‘Orange Is the New Black’ Review: 3.03 “Empathy Is a Boner Killer” / 3.04 “Finger in the Dyke”

Episode 3: Empathy Is a Boner Killer
Written by: Nick Jones
Directed by: Michael Trim

“We’re not a family. We’re a Band-Aid. And once you rip it off, all we are to each other is scars.” -Maria Ruiz.

Since Season 1 of OITNB, Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) has been an intriguingly hardened yet sympathetic character. Using sarcasm as a constant defense mechanism, she puts up so many barriers that it might be easy to dismiss the character as a drug-dealing trope off of whom other characters bounce their troubles. What makes Nicky a more sustainable character than that is her honesty. She tells everything like it is, at least concerning others. She’s fiercely loyal to mother figure Red (Kate Mulgrew) and provides a serious level of support for Lorna (Yael Stone).

We’ve seen hints of the lingering effects of addiction on Nicky’s prison life, and the introduction of illegal drugs last season provided a great deal of foreshadowing. This episode allows Lyonne to show off Nicky’s industrious attitude. She doesn’t sink into the trap of doing drugs here; instead, she makes a business venture out of the goods. She even uses her persuasive attitude to rope Luschek (Matt Peters) into the scheme.

That Nicky is so likeable, so willing to play and maneuver situations, so easy to trust only makes her character more sympathetic once Luschek turns the tables on her and gets her sent to max. Flashbacks throughout this episode help flush out Nicky’s past as an addict, but the present scenario highlights the impact drugs continue to have on her life. Even if she can avoid putting the poison in her veins, her curiosity about the product makes it all too easy to fall into a trap. While the meth-heads in the laundry room, Leanne and Angie (Emma Myles and Julie Lake), clearly enjoy the ridiculous delirium that results when they steal some of the drugs, Nicky’s intrepid spirit again lands her in trouble.

The episode highlights one of the central themes of the show: the circular nature of crime and incarceration. In trying to move on past the situations that put her in prison in the first place, and in finding new maternal support to replace her absent mother, Nicky just ends up in a worse spot. As she’s taking into custody, Red fights for her daughter with a look of resignation, reminding us that Nicky’s failures have taken on a repetitive nature and this isn’t the first time she’s had to disappoint her prison family. For Lorna, also clambering to stop Nicky from being taken away, she’s now lost the one person who specifically chose to care about her almost as a daughter.

Losing Nicky allows this episode to underscore the fleeting nature of relationships behind bars. Mother-daughter relationships in particular can be confusing, unequal, and easily altered. It’ll be interesting to see the effect of Nicky’s absence both on her current immediate family of Lorna and Red and also on those she has considered friends, such as Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon).

Elsewhere, another major theme in the third episode of the season concerns storytelling. Drama class, led by new counselor Berdie Rogers (Marsha Stephanie Blake), requires select groups of inmates to illustrate their relationships. When Piper and Alex are required to improvise a scene, they’re inevitably forced to consider their real-life situation. After Piper admits, in a scene involving a grocery store fruit purchase, that she knowingly sold bad fruit so as to get the customer back into her store (a transparent allusion to getting Alex thrown back in jail for violating her parole), the two find a sort of reconciliation. Store clerk Piper’s explanation that she’s sorry and “also not sorry” about consciously selling bad fruit to get her “customer” back must rings a familiar bell for Alex, who’s treated Piper equally as badly in the past. The result of the scene, when they reconvene later in the library, is a newfound tenderness—recognition that they can’t really just “hate-fuck” anymore because they actually do empathize with each other. That complicates things, because forgiveness would involve making an actual choice to be together, whereas antagonizing each other had allowed them to excuse any interactions as the result of reactive emotions.

Drama class provides a nice transition in the season, as if the writers are acknowledging that they can’t just drag out the will-they-won’t-they aspect of Alex and Piper’s relationship. The ping-ponging emotions will only bore the audience in the long run, so here the characters are forced to deal with it all, in a blatant and ridiculously obvious manner, in front of other inmates. It’s funny and it’s necessary. They can get the conversation over with, so that we’re prepared—and liberated—to deal with other relationships in future episodes.

After all, with Nicky gone for the moment, it’s important to turn to other potential friendships and families. Red and Healy (Michael Harney) have begun to strike up a bond; Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Bennett (Matt McGorry) continue to deal with the stressful idea of their baby’s birth; and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) have found a sort of common ground. As the season continues, it seems as if this episode has conceded to the audience that, yes, Piper and Alex have a lot to deal with, but there’s a lot more going on around them, so it’s time to put them on stage so that they can expel their drama and again retreat to the audience.

Grade: A-

 

Episode 4: Finger in the Dyke
Written by: Lauren Morelli
Directed by: Constantine Makris

“Black and white—that’s for zebras and Michael Jackson.” -Big Boo.

Most of the time, Big Boo tends to comment on other characters’ actions. She makes a snarky remark here and there, and one generally gets the idea that she’s righteous about being butch and fairly angry about everything else. In the third episode of Season 3, a series of flashbacks finally offers a glimpse into her past. I found that this made the character more sympathetic, grounding some of her more outwardly extreme attitudes in specific goals and thoughts about her identity.

Seeing young Carrie refusing to appease her mother by wearing a ridiculous dress, and then making a compromise with her father, helps us understand that she’s been pressured throughout her life. Her sense of who she is has always been a point of contention in her family. In a later flashback, after picking up a date at a bar, Carrie loses that woman’s respect by loudly ridiculing a young man who made a snide comment as he passed by. Her inability to be quiet about how others perceive her makes Boo a self-assured, less approachable person, but it also makes her vulnerable. She loses those she wants to have relationships with because of her need to prove—at least to herself—the worthiness of her long struggles to claim an identity. Is standing up for her right to look and act butch reason enough to ostracize those who may otherwise care about her?

We see this question posed most explicitly in a flashback in a hospital. Her father welcomes the long-estranged Carrie before pleading with her not to say goodbye to her dying mother—not to make her mother see what she’s wearing and be disappointed once again. Carrie refuses to change clothes, realizing that her father still thinks she should have to compromise in order to forge any sort of relationship with the family. Not willing to make what she sees as a longstanding admittance of defeat, Carrie decides instead to leave. She later questions the decision in a present-day scene with Pennsatucky. What if she’d said goodbye to her mother?

Seeing Boo consider her potential role as a daughter provides an interesting contrast for the character, especially in relation to Pennsatucky, who’s still reckoning with the idea that she’s never been a mother despite many pregnancies. Boo has provided Pennsatucky with a good deal of advice this season, but perhaps the relationship can be more reciprocal than it initially seemed. When Doggett admits that she still takes money from those supporting her anti-abortion cause, despite having shot the clinic worker out of anger rather than dogma, Boo realizes that she too could benefit from putting on a veil of faith.

This requires her to consider again how much of her identity is determined by looks. She allows Sophia (Laverne Cox) to style her with a bob and red lipstick, much to the delight of Lorna. She intends to show a priest that she’s ready to be a part of a larger campaign (and maybe accept money as a result). When push comes to shove, though, she can’t do it, and she realizes she’s not necessarily any more ready to put on a show than Pennsatucky. Her convictions make her avoid faith, deciding not to make compromises just to prove she has it. While she may have more awareness of social justice than Pennsatucky, she too must determine how to interact with the injustice around her, grounding Boo’s character in the confusingly imbalanced life familiar to the prison population.

When not focusing on Boo, the episode keeps other storylines moving. It’s Piper’s birthday, and visiting with her parents reminds her how unwilling they are to view her time in prison as anything productive or purposeful. Her father refuses to make small talk—or any talk—but insists on showing up because he’s never missed her birthday before. Frustration over her parents’ insistent displays of disapproval eventually compels Piper to make over-the-top gestures of rebellion, declaring that she has a girlfriend whom she loves and hinting at her sexual activity. Back in the bunk, she confronts this idea and ends up nervously asking Alex if that’s what they really should be. From there, our happy couple is off in a cute, if obviously temporary, la-la land.

This provides a contrast to the lack of stability in Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) authority over the prison. Having learned that the government plans to shut down “the camp,” he appeals to Fig (Alysia Reiner) for advice and learns that a private company has displayed interest in purchasing it in the past. A visit from company contractors provides ample opportunity for humiliation, as prisoners don’t usually feel the need to hide signs of controversy, such as pregnancy or a lack of heteronormativity (as Boo displays upon greeting them). Caputo attempts to make the prison appear an easier bet for the company than other locations that might carry greater liability.

Seemingly the only father figure in the prison, Caputo has his share of challenges in trying to prove his reliability. He’s hardly effective in trying to assuage the worries of his staff, let alone rein in the inmates’ honesty about their everyday human and female issues. In a season filled with questions about mothers and mothering, it almost feels as if Caputo must grapple with the fact that he has no female companion (romantic, maternal, otherwise) in his own life—a fact that might make him vulnerable in his workplace environment. Just as this episode helps fill in the blanks in Boo’s life and show why she clings so sturdily to her idea of how she presents herself, Caputo’s storyline seems poised to make him wonder whether his own self-presentation is any more controversial, disappointing, or difficult to respect, and whether it even reflects his actual motivations. Litchfield’s authority figures as a group are humanized more this season as a result of the financial struggles surrounding them, bringing their everyday reality slightly closer to that of the inmates.

Grade: B