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Orange Is the New Black Episode Nine Recap: We Finally Experience the SHU

This episode was all over the place in the best possible way — an Alex backstory, a homemade abortion, someone preparing to get out, the threat of murder, Suzy’s surprisingly bougie parents, and a visit to the SHU made me pretty excited to see where this show is heading in the last four episodes.

I’m getting serious nervous vibes as we speed toward the end of this season, primarily because I’m sure Pornstache Mendez is going to murder one of the inmates by the time we’re through. He’s becoming more and more a sociopath, eyes firmly fixed on the drug-laced prize. Red fired some warning shots in the last episode by refusing to give him access to her Neptune Produce prison contraband delivery service, and in this episode she goes for the jug by flushing the pills she finds mixed in with her greens. I can’t say that I blame her; at this point, their threats are idle, as both stand to lose if one chooses to expose the other. Mendez may not be able to turn her in, but he can make her life a disgusting hell, which he does by pissing in the giant vat of gravy she’s making for Thanksgiving dinner. Is there even enough bleach to clean that up? Gross. He looks Red dead in the eye and says, “Next time you fuck with my stash, I’ll end your life.” Red actually looks scared, and you know what? I believe she should look scared. The development of Mendez’s character from goofy jokester to threatening menace has been swift and convincing.

Piper is pretty tender in this episode (with very good reason, we later learn). She cries while Sophia is washing and styling her hair, sighing that she just misses contact, and not even in a romantic or sexual way. I never really considered it, but contact in prison is either violent or missing entirely, which, as Sophia puts it, is no way for humans to live. Piper is excited for Larry to visit, again getting weepy about seeing him on her first holiday in the joint. Sister Mary Fabulous (I’m just renaming her, she’s so awesome) tries to keep her spirits high, but Piper is primed for an emotional experience.

The gang is prepping for Taystee’s release party (which Mendez prefaces with “please, no Thanksgiving suicides”), and everyone is in good spirits. Everyone, that is, except for Pennsatucky, who has narrowed her focus on Alex and Piper even more after Alex made fun of both her fan mail and “jay-suss” in the laundry room. It turns out Pennsatucky is a “defender of the unborn,” and let me tell you that I believe she has it in her to kill in the name of the Lord. She’s also a drug addict, so who KNOWS if her delusions of grandeur are just a put-on or some figment of her meth-addled mind. But then who would be sending her fan mail? She calls Alex a “rich bitch,” prompting a flashback to Alex as a kid getting teased for being poor. Her (single, hard-working) mom reminds her that her dad is a rock god, and that even though she’s never met him, she is destined to be cooler than the twats who are taunting her. She finds her dad years later, a strung-out addict who talked about her boobs, and it’s strangely this encounter that gets her into the drug business; his dealer was in the room and saw her potential. That’s weird, right? I mean, I guess they had to get us to a point where Alex could even meet the type of people who would be part of an international drug ring, but I was definitely taken out of the action during this part, clearly seeing the heavy narrative steps needed to bring her to that point.

As prep for the party continues, everyone starts dancing to Kelis’s “Milkshake,” with Alex and Piper doing a choreographed dance that they clearly used to do when dating. The dance takes a turn for the steamy, and Pennsatucky, sick of the “lesbian activity,” runs to Healy to tell him, “They lesbianing together!” When he gets to the rec room and sees Alex and Piper bumping away, he freaks out, screams that what he saw was attempted rape, and tells a bewildered and scared Piper that she’s going to the SHU. Even Mendez comments on how wrong an action this is, but Healy is full of homophobic rage and screams him down, too. Is there no “time out” corner in prison? It’s just prison, or the worst sort of solitary confinement we have to offer? Litchfield needs a little dedicated space to cooling down.

The SHU is a nightmare, of course — it looks like the hospital from Jacob’s Ladder, which I accidentally watched when I was 10 and will forever haunt my life. Dark cells, lots of screaming, banging, and crying. Piper is tossed into a dingy cell featuring only a cot with a paper-thin mattress and a stained metal toilet. She sinks down to the floor and listens to the wailing, crying in her own right, her shiny Thanksgiving hair limp and spoiled.

After Pennsatucky has Piper thrown in the SHU, Alex, defending her ex and knowing that the primary weapon she has against Pennsatucky is gayness, walks up to her at mealtime and kisses her square on the mouth, saying to the whole room that Pennsatucky was pretty awesome during the sex they had last night. And just like that, we’ve got another war to keep track of. First Pennsatucky & Co. steal Alex’s mattress (more of a pain in the ass than I realized, since it will take a couple of weeks to replace), then they crack her glasses in half while she’s in the shower. I don’t know if Alex has it in her to get payback; she seems to be more of the “go along to get along” type. But I wonder if she’s going to stand for this? By the prison rules I’ve learned from every movie and TV show ever, you have to stand tough or you’ll be on the business end of getting bullshit all day long, so I can’t imagine she can let this slide. Also, Pennsatucky is ACTUALLY NUTS, so this could escalate from harmless jokes to waking up to her hovering over you with a vegetable peeler in no time. Alex, you in danger, girl. 

In a what ends up being a strangely light side story, Daya, it seems, has decided to get rid of her baby. Gloria (whose relatives practice Santeria, don’t you know) whips up a concoction in her prison-style Easy Bake Hot Plate to induce the abortion. I love that the writers didn’t feel the need to treat us to an agonizing backstory, like every other show that even thinks about discussing abortion (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead) — she’s in prison, she’s pregnant by a CO, she’s having an abortion, end of story. After she gets over the initial bad taste and potential side effects (“You want me to shit in a hole?”), Daya is resolute in her decision, even though a post-partumly depressed Maria is sleeping in a bunk next to her with the covers pulled high overhead. What I HATED is that it was all a trick, designed by Aleida to keep Daya from “icing her grandbaby.” She gives a speech about “babies giving you hope,” and in the end convinces Daya to keep the baby. Are you kidding me?! First of all, babies are terrible, and you only have to be near one for twenty seconds to realize that. Second of all, Aleida is a TERRIBLE mother by all accounts! How would she even know babies bring you hope — she was never home to take care of hers. Finally, um, hello, YOU ARE INCARCERATED AND HAVING A CO’S BABY. How are they going to hide the pregnancy? What if they can’t, and Bennett loses his job and Daya is sent to some new level of SHU hell with tiny little cots for your SHU baby? Maria is your roommate — look across the room to get an inkling of what your life is going to be like, and that is the best-case scenario. This is all going to end in tears.

We have a light romp through Sophiatown when her wife comes to visit and tells her she’s “interested” in the new pastor at church. Sophia is hurt, and doesn’t want a “strange man” with her wife, but Sister Mary Fabulous reminds her that she “got what she wanted at a pretty big cost to her family,” and now it’s her turn to give Crystal what she needs. Sophia comes around, calls Crystal, and gives her blessing. She’s rewarded for her good deed by getting an increase in her estrogen and being put back on her old dose. I’m telling you, Sister Mary Fabulous is magical. I miss Sophia as more of a major plot point, but she consistently brings a good story when she is the focus.

Hello! Suzy’s parents come to visit and they are white! And bougie! And she can’t curse in front of them and they don’t like her hair! Please tell me we get this story this season, for the LOVE of PETE.

Taystee is afraid to leave even though she’s been granted clemency. We learn that she’s been a ward of the state since she was 16 and feels like she had no skills to offer in the real world. Miss Claudette calls bullshit on that, reminding her that she has been working in the law library for years, but Taystee makes the salient point that her work in prison doesn’t actually matter in the outside world. Poussey wonders if she “has that thing that happens to animals in captivity, where it changes their brain and they don’t know how to live in the wild anymore.” This is amazing (and not too subtle) commentary; what options do these inmates have once they leave? The programs we set up for them inside don’t translate to real jobs, they rarely have a place to go when they’re released, and every aspect of the prison system is designed to see the inmates return. This show is so smart about how they hold themselves accountable to present slices of the real picture of prison culture. Later, a guard comes and tells Taystee she has to go right away, before she has a chance to say good-bye to Poussey; Poussey runs to the window and bangs on it, The Graduate–style, until Taystee sees her, dances, and leaves. Samara Wiley, the actress who plays Poussey, is excellent throughout this scene, and the look on her face in the window is a heartbreaking mix of joy, sadness, and worry. With good reason, too — we follow Taystee for a little bit and see that she’s going to have a hard time. The address her “cousin” (a fellow foster child) had given her seems to be some sort of flophouse, where she is given a mattress in the corner for only a night.  Her struggle is real, and her fears are coming true on her very first night. 

Back in Sadsville, Larry shows up for visiting hours to find that Piper has been tossed in the SHU. He understandably flips out, and gives Fischer (the nice guard) his number to give to Healy immediately. This whole scene was pretty hilarious; he’s clearly frustrated with the bureaucratic process, going home to yell on the phone about how he’s called everyone under the sun and no one will help him, and it’s evident that were his father available (they're on vacation in Florida), he would have him settle this sort of thing. He’s trying to put together Thanksgiving dinner with Cal, who insists that the show must go on despite Piper’s misery, and Larry eventually agrees. All of his protests seem a little anemic, right? Like he feels that he has to put on a show about how sad he is, but he relents so quickly you have a hard time believing he actually cared. This becomes more clear at dinner, when Polly and Pete come over with their new baby (“He looks like Steve Buscemi!) and Maury Kind, an Ira Glass–type NPR personality who hosts a show called "Urban Tales." Pete tells Larry that Maury loved his "Modern Love" column about Piper; Larry lights up and jizzes fan juice all over him, and through a series of awkward conversation eventually earns a space on an upcoming show about long-distance relationships. Good job, Larry — keep milking the cow while Piper, the person actually living your story, gets to sit in solitary confinement and think about how great it is that you’re around to narrate her life.

Just as Piper looks over to see that someone has scratched “kill me now” in the heavy metal door, Healy shows up, hoping her time out gave her time to think about her behavior. He’s trying to help, you see because he gets her. Piper flips out when she hears this — she rages about his not knowing her, and gives a great speech about how she would never be his girlfriend, she doesn’t “fuck ignorant, pretentious, old men with weird lesbian obsessions,” and that he can go fuck himself. He smiles as he closes the cover over the talking hole, and Piper looks like she’s about to throw up. Even though the consequences are dire, it’s good to see her angry, and good to see her put Healy in his place. Piper needed some sort of release, and to break free from her previously mentioned Waspy “never talk about anything” way of going through life.

She quickly realizes that it was a huge mistake, though, a sudden outburst to the one man who has her life in his hands. She hears a voice through the vent, someone who has “lost count” of how long they’ve been there but at least nine months to a year, and she realizes that it could be her — she could be stuck there forever just because of her “big mouth.” This is a very sad and tender scene, Piper breaking down, swearing that she’ll “be good, keep her head down and do her time,” that she “won’t go near her, I won’t even look at her.” You can faintly see the words “you fool” etched on the wall behind her head, which was a nice touch. She already has to shower while handcuffed to a wall, and eat food that has actual mold on it; if the goal is to keep her in there until she breaks, I’d say mission accomplished.

Eventually Caputo comes around and tells Healy he has to let her out — apparently Larry’s calls worked, and he’s worried about the backlash should the media get wind of it. Healy agrees to let Piper go … but not before he calls Larry personally with the phone number Fischer gave him to explain that Piper was in the SHU because of her lesbian activities with Alex.

When Piper gets out, she walks with purpose toward the dorms, needing contact, angry at Healy, defiant about having to defend her sexuality, and pissed off in general. She grabs Alex, heads to the chapel, and proceeds to bone the crap out of her. Take that, Healy!

How is Larry going to react?

Are Piper and Alex going to be a couple again, or is this just an “I need contact” in prison thing?

And what on earth will Pennsatucky say?

Best lines and scenes:

  • “That’s a bag of turkey assholes.” Nicky, you were underutilized in this episode, but well placed.
  • Black Cindy’s “Don’t Forget a Bitch” sign at Taystee’s party.
  • “My brother shot a damn eagle!”
  • Alex and Nicky talking about whether or not she would have had her working for her drug intel:
    “My business was built on sniffing out girls like her and turning them into drug mules. You grew up rich so you’re used to easy money, you have enough stamps on your passport to avoid suspicion, you hate your parents, you’re in your experimental phase, all you want to do is fuck a woman or a black guy, have some adventure and still be able to afford a Birkin bag.”
  • Finally meeting Cal’s girlfriend, the underwater welder.
Photo: Eric Leibowitz for Netflix.