As the lights finally come up on Litchfield, Orange Is the New Black fittingly sheds new light on the prison uprising itself, which continues to shift under changing conditions. After some flashback misfires in the past couple of episodes, “Sing It, White Effie” gets the flashback formula right, focusing on a young Watson as she realizes the omnipotence of systemic inequality.
Watson is a star student in her class, but on a trip to a nearby white private school, she sees firsthand how under-resourced and undervalued she and her fellow classmates are compared to these rich white kids. The bubbly and ignorant girl who gives Watson a tour is oblivious to her pain, which is made all the worse when they pop into the school theater to watch a rehearsal for the school’s all-white production of Dreamgirls. Watson watches, tears falling, as a little white girl attempts to wrap her weak voice around “And I Am Telling You.” The scene is incredibly well-done, getting into young Watson’s head and conveying her pain, frustration, sorrow — all without much dialogue. It’s enough to make Watson want to give up, to quit playing a game that’s rigged against her. Her teacher doesn’t sugarcoat it, telling her she’ll likely have to work twice as hard to get half as far her whole life. Watching Watson’s hopes and dreams shatter is devastating, especially since we know she ends up in prison, a result of that systemic inequality she first recognized on that field trip.
In the present day, Watson is seeing more of the same. Another white woman, in this case Judy King, is about to go before the press and share stories that aren’t her own, about to speak on the behalf of the poor, brown, and black inmates of Litchfield as if she has any clue as to what they feel and what they have experienced. (Earlier in the episode, Cindy wins Judy in simulated slave auction held by the white-power inmates; it’s one of the most disturbing scenes of the season and yet gets weirdly played for laughs.) After the press perpetuates the idea that Judy is being held hostage and tortured by other prisoners, Taystee hopes to show the world that she’s okay in order to further the movement. Alison, Taystee, Cindy, and Watson enlist PR Josh to help Judy put together a statement to reiterate that she’s fine and refocus their attention on the list of demands. None of it sits right with Watson, just like how white Effie didn’t sit well with her. She speaks up, telling Taystee that it isn’t right that Judy is about to go before the press and present their stories as her own, that she’s about to advocate on the behalf of lies she doesn’t understand nor fully empathize with. Taystee pushes back at first, pointing out the sad truth that the press and people in power will listen to Judy more than they’ll listen to them. A white woman’s voice is automatically more sympathetic, automatically more heard.
Nevertheless, Watson plants a seed that grows within Taystee between that PR meeting in the bathroom and the moment when they’re standing before the cameras. Five episodes into its fifth season, OITNB finally delivers the big emotional moment I’ve been waiting to see. Taystee’s speech to reporters at the end of the episode grounds the season’s narrative and revitalizes the stakes of the uprising. The scene will hopefully lead to awards recognition for Danielle Brooks, who has gradually become one of the standouts in this massive, talented cast. A lot of the show’s efficacy at balancing comedy and drama comes down to the performances, and Brooks has what it takes to embody the full emotional and tonal range of this story. “Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor brown people,” Taystee tells the reporters. Her words don’t sound like talking points because they aren’t. They’re the manifestation of her lived experiences. Judy King could never.
One of the season’s strongest thematic through lines has been its skewering and condemnation of the media. News outlets immediately jump to conclusions when they get hold of the pictures of Judy King on the roof: When they see the fabric wrapped around her captors’ heads, they make the racist, dangerous conclusion that they’re Muslim terrorists. (The irony, of course, is that they’re actually Nazis.) The news reports misinterpret this prison riot as some sort of religious crusade, and no one even thinks to get more information or reach out to the inmates to hear their demands. Taystee has been trying to harness the internet to get their message out, to no avail, all while Flaca and Maritza find more success reaching an online audience with their prison makeup and skin-care tutorials.
Outside of the prison, Aleida wants to change the narrative too. At first, she remains unaware of the unfolding situation at Litchfield. In a brilliant and heartbreaking scene, Gloria calls Aleida and the two lie to each other repeatedly even though they clearly deeply care about one another. It’s because they care that they lie. Insecure about her inability to lock down a nail salon job and also not wanting to dash Gloria’s hopes about life on the outside, Aleida tells her she’s doing well. Gloria doesn’t mention the riot and especially doesn’t mention how Daya’s doing. Aleida finds out later on the news that Litchfield has been overtaken by the inmates, and she has to listen to people describe her fellow inmates as dangerous people who can’t and won’t be rehabilitated. The news reports on the Litchfield uprising present a single narrative of who an inmate is, which is exactly what OITNB has tried to combat since its inception.
In the ongoing game of musical gun, Angie and Leanne dependably lose the piece only to realize it was on Angie’s belt the whole time. But it’s too late: Pennsatucky snatches it in order to save Coates, whom Angie and Leanne find hiding in a dryer and try to bring back to the bubble. Once Pennsatucky gives him the gun, he quickly gets out of the prison. Now that the gun’s out of the equation and Taystee has handed over Judy King — who was the only reason MCC didn’t want to storm the prison in the first place — the stakes for the inmates still inside have shifted.
But much more compelling than these plot shifts are the internal and interpersonal changes that happen in “Sing It, White Effie,” particularly when it comes to Ruiz. Caputo, still locked in the Porta-Potty, attempts to bargain with her by guaranteeing that she won’t have years added to the end of her sentence when this is all over if she helps him. She tells him that Piscatella already arbitrarily gave her more years, and Caputo points out there might not be any record of that in her file yet. Although Brooks gives the knockout performance of the episode, Jessica Pimentel turns in a close second, succinctly conveying Ruiz’s full-bodied reaction to this news. Piscatella’s extension of her sentence was a major motivating factor for her leadership role in this uprising. Her priority is her kid, and if there’s a chance she could still get out soon, her role in the new Litchfield may change dramatically.
On a closing note, while I could watch a full hour of Alex Vause detailing her past relationships (this time, we learn she once dated a girl named Digger whose parents worked in a cemetery and who left her for a professional water-skier), Piper and Alex’s presence in the episode is once again marginal. They make a home out of their bulldozer, but it’s difficult to feel invested in their relationship since it seems so detached from the rest of reality at Litchfield. Taylor Schilling has great comedic timing, especially when it comes to Piper’s more uptight behaviors. But their little lawn love story is a mere tangent in an otherwise potent episode.