Orange Is the New Black Recap: The New Norma

Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix
Orange Is the New Black
Episode Title
Tongue Tied
Editor’s Rating

I usually use television to escape from reality, not to have some sort of authentic experience. If I wanted to learn what life is really like for female inmates in a federal prison, I would watch some Vice streaming-video presentation on Snapchat Discover, I wouldn’t watch Orange Is the New Black. However, I still need the show to seem like the events depicted in it would actually happen in the real world, at least in extreme enough circumstances. 

That was my problem with the last season finale. It’s very rare that we hear about prison breaks (though this story is certainly poking some holes in my argument), and we certainly never hear about inmates breaking out of prison, being run over by another inmate who also broke out of prison in a stolen van, and a flock of nuns standing at the front gate who are sent scattering because of the getaway car. Really, it was the nuns that were over the line for me. Are we really supposed to believe all of that would actually happen?

I have the same problem with Piper and her Whispers panty-stealing scam. I like that she was stealing lacy underthings to make herself feel beautiful or powerful in an environment that is not only bereft of joy but also seems bereft of all color, from the khaki-colored peas to the muted blue of the guards’ uniforms. Seeing something hot pink after all that time in the drab confines must be like eating a sandwich made out of bacon and two Snickers bars after being on a juice cleanse. (I do not know what that tastes like from personal experience.)

Now we’re supposed to believe that Piper and Alex are going to run a stinky panty ring from inside prison so that they can make some money off of perverts who want to inhale the scent of incarcerated undercarriages? I just don’t buy it. It’s far too wacky. It also doesn’t really service the characters. Sure, Piper is someone who is both attracted to and reticent of danger, but she’s never been one to try to get rich quick like some of the other ladies (just look at Lorna playing MASH). Suddenly she’s like Ralph Kramden with a criminal record.

Sure, this makes for a fun little plot, but it seems like the writers came up with this idea and then wrapped the action of the season and the characters around to get to it, rather than having the action come out of something intrinsic in the characters they already created. This season has mostly been about the things women do to survive psychologically in prison — Poussey’s drinking, Red’s power grab, Lorna’s string of suitors — and this fits in nicely with that, but it still seems a little too silly for my tastes.

And then there’s Aussie, Piper’s new girlfriend. (Her character’s name is Stella, according to the internet, but I’m calling her Aussie until we learn her name on the show.) I had a theory that she was actually a Whispers Inc. plant. She was hired by them to work alongside the inmates to see if they were stealing or doing anything suspicious, since their liaison in the sweatshop seems like all he does is roll around in his desk chair. We’ve never seen her before, so maybe they just inserted her into the workroom hoping that none of the other inmates would notice a new face either (and that would account for Piper’s speech earlier in the season about how she didn’t even notice someone with a giant birthmark on her face for months, even though she saw her every day). Then, when Piper said she could make an extra pair of panties out of the extra fabric, she said drolly, “This is property of Whispers Inc.,” like it was part of her job to dissuade theft. However, at the end of the episode, she’s wearing the panties to get her stink all over them, so there went that theory.

Everyone is thinking about money, especially Daya, who asks Piper what it was like growing up with ballet lessons and flute practice and a house with a half-bathroom off the playroom (which is potentially the whitest thing ever uttered in a prison setting, real or fictional). She’s debating about what matters more, love or money, and I think she’s getting her answer. When she poses the question to Aleida, she reminisces about her 17th birthday, when they went to the day spa and pampered themselves, and how happy it made them. Aleida says they only had that because she stole a bunch of money. But Daya says it wasn’t the pampering, it was just the time together that she really loved. That makes me think she’s going to want to keep her baby, but she’s probably going to do the practical thing and give it up to Pornstache’s mom and then feel really awful about it. No matter what happens, I’m glad to see Daya finally starting to think about her future and do something other than sulk around the prison.

The best story, of course, was Norma’s, and I’ve been waiting for some answers about her all season. Once she began to be treated as a magician by the inmates, I knew her episode had to be on its way (this season has been nothing if not obvious). It turns out that Norma isn’t really mute, she just has a debilitating stutter that keeps her from speaking. She was also in a cult and in love with the one man who promised her she didn’t need to speak around him. I thought Guru Matt was going to turn into some Charlie Manson type of deal, but it was much better. He lost all of his followers except Norma, who let him treat her like crap until the day she pushed him off a cliff and called him a “son of a bitch.”

This story was all about Norma’s quest for power and agency, something that will give her a sense of sanity while in the slammer. Initially, everyone looking for her powers and blessings was quite annoying, and we get the impression that she didn’t believe in the mumbo-jumbo herself. Then, when Red comes back to the kitchen, she’s happy to have a friend, but Red is just a replacement for Guru Matt, someone selfish to order her around and take her for granted. When Gloria decides that she’d rather spend time with her kid than run the kitchen, Caputo hands the duties over to Red, who is just standing there smiling and holding a mop. Where is the confrontation I was hoping for? I want to see these two go three rounds next to an industrial-size dough mixer.

Red thinks that Norma’s powers got her back the kitchen, and after one triumphant meal, Caputo shows up with their new food: giant plastic sacks of beef Wellington and macaroni and cheese to be heated up in the steamer. There’s no more work, labor, or love to be spilled in the kitchen, and Red is pissed. It turns out that Norma’s magic wasn’t a blessing for Red but a curse for taking her for granted.

She then walks into the chapel and anoints her believers in the same way that Guru Matt once anointed her. She has taken power for herself and is not only following her own path but leading her own flock. I wonder if she’s going to make them all start smoking cigarettes and wearing white like the mute cult on The Leftovers.

The difference between this wacky plotline and the panty-stealing thing is that it somehow seems earned. We’ve seen how people’s religious beliefs can become exaggerated in prison, where everyone is just searching for some kind of hope. We’ve also spent the first six episodes establishing the Magic Norma persona, so it didn’t come out of nowhere. Finally, learning her backstory, this decision to become a cult leader of her own seems motivated by what we already knew of her character, coupled with the new information we got about her life outside of the pen. This is how wacky is done right, and it steals the G-string right off of Piper’s story line.