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Well, here’s a pleasant surprise: Right after the lull of “Moscow Mule,” Orange Is The New Black rebounds with one of its strongest episodes yet.
The messiness of “Moscow Mule,” as I noted in my last recap, came mostly from the fact that it’s a pivot point: After all the work that the first two acts of the season had done to establish the world of Litchfield and the women who live there, “Moscow Mule” had to begin tightening the knot, taking all of the season’s central conflicts to a tipping point, so that the third act of the story could begin. It had to establish that Pornstache had compromised Red’s smuggling operation, using Tricia as leverage; that Bennet had gotten Daya pregnant; that Taystee was leaving Litchfield; that Larry was going to tell Piper’s “story” (or his own version of it) to the world; and, most crucially, that Alex and Piper had reconnected, and that they had managed to broker some kind of peace. With all that narrative tidying-up to do, it didn’t manage to build much momentum.
But momentum is what we get from here on out. Starting with “Fucksgiving,” Orange is the New Black shifts gears. It’s no longer an inviting comedy about how a group of women survives under awful conditions; instead, it’s become a show about the traps these characters have laid for themselves while trying to navigate resistance in a place built to crush it out of them.
The connection between Alex and Piper is both one of those forms of resistance and a major trap. For their peace treaty continues unbroken, and they’re now “friends.” Friends who dance together at Taystee’s release party. Friends who maybe hump each other a little bit, on the dance floor, at Taystee’s release party. Friends who spend all their time reminiscing about how much fun they had when they were in love with each other, in between intermittently humping each other, as friends are wont to do. Guys: They’re just such good friends!
But they have enemies. Alex has Pennsatucky, the Christian anti-abortion crusader who believes that there are “no gay people on the rapture bus.” Piper has Healy, the prison counselor who lives in mortal fear of “lesbian activity,” and who is furthermore enraged by the fact that Piper hasn’t conformed to his creepy, sexualized Daddy-Daughter-Day fantasies about Piper. You know what they say about enemies of enemies. So Pennsatucky turns to Healy, and just like that, Piper is thrown into solitary confinement, or “SHU,” for suspected lesbian affections.
For all that Orange Is The New Black fails, at times, to engage realistically with the horrors of the prison system—in our recent roundtable, Yasmin Nair said that it often portrayed prison as a “girls’ night out,” and I can’t particularly disagree on that point — I’m impressed by how it can translate hard facts about prison life into drama. The SHU scenes are some of its strongest work. We’ve only heard it whispered about, to date; we’ve seen some of its horrors reflected in Janae’s shell-shock upon leaving and Tricia’s terror of going there. It’s been the show’s Bad Thing, its hidden monster, its Room 101: The one place you never want to end up. And when we finally arrive, with Piper, it justifies that reputation. That establishing shot down the corridor looks like a tour of Hell.
But what many viewers might not notice— unless they’ve spent time reading up on the psychological effects of solitary confinement — is that much of what we see and hear in these scenes is essentially non-fiction. Suicidal tendencies, check. Outbursts of rage or violent impulses, check. Auditory hallucinations, check. The offensively bland prison loaf is real; the shackled showers are real; the lighting that removes your sense of time is real. This show is going out to millions of fans, many of whom might be hostile to or just uninterested in the “solitary confinement is torture” arguments that circulate through the progressive press. But they’ll be interested in, and disturbed by, the terrible things that happen to fictional character Piper Chapman while she’s there. And if they do look into solitary confinement, motivated by their interest in the show — even a lazy, curious Google would do it — they’ll see that all of this happens to real people, thousands of them. They’ll have already been exposed to the real-life cruelty of solitary confinement, just because they liked a show and cared about one of its characters. Bringing that much attention to that torture is an admirable deed, and it’s more than most TV shows ever accomplish.
Which is half the reason this stands out as one of my favorite episodes. The other half is this: We finally get a solid look into what happened to Alex. The missing piece of her character clicks into place, and with it, the puzzle of why Piper and Alex happened, and why they went wrong. And it’s just this: Alex grew up working-class. And Alex grew up ashamed. And Piper grew up as neither one of these things.
This is how Alex happened: She didn’t have the right shoes. She didn’t have the right clothes. She didn’t have a father. Some little blonde girl, some rich asshole in training, mocked her and shut her out and called her “Pigsty” every day of her life. Her mother tried to console her, to tell her those girls would have “boring lives” (here’s what Alex said to Piper: You were just some boring girl from Connecticut) and that “they think they’re all fucking fancy” (here’s what Alex said to Piper: You Park Slope narcissist).
But Alex threw the shoes her family bought for her out of the window because they weren’t right. Alex never, in her life, had her mother’s broad East Coast accent. Alex hung out at the right colleges, she had the best haircut, the coolest clothes, the quickest wit — she had all of the upper-middle-class signifiers down pat. Eventually, she even had the drug money. No one could ever tell that Alex had been Pigsty. (Here’s what Polly said to Piper, about Alex: Do you like her, or do you like her things?) And then, finally, some little blonde girl, some rich asshole all grown up, fell in love with her. It was everything she needed; it was everything she’d worked for. It was proof that the facade was perfect — that it was more than perfect, that she was real. So real that even one of Them could love her.
And then Piper left. And even ten years later, Alex almost cries when she talks about it, and even ten years later, Alex is angry enough with Piper to get her thrown in prison. And now Pennsatucky, the visibly poor white woman, the ignorant hick with the accent, hates Alex, and shouts at Alex that “I’ve had it with rich bitches like you.” In that moment, Alex doesn’t deny the identification. She just hates Pennsatucky back, escalates the rivalry, distances herself. She’s spent her entire life trying not to be this woman, and she’s succeeded. The end result of it is that Alex and Pennsatucky, when they look at each other, can’t recognize that they are in the exact same place, feeling the exact same rage, about the exact same thing.
This is one of the first times Orange is the New Black has engaged in a sustained way with class through its characters, outside of the too-easy jibes at juice cleanses and bacon scones and artisanal soap-making that comprise the Larry plotlines. It’s beautiful. We get more of it, too, when Taystee’s big dream of leaving prison turns out to be sleeping on the floor of a stranger’s house because she’s got nowhere else to go. As the show tightens the knot on its characters, it’s digging deeper into their lives, and in many ways — with Piper, with Alex, with Taystee— this episode is focusing on women who find out that they have no safe place to run.
Which is not the same thing, however, as having no place to run at all. Because the minute Piper is out of the SHU, still shell-shocked, still lonely, she marches right up to Alex, and takes her down the hall into the chapel for some lesbian activity. It turns out that they’re not friends. They never were, and they probably can’t be. They’re in love with each other, and there has been Hell to pay for it in the past, and there will be Hell to pay for it from now on.
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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.