Episode 7: Tongue-Tied
Written by: Sian Heder
Directed by: Julie Anne Robinson
“Who cares if it’s a fantasy? They get what they want, I get to make a buck—everybody wins!” -Lorna.
Sometimes the people who say the least hold the most power. In Season 3, Episode 7, we’re blessed with an increased understanding of what it means to believe in something—and how a believer can become someone revered. Norma (Annie Golden) is featured heavily here, and it’s a welcome exploration of another character we, and the other inmates, always see but seldom (and never literally) hear.
Norma’s silence, and the shock of hearing her voice, has been used to great effect before in OITNB. In the Christmas pageant at the end of Season 1, when Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) clammed up and wasn’t able to sing her solo, Norma piped up, creating a moment of compassion and power that would be hard to forget. Normally, however, Norma doesn’t seem to require or desire a voice. She slinks into the background, preferring the truth in relationships to any dialogue.
When the episode opens, Red (Kate Mulgrew) has just returned to her post in the kitchen, an irritating prospect for Gloria (Selenis Leyva). Norma, as always, welcomes her longtime friend with open arms—and even a sharp blade for peeling potatoes. Although Red, hardly ever a silent person, does seem to appreciate Norma’s friendship, the power balance is quite uneven. Red doesn’t rub Norma’s back; the tenderness only goes one way. Back in the kitchen, Red nags Norma for ignoring what she’d been taught over the years, asking why she doesn’t boil the potatoes first so that the skin will peel off more easily. Norma shrugs and gestures to Gloria. Even if Red knows best, Norma’s not one to push the status quo. She’s always a follower.
At least, that’s been the case thus far. The flashbacks in this episode provide a cohesive narrative for Norma, one perhaps more complete and digestible than those for some of the other characters. We see a shy, teenage Norma attend a prayer group of sorts and end up following a cultish leader who puts her at ease by telling her she doesn’t have to talk to him ever again—he hears her. Later, she lines up to wed the leader, clearly honored and excited, before moving to the side to watch several other girls become his wives, one after the other. Norma herself witnesses signs that the leader’s followers are becoming disenchanted in this scene, as nearby male witnesses start questioning the ridiculousness of the situation.
By the next flashback, an aged Norma’s alone in a van with the leader, who muses at the fact that everyone’s left him and he’s ended up with her. He swears up a storm, using his language a lot less peacefully than when Norma first started listening to him. As he becomes more and more insulting toward his loyal companion—who may initially have followed him as blindly as the others but has chosen to keep following, alone, despite the transparent fraud—she finally finds her voice. “S-s-s-son of a bitch!” she stutters righteously after pushing him off of a cliff.
Norma’s crime was driven by her ability to find her power, represented in part by her voice but more by her actions. As a follower, she was drawn to peace and love, and when the leader stopped demonstrating either of those things, she decided to stop following. The follower determined where the story would end.
Now, at Litchfield, we’ve long been shown a quiet side to Norma. She’s the same woman led by compassion and by care. And people still get out of her what they want, just by listening to her silence. After Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Soso (Kimiko Glenn) experience what they consider Norma’s gift—a calmness after she gently holds their arms, listens, and stares into their eyes—others start catching on. The cult of Norma begins to take hold. Norma didn’t ask for this; she never asked anyone to follow her. Red mocks Gina (Abigail Savage) and others who come to request that Norma lead a prayer session of sorts. To Red, it’s an example of people believing in magic, and Norma can’t offer them anything. Norma feels powerless even to choose whether to use what they think of as her voice. But when Gloria quits and Red finds herself back in charge of the kitchen, Red is immediately resigned to the realization that Caputo (Nick Sandow) isn’t giving her back any real power. Under the new corporate cost-cutting measures, giant bags of food come ready to be boiled, and the lead cook hardly matters.
Upon seeing Red’s disgust and disappointment at these circumstances, Norma removes her apron and strides out of the kitchen, out from the background, amusing her Latina kitchen workers. Red may talk a big show but Norma, showing up in the chapel to the delight of her newfound followers, may end up having more influence from now on, simply because of her silence. She’s listened for so long that her gaze and touch alone represent an emotional bond that many don’t find elsewhere. With so much in flux at the prison, and so many prisoners feeling lonely and lost, it was probably a matter of time before someone was deified. That it ended up being someone so used to being herded, to following others, to being the “duck” and not the “goose,” seems like a sort of ironic justice. What will belief in Norma mean in the long run?
Episode 8: Fear, and Other Smells
Written by: Nick Jones
Directed by: Mark A. Burley
“I just want to say, I’m also on Team Rodcocker, but I liked that dude you introduced in Chapter 3 who was made of Vaseline.” -Black Cindy.
Power, faith, loneliness, and the nasty consequences of the for-profit takeover continue to be major themes in Episode 8. Suzanne’s Time Hump Chronicles, an alien sex story deemed inappropriate for drama class, finds new fans in other inmates who desire a new and exciting escape. She becomes a leader of sorts, as others wait impatiently for each chapter and make demands about what should happen. The whole Time Hump storyline makes for an amusing commentary from OITNB‘s writers on fan culture.
Elsewhere, Piper (Taylor Schilling) finds her own power upon realizing how misguided the corporate juggernaut at Litchfield has become. After a discussion about sexual fetishes at the lingerie factory, she has a flash of brilliance: if Whispers is already making a lot of money off of the prisoners’ hard work, why can’t she make a little profit too? Apparently the used underwear business is huge online. An amusing exchange between Piper and her brother Cal (Michael Chernus) reveals his surprising familiarity with the industry, and he explains that niche specialties make the market work. Panties worn by felons? Well, Cal confirms, those might bring in a good chunk of change.
Alex (Laura Prepon), familiar with the ins and outs of smuggling contraband, lends practical advice to Piper, who becomes intensely invested in her new business plan. Alex suggests they find a “panty mule,” someone who’s eager to please. (Piper is quick to point that she, who started as Alex’s potential drug mule, wasn’t quite that naive in the past.) Conveniently, Caputo has been forced to hire new, cheap part-timers for the corrections staff, with Pearson (Mike Birbiglia) refusing to allow a proper forty-hour training period. As a result, inexperienced officers are out in the field. When a baby-faced new C.O. overreacts and sprays mace at prisoners, causing damage and embarrassment to the staff, it’s clear that Piper and Alex have found the right mule. They need someone weak and easily flattered, someone who’s messed up and needs a little validation.
With the mule in place, Piper turns her attention to another practicality: she’ll have to pay those who work for her. When she finds that the included “flavor packets” in ramen noodle packages have become a saving grace for those eating the kitchen’s tasteless new boil-in-a-bag meals, she buys out the entire ramen inventory at the commissary. Gathering a group of women in the yard, she explains that she simply needs prisoners to wear the panties for a few days before they can be smuggled out and sold to creepy men online. Although the idea makes those around the table wrinkle their noses, Piper delivers a triumph speech and makes them an offer they can’t refuse, imbuing her business proposition with an anti-patriarchal message about accepting your body and benefiting from your own confidence. She even suggests they’ll be supporting a local business by taking part.
“Sisters,” Piper declares, “we may be incarcerated, but our panties will travel the world. And in that way, we are known, and in that way, we are remembered.” Then she delivers the irresistible question that puts her speech over the top: “Do you want to be remembered?” When Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Yoga Jones (Constance Schulman) nod and shrug indifferently, Piper takes it as a huge success and riles up her troops, as boisterous music plays over the scene: “Then sweat profusely, and fart with abandon, and make a reek! Make a reek, my sisters! Make a reek to last one thousand years!”
In contrast to the unintended following that Norma and Suzanne attract due to their quiet and creative ways, Piper gathers her flock quite consciously. She knows how easy it will be for prisoners to choose to benefit a bit from the truly unfair system in which they work and live. Piper’s a performer who knows she has the ability to craft a convincing message grounded in the harsh reality around her. Although she may not have been able to carry out her soap business, this is an easy way for her to use her business chops. It’s part of a huge growth trajectory for Piper, who is, in a a sense, finally embracing what others have used to mock her in the past—her bourgeois background, her learned ways—in order to take advantage of the deplorable conditions at the prison. Piper’s not sulking in her granny panties anymore; instead, she’s standing atop a bench, proudly proclaiming her investment in her “sisters’” stench. She’s become comfortable with her own aptitude for manipulation.
This episode not only serves to underscore the problems with the privatization of Litchfield; it also provides a rather humbling realization for Alex, whose flashbacks provide bookends for the episode. As we see her embrace a wilder side following her mother’s funeral and her breakup from Piper—“fuck [her]; she can’t dance anyway”—it becomes clear that taking chances proved dangerous for her in the past and got in the way of her business. When Fahri (Sebastian LaCause) is killed in front of her in a hotel room, after she persuaded him to break the rules, the boss Kubra (Eyas Younis) takes pity and offers to send her to a rehab center. And he wants her to remember that he did this for her.
In the present day, Alex remains paranoid that telling on Kubra in court has made her a target again. This storyline highlights real issues regarding prisoners’ safety, especially when no real background checks are performed on new, untrained officers, who end up with easy access to inmates. Additionally, it serves as a reminder that Alex and Piper have basically switched roles. In embracing the smuggling business, Piper shows little regard for Alex, and she shows she doesn’t need her. By asking her to help with the business she’s also ignoring Alex’s real sense of fear and danger. This spells trouble for their relationship, yet it also kicks things up a notch in terms of the plot. Without Alex by her side, Piper’s found a new sort of power and is ready to abuse it, getting others to follow her, whatever it takes, so that she can profit from the thrill of it. Alex can’t get on board with that, not when that thrill nearly ruined her life years earlier. Conflict seems inevitable.
For Piper, and in a different sense for Norma and Suzanne, it’s easy to take advantage—on purpose or without even trying—of others’ neediness. Others want to know what happens in the story, they want to find comfort and an escape, and they want to make their existence (and their food) palatable. Those willing to capitalize on those needs are poised to benefit, whether it’s right or wrong and whether or not it loses them friends or loved ones.