There’s something different about this episode of Orange Is The New Black. I didn’t catch it at first; I only noticed that the show all of a sudden felt grimmer, more self-contained. Something important had been altered. I had to watch the episode two or three times (which is standard recap procedure) before I caught on to the difference: This is the first episode with no flashbacks to Piper’s life before her incarceration.
One of the big, quiet horrors in Orange Is The New Black is that prison isn’t a pause button; you don’t put everything on hold, go in, and come back out again to the life you left behind. Things go on without you, and you go on, and eventually, you become a prisoner. As Piper drifts away from her old life, so do we. There’s a lot of discussion of this in “Imaginary Enemies”: Nichols warns Piper that the part where you wake up in prison, realize where you are, and want to “scream, and throw shit, and kill yourself” never really ends. Tricia warns Piper that her friends will gradually forget to send her gifts: “Enjoy it while it lasts.” But there’s also the fact that, as Red says, even getting out doesn’t mean getting out for good: “Most girls are in and out of here so often it’s like they’re fucking the place.”
And then, there’s Miss Claudette. She’s a long-term prisoner, and Piper’s new roommate, and so far, all we know of her are rumors: She killed someone, she boiled her ex-roommate’s eyelids off, she has a “voodoo spell stopping up her butt” and therefore never poops. The poop rumors, unlikely though they be, do speak to one truth: She’s a woman with a formidable amount of control, and God help you if you make a mess — physical or emotional — in her life. Which, of course, is exactly what Piper has done by inadvertently getting Miss Claudette’s floor peed on by Crazy Eyes.
But then we learn that, Claudette has never, at any point in her life, had real control. She was put into a child-servant ring to work off a debt her parents incurred, and went on to run the ring herself; the woman who terrified her on the day of her arrival is the woman she became. She closes herself off, emotionally, being completely in-control; the vulnerable “skinny cat” she was as a teenager rises to the surface only twice: Once, in a moment of rage, when she kills a man who’s assaulted one of the children under her care. (She cleans the knife and folds the hand towel as she leaves the crime scene, buttoning herself right back up again, but the corpse testifies to the fact that you don’t want to see Claudette get mad.) And again, whenever she’s around Baptiste, the man who brought her to the child-servant ring and promised he wouldn’t let any harm come to her. He treated her like a person and insisted that she get some food before she was sent off to work, and that’s all it took to make Claudette love him for the rest of her life.
Claudette never takes visitors. We don’t know whether she never allows them or simply never has them. But it’s most likely because she’s been unwilling to make herself that vulnerable. Every time she’s let her guard slip, let another person into her emotional life, she’s lost one more level of self-determination, gotten herself caught in an even smaller trap. At the beginning of the episode, she even turns down the opportunity to have her case reviewed for early release — she “doesn’t care to dredge up the past.” Of course, she breaks both of these self-imposed rules eventually, and both times, she does it for Baptiste. He’s the only one who can get to her in that particular way; he’s her human soft spot. But it’s hard not to agree with her when she says, “Hope is a dangerous thing.” So is having a human soft spot. When Claudette admits that she does want out, when she permits herself hope for the future, it’s beautiful. But it’s frightening, too.
Because, elsewhere in the prison, even the possibility of getting out — or the converse, getting time added to one’s sentence — is putting people at each other’s throats. The perhaps-too-symbolically named Mercy is about to be released, which is causing conflict with her current girlfriend and her ex — Tricia and Big Boo, respectively. Neither one can bear to lose Mercy (see what I mean?) and it’s entirely possible that both of them are willing to do some pretty terrible things to trap her. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that Piper has cluelessly shoplifted a screwdriver from the electrical shop. (And gotten Watson sent to solitary confinement for it.) She can’t just explain the problem and return it, because — as Miss Claudette, who should know, informs her — “in here, they don’t believe the truth.” And she can’t just let a stabbing weapon float around the prison, when the sudden presence of hope (and… MERCY? Gosh, that symbolism is distracting) is driving just about everyone up the walls.
The screwdriver problem does find its solution, thanks in part to some clemency and resourcefulness from Big Boo. (There’s some mighty committed, highly un-glamorized O-Face-Acting from Lea DeLaria here, for which she deserves… well, I won’t say “a hand.”) But I’m noticing something, already about recapping Orange Is The New Black. The world of the show keeps expanding outward from Piper, and every character is increasingly fascinating. Even as we, the viewers, know that the main storylines are Claudette reconnecting with Baptiste and Piper losing the screwdriver, I find myself wanting to talk about Watson’s heartbreaking defiance, or Daya’s burgeoning relationship with prison guard Bennett — it’s one of the series’ big through-lines, and maybe the closest to a “traditional” (read: straight) romance plot, and it keeps getting squeezed out — or just what Big Boo is up to. We’re getting to the point that every character in this show merits a 500-word psychological profile. Even as we drift away from Piper’s old life, we’re moving into a much richer world.
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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.