Orange Is the New Black, Season 2, Episode 5: A Song of Vice and Ire

The relationships among races on OITNB are as complex as the politics on Game of Thrones.

Sady Doyle July 11, 2014

Gloria (Selenis Leyva) confronts Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) on behalf of her crew. (Jessica Miglio / Netflix)

One of the most uncom­fort­able and ten­sion-induc­ing premis­es of Orange Is the New Black has always been that pris­on­ers are expect­ed to find accep­tance, or seek pow­er, by social­iz­ing exclu­sive­ly with their own race. This, as incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple have affirmed in com­men­tary about the show, is how things tend to oper­ate in real prison; it was some­thing that Piper Ker­man expe­ri­enced, and described in the mem­oir upon which the show is based. In the long run, the show’s treat­ment of racism is prob­a­bly far more respon­si­ble than sim­ply refus­ing to acknowl­edge its exis­tence. Even so, it’s dif­fi­cult to accept seg­re­ga­tion and racial­ized pow­er strug­gles” as a form of light-heart­ed enter­tain­ment — which is what OITNB fre­quent­ly stabs at, with vary­ing results.

These women are at war because prison management isn’t providing them the basic resources that they’re guaranteed under the law. They’re not fighting for a piece of the pie; they’re fighting because most of the pie is missing altogether, and someone is trying to feed the whole prison with one slice.

Last year’s WAC Pack,” for exam­ple, in which the prison’s dif­fer­ent fac­tions were explic­it­ly named and pit­ted against each oth­er by a Women’s Advi­so­ry Coun­cil elec­tion, proved to be a break­ing point for sev­er­al review­ers. (Those fac­tions, in case you were curi­ous, were Black, Lati­na, Gold­en Girls” — old women of var­i­ous races — and White, with the added and high­ly sig­nif­i­cant com­pli­ca­tion that White” and White Trash,” while both regard­ed as White” by the admin­is­tra­tion, were actu­al­ly dif­fer­ent and oppo­si­tion­al groups.) WAC Pack” was try­ing to be con­fronta­tion­al, and to make a point about how eas­i­ly the guards could turn inmates against each oth­er. But watch­ing the char­ac­ters take turns say­ing racist things to and about each oth­er sim­ply wasn’t very fun. This year, though, the show has dou­bled down on WAC Pack,” build­ing a plot arc around a sea­son-long pow­er strug­gle between fac­tions that — as James Poniezowik not­ed in TIME—makes recap­ping the show feel a lot like sum­ming up the maneu­vers of the dif­fer­ent hous­es on Game of Thrones. 

Yet, unlike the glee­ful­ly unre­al pow­er pol­i­tick­ing on HBO’s favorite nudi­ty-vehi­cle, on OITNB, the fac­tion­al­ism and fight­ing is always tied into ugly real­i­ties of race and racism in the real world. And none of it can erase the fact that all of these women live at the mer­cy of the guards who con­trol every aspect of their lives. They’re fight­ing, not for true pow­er, but for a few more inch­es of breath­ing room with­in a sys­tem designed to suf­fo­cate them. 

Yet this episode is where the strug­gle final­ly kicks into gear. So let’s sum up, HBO-fan­ta­sy-style, the lay of the land: House White Ladies, for­mer­ly the most pow­er­ful group in the prison, has over­thrown its leader, Red, who is now work­ing her way up the chain of com­mand with­in the Gold­en Girls. With­out Red’s smug­gling oper­a­tion and con­trol of the kitchen, though, the white women don’t have much stake in the prison’s struc­ture. And the Gold­en Girls, giv­en their age, have nev­er been pre­sumed to have any stake at all. Over in House Trash — the white peo­ple who are too poor or too lack­ing in cul­tur­al cap­i­tal to be accept­ed by the cool­er, rich­er white women; in GoT terms, they’re sort of the Greyjoys — Leeanne has oust­ed the tyrant Pennsat­ucky, who’s now look­ing in vain for anoth­er group to take her in. They, too, are out of the game.

Which means that, at least in this episode, the pol­i­tick­ing comes down to the women of col­or: The Lati­nas, under the rule of Glo­ria, now run the kitchen, giv­ing them what ought to be an undis­put­ed advan­tage. They con­trol the food sup­ply, which means they con­trol any­one who needs to eat. But then there’s Vee, the woman who used to run” Litch­field, and who is clear­ly look­ing to reclaim that posi­tion. She’s rapid­ly installed her­self as the den moth­er” for the oth­er black inmates. (Except, odd­ly, for Sophia, who seems entire­ly side­lined from the black inmates” sto­ry this year, for rea­sons that are nev­er men­tioned or explained. We know that Vee is homo­pho­bic, and it’s not a stretch to assume that she might be trans­pho­bic, too; it’s pos­si­ble that Sophia is being inten­tion­al­ly exclud­ed. But with­out any scenes to con­vey that point, it feels like a sim­ple fail­ure to write Lav­erne Cox into the sto­ry­line.) In any case, Vee is now work­ing to get them back on top. For the moment, every­thing comes down to Glo­ria and Vee, and which one of them can rule.

As is so often true, both on OITNB and in real-life prison, the fight for pow­er” is real­ly a fight for basic human com­fort: The episode begins with the Lati­na bath­room lit­er­al­ly over­flow­ing with shit, raw sewage bub­bling up from the floors. Glo­ria takes her kitchen crew to the black women’s bath­room, and demands to cut in line for the show­ers, as she pre­sumes is their right: If they don’t get to work before the oth­er inmates, no one will get break­fast. How­ev­er, Vee says, her girls” aren’t will­ing to bow down to the kitchen crew. And with a lit­tle manip­u­la­tion from Vee, soon enough, both crews are at each other’s throats. Fla­ca frames Cindy for punch­ing her, get­ting her in trou­ble with a guard. The black women steal the Lati­nas’ shoes to make them late for work. The Lati­nas salt the black women’s food to make it inedible.

It feels like a bunch of sil­ly pranks. As always, though, the stakes are high and deter­mined by the peo­ple in charge. Janae, upset after her food is ruined despite her inten­tion­al deci­sion to stay out of the fight, trips a preg­nant Daya in front of Ben­nett. Ben­nett slams Janae to the ground, threat­ens her with more time in soli­tary, and has her access to com­mis­sary tak­en away for a month. It’s an emo­tion­al over­re­ac­tion from Ben­nett, whose rela­tion­ship with Daya is mak­ing him increas­ing­ly inca­pable of doing his job. But it’s also yet anoth­er iter­a­tion of the very real racism Janae, in par­tic­u­lar, has expe­ri­enced: In the past, she’s been sent to SHU for offens­es” like shout­ing at a racist guard, while oth­er inmates wreaked hav­oc with­out so much as a slap on the wrist. And as she fumes now, black inmates are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get­ed by the prison sys­tem, and get more time for less­er offens­es. In this cli­mate of esca­la­tion, Vee’s attempts to stoke her girls’ fury and sense of dis­en­fran­chise­ment are more effec­tive than ever, because they’re found­ed on the injus­tices that have shaped these women’s lives. After Janae vents about her unfair treat­ment, Vee nods wise­ly, and tells her girls that they need to be angrier.

Vee’s right about the need for anger in response to this sys­temic big­otry, but manip­u­la­tive in where she tells the girls to aim it: None of the injus­tices Janae has faced are the fault of Glo­ria, who is only try­ing to pro­tect her crew, and to com­mand the respect that comes with her posi­tion. As triv­ial as it might be — and as tiny, in the grand scheme of things, as her pow­er is; as Caputo reminds her, she’s impor­tant, but replace­able” — being the head chef has always meant some­thing, even if that some­thing” is as incon­se­quen­tial as being able to cut in line for a shower.

In fact, she wouldn’t even be in the posi­tion of need­ing to cut the line, were it not for the incom­pe­tence and neglect of the admin­is­tra­tion. It should be pos­si­ble, after all, to fix the flood­ing prob­lem in the Lati­na bath­room, and Caputo tries to do so, but Fig, unwill­ing to spend prison funds on any­thing but her­self, won’t shell out the nec­es­sary $80,000 for repairs. These women are at war because prison man­age­ment isn’t pro­vid­ing them the basic resources that they’re guar­an­teed under the law. They’re not fight­ing for a piece of the pie; they’re fight­ing because most of the pie is miss­ing alto­geth­er, and some­one is try­ing to feed the whole prison with one slice. 

Amid this rigged bat­tle for respect, we also final­ly see glimpses into Gloria’s back­sto­ry, and how her attempts to escape an abu­sive part­ner through a food-stamp scam land­ed her in prison. I con­fess, after hav­ing been par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed for her flash­back episode — Sele­nis Levya has always giv­en such a tough, fun­ny, world­ly per­for­mance that I left every episode of Sea­son One wish­ing I could spend more time with her char­ac­ter — that this left me a lit­tle cold. The show’s treat­ment of domes­tic vio­lence is, in the abstract, admirable: The sto­ry makes it clear that Glo­ria wasn’t abused because she was weak,” that she’s still the same for­mi­da­ble, don’t‑fuck-with-me Glo­ria with every­one except the man who beats her up. It shows her ratio­nal­iz­ing the abuse and mak­ing failed attempts to leave, the way domes­tic vio­lence vic­tims usu­al­ly do. (It also reveals that Glo­ria, who prac­tices San­te­ria, may have actu­al, no-fool­ing mag­ic pow­ers; after she’s sent to prison for a food-stamp scam, her prayer can­dles set her abuser on fire.) My prob­lem, though, is that abstract is all it is: It emerges less like a com­pelling nar­ra­tive and more like some­one mak­ing all the right points about domes­tic vio­lence. The show is usu­al­ly so nuanced and orig­i­nal that see­ing Gloria’s past play out as a set of talk­ing points is disappointing.

But now, in Litch­field, Glo­ria is deter­mined not to get played that way twice — to nev­er give up the respect she deserves. And so, she cor­ners Vee and threat­ens her, doing her job as the gen­er­al of her crew. Her mis­take is in assum­ing that Vee ever had the best inter­ests of her own crew in mind: Vee crum­bles and begins cry­ing, offer­ing to trade” Gloria’s peo­ple the black women’s bath­room if she’ll get Taystee and Janae a spot on the main­te­nance crew. Gloria’s tough, but she’s not inhu­man, and fac­ing a sob­bing woman offer­ing to let her win the fight, she backs down. (“Jesus, I didn’t even fuck­ing hit you,” she says, obvi­ous­ly rat­tled, and prob­a­bly think­ing about what get­ting hit can do to a woman who’s usu­al­ly good at being strong.) And this, as Red warns her lat­er on, is exact­ly what Vee wanted.

Because this is who Vee is: a woman who’ll let her girls” bathe in shit, to get what she wants. Cindy is in the ware­house; Taystee and Janae are on main­te­nance; all of her girls are exact­ly where she needs them to be. This isn’t the end of the pow­er strug­gle; it’s the moment where Vee gets all of the pieces in place, so that she can begin to play the game in earnest. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is 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 her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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