It's great when Orange Is the New Black spends non-flashback time outside Litchfield — especially when it goes to a place as entertaining as CorrectiCon Baltimore — but the sheer mass of characters and stories inside the prison means that when we come back, there's a lot of catching up to do.
"Piece of Shit" works really well for its many individual pieces, but it reminds me of knitting. (Just stick with me here.) Every so often, you have to put down your knitting needles and go back with a crochet hook to carefully pick up each little snag and dropped stitch that fell by the wayside. It's quite satisfying to see these forgotten bits and pieces get woven back into the fabric of the series, and everything now looks fuller and more polished, but it took a lot of attentive work to get there. As a single installment, episode six doesn't do much to advance the season's larger stories.
In no particular order, we get updates on: Sophia Burset in SHU; Piper's former lover, Stella; Taystee's plan to sell a celebrity photo of Judy King; the drone; Cindy's feud with her bunkmate, Alison Abdullah; Piper's panty business; Maria's rival panty business; Piper's nascent Nazi party; Poussey's relationship with Soso; Caputo's plan to improve prison conditions by filling his inmate's time; Kubra's hitman's keys; Lolly's therapy with Healy; Piscatella's hard-nosed policies; the growing relationship between Judy and Luschek; and oh yeah, Red's snoring bunkmate. Plus, there's a surprisingly elaborate description of a basket made by Tiffany Doggett.
OITNB's huge roster of detailed subplots is a fundamental part of the series' form, even when it doesn't neatly fit into a bigger arc. It allows the show to reflect a much broader experience of imprisonment than any single character could give, and it also mirrors life in the prison itself. Sometimes these subplots mix together, but often, each is restricted to its own limited space. There's a downside to this, of course: Poussey and Soso tenderly declaring their love for one another feels like it belongs on an entirely different show than the one in which Piper rats out Maria to Piscatella. The fact that these two stories are crammed into the same episode doesn't necessarily make the sum bigger than the parts.
It can also detract from the show's truly arresting moments, like the return of Nicky Nichols. When we last saw her in season three, Nicky had been laid low by her partnership with Luschek to distribute Vee's heroin. After Caputo finds the stash in Luschek's desk, he blamed Nicky for the whole thing and she was sent to maximum security. (What a stand-up guy!) "Piece of Shit" fills in the blanks about Nicky's current state and how she's been spending her time, then revisits Luschek's decision to put the blame on her. Her return is quite potent, but I wonder how much better it could've been if it weren't wound up with so much other stuff.
Nicky's best moment of the episode comes early on. She's at an AA meeting in the maximum-security facility, and she's getting a chit for three years of sobriety. She didn't use any of Vee's heroin, after all, and she's managed to stay sober in spite of obstacles that are even tougher than we might have realized. In max, we learn, drugs are everywhere. Not only has Nicky withstood the trauma of transfer to a more restrictive prison and the loss of her whole support system, she's held strong in a place where guards will happily supply heroin (for an exchange we learn about later). It looks like things are actually going alright for Nicky, and it's especially heartening to watch her accept that chit and proclaim that she's "fucking proud of [herself]."
But when she exits the AA meeting, a guard immediately confiscates her chit because it's contraband. That's pretty much how this episode goes for Nicky.
Her plot starts on an optimistic note that's quickly punctured, and by the end of the episode, things have spiraled so much that it's hard to remember the moments when this show is lighthearted and funny. (Or maybe just funny. The closest it gets to "lighthearted" is "Sideboob Rulez.") While mopping the floor in SHU, she tries to cheer up Sophia Burset by lending her a copy of Newsweek. Later, she finds Burset's stall covered in blood, empty of everything except the magazine, now blood-soaked and torn. Inspired by Judy King's advice, Luschek comes to visit for what seems like a moment of forgiveness. Instead, his milquetoast apology sends Nicky into a rage, creating something akin to the inverse of an AA meeting. Rather than be reminded of all the reasons to stay sober, she furiously spits out a litany of her grievances: She has no family, she has no friends, she is completely alone, and she doesn't even have heroin to keep her occupied. Luschek betrayed her, sure, but with the clarity of persistent self-examination, Nicky's excruciatingly aware of how much of this is her own fault. Her comforting mantra of states and capitals is replaced by a torrent of self-recrimination and loneliness.
Outside of the Nicky story, there are lots of little pieces to enjoy. Soso and Poussey's lovefest is so achingly sweet it's hard to even look at directly. Healy's description of the Twilight Zone episode "Stopover in a Quiet Town" is yet another intriguing insight into that mysterious man. And each episode seems to have some little moment that tops previous similar bits — first it was Taystee calling the public library, then it was Caputo's password. In episode six, it's Cindy and Alison finding shared ground in their disgust about Scientology. Nevertheless, all of these disparate stories can make the episode feel piecemeal.
When they fit together, though, it plays like gangbusters. By the end of "Piece of Shit," a few of these stories finally coincide. The rival panty businesses aren't yet something I care about, but when Piper rats on Maria's Dominican gang to Piscatella in order to protect her own people, the Dominicans resolve to throw caution to the wind and "go legit" — i.e., quit this absurd panties business and jump straight to drug dealing. At the same time, we learn that Judy is worried about Luschek's sudden fit of conscience. He's her only friend in prison, and she's worried that he'll get himself fired, so Judy orders her lawyer to transfer Nicky out of max. The price, Luschek learns, is that he's now responsible for helping Judy keep her butter nice and whipped … if you know what I'm saying.
And so, Nicky returns to Litchfield just as the prison is about to be flooded with drugs. In the episode's final scene, we watch as Nicky, still unaware that a horny celebrity chef is pulling her out of maximum security, seems primed to finally succumb to the drugs that she's done such herculean work to avoid. A guard holds up a tiny baggie of heroin, then undoes her belt buckle so that Nicky can kneel and complete the necessary exchange.
It's a loose episode, looser than I'd like for such hefty material. But if anything ties together several of these threads, it's mirrored images and discussions of sex. Of course, it's complicated: Luschek's sexual blackmail is partially played for dark humor and Nicky's sex-for-drugs exchange is utterly, terribly grim. With Nicky on one end of the spectrum and Luschek somewhere in the middle, OITNB also gives us Poussey and Soso, who have a thoughtful, compassionate, respectful conversation about Soso's reluctance to sexually reciprocate. If nothing else, it makes me far more appreciative of the Soso/Poussey story, which represents a variety of sexual encounter far too rare on this show and many others. It's healthy, communicative, and loving.
But even for those lovebirds, as they discuss when Soso worries about what might happen after they leave prison, this won't last forever. Consider it a reminder for Nicky, Judy, and everyone else at Litchfield: Nothing orange can stay.