If you really need a piece of pop culture to escalate a tense situation to the verge of violence, I suppose you might as well use The Wiz.
After the slow build of multiple isolated plots, “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull” feels like the first big turn toward the season’s final push. Once again, what begins as one of those familiar, innocuous, funny moments takes a swift and irreversible turn into much darker territory. In this case, it’s Taystee’s rejection of the usual selections for Litchfield’s movie night. (It’s been romantic comedies with white leads for the last 11 movie nights, because the options come exclusively from a box of VHS tapes in Figueroa’s basement). Instead, Taystee selects The Wiz, which she dug up from the “ethnic” section of the prison library.
Most of the season’s major plots turn toward a crisis point in this episode. Thanks to Sister Ingalls’s efforts, Caputo gives Danny Pearson an image of Sophia Burset in SHU to post on his blog. Maritza describes the mouse story to Flaca, who is rightfully devastated about it. Nicky’s lying about getting clean, Aleida’s finally been released, and Flores is still standing strong on the cafeteria table, soon to be joined by Piper. And an unexpected change of plans in Construction 101 results in certain unexpected fertilizers being discovered beneath the flourishing tomatoes. It is the Chekhovian law of plotting: If you bury a body in the garden in act one, someone will accidentally dig it up so they can put in a sewer line by act three.
Many of these stories are tied together in thematic subterranean ways. Overcrowding has led to the tension with the Dominicans and the Nazis, which is how Flores and Piper end up standing on that table together. It’s the underlying cause for the Construction 101 class, which is how Alex’s murder victim is uncovered. It has also sparked the drug trade, which links up with Nicky falling off the wagon and Maritza’s encounter with CO Humphrey (accurately described by Flaca as “some Hannibal Lecter shit”).
But its most direct effect is the one we haven’t fully seen yet, one which Taystee’s selection of The Wiz ignites on a bigger scale for the first time this season. Taystee knows it’s a pointed choice: She jokingly calls it “political” when she brings it up, then tells Caputo that “people need positive role models,” citing Dorothy freeing the slaves as an example of peaceful resistance. Taystee and Caputo discussing The Wiz is funny! Nick Sandow and Danielle Brooks are so appealing together, and Taystee’s role as Caputo’s assistant has been a sparkling bright spot in this increasingly grim season.
And then the neo-Nazis start complaining about The Wiz at movie night and everything takes a turn for the worse. What begins as a referendum on the movie, which several of Taystee’s friends freely disparage at lunch, soon becomes an opportunity for everyone to pick a side. “I thought you didn’t even like it,” Cindy whispers to Alison after she defends The Wiz to Sankey and her gang. “Well, I love it now,” Alison replies. Judy sticks her head in, spots the growing racial tension, and immediately ducks out again, apparently unwilling to side with the black women in spite of her fondness for Cindy.
The Wiz does not initiate the full-on war that feels almost inevitable, but before Coates and Bayley pull the plug on the movie projector, we get strong indications of what’s been let loose. Racial epithets fly across the room. Sankey accuses The Wiz of being a form of cultural appropriation, then laughs at Cindy’s heated response. Heads turn toward each other rather than toward the movie screen. We can hear Sankey declaring she’s “ready,” before Coates finally strolls over and shuts down the screening. Lines have been drawn, and it’s doubtful things will get better before they get much, much worse.
Everyone seems forced onto a side in this oncoming battle — everyone, that is, except Doggett, whose isolation from everyone else in Litchfield has been a surprising minor story thread throughout the season. “Do you ever feel like a person without a country?” she asks Coates. The way her rape has alienated her from everyone else is tragic; her newfound self-awareness and her role as an outside observer, though, are completely fascinating.
While things are heating up in Litchfield (or heating up only to be left hanging in a remarkably cruel gesture — poor Suzanne!), we get the first prison-exit narrative of the season. Still, Aleida’s story is now a familiar one to us. Orange Is the New Black has told prison-exit stories before, and they do not go well. Aleida’s isn’t even the worst one we’ve seen; Taystee’s crash and burn on the outside was more crushing than Aleida’s return to real life.
Of course, each Litchfield inmate’s story is heartbreaking in its own unique way. Aleida’s plight — getting a ride home from prison with her boyfriend’s new baby mama, discovering that her cousin has spent all of the money she’d saved for her post-prison life, and then sitting on a sofa contemplating the children she’s lost to bureaucracy — certainly qualifies her for a “Litchfield: Life Is Hard and Then You Die” badge.
In some ways, Aleida’s story feels at odds with the rest of this episode. Although things ratchet up toward a breaking point everywhere else — most especially with Litchfield’s racial tension and in the newly uncovered garden corpse — Aleida’s story does not feel like it’s pointing toward a foreseeable end. That’s one of the best and most frustrating structural elements of OITNB’s narrative form: It refuses to give characters easy endings, aside from death. (R.I.P. Rosa, Tricia, and Vee.) This commitment to following characters through the less obvious hardships of post-imprisonment life is fundamental to its fictional project. It’s yet another way the series explores multiple voices and experiences instead of squishing them all into a one-size-fits-most narrative box. The inevitable result, though, is that everything doesn’t coalesce into a synchronized group of plots. Things don’t play along in harmony. Pieces move in opposite directions. Aleida’s story is one of these stories.
Sophia Burset’s may be another. It’s a considerable challenge to tell a story about a character who is trapped in an isolation unit — a character who has no means of communicating with anyone else, no way to track time, and no way to register her mental changes. It’s quite the conundrum: How do you describe the plight of a woman unjustly trapped in an empty box without giving her someone to talk to, whose presence would instantly puncture the tragedy of her isolation? A montage of Sophia pacing the cell, marking the walls, and screaming to herself can only last so long. But if you recreate what’s been done to her in the shape of the narrative — if you throw her in a storytelling box and forget about her — your audience forgets about her, too.
OITNB has been trying to walk this line all season. It’s done a relatively successful job by using characters like Sister Ingalls, Gloria, and Crystal Burset to act as an occasional Greek chorus, reminding both Caputo and us about the sins of neglect and forgetfulness. But this plot is never better than when we get a short shot of Sophia’s face, as happens in this episode. Laverne Cox packs a stunning emotional impact into a 20-second shot of Sophia reading Sister Ingalls’s letter. I so hope there are enough readers of dannytalkstruth.com to get her out of there.
Meanwhile, Piper and Flores are standing together on the cafeteria table, and there’s a backhoe pulling human hands out from under the lettuce. This is going to be fine, right?