Orange is the New Black: “Don’t Make Me Come Back There” & “Trust No Bitch”

Posted on July 15, 2015

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Selenis Levya and Jackie Cruz in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”

 

Given the string of broken promises regarding when and how often we’d get these reviews up, we can’t, with a straight face (or two), claim that we planned it this way, but this actually worked out well. Doing two episodes at a time allowed us to explore the themes of the season and point out the ways in which they’d work or not work from one episode to the next. It also allowed us to handily illustrate just how repetitive the themes were from episode to episode. But the real benefit came with the final two episodes, because they pretty much gave up on mimicking an episodic television format and simply made a two-and-half hour movie as a race to the finish line. The results were emotionally exhilarating, as so many aspects and storylines got paid off in quick succession, but they were also, in pure season 3 style, anvil-heavy and almost completely without any subtlety.

Aleida admits to Daya that she was a terrible mother (“I made kids and I fucked them up.”) and gives her the chance to be a better one. Taystee realizes with shock that she’s the mother of her group and winds up adopting the motherless Soso (and saving her life). Leanne takes the Norma cult too far and Norma finally angrily throws her out and ends the whole charade. Cindy argues passionately for, and then becomes a Jew. These were all neatly tied bows to season-long (or in Daya and Aleida’s case multiple season-long) storylines that all handily illustrated the most prominent themes of the season: faith and motherhood. Somewhat neatly, an argument is made for both sides of each theme; with both good and bad mothers weighing in on the role, as well as devout vs. opportunistic people hashing out their various religious beliefs. In addition, we got flashbacks showing that Soso had a Tiger Mom (because of course she did) who probably, like so many others in this “blame the mother” season, is partly responsible for why her life went south, that Aleida actually loved Daya a little too much (and in a harsh and destructive manner) for either of their good, and that Boo got “confirmation” that there is no God, which gave her the freedom to live her life openly and without regret. Also: Cindy had an abusive Christian father and Janae had an abusive Muslim father. And Jesus threw up on baby Healy. On the steps of a church. In the snow.

Like we said, there wasn’t a lot of subtlety to be found. And that’s exactly what we feared most about this season going into it.

Here’s the thing about OitNB show runner Jenji Kohan: she did a great thing when she gave the world the first three seasons of Weeds, but then she seemed to spend the next several seasons systematically destroying not only everything she’d built up in the story, but all of the good will she generate in the audience. At least that’s how it came across to us – and judging by a whole lot of commentary, to a bunch of other people as well. Our point is, she has a demonstrated history of … we wouldn’t say it’s a case of “dropping the ball” or “losing her touch.” With Weeds, it really felt like a deliberate dismantling of everything you liked about the show, just to see what would happen. In other words, Weeds didn’t fall apart because Jenji Kohan failed; it got deliberately taken apart by her because she couldn’t resist not doing it. And while there was no such dismantling to be found here, there was a similar sense of the show going much broader the longer the story goes on. There was perhaps too much focus on wacky prison hijinks, this time around. It’s one thing to have a cult spring up in the prison, it’s quite another to go the more farcical route and have characters literally bowing to a piece of toast by the end of the season. Piper’s panty storyline paid off rather well, if we assume the goal was to show that Piper is as much a criminal in her bones as the hardest of Litchfield inmates. But even so, there was an awful lot of time spent on the mechanics of it, especially when her brother and sister-in-law had whole scenes devoted to their thoughts on the subject. And to be honest, we had a little trouble believing that this skinny white girl could throw her weight around that prison as much as she did without getting some serious blowback. It felt like a chunk of what should have been part of that story was missing.

Which leads us to our next point: how unbalanced the storytelling was this season. It’s admirable that they wanted to give each member of a large and diverse cast some form of storyline, but things like “Red yearns to cook a meal” or “Poussey drinks too much because she’s lonely” or “A girl likes Suzanne but she doesn’t know what to do,” or – worst and most pointless of all, the entire thing with Pornstache’s mom, either didn’t pay off well or just kind of petered out. Even Alex’s “someone is trying to kill me” storyline felt forced, then forgotten, then hastily re-introduced in the last few minutes of the season. Worst of all was the tendency to yank storytelling away from the diverse cast of inmates and spend WAY too much time on the concerns of middle-class white men like Bennett, Caputo, Danny Pearson and Healy, which felt like a betrayal of the series’ entire mission and reason.

On the other hand (Can you tell we’re of many minds on this maddening season?), we’d argue that the focus on things like the sale and mismanagement of the prison (which is a storyline practically guaranteed to be heavy with white and male points of view) was indicative of the clock-like plotting of this season, which was in many ways perfectly executed. So many of the storylines naturally progressed from events, such as the sale of the prison leading to the use of prepackaged food, leading to an interest on the part of the savvier inmates in ordering Kosher food, which pays off in two excellent scenes: Cindy’s passionate argument toward becoming a Jew and later the actual moment when she becomes one. Even the final scene with the lake was meticulously plotted out over the course of the season, from Chang’s break in the fence being revealed, to Caputo discovering it, to the hiring of substandard workers all season lone, which allowed for the mass break at the end. In fact, it was that very focused style of plotting that produced the two best of the season: Tiffany’s rape and Sophia’s war with Gloria, which ended in the worst way possible for her. In both cases, the relationships at the heart of each story were slowly built upon more and more each episode. Coates and Doggett spent a lot of time flirting in a semi-cute manner before things rapidly turned weird and violent, just as Boo and Tiffany’s relationship was slowly and believably built up all season long. Similarly, both Gloria and Sophia were given very good reasons for feeling and acting the way they did over the course of the season. And it’s a recurring theme of the show that things can sometimes turn on a dime when tension bubbles up between different groups. Sophia’s sad ending (for now) was foreshadowed all season long, both in the recurring motherhood theme as well as the many, many, many scenes that showed that no one in charge of the prison truly cares about the well-being of the inmates.

In the end, our take is this: Yes, things went too broad and farcical at times. And yes, there was too much of a reliance on telling the stories of white men. And yes, a lot of the storylines petered out and most of the thematic elements were too heavy-handed. All true, as far as we see it. But Cindy’s storyline paid off so beautifully. As did Soso’s, as she finally found a family to take her in. Tiffany’s and Boo’s paid off the only way it could, with both triumph and disaster greeting their efforts. Tiffany gets free of Coates, but there will always be another girl at the ready to be shoved into her slot. Daya’s storyline FINALLY paid off (although we find ourselves not caring enough about the fate of that baby and wondering if Bennett wasn’t behind that DEA raid, which would make us roll our eyes so damn hard). And the correct storylines are being left open-ended, such as the fates of Sophia and Alex, as well whatever’s next in Piper’s evolution to pure Walter White-ism. So it was, as we see it, a highly unbalanced and occasionally problematic season with enough good elements to keep us coming back. It was the worst season of Orange is the New Black, which still makes it better than roughly 90% of what’s on television.

 

 

 

 

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