Just when I thought Piscatella’s Purge-like takeover of Litchfield couldn’t possibly get worse, Orange Is the New Black reaches a new low with “The Reverse Midas Touch,” one of the most perplexing and incoherent episodes of this disjointed fifth season.
“I genuinely would like to understand how it is that a man gets to be this fucked up,” Nicky says, trying to distract Piscatella so Alex can work on getting her hands on a pair of scissors on the floor. Her and me both. Piscatella has suddenly become one of the most horrifying villains in the show’s history, but that trajectory has made little sense. Yes, Piscatella proved to be abusive before this rampage, prioritizing his prescribed sense of “order” in the way he harshly policed inmates. But in “The Reverse Midas Touch,” he’s a bogeyman, a looming, unspecific specter of violence and patriarchal control. He sets out to mortify Red, brutally cutting off her hair and forcing her “family” to watch. I described his rounding up of inmates in the last episode as torture porn, but it’s nothing compared to the visuals here. Piper and Alex are still bound in shower curtains. Flores’s face is disfigured from coming into contact with Piscatella’s boot. When Alex tries to jump Piscatella, he breaks her leg and leaves her crumpled on the floor, launching into a soliloquy about how women don’t respect violence like men do, how they must be broken, how he intends to break them.
It’s deeply disturbing to watch, but it’s also an empty spectacle of horror. Where did any of this come from? Through the show’s other abusive guards, like Humps and Dixon, it was always clear that prison didn’t exactly make them bad people. They were bad men before they stepped foot in Litchfield, and prison provided an environment that fostered their sexist and violent behaviors. It’s clear that someone like Humps, who relishes talk of murder and violence, should not be a prison guard; his sadism was a commentary on the complete lack of oversight during the guard hiring process. The fact that he so easily became one reflects how deeply broken the system is, prioritizing efficiency and profit over actual human lives. But the flashbacks in this episode do suggest that the prison system turned Piscatella into a monster, and yet the episode never reconciles with what that means, favoring violence as shock value rather than telling a meaningful story.
At first, a younger Piscatella’s seen as a bumbling idiot who falls in love with an inmate named Wes Driscoll. The episode never once engages with the imbalanced power dynamics of Piscatella and Wes’s relationship. Given Piscatella’s power over Wes within the context of prison structures, the question of whether their sexual relationship could ever really be consensual is dubious at best, but again, “Reverse Midas Touch” doesn’t dig into that at all.
When another inmate finds out about the affair, he and a group of others rape Wes. In an act of revenge, Piscatella chains the inmate to a shower and turns the water on boiling hot, leaving him to die an agonizing death. It’s clearly an attempt to explain why Piscatella is the way he is — not to mention a case of prison abuse that was ripped from the headlines — and yet none of it tracks. We already knew Piscatella killed another inmate, and the added context that he did it to avenge a lover certainly doesn’t justify his actions or even flesh out Piscatella as anything more than a bogeyman. And what does any of it have to do with his very personal attack on Red? Are we supposed to interpret his issues with his mother, who tried to “fix” him by sending him to gay conversion therapy, as the root of his problem with Red? That seems like a stretch at best. Has Piscatella’s repressed sexuality manifested as violence? Even if that didn’t play into harmful gay villain stereotypes, but it still doesn’t even shed any light on why his attack on Red is so targeted and persona. Piscatella’s real issue seems to be that he hates women. But again, the flashbacks don’t engage with that at all.
“Reverse Midas Touch” grasps for ways to rationalize or at least contextualize this increasingly far-fetched story line, but it comes up with nothing. The flashbacks don’t even provide much new information. We already know Piscatella murdered an inmate, and the reveal that it was an act of revenge doesn’t really add nuance to the act. Nothing about Piscatella’s arc has been nuanced, making him a behemoth of a villain who doesn’t feel at all real.
Piscatella’s theater of horror is so grandiose that it’s difficult to digest anything else happening in the episode. Leanne and Angie kidnap the doctor and hatch a plan to have him remove Stratman’s finger so that Leanne can have it. Needless to say, that story line never becomes anything other than completely inane. Linda bonds with Pennsatucky, only to wind up punched in the face when Pennsatucky realizes who she’s actually talking to. But I don’t buy that character moment either. Gloria tries to sneak the guards out, only to be thwarted by Ouija and Pidge, who stop her plot to get out and see her son. Maureen’s face is infected, and Suzanne is off her meds. Both end up in medical, where they find that Humps has stopped breathing.
Meanwhile, Taystee and Caputo’s negotiations with Figueroa continue but without much progress. Caputo and Fig just seem like they want to have hate sex, and Taystee still isn’t being heard about her demands. “This is a disaster,” Taystee says, a sentiment that echoes throughout all of “The Reverse Midas Touch.” While OITNB has had many human villains, the prison-industrial complex itself remains the most compelling and relentless villain on the show, touching the lives of every inmate in different but intersecting ways. These frustratingly slow negotiations reiterate how resilient of a villain that corrupt system is. But none of it connects back to the Piscatella bogeyman in a compelling way. The conditions of prison are so violent and volatile that it made a once-sappy guard into a monster overnight? I don’t buy that, and I’m not even sure it’s what OITNB is trying to say. At least Frieda and her gang get a chance to take down Piscatella, since his torture chamber is conveniently located in the entrance to the bunker. He may finally be incapacitated, but the problem with Piscatella persists.