Orange Is the New Black
Say what you will about real-life prison overcrowding, but it leads to some fascinating situations on Orange Is the New Black. The most dramatic of these are yet to come, but even in the early days of an overstuffed Litchfield, the absurdities and physical discomforts are already beginning to pile up.
“Power Suit” has a lot of moving pieces. Like the first episode, there are moments that feel like the beginning of a school year, complete with an orientation assembly led by Caputo and his new right-hand man, the tree-trunk-sized Piscatella. Cindy (a.k.a. Tova) squabbles with her new roommate over mere inches of space in their bunk, Judy King tries to settle in and learn Italian, the new majority of Hispanic women leads to early tensions along nationalist lines. Everyone’s feeling their way through new circumstances and trying to maintain or rebuild the social structures that were previously in place.
This plays out with some developments that will surely grow bigger — especially the racial tensions that Maria Ruiz ran away from and is now stepping into once again. We’ll get to all of that in a moment.
OITNB’s particular genius has always been in the mundane details of prison life, and in the way they can balloon into monumental issues. Watching everyone cram into the bathrooms is great shorthand for expressing how terrible this over-occupancy issue will get. The camera snakes along the interminable line, women’s bodies overlapping each other in the bathroom interior shots, as women reach across and around each other for towels and their belongings and to get access to a sink. It’s relatively cheerful, in a way, thanks to the three women singing together in the line. But Maria’s understandably annoyed as she shoves her way through the scrum.
That short opening scene neatly lays out the major concerns of “Power Suit.” We see the uncomfortable crowd of women jostling for insufficient resources, we see Maria stuck in the middle, trying to figure out how she fits in the pecking order, and we get that infectious but insular Spanish singing. The singing is a fun detail, adding undeniable pleasure to an unfortunate situation, but it also excludes many of the other women.
So, Maria Ruiz. Up to this point, her story has been her pregnancy, the birth of her child, her anxiety about her boyfriend Yadriel raising her daughter well, and finally Yadriel telling her that he would no longer bring their daughter to visit her in prison. She has been, until now, a character who has never quite risen to the level of a fully developed story, but whose smaller moments are devastating enough to punch through some of the more dominant narratives.
As she rises in the rankings of narrative attention, the Maria flashbacks are less interested in telling the story of her criminal past (for now), and more interested in detailing her relationship with Dominican pride. Her story does a lot of work for this episode — in spite of the new Hispanic majority at Litchfield, there are intense internal battles between different national groups that can be tricky for a viewer to navigate. As easy as it is to understand that there would be fraught divisions between Dominicans, Mexicans, Haitians, and Puerto Ricans, it’s not necessarily obvious to all of OITNB’s audience (or its inmates) how those factions will play out, or even who belongs where. As Maria furiously spits at Flores, “You can’t even tell us apart. You thought I was Venezuelan for like two months.”
Maria’s background pulls double duty: It’s a story about her past and how she came to be herself. She grew up without an apparent mother figure and was raised by her father, who calls himself El Leon and crows about his Dominican heritage every chance he can get. Maria’s life follows an inevitable arc, from the birthday party that initially seems like a pro-Dominican gang rally to her distaste for her father’s cultural pride, and finally to him throwing her out of the house for having a Mexican boyfriend. She’s grown up hating nationalist discourses, which helps us understand more about her relationship with her daughter’s father.
Of course, it’s also a lesson in exactly what’s begun to go down in Litchfield. Few inmates seem to immediately know where they belong or what the new power structures will look like — Piper’s accidental reputation as a badass and her simultaneous inability to control her new bunkmate is a testament to that. And so Maria’s story becomes our key for understanding bits of Litchfield’s new world order. The intense Dominican pride, the way Daya and Aleida (who are Puerto Rican) rankle at the Dominican fervor, and the way Maria gets sucked into a nationalist fight in spite of her initial disdain: It all makes more sense in the context of Maria’s youth.
And just in case you needed any more primers about the racial, nationalist tensions in Litchfield, we get this entertaining little exchange between Leanne and Angie:
“Is Dominicans the ones that wear gold chains and smoke cigars and swim to Florida?”
“Is it the coffee and the coke and ‘Hips Don’t Lie?’”
“No. They talk a lot and they play baseball, and they’re always like, ‘I’m super not black!’ even though Haiti’s the exact same island.”
“Yeah … I hate them.”
This is Orange Is the New Black in a nutshell. Can we feel big narrative wheels turning, pulling small story threads together into a bigger, more meaningful picture? Not really. But listening to Angie and Leanne’s careful specificity about how to be racist means that for a while, it doesn’t matter all that much.
The second episode also gives us several smaller stories about how OITNB’s original inmates are adjusting to the influx of newbies. Cindy fights with her new Muslim bunkmate about space and fairness — “Fair. It’s from the Latin word ‘fairae,’ meaning, go suck a fart” — which leads to a fascinating discussion about the authenticity of their respective religions. (“Black people been naming their kids some crazy shit, but Tova ain’t on the list.”) Judy King settles into her spacious bunk and does a surprisingly effective job of undermining Yoga Jones’s crunchiness. (It’s no surprise that the key to Yoga’s heart would be herbal tea, but Judy King already had me with her nostalgia for hippie clothes trimmed in rickrack.) Tiffany Doggett worriedly examines Maritza for signs that Coates is abusing her. And of course, Red continues to suffer from insomnia brought on by her new bunkmate’s overly large uvula.
Meanwhile, a few threads from season three are being pulled back into the fabric of season four. Sister Ingalls agitates Caputo about Sophia being in SHU, even enlisting Sophia’s wife for help. Aleida learns that her boyfriend Cesar pled guilty on two counts of conspiracy, which will put him in jail long after she’s released. This is bad news for her and for Daya, who’s desperately worried about her daughter being funneled into state custody. Speaking of which, I would never otherwise take child-rearing advice from Aleida, but she is completely right about wooden toys being yuppie bullshit that babies hate.
In the world of MCC corporate satire, Caputo has an idea that is brilliantly and hilariously spun through a fun-house mirror of corporate logic. To cope with understaffing, Caputo suggests hiring veterans, which would be both good for society and might bring in experienced, “disciplined” staff. And, Linda chimes in, tax credits! Linda’s main character note is that she is daffily, swooningly gaga for budget savings. The veterans might need free on-site housing to persuade them to come to Litchfield, but as Linda explains, the inmates can fix up the cabins! The prospect of free labor sends her into a tizzy, before practically keeling over with glee.
“Power Suit” introduces a lot of minor crises, and soon enough, there’ll be a raft of new guards overseeing the new inmates. And whatever her initial hope, it’s unlikely that the Hispanic inmates will accept Maria’s angry call for unity: “We’re all mestizos. We all eat beans and rice.” Maria herself seems to also abandon that idea, as nationalist stormclouds form on the horizon.