“The second you’re perceived as weak,” Kate Mulgrew’s Red says in the episode “Tit Punch,” “you already are.”
And so goes the thesis statement for the second night of Orange is the New Black. While the pilot had to get us into the Litchfield Correctional Facility, and introduce us to the show’s basic premise, this second episode settles into the question of survival — and power — within its walls.
Although Piper’s counselor has assured her that she’ll face no real violence in Litchfield — “women fight with gossip and rumors,” he tells her, quoting directly from the Sexist Cliché Manual he apparently keeps beneath his desk — she’s on her second day in prison, and she’s already being starved by the prison’s chef, Red, for insulting the food. Women, like everyone else, fight with every tool they have. What Red has is her reputation, and control over the food supply.
The economy with which Orange lays out its world is remarkable: Piper’s starvation serves at least three functions. First, it’s a test of Piper’s character, and of whether she’s resilient enough to navigate Litchfield. Second, that negotiation serves as a tour through the prison’s economy: When Piper has to borrow her roommate Nicky’s money for the commissary, sell her hair to Sophia for a handful of lotion, fake friendliness with an alarming woman named “Crazy Eyes” to get a much-needed favor, or demonstrate her usefulness to Red in exchange for the right to eat, we’re being educated on how power and resources are gained in Litchfield, and nearly all of this information will come in handy later. Third, through Red, we learn how people steel themselves to the task of consolidating power, and why.
Red is the nominal antagonist in the episode, the mean old woman who’s trying to kill our heroine over nothing more than a minor, accidental slight. But this is exactly where the show starts to destabilize us: Alongside Piper’s flashbacks (which involve a juice cleanse, and Larry, and seem like the broadest and dopiest way possible to show us how much Piper took her life for granted), we get Red’s flashbacks, showing us exactly why her professional pride is so central to her character, and how she learned to wield her particular, ruthless form of control.
Kate Mulgrew –the former Captain Janeway! — is fantastic as Red. The distance between the open, awkward woman we see in her flashbacks and the hard, closed-off prison matriarch of the present day is huge, and yet the character still tracks as the same person (the fact that there’s no GIF of Mulgrew’s sneering over-enunciation of “artisanal” is probably some sort of Internet Crime). Before she was Red, she was Galina, an Astorian restaurateur whose husband pushed her into socializing with the Russian mob to raise their profile. It didn’t go over well — she was too loud, too crude, too poor — and Red responded, impulsively, with the, um, titular “tit punch,” deflating a mob wife’s breast implant and putting her family $60,000 in debt to men who had some highly unsavory uses for her restaurant’s walk-in freezers.
The punch happened, Galina tells her husband, “because they were mean! Because they left me out! Because no matter how hard you work, there’s always a difference between the people who serve the plate and the people who eat the plate.” The difference between Galina and Red is that Red has flipped the script on that difference. Having been excluded, she knows the power that can be gained by exclusion; having been an easy target because no one respected her, she’s learned that no amount of disrespect is small enough to ignore.
We almost never see power struggles like this played out entirely between two women, although women in the world have them every day. The fact that we can see the logic of Red’s actions, and even admire them a little, her telling our heroine that she’ll be leaving prison in a body bag is the first real evidence of the open-heartedness that drives Orange is the New Black. The fact that we can get all this thoughtful stuff about power and marginalization via gross-out gags involving bloody tampons and popped implants is just remarkable.
That thoughtfulness and open heart will go even deeper in the show’s next episode. In the meantime, we get Piper pulling off one of the only “artisanal soap-making as survival tactic” plots in TV history, making Larry promise not to watch Mad Men without her (he does, immediately; we’re going to have a problem with Larry), and learning — a little too late — that some of her friendly gifts have come with their own price tags. This is a world of women without power, women who learn to create power out of whatever they have available. In the long run, Red may just signify what Piper will look like, once she’s learned how that works.
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.