The Good, The Bad & The Ruby Rose of OITNB Episodes 5-8
There’s enough going on structurally and thematically in Episodes 5-8 of Orange Is the New Black’s 4th season for this review to be tens of pages long. For the sake of myself, my reader, and my editor, I’ll do my best to keep my thoughts condensed and precise.
The cream of the crop in this middle portion of the season is the commentary – or, should I say, examination – of/on the current state of the for-profit prison system, and the militarization of police in present day America.
The fifth episode, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” focuses largely on Caputo and Linda’s (Beth Dover) trip to Baltimore’s aptly and humorously named CorrectiCon — a conventional gathering of individuals in charge of, or that represent prisons all across the United States. There’s a scene in the beginning where the couple are roaming the halls of the convention and they come across a booth displaying potential laser guns for COs to wield while on patrol (Yes, you read that correctly — laser guns). Caputo is informed by the smiling booth operator that these lasers have the power to give inmates third degree burns. Linda tries it out, shooting a volunteer target in the testicles. He falls down, grunting in pain. The surrounding audience applauds and laughs.
Later, they’re drinking a bar, going over which panels they wish to attend. Caputo proposes “Immigration Violations: The Next Goldmine.” He then ponders “What was the last goldmine?” Linda replies, “The war on drugs, I guess?” They both chuckle and sip their drinks.
Watching Caputo climb his way up the corporate ladder is compelling and interesting enough to stand on it’s own, and this episode finds the perfect balance needed to expose both the audience and Caputo to the slimy, capitalist for-profit American prison industry without totally endorsing or condoning it. What it is, really, is a brilliant use of shifting character perspective. Over the course of the series, but especially this season and last, Caputo has become a wholly sympathetic character – a total opposite of the former warden, Figueroa. It’s clear that he truly and honestly does care about the Litchfield inmates’ quality of life and doesn’t just see them all as numbers for potential monetization. Because of this, we know – or we at least hope – that no matter how deep he goes into the inner functions of the prison system, his ideas and actions are never fueled by malicious intent.
There’s enough subtext here about the prison system to fill entire articles by themselves, and there has been. It’s made even more interesting when you consider Caputo’s romance with Linda, Director of Purchasing at the MCC (Management & Correction Corporation). As their relationship is unfolding, it’s becoming an obvious case of opposites attracting. They make a good couple, but not the most ideal team. Their friendly, mostly timid clashing of ideas for Litchfield has begun to put them slowly at odds with one another over the course of this middle portion of episodes, and if my ability to predict where things are going isn’t to fail me, I sense there will be huge argument taking place in the not-so-far future.
“We’ll Always Have Baltimore” also makes room for another backstory — how Maritza Ramos (Dianne Guerrero) became a hardened criminal by attempting to steal cars off a dealership lot. The scenes making up her backstory are entertaining in their own right, and Guerrero does a passable job as usual. But again, I have to ask, is it necessary? There’s nothing told to us about Maritza’s character in these flashbacks that we haven’t already been able to figure out over the last three seasons. Just like this season’s earlier episodes, their sudden insertion into an episode about something entirely different feels obligatory, and yet somehow completely unavoidable.
By the fourth season of this show, almost every character, new and old, has been fleshed out enough to where we can care about them whether their criminal past has been revealed or not. If they are to remain a staple of the show’s structure, they would be more valuable and less of a chore to care about if they were used sparingly and only when particularly the relevant to the episode’s themes/story.
Evidently, a much better and more fitting use of the backstory formula comes in the 7th episode “It Sounded Nicer in My Head.” Here, we get to see Lolly, one of this season’s key shit disrupters, slowly and gradually lose more and more of her mind. Over the years she has gone a normal working-class citizen, to being institutionalized against her will, to being the typical crazy homeless lady/paranoid conspiracy theorist. This is not extremely pertinent to events happening in the story. However, it does give us some insight as to why the voices in her head that are causing her to be a source of mayhem in Litchfield seem less random and arbitrary. An A+ should also be given to the casting department for choosing the almost suspiciously similar looking Christina Brucato as the younger Lori Petty. At first glance I thought they pulled an Ant-Man and CG’d a younger Lolly.
One thing this season miraculously pulls off is making Piper (Taylor Schilling), the show’s former primary protagonist, interesting again. In the beginning of this season, one of the few threads left from Season 3 was Piper’s secret Whispers underwear trade. It was also one of, if not the most boring and uninteresting thread. It felt tacked on only for continuity purposes. Now, when Maria (Jessica Pimental) starts up an identical counter trade business of her own with the Hispanics, a feud breaks out between the two. As a reversal, Piper convinces Healy to let her start “Community Carers,” a neighborhood watch-like group that seeks out any suspicious ethnic gatherings that might be perceived as potential gang activity.
To add more fire to the fuel, Piper plants fake evidence of Maria’s insider trading under her bunk, adding another three-to-five years to her sentence. This, as expected, starts a total flame war between the two groups. To up the ante even higher, the episode ends with Piper’s gang-monitor group inadvertently turning into a full-fledged White Power syndicate full of Neo-Nazis (one of them is even named Skinhead Helen). This places Piper in a sticky situation concerning race relations, but also a gargantuan moral dilemma, having unintentionally become the leader of something she tried to get rid of in order to further cover up her own risky business. It’s refreshing to see Piper plunged into a situation where we she might get to take charge and make a name for herself again, especially after the 3rd season where, in all honesty, she became the least interesting character. It’s great to see Taylor Schilling come back into the spotlight once more instead of moping around in the background for 13 episodes.
The 6th episode – the best titled episode of a television show ever – “Piece of Shit,” sees the full-fledged return of Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). She appeared in a brief scene earlier this season, but now we finally get to follow her at her new home in the SHU, where she works as custodial, trying her absolute hardest turn her life around and be drug-free. The decision to keep Nicky absent from the first half of this season was a smart one, I think.
Her mission to get clean doesn’t last long, however, as there’s a scene in the yard later where she runs into Stella (Ruby Rose), who she discovers is sneaking in drugs through the prison COs. Slowly but surely, she wants in again. Despite her extremely minimal screen time, Ruby Rose proves once again that the casting department made a horrible, irreversible decision regarding the role of Stella. This isn’t even a matter I can appropriately delve into with criticism more than I did last year. To put it simply: She can not act and every scene that she’s in is brought down tremendously by her presence. I suspect because of this brief, but important encounter with Nicky that we will seeing more of her as the season, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed hoping the opposite.
Despite their shortcomings, episodes 5-7, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” “Piece of Shit,” and “It Sounded Nicer In My Head,” feature some of the best of what this season has to offer. Episode 8, on the other hand, titled “Friends In Low Places,” is a sloppy, boring mess where nothing exciting or engaging happens, and is one of the worst is the series. It plays out like a series non-events strung together in no particular order, accomplishes almost nothing, and then ends. It’s an extremely disappointing follow up to an effectively quiet, somber episode that ended in an explosive climax.
The bulk of the episode focuses on a new work order because of the obvious, suspicious activity in the Whispers production facility, all of the employees have been replaced by inmates who are “more trustworthy.” The Whispers employees have been enrolled in Caputo’s new Construction 101 course. Obviously, this puts a major damper on Piper and Maria’s underwear trades, but Maria tries to turn the downside up and start pushing drugs instead to one-up Piper’s success.
Now, this is where it starts not making sense: How is either Piper or Maria able to continue their inside trading after being replaced at Whispers? Piscetella (Brad William Henke) makes a it point early in the episode to say that all of the employees had been replaced. Either Piper has somehow built up a hidden stash of Whispers panties so big that she can continue business without active production, or somebody somewhere made a typo. In addition, how does Maria expect to successfully run an insider drug trade within Litchfield without being extremely obvious? All of the new guards are military and stricter and meaner than the previous ones, and even if she did somehow manage to slip it by them, by what logical means is she to commute large drugs in out of the prison on a regular basis with only one means of outsider transportation? If she somehow manages to get all her helpers to transport drugs in and out individually through visitation, that would raise suspicion due to sudden high visitation frequency among the same group of people, and it’s also unfathomable to want to believe that the visitors of every prisoner involved in her circle would automatically be willing to participate. No matter how you spin it, this sudden turn of events in the story is extremely hard to believe, and it could’ve been easily been avoided by simply changing one word in a single line of dialogue.
On a side note, whatever happened to the physical consequences of swimming in the lake? A few episodes ago, Angie and Leanne mentioned they were “feeling really itchy,” citing the lake as the cause. Now, nothing. Oh well, I guess.
405 – “WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE BALTIMORE” OVERALL RATING: 8/10
406 – “PIECE OF SHIT”: 8.5/10
407 – “IT SOUNDER NICER IN MY HEAD” OVERALL RATING: 9/10
408 – “FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES” OVERALL RATING: 5/10