Orange Is the New Black
More than anything else, Orange Is the New Black’s focus shift away from Piper Chapman has improved the show. We’ve seen as much in past seasons, when OITNB turned to perspectives outside of Piper’s prison privilege bubble, but unfortunately, this fifth season has put Piper and Alex’s relationship drama closer to the front. Within the context of the Litchfield prison riot, it just isn’t compelling. Spending so much of the season’s penultimate episode on their relationship takes away too much from the more urgent story lines. It’s all just a forced, unnecessary justification of Piper’s eventual proposal to Alex. If we’re supposed to be rooting for these two, OITNB has grossly overestimated how interesting they are.
“Tattoo You” recaps all of the ups and downs (mostly downs) the couple has had through the years. That’s the most frustrating aspect of these flashbacks: They don’t give us any meaningful new information. We already know that Alex turned Piper in to save herself because she was mad about Piper abandoning her when her mom died. Piper’s drunk voicemail to Alex shortly afterward doesn’t add much, other than revealing that Piper still held on to their relationship in the back of her mind up to that point. All season, Alex and Piper have been hyperaware of the fact that they are toxic for each other. They’ve said it themselves. Even in a flashback, Piper acknowledges that they’re not compatible. Their conflict is too redundant and frustrating to the point of exhaustion. And they’re so detached from the central narrative of this season that it almost seems like they’re on a different show entirely. It’s clear that OITNB has no more use for Alex and Piper, but showrunner Jenji Kohan (or perhaps Netflix) isn’t ready to let Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon go.
At least Alex’s disinterest in the riot makes sense. She and Piper both have less at stake than the inmates involved. As white, wealthy women who are serving relatively short sentences, have no kids on the outside, aren’t subject to the same violence and discrimination as inmates of color, and the consequences of failure are far lower for them. Ouija and Pidge didn’t become hostage guards just for fun: They want their GEDs and they want more time with their kids. But that also brings us back to the awful Piscatella story line. Did OITNB have to create this absurdly over-the-top and poorly executed horror show in order to put Piper and Alex at significant risk? Piper cites her near-death experience as the reason why she knows she wants to spend the rest of her life with Alex. The fact that Piscatella’s rampage is used to justify this character moment makes me even more frustrated with the story line. None of it feels like organic character development.
Also, are we really supposed to care when Alex complains that she and Piper didn’t spend the riot playing house together? First of all, for the first several episodes, they did. And this just isn’t a significant problem in the grand scheme of things. Is now really the right time to explore relationship drama that isn’t directly connected to the stakes of the riot? At least Nicky and Morello’s story line in “Tattoo You” is slightly better, with Morello breaking down over the fact that she won’t be able to be there for her kid and Nicky calling Vinnie to tell him to get his shit together and be there for Morello.
Nevertheless, the problems that do matter can’t achieve their full dramatic potential because of the focus on Piper and Alex. After Ruiz turns over the hostages, Neeta and Caputo assume Taystee changed her mind about rejecting their offer to satisfy all demands except for the arrest of Bayley. But then Ruiz explains that she was the only person who released the hostages and that she did it for the deal. That’s another frustrating detail about the episode: Ruiz and Taystee have proven to be much smarter than they act here. Taystee in particular is constantly undervalued and underestimated. She cites real-life instances of police murdering black people, so she knows that convictions in these cases are extremely rare. She thinks that the governor’s office will cave if they wait it out, but Alison acts as the voice of reason, even though she too doesn’t know the hostages are gone at this point. Danielle Brooks’s performance yet again stands out; she repeats “get the fuck out” in the first scene, and each utterance conveys a completely different emotion, first angry, then exhausted. Taystee knows it’s all over once she learns the hostages have escaped, and I at least buy her conviction to get all the demands met more than I buy Ruiz falling for the deal with MCC. These women know how the system works. They know that it’s never on their side.
The system always sides with people like Baxter Bayley. The season still seems determined to explore the aftermath of Poussey’s death through the perspective of Bayley himself, who pays a visit to Poussey’s father. He doesn’t realize how selfish this apology tour is. Saying he’s sorry won’t do anything to help this man grieve. It definitely won’t fix what he did. Thankfully, Poussey’s father makes this clear, but it’s still a tricky scene to pull off and I’m not convinced any of it is necessary. Telling Bayley’s story alongside the inmates’ doesn’t add nuance to the situation. It just provides an overly sympathetic view of the character and therefore an overly sympathetic view of police brutality. Sure, it was an accident. Isn’t that what they all say?
Trying to turn Bayley into some tragic character also undermines Taystee’s determination to see justice served. The fight to make Litchfield a better place is a compelling one, and it’s been underserved by this season’s erratic focus. This isn’t Bayley’s story, just like it isn’t Piper and Alex’s. Even though the episode ends on a genuine cliffhanger — with a team ready to storm the prison just as the season’s real hero, Taystee, realizes the end is near — the relationship drama of “Tattoo You” doesn’t build much emotional momentum into the finale.