Taryn Manning in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”
The previous two episodes left us less than enthralled, so it was something of a relief to get to “A-Tittin’ and A-Hairin’,” which was, in most respects, a return to form for the series. Season three has been characterized by a tendency to take simplistic themes like motherhood and faith and hammer them into the ground through constant repetition and by shoe-horning thematic elements into practically every character’s story. The result has been a feeling of dilution; as if the stories being told this season aren’t quite as rich or deep as in previous years. And while we can’t say there were any real surprises in Tiffany’s back story (Ignorant, poverty-stricken Appalachian girl had rough, rape-filled upbringing, news at 11), it was nonetheless a treat to get such a deep dive on a character we thought we knew. Bear in mind her whole backstory up until now has been the somewhat fantastical and simplistic, “Ignorant, poverty-stricken Appalachian girl had a lot of abortions, shot a Planned Parenthood employee, and became a pawn of religious fundamentalists,” which doesn’t exactly reflect the realities of the lives of a whole class of women. With this episode came the much deeper and more relatable tale of a girl born into poverty, ignorance and neglect, who never learned self-love or self-esteem, and who’s been paying the price for that lack her entire life. In other words, Doggett’s story went from being a story about one particular woman and her crazy antics to being the story of whole classes and generations of women. It’s the difference between a story about A woman and a story about women.
This has always been the great strength of Orange is the New Black; the ways in which it was able to tell stories about marginalized and forgotten people that made you realize how universal some experiences are and how only class, education and opportunity separate most of us from winding up in a place like Litchfield. It’s why, say, Big Boo’s flashback was way more interesting than Alex’s a couple episodes ago; because we can all relate to being a disappointment to our parents but almost no one can relate to being a gorgeous drug dealer, partying in Paris. Watching Tiffany’s story, we can all relate to feeling unworthy and unloved, even if most of us don’t have a background quite as bleak as hers.
Having said that, it wasn’t perfectly rendered, in our opinion. The YA novel cover boyfriend in her past was just a bit much to take. It’s one thing to have a dreamy, sensitive, pretty boy with great hair, first aid skills, and the ability to jerk a lady off erupt out of the Appalachian mud like some divine offspring, but to then have him be the perfect lover because he watched a lot of porn is … well, let’s just say a little too much on the fantasy side of things. It would have felt truer and been more interesting if the nice guy who once taught her she had value didn’t look like a boy band member and act like a 30-year-old. Another fumbling, pimply teenager could have taught her the same lesson and been a more poignant choice. Still, he served as a perfect counterpoint to the weasely Coates, whose backstory and actions remain largely unexplained, which is honestly how it should be for a story like this one. As we keep saying, this series tells the stories of marginalized women and that’s always been the biggest reason to tune in. We actually respected the show a little for making Coates’ actions so inexplicable and hard to predict, as he careened from being sweet to being creepy to being violent to being sweet again. That’s the reality for so many women and their abusers; a complete lack of understanding as to why he does what he does or when he’s going to do it, leaving the victim with nothing to do but search her own actions and feelings in order to find some blame or reason for her abuse. Tiffany’s rape storyline is OitNB at its best.
Unfortunately, this episode was followed up by “We Can Be Heroes,” in which the character to get the flashback treatment was Caputo, who is literally a white man in charge, making him unlike every single other flashback recipient in the show’s history. To be honest, this felt like a betrayal of the audience, or at the very least, a loss of focus on the part of the creators. No one binge-watches Orange is the New Black so they can find out more about the fascinating lives of white straight men who feel unappreciated. It’s not that one can’t tell a story of the put-upon white man in a setting like this, but Caputo not getting the management job of his dreams is NOT FUCKING INTERESTING when put up against the stories of women fighting addiction, or with mental health issues, or who can’t see or parent their children. In fact, its inclusion among such storylines is almost offensive in a way. We don’t mind occasionally seeing Healy’s unhappy marriage or finding out that Fig and Caputo are fucking (which was an inevitability), but to devote an episode to a middle class white guy’s life story, as if his succession of fuck-ups is akin to the victimization of people like Tiffany or Suzanne, goes against everything the show’s been about up until now. This is the entirety of what we plan on saying about this storyline because it doesn’t deserve any more attention.
In other news — You know what? We’re just gonna check things off the Theme Checklist, because that’s kind of what the writing feels like this season.
Norma continues to accept the worship of her Normites, in the form of candy, fruit cups and back rubs. She also continues to ignore the fact that they’re all turning into narrow-minded zealots and bullies. Occasionally she looks vaguely concerned when they call her Jesus or a little sad when they bully Soso, but for the most part, she’s letting it all happen.
Cindy continues her pursuit of better food through Judaism.
Tiffany’s is awful, continuing a slightly problematic motif of the majority of Litchfield inmates having issues with their mothers or issues with their children.
Gloria’s and Sophia’s dueling mama bears routine erupts into violence, revealing some ugly racial and transphobic undertones in the prison. This is sad to watch, but it’s one of the few storylines that’s being handled really well this season. We knew Aleida had it in her, but it was sad to see Taystee pretty much turn her back on Sophia.
LOVE & SEX:
Caputo and Fig hate each other but can’t stop fucking. Maureen makes a play for Suzanne, who doesn’t understand sex. Piper can’t keep her hands off Stella. Piper and Alex are fighting. Piper and Alex break up. Lorna meets her male counterpart, Vinnie, and immediately sends him out to beat up Christopher. Coates courts Tiffany with donuts and ice cream, until he rapes her. Poussey wants a girlfriend. Daya’s heart is broken. Everyone wants General Rodcocker.
Looking over this list, it strikes us that sometimes the pursuit of season-long themes isn’t always necessary for a TV show to be good or to have depth – especially when you decided on such basic and hashed-out themes as these. If you’re going to explore love or motherhood or faith, then you better have something new to say, because a LOT has already been said on those topics. Additionally, when you insist on repeating a theme ad nauseam, you’re actually weakening it a little, and the results can be quite clumsy. Tiffany’s rape would have stood out more if she was one of the few people pursuing a romance this season instead of being among a dozen or so doing the same thing. Similarly, the Gloria and Sophia feud would be more powerful if the word “mother” hadn’t been uttered by every single character a half dozen times this season. When you couple this kind of awkward theme-hammering with a bunch of “wacky prison hijinks” storylines about drunk squirrels or Piper’s panty business, you wind up with a season like this one; noticeably weaker than the previous two.
Two final thoughts:
Alex and Piper are two of the more boring characters this season, but it was a joy to see Alex call her out for fucking around with poor girls from violent backgrounds for no reason other than enjoying the power trip. The show’s really gone all in on the idea of Piper being a privileged asshole and it was nice to see the person who knows her best finally reach a point of revulsion where she walked out on her.
Why did the wonderful Berdie Rogers have to go? We realize she’ll likely be back (and primed for a major showdown with “vengeful little man” Healy), but why is a character like this being sidelined while we get Bennett and Caputo flashbacks? Or worse, a weepy scene with fucking Pornstache, who’s easily the worst character the show’s ever had. Enough with the “fascinating” white male characters, Orange is the New Black.