Orange Is the New Black
In my last recap, I wrote about how tricky it can be when something terrible happens to Piper. It’s just so easy to feel as though she’s reaping what she’s sown, especially when she literally started a Nazi movement. Hers is the rare case when the Hitler comparison is not just apt, but earned. Episode seven left me feeling mixed about Piper’s lot, but “Friends in Low Places” goes a long way toward creating some of the same sympathy for her that Orange Is the New Black has so successfully generated for its other characters.
Piper is injured and miserable to start with, and then the reality of Caputo’s accidental chain gang drives her to a physical and psychological brink. For maybe the first time in the series, she’s brought low in a way that seems to utterly break her. First, she has a conversation with her brother Cal, who tells her he’s going to be a father. Cal says all of the silly, oddball things soon-to-be-parents say — the reality of becoming a parent is too massive to contemplate, so instead you focus on banjos — and it breaks Piper’s heart. Then, she’s plunked down in the hot sun, ordered to dig a hole, and forced to listen to other inmates complain about the fact that she got them kicked out of their well-paying jobs.
Speaking of the chain gang: Wow, OITNB did not go subtle with that one, huh? “It’s a chain gang,” Caputo said in the last episode, and now here we are, complete with high overhead shots that emphasize the inmates as a mass group, jangling guitar music with a country flair, and the bright, steely glint of shovels hitting dirt. This is the second racially and historically appalling organization someone in Litchfield has started by accident this season. If they keep this up, Piper’s Nazi party and Caputo’s chain gang will be joined by Yoga Jones’s unintended ISIS cell, and the new construction project will be a giant wall between the Dominicans and the rest of the prison.
The misery of Construction 101 works in several different ways. It plays up Piper’s abjection and helps establish the utter unfairness of this labor as a “class” rather than a job, while also creating a typically bitter OITNB joke. The backhoe is broken, so the women have to dig with shovels while it gets fixed. Boo’s been assigned to fix it, but she doesn’t know what she’s doing and just makes busy work so she doesn’t get stuck digging alongside the others. As it happens, the machine just overheated and Boo had no idea how to restart it, so the inmates spent hours digging in the hot sun while a perfectly functioning backhoe sits next to them, unused. When someone finally shows up to turn the thing back on, the inmates stand back and watch with a mixture of relief and disgust as it makes their hours of back-breaking work look like child’s play.
Desperate to escape the misery, Piper wanders over to get water from the greenhouse and stumbles onto Alex and Nicky smoking crack in the garden’s miniature cornfield. (As Nicky describes it, they’re holding a “weekly meeting for the morally morose and successfully challenged.”) It is my favorite scene in the episode, and maybe my favorite OITNB scene since CorrectiCon Baltimore. Hunched in this tiny cornfield, Piper, Nicky, and Alex have a thorough heart-to-heart about everything that’s happened between them — Piper even shows them the swastika on her arm, explicitly confessing her mistakes. She’s not a Nazi, she says, but she was a Nazi sympathizer. She turned in Maria without remorse, she’s cut all her most important ties, and in a particularly striking moment of self-awareness, she admits that she’s been trying to “win” prison. Alex, warming to the spirit of communal confession, tells them about killing Kubra’s operative, and they all look down at the ground beneath them, where the flunky was buried.
This scene, with these three characters huddled together, is crucial to how the season functions and how OITNB manages its massive, disparate sprawl of stories. There’s a tendency for the series’ subplots to stay in their own lanes: When was the last time we saw a scene between Aleida and someone other than Maria, Gloria, or Daya? Has there ever been an Alison Abdullah scene with someone other than Cindy? And that makes sense. It replicates how life tends to work, and makes it easier to develop each story without getting everything mixed up. This is hardly a unique problem; any show with a big cast and multiple story threads can fall into this trap. (Looking at you, Game of Thrones.) But the biggest emotional payoffs come when a series crosses the streams, and unlike Game of Thrones, the restricted physical proximity of all of these women makes it even more important that OITNB figure out how to make that happen.
The scene in that cornfield is great because it’s raw, because Piper finally gives up the last of her holier-than-thou blindness (by smoking crack, which is not … great? But that’s how things go, I guess?), and because it’s a moment for these three characters to pull together narrative pieces that were less meaningful in isolation. It’s also one more example of a fascinating OITNB trick: It likes to create even smaller spaces inside the prison for characters to meet. You would think that the last thing an inmate would want is to put herself in an even tinier box, but OITNB repeatedly shows us women trying to make their own little holes, spaces defined by them rather than by a prison corporation. The cornfield, the greenhouse, Lolly’s time-machine, Soso and Poussey sequestered in a towel-draped bunk, and the forts Piscatella loathes in the common room — inmates find freedom by making their own spaces.
In the end, supported by her reclaimed friendships, Piper lets Red rebrand her arm and turns the swastika into an equally symbolic window. And then, we get a truly glorious line of dialogue from Red: “When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window — and then you remember there is no God.”
There are a lot of other great moments in this episode. The continuing waves of hope and despair Aleida experiences while planning her post-prison life are unendingly painful. Coates’s attempts to make things better with Doggett, and although an apology is hardly sufficient, his apology is not a bad start. Maritza may want out of Maria’s salon drug-front, but Maria’s gone hardcore and has no sympathy. CO Baxter Bayley’s love of retro radio podcasts and Patrick Rothfuss makes so much sense. Lorna convinces her sister to go spy on her husband. And Judy King gets in on the celebrity photo business, which ends in a truly delightful kiss and a horrified Cindy realizing that her mother will see a picture of her kissing a white woman.
But once again, I end by turning to Linda From Purchasing, who tries to mitigate Caputo’s disappointment about the failed educational program by telling him it would’ve never worked in the first place. She then dumps about seven tablespoons of salt into Caputo’s carefully crafted sauce, then throws a fit when Sophia Burset’s wife, Crystal, shows up to demand answers.
While Crystal angrily insists that Caputo give her specifics about what’s happened to Sophia — and he does his best to dial things down — Linda stalks out of the house brandishing a gun at Crystal and her boyfriend. And yes, this is the moment when Linda mutates from the glorious corporate monster I admired in spite of myself into truly frightening threat. Sadly, Caputo does not share my opinion, and persists in being freakishly turned on by Linda’s aggression. Wake up, Caputo! There are Nazis in your common room! There are drugs in your salon! There’s a body in the cornfield and a time machine in the laundry! Get it together, man!