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Orange Is the New Black Season 1 Finale Recap: I Saw the Light

Well, I didn’t see THAT coming.

This is the kind of episode that people love, because they get to explore whether jail turned Piper into a monster or she had it in her all along. Since the conditions in prison are so extreme, we want to think the changes we see in the inmates are purely causal, just related to the geography. But do you remember Piper’s talk with Dina a couple of episodes ago, where she revealed the truth of jail as coming face-to-face with who you really are? I think we got a glimpse of that with this finale. I don’t think that Piper is an aggressive maniac, but I do think she’s been repressing her idea of who she wants to be with the reality of who she is (and who she is expected to be) for so long that she just sort of snapped.

She had a lot of opportunities to check herself (Alex telling her to permanently stay away after she revealed that she and Larry are getting married, the “message rat” she got from Pennsatucky), but her moment of reckoning seemed to happen during the pageant, when usually silent Norma let out her crystal clear voice and sang, “I Saw the Light.” Piper cried, and I think she realized that for the first time in a long time she was utterly, totally alone. Prison has been easier for her in a lot of ways; her commissary is full, she has plenty of visitors, and, as Fig pointed out, she’s a white woman with a short sentence. She had Larry for consistency in the life she created, and Alex for the love and attention she craved in jail. The main difference in her new jailbound life is that she’s forced to consider other people’s lives for a change; that, try as she might, it’s not as easy to be selfish. This was also the bulk of the conversation when Larry came to visit Alex (without Piper’s knowledge). Larry was prepared to rage on Alex as the sultry temptress who stole his girlfriend and “worked her over,” only to have Alex gently, expertly remind him that Piper orchestrated the affair, and that she is supremely fucked up and always has been. Larry eventually admits that he doesn’t trust her before breaking it off entirely, but you have to wonder how either of them could have approached a marriage couched in fear and mistrust so willingly. Have they even figured out what they’re each denying about themselves, and each other?

Daya had a healthy amount of denial happening when she slept with Mendez, banking on the prison to get rid of him and solve her problem, but Bennett isn’t willing to let her off the hook so easily. Both of their arguments have legs: How was she going to explain getting pregnant in a women’s prison without ratting out the guy she loves? How was he supposed to feel good about her plan, and her having boned Mendez? Their real problem was being so optimistic. In the end, after the kitchen fire that lit Gina up like a summertime barbecue, they realize that they do love each other. But love certainly isn’t going to save the day, not with Mendez thinking Daya is “sexy but still mom material.” Most of the COs think Mendez will be back “after the jizz settles,” and with Fig coaxing Bennett into not filing a report, it’s probably true.

Black Cindy has completely stolen my heart. I goddamn love her so much! She’s always on point, whether she’s not beatboxing a Christmas carol, mimicking her preacher father, or giving wise fighting advice (“Kick her right in the cooch. Shot to the twat!”). I hope we get her story next season.

I’d still love to see more of Red’s backstory. She’s kicked out of the kitchen now, thanks to the Mendez backfire, and thinks it will fall apart without her. Do you think she’s more dismayed to learn that under Gloria’s leadership it’s actually running better? She seems bereft, eating her microwaved ramen, giving people looks “that would make their ass leak,” and sabotaging the kitchen by rubbing the oven with grease and pouring salt into the rice. When she finally goes to the kitchen to eat after the sabotage incident is discovered, she’s starved out, just like she did to Piper when she first arrived. This could be a “how the mighty have fallen” scenario, and it nicely bookends the first and second episodes, but I feel like Red is too powerful a character to stay on the sidelines for long. Gloria just pays attention to the food; she’s not running side businesses or keeping “family” drama on the forefront. She also brought her girls with her; it was slightly heartbreaking when they were standing around the table talking about all of the sexual abuse they’ve experienced at the hands of family members. That’s a weird subtlety of this show, that they normalize sexual violence in a way that doesn’t dismiss it, but ultimately comments on how we culturally normalize sexual violence. Sure, it’s nice to see women talking about their lives or “speaking their truth” or whatever sort of Oprah-ism fits the scope of their conversation, but it’s also sad how sexual abuse is a generational expectation, and they’re also talking about how they will protect their own daughters from male predators.

Sophia and Nun Fabulous running the holiday pageant was a nice turn. I really like their friendship, and that Sophia has someone to confide in about Michael. The pageant was fun and funny (a crown made of tampons and Suzy freezing up). Nicky always says that none of this is normal and no one is supposed to be at the Litch, but really, how did all of these intelligent, thoughtful women end up in this situation? There’s not enough time for the backstories I want to hear.

The Secret Santas barely stay a secret for long, but Vause’s gift is a hand job from Nicky and Piper gets the screwdriver Boo’s been masturbating with (the one she lost in episode four), as a way to protect herself against Pennsatucky. Doggett wasn’t kidding when she said she had to kill Piper, and that is her singular mission. Piper thinks she should tell someone about Pennsatucky’s threats, and the fact that she followed her into the E Block showers, cut herself with a shiv, and smeared blood all over Piper's naked body, but who is she going to tell? Healy officially hates her guts after she went to Fig to get the marriage request he refused to sign, and the COs seem to punch a clock and genuinely not give a shit. Red has been neutered, and Alex has shut her out. The best she can get is a short lesson in how to kick ass from Black Cindy, Poussey, and Taystee, which actually comes in handy.

Healy shows himself to be a real asshole; what really threw him over the edge was being confronted by Fig about calling Larry with his “lesbian witch hunt bullshit.” That was the last straw on top of the I Hate Piper pile. Healy is emasculated at home and at work, and is fostering a raging case of homophobia; he may have seen Piper as an equal at the beginning of her stay, but he’s quickly dismantled the stool (not exactly pedestal, but close) he put her on after discovering her outspoken lesbian side and her willingness to sidestep his authority whenever she gets the chance. He’s a bigot and a weirdo, and it’s strange that he took such an interest in Piper to begin with, but he definitely hates her guts now. He hates her enough to watch her die.

When Piper goes outside for some fresh air at the pageant, Pennsatucky follows, holding out a sharpened cross and threatening to end Piper’s life. Healy walks out, watches as Pennsatucky takes swipes at Piper, looks her in the eye, and walks away as she’s screaming for help. Her screwdriver is useless as Pennsatucky slashes it out of her hands, and you’re pretty sure the next season is going to start with Piper in traction or a wheelchair.

Then Pennsatucky says that Piper is not worthy of love. She meant God’s love, in her fanatical way, but Piper, having just been left completely alone for possibly the first time in her life, starts to shake with anger. She legit Hulks out! Piper pulls the moves her lunch crew taught her — she kicks Pennsatucky in the crotch, elbows her in the back, climbs on top of her, and starts speed-bagging her face. It is brutal and bloody, and you can watch something snap inside of Piper. She’s not the timid Wasp she was raised to be, or the go-with-the-flow girlfriend she tried to be for Alex; she’s pure emotion, fighting and punching thirteen episodes' worth of anger directly into Pennsatucky’s face. Maybe Pennsatucky will finally get some new teeth out of this, if she survives, and Piper is surely set up to have an interesting second season, having finally come face-to-face with who she’s really capable of being.

It’s been a pleasure to recap this show with you. I usually recap Scandal, so I’ll see you over there in a month!

Photo: Jessica Miglio for Netflix