Orange Is the New Black
The first few episodes of season four have leaned heavily on comedy, from the lines in the premiere designed to elicit sardonic snorts (if not all-out laughter), to especially fun developments like Taystee becoming Caputo’s new assistant. The flashbacks, too, have ended by pointing upward. Maria was kicked out of her father’s house but walks across the street, spots Yadriel, and smiles. Soso deliberately changes the sex offender’s story just so she can go on a date with her crush and win a bet. It’s grim, but it’s funny.
In episode four, we turn back toward Orange Is the New Black’s rich, seemingly endless vein of anger and sadness. It’s not that Lolly’s NSA-themed delusions aren’t darkly humorous, or that there’s nothing fun about Judy King telling her “Food for Thought” class to start by locating “a shit-ton of butter.”
Those moments are vital to the series, if only because they make OITNB so watchable. Without them, it would be too sad to bear watching the show’s tragedies. In this episode alone, a desperate Sophia Burset tries to escape SHU by flood and fire and anything else she can think of, Healy copes with his mother’s mental illness, and Tiffany Doggett quietly explains to Coates that, yes, he did rape her.
In other words, “Doctor Psycho” has plenty of sadness to go around, and most of it belongs to Sam Healy. We learn more about his mother’s illness, which we’d also heard about in the season-three premiere. Here, we get the perspective of a little boy watching his mother get wheeled out of the hospital after ECT, which his friend Michael Cincetta apparently told him was due to her being “a lesbian who howled at the moon.” Setting aside Mrs Healy’s sexual orientation, Healy’s father explains that his mom has “a highly active imagination” that makes her see angels and little people in the walls, “and sometimes Roy Orbison.”
The story snakes through the moment of Mrs. Healy’s disappearance (in the middle of the night, later in Healy’s childhood), through his early adulthood as a therapist with a mom-inflected savior complex, and finally to him discovering a homeless woman on the streets and recognizing her as his mother.
Healy is such a bizarre, fascinating character. He certainly doesn’t fulfill that dubious characterization chestnut of being “relatable.” He is neither heroic nor darkly villainous. He’s not particularly brilliant as a prison counselor, but he’s not completely horrible. His life is not one to admire or envy. There is almost nothing I can name about him that’s appealing — his good efforts, perversely, make him seem either desperate or pathetic, while his missteps feel odious. He comes up with the idea for Judy King’s “Food for Thought” class, a good idea that’s meant to help her. But he does it without first asking King, and then bullies her into it in spite of her misgivings. The class is a success, but she immediately requests that she be reassigned to another counselor. Healy is like Charlie Brown, except every time he kicks the football, you feel less sorry for him.
The constant near-miss quality of Healy’s character comes through in this episode’s Lolly plot. Plagued by conspiracy theories and the persistent belief that a predator drone is spying on her, Lolly cannot keep chill about the body parts in the garden. Even after Red hosts a summit to smooth things over between Alex, Lolly, and the murderous Freida, Lolly ends up rolling in the garden, screaming about drones and body parts.
It looks like Freida might need to kill her after all, but Healy ends up saving the day. Stung by his rejection from Judy King, he throws himself into the job of counseling Lolly and immediately recognizes her delusions. He talks her down, tells her that the voices in her head have convinced her she’s done terrible things, and offers her medication to help. Lolly leaves feeling relieved, and it’s possible that Healy has saved her life. (At least for a while.) He’s also made a huge mistake: There is a body in the garden, Lolly’s delusions are somewhat accurate, and he’s overlooking a terrible crime on prison grounds. It’s a counseling disaster. It’s not his fault, really. But that seems to be the story of Healy’s life.
How can you not feel for this man? His mother abandoned him, he took up social work as a profession, and he wants to help struggling women. And yet, your skin prickles as he scares away the homeless woman he’s mistaken for his mother with a sudden well of anger. He’s the kind of guy who gets a mail-order bride and somehow ends up looking like a victim. He’s the kind of guy whose attempt at small talk is to tell Judy King, who has been playing with a handful of coffee creamers, “You’ve got a lot of cream there. Can cause a lot of mucus.”
In a prison full of women with far more innate charisma, and in the face of Caputo’s pragmatic competence, Healy seems to be in the way no matter where he is or what he does. He’s perpetually blocking our view of more interesting characters. That’s also the brilliant thing: OITNB forces us to look at this sad guy and consider all the irreducible nuances of his personality and history.
While Healy’s lost in the morass of himself, Laverne Cox puts in a stellar performance as Sophia, desperate and livid, doing anything she can think of to get herself pulled out of SHU. When she finally gets the whole place evacuated by smashing a lamp to set her cell on fire, we also get a brief glimpse of Nicky looking on in bemusement. And as I mentioned before, there’s an utterly devastating conversation between Doggett and Coates. He’s legitimately stunned when she tells him he raped her — but, he protests, he told her he loved her. “That makes it different.” Her response is plain, firm, and sad: “That didn’t feel any different.”
So far, the other stories pulling their way through the season are smaller, but will surely get their fair attention in due course. Piper’s panty business continues to be in conflict with a rival operation run by Maria and the Dominicans, and I continue to be bored by it. In a more moving development, Aleida learns that she’s up for early release. She has to cope with her fear of failing on the outside, and gets a little pep talk from Gloria to help. (“You’re Puerto Rican. You know somebody with a job, somebody with an apartment.”) She also has to tell Daya that she’ll be going home soon. It seems unlikely that Aleida’s hopeful plan to pull all of her kids (and her granddaughter) out of the foster system will happen smoothly.
There’s a lot of pretty depressing stuff in this episode, so let’s end with a happier note: Taystee is still kicking ass as Caputo’s assistant, and she’s using her new powers for good. Namely, she uses the label maker to put big “Taystee” labels on everything, and she uses her access to a phone to call the public library. She’s interrupted before she can get to Suzanne’s big question — “Are dragons covered in feathers like the dinosaurs, or in scales, like the Gorgons?” — but she does have a second to ask a higher-priority question: Whether or not Beyoncé is getting a divorce. Bless you, Taystee. Don’t let Litchfield interrupt your grind.