Emma Myles in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”
We figured we’d start a new tradition here at T Lo Procrastination, Inc. and kick off each (chronically late) review/recap with some new and creative excuse like “The cats ate my notes” or “There was a tsunami,” but fortunately for this installment, we don’t have to try too hard to explain. You see, we’re late on this review because it took us too long to realize these two episodes kind of sucked.
Oh, that’s not fair. And we’ll never get into The Important TV Critics Inner Circles by typing such phrases as “kind of sucked,” but really, these two were a slog of a time. Worse, both episodes tended to embody the worst aspects of season 3, from the clumsy use of the flashbacks to the overstating of certain themes to the need to give every character something to do, leading to some highly questionable if not downright dumb story arcs.
In “Fear, and Other Smells,” we get “treated” to an Alex flashback that … tells us nothing about Alex we didn’t already know, i.e., she’s self-centered and makes bad choices. Oh wait, that’s EVERY inmate’s back story. Which is fine in some respects because after a while, you can only get so creative in coming up with reasons why all your characters wound up in jail. Being self-centered and/or making bad choices is, we would imagine, a very common backstory for a lot of inmates in the real world too. But in the context of a TV series, you need a reason to ask us to spend time in a character’s past and for the life of us, we couldn’t detect a single good reason to do so with Alex. Sure, it illustrated the point that the international drug lord she works for is a dangerous man and retaliates against his employees when they disappoint him, but again, did anyone watching really not know that? Wasn’t there a better way to make us believe Alex’s present-day paranoia was well-founded? Because pretty much every time Piper mocked her for it, we were on Alex’s side, just because Piper’s so chronically wrong about everything.
Which leads us to the latest Plot Development: Piper and Alex are fading and Piper’s falling for the charismatic blank slate known as Stella. We love this show and we think the people involved in creating it are some of the most talented working in television but we have NO IDEA why anyone behind the scenes thought the audience was dying for ANOTHER Piper love triangle story. And regarding Stella, we can see why Piper fell so hard for Alex, because with Stella and Larry as her fall-backs, it’s pretty clear she’s got a habit of picking boring people who don’t challenge her current sense of self.”I’m a good little yuppie and here’s my good little yuppie fiance.” “I’m a hardcore criminal lesbian and here’s my super-hot, tattoo-covered inmate sex crush.” Pipes, you’re ridiculous no matter who you’re dating. Or fucking. But Alex clearly challenged her whole life in a way no one else has.
In related news, the panty caper continues to drive a lot of story, and while we find it sort of cute, we also find it just a bit silly in that “wacky prison hijinks” way that characterizes so much of this season. It’s treated in way too sitcom-y a manner. When Nicky had heroin in the prison you could sense how much of a time bomb it was, but Piper running an illegal panty-selling operation with stolen prison materials and crooked guards involved is treated like something that should have a laugh track laid over it. We almost wish Piper would get caught just so the added years to her sentence can wipe the smug off her face.
In “Where My Dreidel At” we do actually get a fairly decent flashback this time when we find out both where Leanne came from and why she can be so mean and exclusionary to people who threaten her sense of self. We also get a continued examination of faith, which is one of the major themes of the season. The flashback was well-handled, for the most part, mainly because it played into that sense of surprise that the best character flashbacks tend to induce. It’s just fun to consider foul-mouthed meth head Leanne was actually, at one time, the ultimate Good Girl – at least on the surface. And certainly the point that religion tends to divide and shun just as much as it unites; that at times it encourages an us-vs.-them mentality totality at odds with its own teachings, is a valid one to explore, even if it’s not exactly the most original idea in the world. But we found the execution to be a little clumsy in a “See? The Amish and Norma’s cult are THE SAME” manner that came off just a bit too obvious and on-the-nose.
You could take Norma’s story, Leanne’s behavior toward Soso, Red’s Pyrrhic victory of a kitchen return, Piper’s panties and even Chang’s dark tale and come up with a through-line about women taking power for themselves in situations designed to strip them of it – and how the circumstances or results of that power-taking can be a bit fucked up. Leanne finds community through shunning, Norma finds power and self esteem by playing on other’s need for meaning, Red went from a chef to a dog food dispenser, Piper’s sucking the air out of dirty panty bags in order to make money she doesn’t actually need, Chang eats gall bladders. Even so, it’s a somewhat weak theme considering the setting. They’re criminals. Of course any taking of power on their parts is going to have dire consequences. That’s kind of what they do. If we sound disappointed it’s because in it’s first two seasons, the show was more nuanced and seemed to have more to say about its subjects than that.
And to hammer the faith theme just a little bit harder, the shitty kitchen food brought on by the corporate buyout of the prison is resulting in a bunch of inmates declaring their Judaism in order to get the higher-quality kosher meals. Like Norma’s cult and Leanne’s shunning, it’s a storyline that takes a rather dim view of people’s reasons for turning to religion, but unlike the other two stories, there’s something real and respectful about Cindy’s approach. Yes, she wants to eat the better food, but her attempts to pierce the veil of Judaism by watching Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand films is opening her up more to the world rather than shutting her off from more of it, the way Leanne’s and Norma’s approaches do.
In other prison news, donut shop guard has a crush on Pennsatucky and because he’s a guard in Litchfield, it manifests in the most fucked-up manner possible, as he makes scrounge in the mud for donut pieces like a dog. We don’t even know WHAT the fuck that one’s all about. And while we’re on the subject of fucked-up male guards, can someone back something heavy over Healy? We’re not much for wish fulfillment in a story like this one, but watching all his misogyny and racism bubble to the surface in his exchange with the too-good-for-this-place Berdie was ugly. And to be honest, we’re tired of the attempts to make him sympathetic. If the story could finally stop treating Bennett like Prince Charming and have the guts to point out what a shithead he is, it’s time to do the same with Healy.
Also: Poussey is a sudden alcoholic who wants a girlfriend. We’re all, “Doesn’t everyone in that prison want either a girlfriend or a boyfriend?” What makes Poussey so different? Again: not exactly the most interesting use of a character. We feel like certain story and plot elements this season come across like something scribbled on a dry erase board during a story meeting but never fleshed out further than that. Poussey is a drunk! Suzanne writes erotica! Piper sells panties! Cindy wants to be a Jew!
In fact, the only truly interesting storyline right now is the simmering anger between Sophia and Gloria. This one is hitting all the right notes, showing two very different women in very similar circumstances turn on each other in frustration over their lack of power to do anything about their problems. Two mothers fighting for their kids. But the tragedy is that prejudices on both sides of the equation are causing the situation to get uglier. It’s heartbreaking to watch because these are two of the more likable characters in the story, but it feels like one of the more… we don’t know … grown-up of the plotlines this season. So many of them seem silly and fatuous in comparison. Real women with real problems and no power. To us, that’s the best part of this show. Wacky prison hijinks is much further down on the list and any episodes that deal more with the hijinks and less with the real-problems part tend to be episodes not worth re-watching, in our opinion.
Get back on track, Orange is the New Black. You’re getting a bit silly.
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