Orange is the New Black: “Bed Bugs and Beyond” & “Empathy is a Boner Killer”

Posted on June 18, 2015

Orange-Is-The-New-Black-TV-Series-Review-Season-3-Episodes-2-3-4-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLOKate Mulgrew and Selenis Leyva in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”

Of course we were never going to keep up with demand on this one, darlings. Orange is the New Black is the kind of show that its audience finds almost impossible to dole out to itself in discrete bits over time. It’s a show that practically demands a binge-watch. Which means the majority of the audience has already seen the entire season while we’re trying to put together a recap of episode two. Almost immediately, we decided to do what we said we might at the end of recapping last season, which is to skip the episodic recaps and do several at a time in one post. That’s a solution, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for an easy one, since we’re now faced with recapping and reviewing about 120 minutes of story time for this post.

But in a way, the show did make it easy on us, because the first 3 or 4 episodes are all suffering from roughly the same problem: too much time is being spent on dead-end stories like the Daya/Bennett relationship and the Piper/Alex one. The former pretty much requires some form of resolution because there’s a baby waiting to go off like a gun and because the writers may have written the characters into a corner they can’t get them out of. But the latter; the on/off/on-again relationship of Alex and Piper, has more than played itself out at this point. In fact, there are several things being dealt with in the first third of this season that felt played out. We get the sense, from the first four or five episodes, that the show is trying to wrap up as much of the dangling plotlines from season 2 as possible in order to get the story of season 3 underway. We’re confused as to why this tack was taken, since season 2 hit the ground running and took off almost immediately. There’s a feeling that the creators are trying to give us a season as unlike season 2 as possible, just as season 2, with its introduction of Vee as a Big Bad, differentiated itself from season 1, which was mostly about Piper and her bullshit. It seems like season 3 is mostly going to be about everyone’s bullshit, filtered through the very broad – almost too broad – lenses of motherhood and faith as the major themes.

In “Bed Bugs and Beyond,” The Litch is overrun by, you guessed it, bed bugs. And while this provides both some comedy, as the inmates are forced to walk around in horrifically unflattering (except on Maritza, because the girl can WERQ) bullet bras and granny panties or disposable paper smocks until their clothes can be effectively washed of the invaders, it also provides a sense of how dehumanized these inmates are. Sure, there’s some complaining about their situation, but the level of anger at the prospect of living without clothing or bedding is about as high as learning there’s something on the menu that day they don’t want to eat. In other words, they’re all so beaten down by this culture that most of them just shrug and accept their lot. And of course, in typically cynical OitNB fashion, the bed bugs were introduced to the prison by the Aleida’s children on Mother’s Day. Although we think it’s less a cynical take on trying to introduce traditional family forms into this environment and more of a take on how badly Aleida’s kids are being raised.

Pornstache’s mother comes to visit Aleida and we’re treated to two women who know they haven’t been the best of mothers at times, trying on some level to either rectify it, re-do it or just cash out. Aleida being Aleida, she’s trying to scam Mrs. Pornstache’s Mom out of some money, but as she rather convincingly put it to the utterly clueless Daya and Bennett later on, this is probably the best chance this kid’s going to have at a normal life. “Clean towels and shit,” as Aleida (somewhat sadly) puts it to Daya, who knows all to well how unlikely a life of clean towels and a single bedroom will be for her kid if she hands him over to Cesar for safekeeping.

As an aside … Cesar. DAMN, daddy. He may be a terrible father, but he is NOT hard to look at. Okay, maybe when he’s pulling a gun on his kids, but OTHERWISE…

Anyway, all this boring baby drama leads to a ridiculously ill-advised marriage proposal with a flashback to Bennett’s time in Afghanistan and frankly, we could not be more disappointed with the show for doing this. The majority of all film, television and fiction tells the tales of white men. What made this show so fascinating was that it was telling the stories of not just women, but the kind of women whose stories are not told often in our culture. That is to say, women of color and women without privilege. What a huge letdown that we’re wasting time on some white guy soldier boy who’s desperately afraid the world is going to think he’s a pussy. Generally speaking, this season has had something of an issue with its flashback structure and the Bennett flashback is the first real inkling we got that the show is struggling with this narrative style.

In other incredibly boring news (seriously, this was a distressingly uninteresting sophomore episode for the season), Alex and Piper OH MY GOD WHO THE HELL CARES. Even the hate sex isn’t hot anymore. The only thing of interest in this episode, aside from Bennett seemingly bolting from the story, if not his entire life, is the fact that Caputo finds out the Litch is going to be closed down in a month. Obviously, that’s not the case, but now we know what the story of season 3 is going to be. Rather than dealing with a villainous inmate, we’re looking at possibly the scariest thing of all when you’re in prison: change.

In “Empathy is a Boner Killer” we get another indication that the flashback is no longer servicing the storytelling well. In this week’s installment, we “discover” that Nicky was an addict and like most addicts, was a self-centered asshole. Honestly? We didn’t need this much story time devoted to telling us something we already knew. In fact, the entire structure of the episode seemed to have been reverse-engineered from the idea that it was time to write Nicky out of the story. We’re wondering if Natasha Lyonne wasn’t getting along with the producers or something, because it almost felt vindictive, the way her character was torn down and tossed out. Still, we got a pretty great performance out of her, as she got twitchier and twitchier the longer the heroin was bouncing around that prison. But we found ourselves wishing less time was spent showing us stuff we already knew about her past and more time was spent on, say, her goodbyes to Lorna and Red, which seemed too rushed and with too little followup. And yeah, Luschek is a dick, but honestly, we didn’t blame him a bit for ratting her out. She screwed him over just like she screwed over Boo – and apparently, everyone else in her life, going back years. It may have been a rushed exit, but it was perfectly in character and thematically sound.”I’m like a bloodhound for oblivion.” she tells Luschek. As much as this show gets you to love its characters, it has no problem reminding you of what kinds of people they can really be.

And to back that up, here’s Ruiz, after finding out she won’t be seeing her baby again while she’s inside, responding to Flaca and Maritza planning Daya’s Wedding of Wishful Thinking: “We’re not a family. We’re a Band-Aid. And once you rip it off, all we are is scars.” It’s Orange is the New Black‘s great strength that it can present a statement like that as both something tragically cynical and wrongheaded while at the same time placing it in a story that constantly demonstrates the truth of it. “She’s just mad because she can’t see her baby no more,” scoffs Flaca, another statement that’s both correct and incorrect at the same time. She’s mad, but she’s also more or less right, even if no one else wants to admit it. The Litch is a place where women who can’t be with their families – and quite often, mothers who can’t be with their children – turn to other women in the same boat and hold on to each or fight each other to get through the pain. On the one hand, that actually does sound like the definition of a family, but on the other hand, it’s so clearly a temporary solution for everyone involved. And it says a lot that her statement can be waived off so easily by other women who are going through the exact same thing with their own children. You have to have an iron-strong sense of denial in order to survive in prison, which is why it’s so easy for Daya, who has no real idea what she’s going to do about her baby, to shrug off Ruiz and her situation.

Amidst all this denial there’s a, frankly quite silly scene where a bunch of the inmates gather to have a memorial for all the burned books. “I like reading more than I like living my actual life,” made for a nice summation of what was trying to be said here, but overall, it felt very stagey and sitcomy. And it makes for a good example of something that bothers us a bit about this season: the inmates are getting a wholly unrealistic level of freedom to walk around and do all kinds of crazy things, from Wiccan ceremonies on the lawn to mixing cement and sealing up the tunnel to Norma openly forming her own cult, there’s a lot of inmate grandstanding and extracurricular activity that strikes us as a bit much to swallow. Granted, this is openly attributed to Caputo’s new method of running things, but even with that in-story explanation, it still comes off a bit too staged and unrealistic too much of the time.

In other news, Healey more or less forces Red to become his marriage counselor, which leads to the most amazing exchange between the two of them as he thanks her for her help: “You basically gave me no choice.” “Even so, I appreciate it.” He literally has no concept whatsoever of allowing women their own freedom, agency and consent. And he thinks thanking them while imposing his will on them makes him a Good Guy. His wife may be a spoiled brat, but she wants a life of freedom not unlike the women he works with every single day.

Oh, God. Please don’t let there be a Red/Healey romance. The very idea strikes us as ridiculous. Red knows herself and, more importantly, knows men way too well to allow herself to get caught up with that misogynistic pile of mess.

Meanwhile new CO Berdie Rogers is full of good intentions, which newly returned inmate Alex Vause finds laughable to an obscene level. We have to admit, we LOVED the angry speech Alex spat at her about the futility of her good intentions while upholding a horrific system that she admits is bullshit. “I have my own quilt of lies to sew,” she sneers as she turns down her request to join the newly formed improv group. It’s a line so good it kind of takes us out of the story for being a bit too witty and on the nose. Still, it was a great scene and a notable example of how much more interesting Alex can be when she’s away from Piper.

Unfortunately it led to a tediously long improv scene between the two of them where they hash out their completely fucked up history and … continue to stay together or something?  WHO CARES? Seriously. Give them a bunk and let’s move on to some real storytelling, which we seem to be in place for now that Fig is advising Caputo (a DELICIOUS and somehow perfect continuation of their relationship) on how to save the prison. Bit by bit, the fallout from season 2 (the heroin, the wounded feelings and broken relationships) is being dealt with so we can move on.

Note: We’ll put up another double recap tomorrow and another over the weekend. After that, you can expect them every other day and until we’re done.

 
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[Photo Credit: JoJo Whilden/Netflix]

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