The Litchfield riot has far unfolded in a bubble so far, given inaction on MCC’s part and a surprising lack of response from the outside world. Even Taystee’s video outright declaring Bayley a murderer failed to make the impact she hoped to see. Still, the barriers between Litchfield and the outside world began to crumble the second the riot broke out. Even if the general public remains unaware of what’s going on, that door is about to blast wide open: “Litchfield’s Got Talent” ends on a cliffhanger as the press gets photos of Judy King bound to a wooden plank. Beyond that, the inmates of Litchfield are confronting their lives on the outside in a whole new way.
We see this manifest in many ways in “Litchfield’s Got Talent.” Sankey gets her hands on a cellphone and checks in on her husband, but she finds lots of social-media posts of him and the woman who they agreed he could sleep with while she was locked up. Even though they had an arrangement, she didn’t imagine that he would be in such a public and seemingly serious relationship with this other woman, and coming face-to-face with the truth devastates her. The cellphone acts as a portal to Sankey’s life outside, and it doesn’t show her what she wants to see. Now, I’m a little weary whenever Orange Is the New Black attempts to humanize its most racist characters. With Sankey in particular, those attempts are coupled with her constant reminders that she’s a white nationalist and not a Nazi, which isn’t as humorous of a runner as the show seems to think it is. Given the emphasis on Sankey and the methheads, this episode packs in way too many jokes that present rampant racism as a joke, which gets tiresome fast.
Sankey’s story line is connected to Alison, who also finds herself confronted by her outside life when using a cellphone to reach out to her husband Hassan and daughter Farah. Alison gets the flashback treatment in this episode, but as with Linda’s flashbacks in the previous episode, they don’t do enough to develop the character or shed light on what’s happening in the present. We see Alison and her husband decide to bring a second wife into their family in order to ease tension between them and help raise Farah. At first, the episode presents a normalized depiction of polygamy, which could be interesting and even groundbreaking, then the story veers into predictable and uninspired territory when Alison becomes jealous of Sahar’s role in Farah’s life and Hassan points out that she can’t have things both ways. I was initially excited for Alison-centric flashbacks — I’ve certainly been enjoying her increased role this season — but ultimately, we don’t learn much more about her character. It’s empty development and it doesn’t add much to the episode, which suffers from more of the same problems by being too all over the place with its story and tone. Although it makes sense that the season is in disarray, the chaos feels less narratively significant and more like OITNB has lost its way.
People on the outside, and men in particular, are not taking this riot seriously. Sophia walks out of the prison and encounters an incredulous cop, who isn’t quite sure what to do with her before deciding nonchalantly to take her to max with the rest of the prisoners who bolted. He excitedly asks her if it’s crazy inside, like he’s regarding the riot as a thrilling episode of television rather than a high-stakes and dangerous situation involving hostages, a gun, and clashing factions. The governor is also informed of the unfolding situation, and it’s more than just the Ambien talking when he tells his staffer that they can handle the situation in the morning. It’s just a minimum-security women’s prison, he tells her. What could possibly go wrong in the next six hours?
Well, a lot, especially since the methheads have the gun now. We finally find out what happened: Gloria took the gun from Daya, hoping to protect her by taking away her power. When attempting to pants her, Angie and Leanne reveal the gun, and everyone scrambles to grab it, with Angie emerging victorious. They decide to use their newfound power to do what they would probably do if they were back in the outside world: Get high while watching The Voice. Since there’s no power here (Gina’s working on that one, by the way), they can’t watch TV, so they stage a talent show of their own.
That’s where things get very messy. “Litchfield’s Got Talent” shows characters on the outside treating the riot as if it’s just some frivolous thing, and then the episode itself turns the riot into a mostly frivolous thing with this talent competition. There are some undoubtedly funny parts, like Dixon’s beautiful voice, Caputo’s terrible voice, Stratman’s strip tease, and the fact that PR Josh wins the whole thing for being hot. But as with the last episode, “Litchfield’s Got Talent” remains tonally disjointed in a way that undermines the conflict. Stratman’s strip tease lasts way too long, and the jealous look on Angie’s face throughout it creates palpable tension, but there’s no real payoff to the ominous vibe of the scene. Placing the gun in Angie and Leanne’s hands is terrifying given how unstable they are, and the episode plays with expectations because this doesn’t lead to anything too bad (yet). Finding humor in dark places is usually a strength of OITNB, but “Litchfield’s Got Talent” bends over backwards to push the comedy.
The same can be said of Suzanne’s séance, which touches on deeper ideas about grief and closure until those layers get (literally) chanted over by the comedic parts of the scenes. Soso and Taystee’s reactions to Poussey’s death diverge significantly, which is one of the most compelling parts of the season so far, shedding light on the fact that people grieve in remarkably different ways. Taystee thinks the séance is a stupid idea, but she relents because of Cindy, who finds it all amusing, and her love for Suzanne. It’s clear that the séance is something Suzanne needs to move forward, and it becomes clear that Soso needs it too. But it all ends with Soso and Taystee locked in a “grief-off,” as Cindy puts it, fighting over who knew Poussey better and longer. Losing a friend is different from losing a lover. Neither situation is worse than the other, and through Soso and Taystee, OITNB explores that thorny distinction. Unfortunately, the séance only scratches the surface of this tension, lightening the mood with weak jokes that yank away the scene’s emotional potency.
In other developments, Red and Flores discover that Piscatella probably killed an inmate at the former prison where he worked. It’s a small part of the episode, but it’s a major turning point in their slow-building case against him. Although the gun brings power to whoever wields it, Red and Flores are determined to arm themselves with knowledge. Alex Vause, meanwhile, has somehow fallen into leading a peaceful resistance on the lawn. Alex and Piper have felt a bit like they’re on a different show this season — not an uncommon problem in these later years of OITNB — but this time around, it’s increasingly distracting.
“Litchfield’s Got Talent” is easily the funniest episode of the season so far, but that’s also part of its problem. The humor functions as a way to lighten the mood rather than provide commentary, develop characters, or add layers to this mess of a situation that the show has gotten itself into.