The strange thing about this season of Orange Is the New Black was that it was both painfully obvious in its worldview and also morally relative at the same time. The whole season, though interested in several themes, boiled down to what the women had to do to keep themselves sane, normal, and free while trapped in an environment that is insane, tedious, and confining. That makes sense, but where the logic breaks down is that things that work for one inmate don’t work for another. Take religion, which is Black Cindy’s salvation but took Leanne to a darker place than she’s ever been before. Romance gave Morello something to live for but almost destroyed Piper twice over. Finding a profession keeps Red alive in the kitchen but turned Piper into a crazy stanky-panty kingpin. Drugs worked for Poussey (until they didn’t) but got Nicky thrown into maximum security, never to be seen again. And Admiral Rodcocker, well, he didn’t hurt anyone.
While there was this relativism at play, everything having to do with a corporation or authority was inherently bad. Caputo treats the inmates like crap even when he’s trying to help them, and eventually just decides to finally help himself. Healy, though an awful person, thinks that he’s helping but is really making everyone’s lives worse. This makes sense in a system that is inherently broken and works to oppress the women in the prison, but the show offers no solution to help circumvent that system and find their humanity. Basically, in this universe, the women can try whatever they want, and it’s a crapshoot whether they win or not.
That’s life, I guess, but it sure makes for TV that is occasionally tedious, especially when the same types of stories roll around again and again: This inmate is getting closer to another inmate; this group is clashing with this other group; the guards and inmates are having a romantic connection; someone is screwing over their friend for advancement. The tedium is probably a lot like being in prison, surrounded by the same people and the same beige walls all the time, going through the same cycles. But it doesn’t offer much artistic growth for a television show.
This season, the confinement in terms of narrative was tighter than ever and often resorted to wackiness (Piper’s panty factory) in order to give us something new. But it was the smaller story lines that were the ones worth watching. Taystee went from Vee’s insecure underling to the mother of her clan. Boo and Pennsatucky’s unlikely friendship slowly unfolded and cemented in dealing with Penn’s tragic rape. Sophia’s torture by the other inmates and fight for equality was heartbreaking and had nothing to do with contraband, dirty guards, the image of Norma burned into toast, or watching Chinese soap-operas on a stolen cell-phone in a shed. It is the small moments that we can all relate to, and the show would be better to stick to those.
The pace this season was something that I had a big issue with. Without overarching villains like Red, Pennsatucky, or Vee to make the narrative jell into a cohesive whole, we were following dozens of story lines at any given time, with their details meted out in tiny doses, not enough to feel important or like the action was really moving in any direction. I think viewing a show in a binge (even if just one a day) makes this worse. When you have a week to breathe between episodes, just a little bit of your favorite character seems like enough to slake your thirst, but when watching them all together, you just want the story to move along already and get to something good.
But it’s these favorite characters that keep us all coming back. The show was often lacking subtlety or nuance. (Did Healy really need to tell us that he didn’t want an imprisoned woman at home? Couldn’t we have figured that out on our own and been the better for keeping it quiet? Same with Fig telling Caputo to stop waiting for people to thank him.) But these women are so well-drawn, three-dimensional, and diverse that we care for every one of them, even the little bit-players whose names we can’t always remember but enjoy spending these 13 (and a half!) hours with once a year.
That’s why the best scene of the whole season was when the fence comes down at Litchfield and all the women run out to the lake for a little taste of freedom, to enjoy each other’s company, and to find the joy in splashing around with each other for just a little while. That’s what it’s like watching this show, and what makes it a pleasure, even when some of the rougher edges distract from that joy.
The flashbacks in this episode, like in the first episode of the season, didn’t belong to one character but were shared with many, showing each of their experiences with religion, from Soso’s mother telling her there is no heaven or hell and Black Cindy being told she would burn for being defiant, to Boo having a near-death experience and realizing there is nothing to Healy being puked on by a homeless man that looks like Jesus. Religion and mothers were the two big motifs of the season, so it seems fitting that they serve as bookends.
The best religious scene in the modern day was Black Cindy calling back the rabbi that kicked her off of Kosher meals and asking him again (three times) if she can be a Jew. She started studying so that she could get the delicious broccoli once again, and ended up discovering her people. She realizes that God is a verb, something that she needs to keep finding and questioning day after day. That finally gives her hope and a reason not to break the rules. Her scene with the rabbi was exceptional, as was her smiling face when she finally gets baptized in the lake.
The cult of Norma finally fizzled out when Angie is brought back from her “miracle” release and everyone thinks that Norma has lost her powers. When Leanne pretends to see Norma’s face in a piece of toast, the religion is momentarily revived, but Norma is sick of their nonsense and the religion being about something other than kindness, especially when Poussey yells at all of them for what happened to Soso. In the end, she’s reunited with Red, her real friend, and finds some sort of connection, hopefully as equals.
There was also lots of romance going around. Healy and Red are closer than ever, and it’s a little bit creepy and kind of sweet, as was Red’s scene where she tells Healy that he might not be good at his job (he’s not) but that he’s helped her and that’s all she knows. Lorna finally got someone to love her — and to love her very loudly against the vending machines in the visitor’s lounge. She and Vinny get married, and I can’t see this ending well, but at least if there are people as crazy as these two in the world, they have each other, so they can keep all that drama contained to one household. Still, I love these two, as ill-advised as their romance may be.
Things got really messy for Piper after Stella gave her a “Trust No Bitch” tattoo with white ink to remember her after she gets released. (A white-ink tattoo is sort of a great metaphor for a prison sentence. It leaves a permanent mark that the wearer always knows is there even if everyone else can’t see it.) However, Stella makes off with all of Piper's money because she doesn’t have anything in the outside world. Piper says she should have asked and would have given her the money, and while she originally seems like she’s being sweet about it, she fills Stella’s bunk up with the contraband she found while hunting for a cell phone, and she gets Stella's sentence reupped and she's sent to max. Man, I’m really going to miss her haircut. Piper seems intent to keep doing what is best for herself, and while it makes her feel better in the pen, the erosion of her personality seems bad for her long-term prospects.
This dosen’t really fall in the romance category, but Pennsatucky finally got away from rapey Officer Donuts. She tells Boo she couldn’t go through with their plan to rape him back because she’s not a rapist, and she’s fine with that. Still, she had to get out of van duty, so she faked a seizure while driving with him so that he got all banged up and she’s not stuck on van duty anymore. It’s a win-win.
Soso survived her suicide attempt thanks to Taystee’s clique, who made her barf out the dozens of Benadryl she swallowed. They took her under their collective wing even though she’s not black (but her heart is!), and she finally has the connection and protection she was craving. Crazy Eyes found love with her biggest fan, and the two bonded over a turtle by the lake. Like I said, Admiral Rodcocker never hurt anyone.
Gloria and Flaca found a way to forgive each other, and Daya and Aleida reconciled as well. Daya went so far as to thank her mother for making her keep her baby against her wishes, though they eventually became her wishes as well.
All’s well that ends well, right? All the ladies are left on their field day, splashing in each other’s company unsupervised, enjoying a sunny day. But once they get back to camp, they’re going to find there are a lot worse things waiting from them than punishment. Daya and Aleida don’t know that Caesar was arrested by the DEA and all of their children no longer have a home. Sophia is still rotting away in SHU, and Healy no longer seems so inclined to save her now that Fig got him to only look out for himself. Piper isn’t at the lake either, giving herself a shaky tattoo and intoxicating herself on her own badassery.
But the two worst things are happening silently without any of them knowing. Alex was left alone in the greenhouse with Kubra’s henchman, who got into the prison as a newly hired guard. We assume that he’s going to kill her, but I would prefer a twist (maybe she’s forced to deal drugs for him in the prison instead?) rather than everyone coming back to find Alex bleeding out in the garden.
The worst, however, is in all of their cubes. The women are excited about getting new beds, but the irony is that they’re getting new bunk beds and that each woman is now going to have half the amount of space that she did before. As all of our inmates enjoy each other’s company, the peace among their warring factions, and a shaky status quo, twice as many new women (including Martha Stewart wannabe Judy King) will be waiting for them when they return. It’s hard enough for any of these women to find happiness, and there is no one method to attain it. But in a place like Litchfield, the one sure thing is that once someone finds a tiny sliver of hope, the system finds a way to crush it out of them.