“Christopher doesn’t exist.” We’ve always known this about Lorna Morello. We heard it from Nicky last year in “Bora Bora Bora,” an episode about the delusions people cultivate in order to survive. Morello never stopped talking about her fiancé, and how much he loved her, and how fabulous their wedding was going to be, but he didn’t come to visit her; he wasn’t part of her life. So we understood that he’d probably left her a long time ago and moved on; she was lying to herself, clinging to the idea that they’d be together one day in order to help herself get through her prison sentence. We understood that Christopher — the version of Christopher Morello wanted to believe in, the dream boyfriend who would stay faithful to Morello no matter what — didn’t exist.
What we didn’t understand until this episode is that Morello doesn’t exist, either. Or at least, not the Morello we thought we knew.
The reveal that Morello isn’t a jilted fiancée, but a delusional stalker who fixated on Christopher after one date — she followed Christopher, threatened the life of his actual fiancée on multiple occasions, had a homemade explosive device taped to the underside of his girlfriend’s car — and that she is quite possibly the most violent inmate in Litchfield is one of the biggest plot developments of the season, if not the series.
Entire articles have been devoted to unpacking and analyzing the twist. It’s tempting to devote the entire recap to at least trying to parse the feminist implications of it all: Plenty of feminist effort has been put forth to raise consciousness of the fact that stalking is usually not the result of delusions or compulsions, but a conscious crime of power and control. And, contrary to the mythology of “crazy ex-girlfriends” we’ve all absorbed from pop culture, most stalking victims are female, and 87 percent of stalkers are men, often the former husbands of their targets.
In other words: A stalker is vastly more likely to look like Robin Thicke than like Lorna Morello (or, for that matter, Suzanne Warren). Yet, in this episode, we’re shown stalking as a typical “crazy ex-girlfriend” crime committed due to delusions — between Suzanne and Morello, OITNB has never actually shown a mentally ill inmate who does not “snap” and commit acts of uncontrollable violence, which concerns me greatly. The narrative also asks us to empathize with the stalker over and above her victims. Morello is the one we spend time with, after all. She’s the character we’ve come to care about. And, even though her relationship with Christopher isn’t real, Morello honestly believes it is, which means the pain she feels over seeing Christopher with someone else is just as intense and overwhelming for her as it would be if they were engaged. Regardless of what she’s done, it still hurts to see a woman in that much pain.
Which is a very uncomfortable proposition for anyone, let alone a feminist critic, to deal with. So, before we tackle the extremely thorny issue of Lorna Morello, let’s start here: First, OITNB’s basic project has always been forcing the viewer into empathy with people we might think we can’t understand or care about. And, secondarily, in this episode, everyone — not just Morello — is acting like a predator.
To begin with, of course, there’s Vee, who’s using Suzanne to suss out the underground economy of the prison. Since Red’s being shut out from her former position of power in that economy, not much contraband is running through Litchfield at all. The one exception, of course, is Poussey’s hooch, which could conceivably have quite a market. But when Vee sidles up to Poussey and suggests monetizing the operation, using all of her charm to make it sound like a good idea, Poussey shuts her down. She has no interest in charging anyone for her product; she makes drinks for her friends, and that’s it.
It’s not the fact that Poussey refuses that attracts Vee’s ire — several other inmates, including Cindy and Taystee, have already refused her offers, and they came around eventually — but that Poussey is apparently un-interested in power. Power and money are really the only things Vee has to offer her targets, and if Poussey doesn’t want them, she can’t be brought into line. So when Vee spots Taystee and Poussey cuddling — Poussey tries kissing Taystee, and Taystee explains she’s just not into girls; Samira Wiley’s reaction is suitably heartbroken and noble — she goes to work on Taystee, telling her how bad it would be for her reputation if there were rumors that she’d had a lesbian affair in prison, and warning her to stay away from Poussey. Not only does this keep Poussey from interfering with Vee’s operation, or acting as the voice of reason, it further isolates Taystee, making sure that, as always, Vee is the only person who gets a say in what Taystee can do with her life.
All the while, Red is scheming to get her power back. Her former “family,” silent Norma and the physically and emotionally burned Gina, are still shutting her out. So she’s stuck sitting with the Golden Girls, the old inmates who’ve mostly been transferred to Litchfield from maximum security, and trying to re-consolidate power from that position. Caputo is no help — the whole administration was willing to look the other way when Red was just running makeup and trinkets, he explains, but now that she has taken the fall for Pornstache’s drug operation, they have to crack down — but Red cannily manipulates his love of gardening, convincing him to give her an old, disused greenhouse so she can start a “gardening club” with the other old ladies.
And, finally: As part of Red’s fall from power, she’s been assigned a roommate. That roommate, naturally, is Piper Chapman. And while Piper’s busy reclaiming her belongings from the other inmates, who assumed she’d been taken to Max for good, she is perpetually trailed by Brook Soso, a new arrival and quite possibly the most irritatingly chatty inmate Litchfield has ever housed.
Just about the only person who’s interested in Soso, or what she has to say for herself, is Big Boo, who’s bitter over Nicky’s streak of “cliterference” and girl-stealing, and would really love to snag the new girl for herself. Therefore, before she’ll give Piper her blanket back, sets Piper the task of convincing Soso to go out with Big Boo. I really don’t love the vibe Big Boo has been giving off recently: Another critic tweeted me, describing her as an “unpleasant predator.” I’d like to say that this description doesn’t match my own understanding of Big Boo, who’s been a personal favorite from day one, due in large part to the warmth and humor and humanity of Lea DeLaria’s performance. But, in the first season, we got to see Boo expressing actual tenderness toward the women she went out with, like her ex-girlfriend Mercy, even as we understood that she was tough enough that you didn’t want to fuck with her. This season, she’s been given weirdly creepy habits — hanging out in the room while Nicky’s having sex, getting uncomfortably far into Soso’s space while she’s trying to have a conversation, molesting her own dog — which takes her character far too close to a reductive, “predatory” stereotype and undermines much of what’s great about the character.
At any rate, suffice it to say that Piper is terrible at setting people up. Soso is horrified that Piper would try to “sell her for a blanket,” and Big Boo’s delighted, amused reading of the line “you’re a horrible person” was enough to re-kindle my love of DeLaria’s performance, if not always of Big Boo herself.
So, let’s start talking about what constitutes a “horrible person.” Vee preys on Poussey and Taystee, Red preys on Caputo, and Piper, Big Boo and Nicky (who eventually hooks up with Soso on the rebound) all prey on Soso. But none of them do anything quite as horrifying as Morello, who — when left alone in the prison van after driving Miss Rosa to her chemo appointment — drives all the way to Christopher’s house, breaks in and takes a bath, while wearing his fiancée’s wedding veil.
This is artfully done, because, even as we’re horrified at Morello’s actions, the flashback structure ensures that we don’t exactly know how horrified we should be until the very end of the story. Her actions are disturbing, over-the-top, and incredibly self-destructive — aside from how inappropriate the break-in is, what on Earth would happen to Morello if she were caught? — but, as long as we believe that Morello and Christopher were actually engaged, we can find some way to justify them as the actions of a woman who’s grieving the love of her life. (Please don’t break into someone’s house because you are grieving the love of your life. This is a review, not an advice column.) We also understand exactly why Lorna is so desperate for love: Growing up in a crowded, overwhelming working-class family, caring for a sick mother and everyone else, her only escapes were romantic narratives, and the idea that someday her prince would, in fact, come. There’s a sly feminist critique here about how poorly our cultural ideas of “romance” prepare women for relationships — Morello references Twilight, Cinderella, Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, and rom-coms in general — but when we finally understand that Morello actually tried to murder someone, which is an insight that only comes as she’s frantically trying to escape Christopher’s house before he catches her, it gets drowned out by our general feeling of horror and betrayal.
Part of me wants to reject Morello’s plot line with all my feminist might. We’re not only being asked to pity a stalker, we’re not only being given one more narrative about how mental illness automatically makes people violent, we’re also being fed a story that obscures the facts about stalking, which is that it’s frequently a crime of misogynist violence. But I can’t forget OITNB’s mission of forcing us into a position of empathy with the people our society often writes off and condemns. Sometimes, that mission meshes with feminist goals, as when the show makes us identify with a trans woman of color like Sophia. (Who, by the way, gets a hilarious plot line — teaching everyone in the prison that they pee out of their urethras rather than their vaginas, based on the fact that her transition and surgery have forced her to learn more about the precise construction of vaginas than anyone else in Litchfield — that I’ve barely had time to address.) Sometimes, it can rub us the wrong way: I’ve known feminists who drew the line at being asked to care about an abortion clinic shooter like Pennsatucky, and there are probably lots of people, including many survivors, who draw the line at being asked to identify with a stalker like Morello.
But I still believe that broadening our empathy, developing our compassion in new directions, is a worthy project for a piece of fiction. In fact, it might be the most admirable function of all fiction: Stories allow us to get inside the heads of people other than ourselves, which helps us to live in a world full of people who are not like us. Lorna Morello is, yes, a horrible person — or at least, a person who’s done incredibly horrible and horrifying things, perhaps without really being able to understand them — but she is also a person. Identifying with Lorna Morello is the most uncomfortable and problematic thing OITNB has ever asked its viewers to do, but it’s asking us to try in order to test our courage. The test, if not its outcome, is worthwhile.
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.