed to have memorized most of Shakespeare. Although she still remained, frustratingly, out of reach — we got puzzle pieces, rather than a fully assembled picture — by the time Suzanne asked Piper why everyone called her Crazy Eyes, it was clear that we were dealing with a three-dimensional, complicated, and frankly pretty fascinating woman.
Now, Suzanne’s first flashback episode finally sheds light on how she became that woman. The hour begins with the other black inmates playing Celebrity. They’re having a good time. (Well, Taystee and Poussey are having a good time, anyway; they win every round thanks to their telepathic-BFF connection, whereas Cindy is stuck trying to convey the essence of “Steve Irwin” to a puzzled Janae.) But Suzanne is stuck keeping time, watching the others play. When she asks to join one of the teams to get her moment in the spotlight, she’s reminded that she “straight-up lost her mind” last time they gave her a chance. They’re not cruel, but they are condescending: It’s impossible to avoid the message that she doesn’t belong.
And this is how it’s always been for Suzanne. There’s always some reason she doesn’t belong, some reason she’s different than everyone else in the room. When her white adoptive parents have a biological child after adopting her, this new white baby who “looks like Mommy and Daddy” is called a “miracle.” It’s not an insult, but it raises the question of whether Suzanne is a miracle, too. As Suzanne grows up, she’s forced to go to parties with her sister’s much younger, all-white friends, because she doesn’t have any of her own. At one such event, she tries to enliven their collaborative fairytale about a beautiful princess with dragons and gratuitous death (if Suzanne weren’t stuck in Litchfield, she could have a pretty solid career as a writer for Game of Thrones), but they only call her weird and stupid.
Suzanne isn’t stupid, but she is, by default, weird: She’s stranded in a world where there are very few people who share her precise experience. There are no neighborhood slumber parties hosted by black, lesbian, academically gifted transracial adoptees with mental illness that she could be attending. Instead, for most of her life, she’s stuck having to explain herself to people who have, frankly, no idea what it’s like to be Suzanne. She’s always alone, and there are always dragons coming.
In the present day, one of those very dragons has returned to Litchfield in the form of Piper Chapman. All of the inmates greet Piper with a mix of fear and awe — the rumors about the beatdown she gave Pennsatucky have been getting so wild that Sophia is disappointed when she doesn’t come back “looking like Omar from The Wire” — but Suzanne, for reasons we don’t know just yet, is utterly terrified of her. Even more strangely, the guards seem to be content with dropping the matter; despite the unmitigated, murderous beating we saw, Litchfield’s officials somehow believe it was a scuffle in which both women were wounded. Pennsatucky, having received shiny new prison-funded teeth as compensation for keeping quiet about Piper whaling the old ones out of her head, is in no mood to press the issue. And so, for the moment, the mystery of how Piper’s attempted murder got so thoroughly downplayed remains just that.
Speaking of mysteries: Morello has received news that her much-vaunted fiancé, Christopher, is planning to marry another woman. We’ve always known that her relationship with Christopher was probably not meant to be; even in the first season, Nicky noted that he’d never come to visit her. But watching her reaction to this news is both painful and frightening. One moment, she’s collapsing into messy heartbreak-tears. The next, she’s ricocheting into threats of violence.
“I WILL STRANGLE THAT FUCKING COOZE,” she yells, in a voice that sounds like an animal tearing its way out of her throat.
Yael Stone is unbelievably good in this scene; her performance is so intense that, in one take, she apparently slammed the telephone receiver into her chest hard enough to leave an earpiece-shaped bruise. It’s impossible not to feel for her — if you’ve never had one of those messy, ugly rage-cries, you might not technically be alive — but hearing that animal voice emerge when she starts thinking about revenge is still profoundly disturbing. Put a pin in that moment of disturbance, because it matters. And it’s about to get much, much worse.
But back to Suzanne. Or, more precisely, back to Vee, who, it turns out, has a reputation in Litchfield. The other inmates talk about her as the woman who used to run the joint. Red, who also used to run the joint, is evidently familiar enough with her to be wary: Just the sight of Vee in the bathroom is enough to snap her out of her depressive funk and get her thinking about how she can “intimidate” her old friend. Suzanne neither knows nor fears Vee, though. She’s just rooming with Taystee, which means that she gets to witness the first confrontation between the two.
Taystee tells her foster-mother that she doesn’t need her, that she’s been let down too many times, that she’s tired of being used. This is just the first step in their usual dance, which usually ends with Vee getting exactly what she wants, but Suzanne doesn’t know that. She just reacts — as Suzanne always has — with automatic empathy toward another human being who’s been excluded.
“Don’t take it personal. I try not to,” she tells Vee. “Now, I know what you’re gonna say: But Suzanne! My heart hurts! And I hear you, I do. A lot. But you gotta put your head down … sometimes, people just don’t want to play with you. And that’s okay.”
Suzanne is demonstrating everything that we love about her. But she’s also telling Vee exactly how to hurt her. Every vulnerability she’s let slip here — her outsider status, her loneliness and hurting heart, her generosity and willingness to extend support to a stranger in need — is something Vee will eventually use to tear her down. And Vee moves right in, just as she did with Taystee, asking Suzanne about herself and calling her by her first name, rather than “Crazy Eyes.” Vee has an uncanny talent for re-naming people, whether it’s turning Tasha into Taystee or Crazy Eyes back into Suzanne. And when Vee names somebody, she’s marking her property. She’s claiming the right to define who that person can be.
Then again, Suzanne is no stranger to controlling mother figures. Throughout her childhood, every rejection and exclusion has been overseen by her mother — who is determined that Suzanne will have every opportunity in life, will have friends, will not be shut out or treated as “different.” She keeps pushing her forward, into new high-pressure situations where she can “prove how great she is,” trying to somehow magically undo every bit of discrimination she’s ever faced by sheer force of accomplishment. Suzanne’s mother undoubtedly loves her, but she also treats Suzanne like a project. And when you’re the project, that doesn’t feel like love; it just feels like something is wrong with you. No matter how many times people explain that they’re trying to help, trying to fix the wrong parts, you can’t help thinking that if they really liked you, they wouldn’t think you needed fixing. Again, it’s not cruel, but it’s condescending. It reduces Suzanne to a problem rather than a person. And, eventually, it’s all too much for her.
It’s a dizzying sequence here, an unraveling ball of flashbacks, cut together from new and old footage: Suzanne breaks down and begins punching herself in the head onstage when she’s asked to sing at her graduation, which becomes Suzanne hitting herself in the head when she freezes and is unable to sing at last year’s Christmas pageant, which becomes Piper hitting Pennsatucky, which becomes a traumatized Suzanne storming onto the scene, confusing Piper for her mother, and punching her in the face for making her try to sing. The shame of that violence is why Suzanne can’t look at Piper anymore, but the fact that she stopped the fight is why Pennsatucky is still alive, and why Piper didn’t get sent to maximum security for good.
When Suzanne finally apologizes to Piper, Piper explains that she’s forgiven her, that Suzanne “saved” her. But it’s too late. Suzanne now belongs to Vee, who offers her something better than forgiveness. Vee tells Suzanne that she recognizes her as a “smart, strong black woman,” and is going to bring back the days when black inmates ran the prison, with Suzanne at her side. She’s offered Suzanne not only her true name, but an identity, a place to belong, and even power — everything that she’s been missing her entire life. It’s not an offer anyone could or would turn down.
But Vee’s offers are dangerous things. It turns out that Suzanne was never the point of all this: After Suzanne retrieves contraband cigarettes for her, Vee trades them for a cake from Gloria. Vee then offers the cake to Suzanne to make Taystee feel excluded. Eventually, she trades Suzanne’s attention for Taystee’s forgiveness. The episode ends with the whole Celebrity-playing group gathered around Vee, accepting her as their mother-figure.
We already know the kind of mother Vee tends to be, though. Right from the beginning, she’s starting to transform this world into her own, to define who these people can be: changing the rules of Celebrity, giving Suzanne her new name and a new hairstyle, splitting Poussey and Taystee onto different teams. With Vee on the scene, this is going to morph into a new story. The question is what role Vee will play within it — whether she’s the fairy godmother Suzanne desperately wants to believe in, or the most fearsome dragon Suzanne has faced yet.
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.