Before I watched “People Persons,” I planned to write about how this season’s flashbacks have had less bite. They’ve mostly served to color what’s happening in Litchfield, rather than tell little standalone stories. That’s certainly been the case for the flashbacks about Lolly, Healy, and Maria — even in their most poignant and moving moments, they aren’t full stories unto themselves. They’re primers for the main narrative. It’s probably good for Orange Is the New Black to err that way after season three was plagued with lengthy side trips that detracted from the present-day timeline.
The ideal flashback avoids that pitfall, though. It affects the way we understand characters in Litchfield and it operates as a complete smaller story. The Suzanne Warren flashback in this episode … boy, howdy. It is everything.
“People Persons” gives us a portrait of the Suzanne we already know, but at an earlier moment in her life: unendingly cheerful and manic and childlike, bruisingly intelligent and emotionally underdeveloped. It has moments of deeply dark humor, particularly the gut-punch joke when she checks the receipt of a Super Emporium customer to verify his purchases (orange juice, toothpaste, AR-15 assault rifle). Like so many of the best OITNB stories, it feels like a predictable tragedy that we are powerless to stop, utterly inescapable and painful. And then, during its final moments, the story turned my expectations against me. I had no idea how terribly it would end.
The Suzanne flashback works as its own awful story, but it’s also tied closely with the current-day plot. We watch a pre-Litchfield adult Suzanne try to make friends with the only person she can relate to, a young boy named Dylan, and her enthusiasm quickly tips over into too-frightening intensity. Then, after we’re stunned by the image of Dylan falling over the side of a fire escape, we watch Suzanne struggle to resist Maureen Kukudio’s guard-inspired goading. She tries and she tries to keep herself together, to contain her uncontainable emotions, and to no one’s surprise, she snaps.
It is terrible. It’s terrible for Suzanne who has spent the season trying to understand how to have a healthy, reasonable adult relationship. She thrives on order and structure, and she desperately wants to be loved. It’s terrible for Maureen, who is probably a sociopath but certainly doesn’t deserve to be beaten to a bloody pulp on the floor. In its own way, it’s even terrible for Sankey, who became the unwitting object of CO Humphrey’s mad puppeteering and has to watch this race battle escalate much farther than she apparently imagined it would.
The other major story in “People Persons” is the aftermath of the body discovered in the garden, which ripples through many of the smaller stories OITNB has developed to this point.
Before I turn to that, a few words on CO Humphrey. It is unusual for this series to depict a thoroughly inhuman monster. I’ve written in previous recaps about how humanizing unpleasant characters and creating compassion are fundamental parts of OITNB’s fictional project — those tasks are written into its structural DNA. Even characters like Vee and Pornstache eventually become complex villains, with unusual shades and unexpected facets to their immorality. CO Humphrey, at least as we’ve seen him so far, is the simplest incarnation of malevolence yet seen on the series. He is evil, full stop. And that’s a problem. On a series that gives everyone complexities — even a schlub like Sam Healy — Humphrey sticks out like a cardboard cutout that’s propped up in a crowd of real people. But it’s also a bit of a relief, in a bizarre way, since so many other characters require so much of our emotional energy. He’s the one we don’t have to find empathy for.
Okay, back to the garden: A body was discovered and it’s the body of a guard, and the Litchfield correctional staff rightfully flips their collective lids. The lockdown does get Piper and Flores off of their tables without anyone losing face, but it also leaves everyone stuck in their cubes for the night, which means Nicky goes through withdrawal despite her clear preference to stay far away from sobriety. Doggett’s outsider status has been a fascinating move this season, but I don’t think her kindness toward Nicky (particularly in offering up her basket as a puke basket) fully reintegrates her into the bigger prison group. It is a lovely slice of kindness, though, especially in an episode that’s otherwise replete with pain, cruelty, and sadness.
Caputo abandons Litchfield to go to a meeting at MCC, which he angrily discovers is meant to manage MCC’s involvement in the matter, not deal with the crisis at hand. In his absence, Piscatella does exactly the things Caputo orders him not to do: He pulls in a list of inmates for questioning, a list which includes Red. (In one of the episode’s few light moments, Freida gets incensed that her impressive record of violence doesn’t warrant an immediate trip to Piscatella’s office.) Piper and Alex quietly freak out in their bunk. Alex bursts Lolly’s Healy-induced bubble that the murder was a delusion. And while all of this mayhem goes down — Caputo is stuck dealing with corporate, Piscatella going rogue, and Humphrey starting a fight club — Healy realizes that he knew about the body in the garden all along. He failed to consider that Lolly might not be totally delusional.
In the end, Piscatella’s suspicions about Red hold true, and he discovers the guard’s keys hidden behind the file cabinet in her kitchen office. (Remember those keys? Red used them to steal sleeping pills from the the prison’s medical unit. It was the only way she could get some rest with her new snoring bunkmate.) Keys or no, it doesn’t matter: Healy, brought back from the brink of a suicide attempt by a phone call from work, ends up confessing everything to Piscatella. Lolly’s dragged off to psych and Red returns to her bunk. Alex, the actual murderer, remains free.
(Sidenote: It’s hard for me not to notice that Healy’s suicide attempt follows a pattern that’s often associated with women — particularly Victorian and early 20th-century women whose deaths are often aligned with depression, or who were associated with a proto-feminist malaise. It’s an intriguing choice for Healy, a character who has so often struggled with negotiating his masculinity and coping with his mother’s mental illness.)
By any measure, “People Persons” is a pitch-black episode of television, guaranteed to bowl you over and kick you while you’re down. We do get two sequences that provide some meager balance to the parade of nightmares. The first finds Luschek, Yoga Jones, and Judy King doing molly and having a three-way, which has its moments of humor, but ends with two out of three participants staring blankly into the middle distance. (Can you guess who ended that encounter by happily reading a book and eating a bowl of grapes? I’ll give you a hint: It wasn’t Yoga.)
The other thread belongs to CO Coates and CO Bayley. Coates is stationed out in the cornfield all night, guarding the crime scene and conjuring up scenes from horror movies in his mind. Bayley, in a dubious attempt to be helpful, swings by to hang out occasionally, and brings Coates a copy of Stephen King’s It to help keep himself entertained. This episode frequently feels like the fourth act of a tragic play, and if it has a fitting set of Shakespearean mechanicals, it is these two dopes. In their unimpressive uselessness, they nevertheless drop some of the episode’s best pearls of wisdom. When discussing the surprising events at Litchfield, Coates asks Bayley whether the job has turned out the way he thought it would. It hasn’t, he answers. Rather than being just a job, Litchfield is “so sad that it’s almost supernatural.”
Later, when Coates reacts with surprise that Bayley has come back out to visit him, Bayley admits that it’s “scarier inside.” He refuses to explain more, and instead tells Coates he’s impressed that he managed to fall asleep while reading It next to a murder site. “Yeah, well,” Coates says. “I guess you can get used to anything.”
This is so much more than a show about violence and tragedy. But as the season goes on, and as Litchfield spirals further into dysfunction and abuse, “I guess you can get used to anything” is as good a thesis for OITNB’s theory of life as anything else I’ve heard.