Abusive Creeps and Well-meaning Sheep - Orange Is the New Black Roundtable #3

S04e05, "We'll Always Have Baltimore" 
Company policies lead to a shortage of critical supplies and 
an eventful trip to a prison convention. 
Piscatella starts a new anti-gang initiative. (Netflix)  

S04e06, "Piece of Shit"
Piper's plan to edge out the competition could 
backfire badly. Cindy finds a way to make Taystee's job pay off. 
Luschek gets some interesting mail. (Netflix)


Tova: It’s tricky to talk about these episodes in one discussion, because there’s such a noticeable shift between the two, with the latter seemingly signaling a more dark season from now on. If you think back, this is usually how OITNB works though, and the show goes from really funny to really depressing fast. I guess we’ll have to do the same!

Remember when I said I wanted more privatization-related plot? Well, here it is: A prison convention, fancy talk and ex-warden Pearson as speaker of truth. Losing his job seems to be the best thing ever to happen to that guy— he’s practically a decent person now. Caputo also comes off as sympathetic, but he’s completely brainwashed by the mentioned fancy talk, and I’m afraid he’s just going to continue messing things up. What are your thoughts on these scenes? Also: Does anyone know if conventions like this one exist for real???

Amanda: Horrifyingly, yes. The ACA (American Correctional Association) runs two a year (there are more prison conventions than A-camps!) I think the next one’s in Boston. As much as I did not need Caputo getting laid, I think it was a solid move to show him with Linda at the con, the corporate schmooze’s natural environment.

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Adrian: Count me completely unsurprised that Correctional Conventions are a thing. They were really hamming up these scenes with the guy taking the laser taser to the crotch and Caputo judo tossing a security guard. It’s also not surprising that Pearson’s protest, while positive, was also fairly ineffectual. Inmates need stronger voices speaking for them, so it would be nice to see a character get their act together on that front.

Frida: I liked the convention scenes because everything was so absurd! I’m not surprised that these cons exist in America. You just realize how fucked up the prison system is over there; millions of people doing basically slave work for the government and companies like MCC. And they’re joking around with handcuffs and promo bags? It makes me sick. However, I loved Pearson’s protest, it was like all the frustration that had been built up during the scenes was released through him! I didn’t really understand why Linda still wanted Caputo after that scene with Pearson though. I totally agree that Caputo is semi-brainwashed, now he thinks he’s going to make prison life better for the inmates but it will fall totally flat.

Tova: That's a perfectly depressing comparison! "More A-camps, less prison-cons" could be a neat political slogan I think— I'd vote for that person at least. The promo bags are sickening, but they make total sense for the context. And of course Linda likes them. She really works well as a symbol of the most corporate part of the industrial prison complex, where the schmooziest of the schmooze work to make money and further their own careers. I'm not sure she works as well as a character and believable human being, which makes the hook-up with Caputo become even less interesting than it normally would have been. OITNB does good character-work with female inmates and male prison-employees, but I think it’s struggling when it comes to the corporate women and female guards.  Speaking of that, what do you think of McCullough and the other new COs?

Amanda: They seem a tad unrealistic for the new overcrowding. Mother Jones did an undercover guard piece a bit ago, and they’re poorly trained, yes, but even poor training reminds guards that they can be stabbed. The banter seemed more appropriate for the dorms than in the prisoners' faces. But maybe they’re planning on showing us some comeuppance later on.

Adrian: Pearson is probably spitting the truth about Linda: she’s totally going to take credit for Caputo’s ideas and boost her own career; Caputo is just that kind of well-meaning sucker and Linda, I think, is probably going to play out as a flat, 2-D villain for now. It would be nice if she could be as layered as Fig is, but we’ll see. The new guards are also a bit too two-dimensional to be interesting: frat boys telling rape jokes, saying racial slurs, and readily harassing and assaulting the inmates, only to end their shift and “scratch each other's balls and play Call of Duty: Guantanamo," to quote Officer McCullough. I think the show could be doing better here.

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Frida: I agree about Linda being a flat character and kind of unbelievable, she is too much of a cliché. Maybe it’s the point, but it is so boring to follow a character like that. Compared to Figueroa who, I think, was at least a believable type of person. McCullough seems decent but a little sneaky to me! I feel like she can either be pretty mean or one of the nicer guards, I guess we’ll see in further episodes. The other new COs are so horrible I’m even starting to miss Bell and O’Neill. Coates defending Gina was another strange situation, I was totally on his side with Luschek being a total asshole once again, but agreeing with that creep feels wrong.

Amanda: The Coates thing is kinda important, though, rapists aren’t giant monster caricatures running through the streets. If it weren’t for Boo, only Doggett would even know. And that’s a real thing that happens. Maritza’s flashback somehow makes me more and less worried about her. How she uses being deliberately off-putting so well. Which of course she has to, because she looks like a sweet little girl, so it’s very important to her that she doesn’t act like one. Unless it’s for a con.

Tova: I think Doggett’s honesty with Coates really made an impact, and if handled well it could develop into something truly interesting to watch: A man who listens, learns and changes for the better. I don't think Coates is going to turn into Feminist Prince Charming (that would make me kind of uncomfortable), but he might become a decent guard, with a better understanding of how his position and how his actions affect the inmates. I totally understand Frida’s unease at agreeing with someone like Doggett, but I think this might just be the other side of the coin to what we talked about last week. Thanks to humans being endlessly complicated, and patriarchal society messing us up in equally complicated ways, a "nice" guy can do bad things—and a creep can end up being the voice of reason. Like Amanda says, rapists are not constantly monsters. It would be so much easier if they were... Regarding Maritza: What are your thoughts on how she uses her looks to manipulate people, considering this is a fairly common trope with female characters in pop culture? 

Amanda: The fact that they did it is really tropey, but the way they did it seems less so. She’s not a complete seductress or anything, and she manages to show a certain amount of intent, even clumsiness (I skipped a lot of it my first watch because I was scared she’d get caught) which I personally haven’t seen in this particular way before. She doesn’t try to be charming when she’s being herself or not on the job, which I think matters. Related, her “hot in a Mean Dad way” friend somehow managed to reflect her grin? That way she holds her face, it might not be a grin, but whatever. It was one Grifter seeing another, and I loved it.

Adrian: I feel positive about how Maritza’s grifting origin has been written. OITNB has earned a certain level of trust from me over the past seasons and when Maritza grifts, she doesn’t come off as a tropey femme fatale. Everyone has a hustle, some less honest than others, and her flashback was silly fun. Maritza’s friendship with Flaca has skewed toward the light-hearted and I hope it stays that way. Officer Humphrey could take the creep factor to another level: he was on to Maritza’s con outside the guard cabins, but kept it to himself, and I’m afraid he’s going to leverage that against her soon.

Tova: Damn you’re right, of course he’s going to. On this show, guards gonna creep.
I hope she manages to handle him somehow, with a similar confidence as when responding to comments in the van (how awesome was that!?). I’d love Maritza’s storylines to stay light-hearted as well, but I’m wondering if this is an unrealistic wish.

Amanda: My favorite part of Maritza’s flashbacks is actually to compare them with how she is with Flaca. I’ve heard complaints that they don’t actually tell us more about who she is, but I like learning what her masks look like and seeing that she’s not wearing them with her friend now. CO Humphrey seems like a slow burning thing, I’m actually more worried about Dixon right now, he is all kinds of a problem these episodes.

Frida: I totally agree with all of you about Coates, they’re clearly making a point here about rapists and what they actually are (not monsters; regular men). I liked Maritza’s flashbacks! Yes, it was a little tropey maybe as you say but I think it was done in a realistic way. Maritza’s use of her appearance felt totally in control by her and how she handled the situations almost without mistakes. That thing with Humphrey will probably end up badly in one way or another, and it’s probably not going to be fun to watch. Yes, Dixon has just flashed out as the super-sexist horrible guard, and I think he will continue to evolve, unfortunately...

Tova: I had forgotten which of the guards it was who caught onto Maritza, and some googling now revealed to me it’s the one I think of as “the especially creepy one”. Yikes. To continue on the theme of Litchfield employees, how about Healy’s continued bonding with Lolly? I can’t figure out if I think he’s being helpful or mainly helping himself feel better - but I do know I appreciate the extra insight into Lolly. After the show humanized Suzanne, it felt like Lolly has been their new “crazy person”, and although she has a lot of character and personality within that, simply labeling her as crazy and using that for jokes or drama would have been disappointing. That description of her different prisons was amazing. The scene actually made me realize how underwhelming the rest of this season has been simply by virtue of being so good.

Adrian: I’m in “wait and see” mode when it comes to Healy and Lolly’s budding friendship, so I don’t have much to say about it yet, but my expectations aren’t high.

Amanda: I’ve heard from a real councilor about how Healy is doing an actually, technically horrible job, even aside from how awful about women/gays/everyone he is sometimes. And I can’t tell if they wrote this in on purpose, or if Lori Petty did it herself, but she’s definitely helping Healy more than he helps her, being his friend even. His new crazy friend. They also did a very good job at characterizing Suzanne and Lolly’s individual struggles; this wasn’t a copy-paste crazy role.

Frida: It felt kind of good when Healy “took care of” Lolly so that the others in the murder drama could relax for a moment. But it still felt wrong because, well, Healy. It’s clearly helping Healy more than Lolly as you say, but I still feel like she’s feeling a little better with the new company; she’s not having episodes of total paranoia as in earlier episodes. And yes her little monologue about different prisons was great and definitely humanizing her. I see the situation with Healy as Healy is using her, but she is feeling a little better for now, but that will probably not last long at all.

Amanda: That’s the thing, I want to like Healy so much, he seems like a grandpa, but he’s sort of the grandpa version of a man-child, so in the end I can’t. I see what you mean, though, in hoping Lolly could hide the murder by being an unreliable narrator

Tova: I get what you mean. And I think we can all forgive ourselves for not liking Healy (I might feel for him, but liking the man is a whole other thing). OITNB tends to mess with our expectations when it comes to which characters to sympathize with, so in the end I think it’s impossible to be “right” either way. I had just started appreciating Judy King, and then in episode 6 she essentially rapes Luschek. Which, by the way, also made me feel pretty uneasy about her “You don’t get to be the victim” line, and how much I loved it at the time. Because later she actually made him a victim. I’m not sure if the writers thought of that connection, but if they did I’m wondering what lesson they want us to take away from it all - that white, privileged men can be victims too? That’s obviously true, but it’s a strange point to make in the context of this show.

Frida: I was just enjoying Judy King and Luschek’s relationship and then that scene happened... Maybe I’m wrong but it felt like the show wanted it to come across as comic relief? I’m not entirely sure but the whole thing just felt strange. I totally agree with you that making a point like that is kind of odd for this show. But maybe they want us to focus more on how King uses her position and power in the situation?

Amanda: Frida, I’m right there with you on King/Luschek. Luschek is lazy, selfish, and weirdly mean sometimes, he really is a piece of shit, but they wrote his rape almost for laughs and I feel really not okay about it. After Coates raped Doggett last season I had to turn the show off and hold my then-girlfriend for a bit. But I actually missed Luschek’s scene the first time because I was so excited about Nichols coming back I skipped what I thought was a boring talking bit. It felt tacked on, and a little tacky.

Adrian: Judy King and Luschek never sat right with me. He’s a slob and something wasn't right about her befriending him, even given the circumstances, but now it's clear why. Judy King is not quite a charming manipulator, but a cheery, smiling dominator. She's capable of necessary subtlety, but most comfortable when exerting power over those weaker than her, which is precisely who she found in Luschek.

This is a thing wolves do: approach inquisitively, playfully, then strike when their prey is compromised. It's not surprising that wolves are so commonly associated with predatory men and rapists. Judy King might prove to be the show’s darkest and most nuanced villain to date. In a show where power dynamics are constantly explored, they've flipped the script in the biggest way since Daya and Pornstache (although Doggett and Big Boo drugging Coates is not to be dismissed).

I don’t think the writers are going for laughs or heavy-handed messages like “men are victims, too,” but rather than victimize another inmate, they’ve opted to keep us on our toes, and want us to consider power and coercion in a way we might be less used to seeing, that the show doesn’t explore as often.

Tova:  I got some comedic vibes from it as well, but it felt like the type of joke you'd laugh bitterly at, if at all. Maybe some people will even start off laughing, but then that laughter will get stuck in their throat (hopefully).

I figured King wanted to hang out with someone entertaining and chill, and that the prospect of special treatment didn’t hurt. Kudos to you Adrian for being more perceptive! You might be right about the show having a more sophisticated purpose - it just feels a little off coupled with the amount of time this episode spent on Luschek and his guilty conscience (too much in my opinion). And though I appreciate flipping of the script, I'm concerned it could lead the audience to believe a complete role-reversal is actually possible, and to forget about the larger systems of power we're all embedded in.

Continuing on this topic: King isn’t the only woman who commits some kind of sexual assault in this episode. Just a few minutes later, there’s Nicky and that female guard in max. What was your reaction to that scene, and to Nicky’s return in general? 

Frida: It was just so sad and depressing to watch that scene, I was just repeating “fuck drugs” in my head. It wasn’t too shocking, but I think they went a little fast from showing Nicky’s progress and then downfall, but I guess that’s typical with OITNB. When we met Nicky for the first time this season I wasn’t too hyped, but I actually think I just forgot her personality because now I’m excited she’s back! I’m curious to why she “really” went to that guard though, do you have any thoughts? I wonder what will happen in max, and of course I want to know what the hell happened to Sophia.

Amanda: I kinda saw where Nicky was headed when they confiscated her sobriety coin, if it had happened to anyone else it might have been cheesy, but the way she pretends it doesn’t matter and then immediately cares about it makes the scene. I was real glad that they brought Stella back for a cameo, and even gladder that Nicky just brushes her off no problem when it turns out Stella’s using again. She really was doing so well, even with Sophia, she can’t really do anything, but she manages a meaningful gesture.

Tova: Pretending she doesn’t care is classic Nicky. Not to go too far into amateur psychologist territory, but I wonder if that’s part of the reason she keeps falling back on drugs. I have one of these putting on a tough face to hide the fact that they’re scared and need help as much as anyone else people in my life, and I think one of the reasons they’ve been sober for the past 17 years is that they learned to let down their guard a bit, at least for a chosen few. Not that that’s always possible in prison — which would be another big chunk of the reason, just being stuck in that situation. I wonder if seeing Sophia’s cell like that might have been the tipping point. It surely didn’t inspire much hope in me!

I think we’ve talked about most of our favourite (and favourite-to-hate) characters now!
In the two previous roundtables we’ve largely ignored Piper, following a long and proud tradition of people all over the world who recognize her as possibly the least interesting out of all main and recurring characters on the whole show. Unfortunately, in these episodes Piper more or less forces us to acknowledge her existence, by a) taking down Maria to save her own business/ass, and b) accidentally starting a Litchfield Nazi gang. So... How about that? And do you have any theories about what the hell Piper is thinking?

Amanda: The initial thought I had here was that it seemed unlikely Piper wouldn’t hear Piscatella’s really obviously gang forming way of proposing the idea to her. When the Lead Nazi joins her on her run and calls her ‘sister,’ though--and Piper shies away from her like their brand of racism isn’t one of the actual consequences of Piper’s own gentler, WASPier, authority-backed brand of racism--it felt pretty accurate. And the look on Maria’s face, when she says she’ll bury Piper, actually expresses better than Piper’s awkward facial expressions, just how bad she fucked up here.

Adrian: Piper’s foray into black markets has been well-considered. It started fun, became cutthroat, and finally reality has hit. Piper had me riding shotgun, complicit in her misadventures, anxiously hoping for the best. Now, the more vulnerable members of Litchfield are paying the price for Piper's experimentation, while she evades culpability.

This isn't a simple frame job. It's a direct example of how white privilege works in Piper's favor, even when she doesn't explicitly invoke it: Piscatella finds Piper harmless, so he doesn't treat her sycophancy with suspicion. The COs don't feel threatened by a congress of white prisoners, even as they are for all intents and purposes, a gang. And despite being a racketeer and gang leader (however unintentional that promotion was), Piper can choose to shed herself of that persona, while Maria is forever branded and punished with three years added to her sentence. Sadly, rather than keep her head down, Maria’s decided to “go legit” and start selling real, illegal contraband. When people are consistently told they’re bad, they begin to believe it, and act accordingly.

Frida: I agree that we definitely see white privilege in action here. Piper is using it to her advantage of course but I’m not sure she understood what she created! She looked sincerely shocked, I’m curious about if she will shake this off or use her new power anyway. I really like how this story is going though, at first this whole conflict with Maria felt a little boring but it’s getting more interesting now! I just loved how Hapakuka slowly exited the room in total holy shit-ness. The whole situation is just so typical Piper, which makes it hilarious to me.

Tova: Typical Privileged Piper! I want to add that the Nazi song from Cabaret (Tomorrow belongs to me) that plays over the last scene and end credits of episode 5 is an exceptional use of music on a TV show. The song has racism and entitlement! For a few seconds the two scenes even seem to mirror each other visually:

I just hope the tomorrow of Orange Is The New Black doesn't belong to Piper and her new blond friends.

Favourite quotes

Adrian: "You are a straight, white man. You don't get to be the victim, sweetie."

Frida: “A poopxibitionist”

Tova: “Now we come to the point in our journey where it’s time for you to think about someone other than yourself.”

Amanda: “I am a Cleaning Porter, as my giant accomplice here might indicate”

Adrian Martinez is a graphic designer, comic book letterer, hobbyist writer, and all-around geek living in New York City.

Tova Crossler Ernström is a bisexual Swede, feminist, socialist, INFJ, Hufflepuff, HSP and Taurus. She is fond of personality tests, labels and lists.

Frida Berntson is a Swedish cultural studies and art history student, art blogger and lover of all things geekdom; especially tv, movies and youtube.

Amanda Ling is an American who’s never lived further east than AZ, and has much too much free time to overthink television.