Laura Gomez as Blanca Flores.
“Turn Table Turn” has so many interesting storylines that it’s hard to even know where to start. Sister Ingalls got herself thrown in SHU to save Sophia Burset. Aleida tells Gloria to take care of Daya now that she’s getting out. Lorna tells her sister visit Vinny to verify his marital fidelity, and then absolutely loses her mind with jealousy. Boo makes the upsetting decision to further victimize Doggett rather than support her desires, further solidifying Tiffany Doggett’s story as the most nuanced and thoughtful narrative about a rape victim I have ever seen. Piper and Alex want a Shake Shack burger. And those are just the subplots!
The real star of the episode is Blanca Flores, who has the increasingly rare honor of being both the flashback focalizer and a major player in the current-day narrative. The ideal OITNB flashback takes a character we thought we knew and twists her foundation, letting us return to the current narrative with a bigger picture of who this character is and how her history informs her present. Flores’ flashback fits this paradigm like a glove, taking a character who looks like she’s ready to play Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, and transforming her into a resilient, stubborn, self-assured badass who refuses to cave to a cruel authority.
As “Turn Table Turn” reveals, Flores used to be a home aid to a hilariously terrible elderly lady, who subjected her to a torrent of low-grade verbal abuse, treating her in a way that wasn’t so much malicious as it was utterly disregarding of her humanity. When Flores was first hired, her employer misread her first name as Bianca, and called her Bianca ever since. The most frustrating example of this degradation, the one that caused Flores to crack, comes when the lady fires Diablo (who we know as Flores’ sexting partner from way back in season one) because she realized that he and Flores had grown close. In response, Flores has hot, vocal, exhibitionist sex on her bedroom armchair in the middle of the night, which Old Lady Crankypants wakes up and witnesses in wordless horror. The genius of the sequence isn’t just its insane unexpectedness. It’s that Flores makes smug, self-satisfied, victorious eye contact with the old woman, mid-coitus — and then the next morning, pretends that nothing has happened. It is so twistedly great.
I’m with Flores: Firing Diablo was messed up. But I would’ve begun plotting revenge from the moment that woman insisted that I heat up her soup on the stovetop rather than the microwave, because it tastes different the other way. Monster.
In current-day Litchfield, Flores has figured out that as long as she smells horrific, she doesn’t get groped by the guards, so she’s stopped showering accordingly. Further, she shares her brainwave with the rest of the Dominican cohort, who initially protest the lack of hygiene but swiftly realize they can still shower while also dousing themselves in foul-smelling substances. CO Stratman, determined stomp out this insolence, can’t send Flores to the SHU. They’ve gotten word that SHU is nearly full, so they’ll have to find some creative methods of punishment. This is how Flores finds herself standing on top of a table in the cafeteria, indefinitely, for all the prison to see. But as another CO points out, Flores seems almost gleeful at this opportunity for public recognition of her battle. She’s no longer Bertha Mason — she’s Jane herself.
While Flores gifts the cafeteria with public-safety-hazard levels of body odor, Nicky has spiraled quickly downhill. She’s stealing mirrors and makeup from Red’s bunk to swap for drugs from Maria; she’s so high that she can no longer function. When Red finally finds her hunched in a shower stall, quietly puking, she begs Nicky to tell her how she can help. “It was always hopeless,” Nicky says. “I am not your fault.” She later tells Red that she’s going to get clean. I desperately hope that’s true.
Before I get to the final plot thread of the episode, I’d like to take a little detour into the land of television, a territory that OITNB explores with such delightful self-awareness. We’ve gotten lots of pop-culture references threaded throughout the season, including Cabaret and Wise Man’s Fear and Beyoncé’s marital status, but “Turn Table Turn” tops them all. First, Piscatella mocks the guards’ laziness by inviting them over to watch Bachelorette, and then the Dominicans scoff at the white girls’ request to use the TV room to watch Bones. (“Which is about a white lady named ‘Bones,’ apparently.”) Later, Caputo accidentally says “wrath of Khan” when he means “wrath of God.” And there’s also a brilliant burn/analysis/appreciation of the entire USA catalog of shows.
The angle of the scene, which features Angie, Leanne, and several of the neo-Nazis, is a discussion of TV they’ve heard about but haven’t been able to watch in prison. Angie particularly admires the idea of Breaking Bad. They shift to a discussion of USA shows like Royal Pains and Suits, but from the perspective of people who essentially watch TV through a game of telephone — they’re so removed from it that they’ve lost or misunderstood the bulk of the message. Except the joke is that USA programming is all indistinguishable anyhow! Ha! (Obviously they haven’t heard about Mr. Robot yet.) I love this because I love when TV talks about itself, but also because it’s yet another way to measure the weird gap between prison life and real life. Culture that feels so omnipresent to us only leaks through to Litchfield in dribs and drabs. It’s one more thing that isolates them from the surrounding world.
Okay, I’ve been avoiding it long enough: The Maria/Maritza drug plot can wait no longer. First, Maritza and Flaca have an innocuous and silly conversation, based on a game of “Would You Rather?” Would you rather eat a live baby mouse, or 10 dead flies? Would you rather crash a car into a wall, or mow over an old lady? They’re interrupted by creepy CO Humphrey, who tells Maritza — in Spanish — that he knows something’s going on in the van. She’s freaked out, and purposely tanks the next drug pickup by cuing one of the COs to Alonso’s presence. Maria is furious.
But Maria’s fury is nothing compared to the overwhelming revulsion of CO Humphrey. The next time Maritza runs the guard shuttle, he ushers her into one of the houses, where he’s carefully staged a paper towel with 10 dead flies, and a clear shot glass with a live baby mouse squirming inside. You’ve got to pick one, he tells her, with all the steely cheery brightness of the utterly mad. On the one hand, this feels like a classic OITNB move. The shift from lightness to sudden, unexpected horror was shot through the Pornstache plot, Doggett’s life, Piper’s swastika brand, Sophia’s “protection,” and on and on. It happens to most characters at one moment or another, and it’s a vital part of the show’s underlying premise. Humor is one side of the coin; the other side is often unspeakable. Yet, the mouse in the shot glass is unusually ghastly. And I say that fully aware that, once again, this season has actual Nazis.
The final scenes of the episode are a familiar mix of awful and amusing and affecting. Piper and Alex make themselves an off-brand Spam sandwich rather than give CO Baxter Bayley a hand job in exchange for Shake Shack burgers. It’s a hollow, unsatisfying victory. Maritza stares down the stomach-churning tight shot of that mouse wriggling in a glass prison, and Sister Ingalls contemplates the true cost of getting herself thrown in SHU to find Sophia. The guards have even taken away her cross.
But Flores is still standing there on the table, looking at the guards with the same self-satisfied, daring look she gave that old lady while banging her boyfriend on a chintzy armchair. Maybe this futile, proud gesture is what hope looks like at Litchfield.
So let’s end on a slightly less horrifying, but nearly as important note: Nigella Lawson has a dessert called Caribbean creams, which Judy claims to have named for Nigella’s breasts after they hooked up in Turks and Caicos. “Who knew Nigella was so basic?!” Who indeed, Cindy.