Orange Is the New Black
With Piscatella temporarily incapacitated and his prison Purge thankfully over, “Breaking the Fiberboard Ceiling” attempts to refocus on some of the season’s other big arcs. Motherhood emerges as a central theme, tying some of these stories together and grounding the plot in emotional storytelling that taps into what individual inmates want.
Many of the main characters on Orange Is the New Black are fighting for different things and their interests are in direct odds with one another, which forces us as viewers to confront their moral dilemmas. Gloria’s desperation to see her son, who is still unconscious and about to go into surgery, is palpable. While Selenis Leyva is a brilliant actor, Gloria most definitely is not, as panic and frenetic energy ooze out of her. (Pidge and Ouija are too busy snorting coffee grounds to really notice, though.) It’s easy to see where Gloria is coming from: Her character arc has been one of the strongest of the season, although I have my doubts over the validity of an amnesty promise from MCC and I find it difficult to believe that Gloria would so readily take them at their word. Maybe that’s all part of the desperation. But for Gloria to accomplish her goals means the destruction of Taystee’s, who harbors compelling ambitions to make Litchfield, and possibly prisons everywhere, just a little bit better. She tells Cindy she feels good at what she’s doing, and we can see for ourselves that she really is. The negotiations have been painstaking, but Taystee is finally making a little progress, getting Figueroa to agree to better health-care options. But again, if Gloria is successful, then Taystee can’t be.
By pitting the characters’ interests against one another, OITNB forces us to take in the riot from differing perspectives. There’s no clear right or wrong in the context of this uprising, although Taystee is the closest to a hero in her fight for the common good. Her story doesn’t come without sacrifice, though. Too focused on fighting for what she believes to be real change, she refuses to help Cindy and Alison when Suzanne starts spiraling out. Suzanne is still off her meds thanks to a proselytizing Morello, who’s projecting her own issues onto everyone else in the prison by refusing to administer behavioral meds. Caught up in the negotiations, Taystee can’t fill a mother role for Suzanne because she’s prioritizing the common good. If she’s successful, it would technically means a better life for everyone in Litchfield, Suzanne included.
Cindy is left to care for Suzanne, and she manages to get her hands on some lithium. Now, I’m a little dubious about this from a plot perspective. Cindy grabbing lithium because she “heard it’s good for crazy” seems narratively convenient, and it works rather quickly on Suzanne. Nevertheless, Cindy singing to Suzanne and rubbing her head as she goes to sleep is a powerful visual, especially since it taps into Cindy’s own complicated history as a mother. She mentions that she used to sing to her little sister, and we know from past seasons that Cindy’s younger sister is actually her daughter, whom Cindy hasn’t really been there for. We see that daughter again in this episode: She’s still under the impression Cindy is her sister, and when she argues with Cindy’s mother, who is actually her grandmother, she ironically wishes that she wasn’t her mom. Cindy’s mom continues to lie to the girl, telling her that Cindy has been moved to a different prison so that she won’t worry about the riot. But the girl has the internet, which means she’s seen the latte memes of Cindy.
Mothers will do whatever it takes to protect their children. Even now that she’s off of the drugs, Red insists that she tried to lure Piscatella into the prison in order to take him out and protect her family. Now that they have Piscatella tied up in the pool, she wants her revenge. But no one else is really onboard. Nicky helps out at first, unwilling to abandon Red, but she cringes at the use of the word “deserves.” Red’s insistence that Piscatella get what he deserves doesn’t sit right with the crew. It’s something a monster would do, something Piscatella himself would do. Gina points this out, insisting that Red is not a monster. They decide to tie her up so she won’t do anything she’ll regret.
Cooped up in the bunker, unsure of what to do or how they got here, they all devolve into screaming at each other. The riot has turned everyone’s lives upside down. Although each inmate wants to believe they were making the right choices, it’s much more complicated than that. As many problems as I have with the Piscatella story line, this descent into chaos for the bunker crew is convincing, bringing a lot of the uncertainty and moral grayness of the riot to the surface and playing into the instability of everyone’s current conditions. Eventually, however, they’re brought back together when Gina reveals she has a video of Piscatella torturing them on her phone. They have what they need to take him down.
Meanwhile, Gloria spends the episode struggling to reconcile with her decision. The montage of her rounding up the guards is tonally off, scored with a weird music choice, but overall, her emotional journey in the episode still resonates. After talking to her son on the phone, she needs to release some anxiety, so she tells Maria about her plan. Maria calls her brave, admitting that she would do anything for her daughter, even murder. That should have been a tip-off to Gloria, who’s too lost in her own grief to consider the fact that Maria wants the same thing: to end this riot and get out. Sure enough, Maria beats her to it, releasing the hostages (except Luschek and Caputo) and escaping through the hole in the fence. Like Gloria, she is willing to do anything to get to her kid.
In place of flashbacks, scenes throughout the episode show the children of Litchfield inmates grappling with their mothers’ situations in the outside world. There’s the aforementioned scene of Cindy’s daughter. We also check in with Benny and his older brother, who wishes Gloria could be there with them as they await Benny’s fate. Ouija’s son is watching a Flaritza video on YouTube when he spots his mother threatening to pull a hostage’s eyeballs out. He’s rightfully horrified. Earlier in the episode, Ouija tells Maria she should be a part of the riot in order to make her kids proud. Ouija and Pidge’s devotion to watching the guards seems outsize, yet they genuinely believe they’re a part of something. They feel like they have power, and they know that when it’s all over, they’re going to have to go back to being walked over, belittled, and controlled. Living in the moment is a noble cause in their minds, but if Ouija could see how her actions are really perceived by her children, she might think otherwise. There’s no way for this young boy in the outside world to know how and why his mother is in this position. The outside world’s perception of the riot is incomplete. They can never really know.
We also see Maria’s baby girl Pepa and her man, who is patiently waiting for her to get out. Even though her kid isn’t in critical condition like Gloria’s son, the stakes are just as high for her. She said she was willing to murder for her kid, so it’s no surprise that she’s willing to screw over her friend and undermine the uprising to get what she wants. Yet again, the conflicting interests in the wake of the riot are finally clashing in ways that profoundly affect the plot.
The thematic through line of motherhood makes this one of the season’s more cohesive episodes, grounding character motivation in clear relationship dynamics and emotional stakes. But still, small holes in the narrative distract from the narrative power of the riot. For example, no one seems to be hungry anymore. Or what about the guard that has diabetes? He might be out now, but why did that detail never amount to anything? Maybe I’m nit-picking, especially since the season has much larger problems, but even the little things need to be addressed to make the stakes of the riot fully felt. Some of the best scenes in “Breaking the Fiberboard Ceiling” are the glimpses at the children on the outside world, because they feel authentic. They’re real snapshots, moments that evoke emotion without trying too hard.