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Orange Is the New Black Episode One Recap: A Nice White Lady

Vulture will be recapping Orange is the New Black episode by episode. If you've already binged season one, we urge you not to go into the comments and say things like, "If you'd already watched the whole show, you wouldn't have written..." We are experiencing this show one entry at a time. Enjoy!

I was going to give this show a pass and not watch it after seeing what can only be described as the pickininny-ish imagery of the Netflix ad campaign. If the past week has proven anything, it’s that America’s relationship with the politics of inclusion is hanging on by a thread; could I really trust a show about a middle-class white woman sent to prison on a decade-old drug charge to grapple with the nuances of race, class, and gender and still be entertaining?

Much to my surprise, the short answer is yes.

This show is smart. OITNB spends most of the first episode developing Piper Chapman’s character (and flaws) through the lens of the secondary figures in her life and a creative use of flashbacks. Piper is guilty — she absolutely carried a suitcase full of drug money into another country for her former girlfriend Alex (played by Laura Prepon), and owns the mistake. But, as she says, it was during her “adventurous” post-college years, before she turned into the “upstanding white lady she was always meant to be.” She wants to do the right thing, but simultaneously thinks she has already redeemed herself by turning into the middle-class ideal, and only turns herself in when her ex-girlfriend implicates her two years before the statute of limitations is up. Piper is stoic in front of family and friends, insisting they not cry at their intimate farewell dinners, but still very fearful of going to prison, retreating to cry in stolen moments on the toilet or lying in bed next to her supportive (but up until recently, in the dark) boyfriend Larry, played by Jason Biggs. She wants to do the right thing by serving her time, but also thinks of prison as a place where she can spend time getting “ripped like Jackie Warner” and finally “read everything on her Amazon Wishlist.”

Most of the episode revolves around Piper’s first two days in prison, marked by a strange tension as she tries to go with the flow but is clearly operating out of her element. She is wholly reliant on the help of others, which most of her cellmates are eager to give. Even the warden admits that “this is not Oz” during a stern warning about her right to refuse “lesbian sex,” and from the moment she climbs into the van that will take her from the checkpoint to the prison, her fellow prisoners are eager to help her adjust. Piper needs their help but also wants to stand her ground, having received all of her social cues about prison from pop culture. One of the funniest moments comes when acerbic cellmate Nicky, played by Natasha Lyonne, asks her what she’s done to land in prison; Piper says, “You’re not supposed to ask that — I read about it,” like an honor roll student reporting a fellow classmate’s bad behavior. “Oh, really, you read that? What, you studied for prison?” Piper constantly walks the line between hope and delusion, and we’re not sure yet how that will shape her experience.

After befriending a nun and a yoga-teaching hippie, Piper makes the mistake of offending the prison cook, Red, played gloriously by Kate Mulgrew, when she remarks that the food is terrible. Nicky makes a note of this “epic fuck up,” the payback for which is a “special breakfast” the next day: a blood-soaked tampon resting on an English muffin. Piper, fully aware of her privilege when she gets to the prison, has to learn how to navigate a world where being a “nice white lady” gets you nowhere. When she starts to hyperventilate at the table, she runs outside to catch her breath … and directly into Alex, the ex-girlfriend who put her there.

High Highs:

  • Piper wearing maxi pads as shower slippers because she has no money in her commissary account when she arrives is indicative of both her creativity and how desperate she has become.
  • Piper’s relationship with Alex is not treated as a college rite of passage; she was a lesbian, but now she’s not, and that sort of gender fluidity is accepted without much fanfare (though it was the most interesting part of the story when she explained to her family how she ended up in jail).
  • Speaking of family, it’s set up for a lot of class issues to come through Piper’s family: “My mom told friends I was doing volunteer work in Africa.”
  • The Yoga Jones conversation about Piper treating her experience as a mandala, something to work hard to establish and then pack away when she is done. It was a very, "How did you end up in prison, Yoga Jones?" moment.

Best lines:

  • “This is my last blog post as a free woman.” Priorities.
  • “By the time I get out, there will have been, like, three new generations of the iPhone.”
  • Piper on prison shoes: “Oh, these are like Toms!” Prison guard: “Who’s Tom?”
  • “Don’t look so bummed — you’ll get wrinkles.”
  • “Okay, go sit there, she’s a nice, white lady.”
  • Nicky: “My mom lives with her boyfriend Paolo who destroys the rainforest and likes photorealistic art. She’s a cunt; I’m a disappointment.”
  • Piper frantically describing her first night to Larry in a rushed phone call: “I’m wearing granny panties and I’ve only spoken to white people. I love you so much. One of my roommates had a massive heart attack when she got here.”

Verdict still out:

  • Is Jason Biggs the worst fake crier on TV?
  • WHAT is Mr. Caputo’s deal, with the jerking off as soon as Piper leaves the office? Is he a nice guy? A pervert? I’m on high alert.
  • One transgender character has been lightly introduced in a disappointingly stereotypical manner (“Girl, let me do your HAIR!”). Are they going to be able to showcase her without turning her into a caricature?
Photo: Netflix