Orange Is the New Black
It’s time to talk about Linda From Purchasing. In earlier episodes, we’ve only gotten hints and suggestions that she’s a stunning creation, but “We’ll Always Have Baltimore” gives us the full flavor of her chipper, polished, soulless evil.
Going by the flashbacks, this is meant to be Maritza’s episode, telling the story of her past as a similarly chipper, canny con girl who uses her beauty and smarts to separate people from their money. But as entertaining as it is to watch Maritza commit grand-theft auto while balancing a tricky conversation between her mark and an unwitting car-sales rep, her crimes don’t even approach the infuriating bravado of CorrectiCon Baltimore.
CorrectiCon, the massive corrections industries conference that Caputo attends with Linda, is a masterful creation, skewering the prison-industrial complex 27 ways to Sunday while also effortlessly building Linda’s character, developing Caputo’s attraction to her, and doing a pitch-perfect send-up of the entire corporate-conference scene. Everything about CorrectiCon feels disturbingly plausible: the blue swag bags they get when they walk in the door (Linda tells Caputo that, one time, they got Nerf-style prison batons), the endless booths of products being marketed to corrections facilities, and the keynote speaker’s consideration of a grand purpose for everyone involved (while also entirely missing the point). After a smiling woman tells Linda and Caputo to “have fun in there!”, they ascend a staircase onto an exhibit floor full of products designed to restrict human freedom.
It’s hard to resist the urge to just list every little detail of CorrectiCon. It’s shiveringly well-tuned, hitting notes that rest on the delicate edge between humor and outrage. On one side of the aisle, a booth sells menstrual cups for women’s prisons. It’s a product that might be seriously useful for Litchfield, which has such a dramatic tampon shortage that one inmate tries to use a disposable plastic cup meant for dispensing medicine. On the other side of the exhibit hall, a vendor dressed as an inmate distributes “prison slop — fully prepared,” and Caputo is appalled. “Ugh, I have enough of that in my life,” he tells Linda. “It’s just for fun, silly!” she replies. “I think it’s ice cream.”
CorrectiCon is amazing and funny and horrifying in the several sequences it gets, and its broad role will surely reverberate through this season. What happens at CorrectiCon Baltimore may well stay there, but the ethos and culture of this conference will affect the inmates at Litchfield for as long as Linda From Purchasing exists. She is CorrectiCon personified. It’s not just because she loves it dearly — although she does. The underlying messaging of CorrectiCon is Linda’s entire value set: Corrections companies are consumers to be catered to, inmates are problems that need simple, cheap, cost-saving solutions, and individual prisoners mean nothing in the larger scheme of things.
Linda’s panel, which is interrupted by the furious and probably futile return of Danny Pearson, gives us a taste of these beliefs. “At the end of the day, it is a prison, not the Four Seasons,” she says. Har har. Danny’s stunned that Caputo would ever associate with Linda, who he calls “Satan herself.” She certainly earns the moniker when Caputo rehashes the keynote address, telling Linda that much like Kip Carnigan, he hopes that he can help make his inmates’ lives full. “Feel full,” Linda corrects him. That’s the crux of it all, isn’t it? Far from actually fostering meaning, utility, stability, and rehabilitation in any of these prisoners’ lives, the ethos of CorrectiCon — and by extension, Linda From Purchasing and MCC and the entire for-profit prison industry — rests on creating the illusion that their lives feel full. It’s not about the eventual outcome; it’s about suppressing bad behavior during their imprisonment. It’s not about the hard work and compassion needed to see each prisoner as a person; rather, it’s about the salutary effect that busy work has on a large, volatile population.
I should move on to the many other stories in this episode, some of which have yet to grab me with the force of CorrectiCon. But it’s worth noting, just briefly, that the theory of imprisonment Linda and Carnigan and CorrectiCon put forward, which overlooks individuals in deference to a sweeping, undifferentiated view of the prison as a featureless machine, is exactly opposite to the formal construction of Orange Is the New Black. This series’ best feature, among many great elements, has always been that it relentlessly foregrounds individual characters. Sometimes this decision hurts larger, more involved story arcs, but it never fails to humanize and engender compassion for its characters — inmates and officers alike. My second-favorite thing about CorrectiCon is the punny panel names. (“Shanks for the Memories: A History of Prison Weapons”? I die.) My favorite is that OITNB created its own antithesis and now gets to quietly eviscerate it.
While Danny Pearson is thrown into Rent-a-Cop jail for interrupting Linda’s panel (and Caputo accidentally gets thrown in with him), overcrowding at Litchfield has created a few specific problems. The Latinas are trying to recreate Piper’s panty business, which is the basis for the current-day Maritza story line and also our first glimpses of the veteran guards. Given their penchant for overeager body searches, their fondness for starting the day with “Fallujah omelets” (raw eggs and a Jaeger shot), their seeming indifference to inmates as human beings, and CO Dixon’s charming affection for showing off his Lil’ Dixon, they seem like they’ll be delightful additions to the Litchfield family. For now, they’re still too shapeless to inspire any feeling beyond hatred, and I very much look forward to a time when some of them join the ranks of OITNB’s complex and interesting characters.
Inside the prison, aside from the troubling shortage of feminine-hygiene products, Suzanne and Lorna are trying to chase down a serial shower pooper. They’ve put on their best deerstalkers to narrow down a list of suspects, and Suzanne’s Sherlock Holmes bit is quite amazing.
(A quick sidenote: I’ve been referring to Lorna as “Morello” in these recaps because that’s how I’ve always thought of her, but in this episode, she briefly introduces herself as “Luccio.” Of course Lorna would be the type to change her last name after getting married. Of course. Still, I’m having a hard time adjusting my mental Rolodex for her, so I’ll keep calling her Lorna for now.)
“We’ll Always Have Baltimore” isn’t short on the other small revelations that usually pepper OITNB. These include Cindy’s escalating religious war with Alison, as well as the discovery that Alison’s hiding a cell phone inside her hijab to text her daughter. Aleida struggles with trigonometry to pass her GED, and lovestruck Soso and Poussey are notably unhelpful. Taystee guesses Caputo’s computer password … and that password is SIDEBOOB RULEZ. Oh, Caputo. I so hope you pull yourself out of Linda From Purchasing’s evil web.
In spite of all of the other stories, and in spite of the fact that Maritza’s criminal history is the episode’s biggest guide, the current-day Litchfield story that ties in best with CorrectiCon’s banality of evil is Piper’s horrifically off-the-leash Community Carers program. Started for her own selfish purposes to gain Piscatella’s ear and counter the insurgent Latina organization, Piper finds herself overlooking a keyed-up room of freshly-formed White Lives Matter activists. And just in case the chants and the Confederate Flag neck tattoo weren’t explicit enough, the closing credits are accompanied by “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a song about the rise of the Nazi movement.
“We’ll Always Have Baltimore” barely touches on this plot, so it will be fascinating to see how it develops through the rest of the season. Piper’s response will be interesting, of course, along with the reactions of characters like Angie and Leanne, who we’ve come to know as being both susceptible to cultlike behaviors and capable of resisting them. But as much as anything, this plot is a sign of OITNB’s utter fearlessness, ambition, guts. I’ve enjoyed the season so far, but this is the first moment where I’m truly excited (and antsy) to see what comes next.