This review contains spoilers from episodes five and six of
Orange is the New Black
, Season Four.
When “We’ll Always Have Baltimore” fades to orange, as “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” starts to play, Kander and Ebb’s imitation of a Nazi anthem marks the installation of the prison’s new Reich. Piper Chapman, the Donald Trump of the detention center, stares out at the white supremacists she’s brought under her sway as if troubled by their cries of “White Pride,” but the song’s premonition, here as in Cabaret, is of the will to power run amok. After all, Community Carers may not have begun as a racist organization, but its creation is cynical in the extreme. Piper’s in search of a leg up on Maria’s competing panty ring, and her campaign to Make Litchfield Great Again is just the dog-whistle she needs. “The morning will come/When the world is mine,” the lyrics promise. “Tomorrow belongs to me!”
With this frankly ingenious turn of events—the scene of the season so far—Orange Is the New Black dips its toes in presidential politics, and though “Piece of Shit” shifts its focus elsewhere, the song’s gathering storm is now on the horizon. As with Trump, Piper’s appeal to racial animus is rank opportunism, but among her supporters, tattooed with swastikas and Confederate flags, hatred itself is a foundational principle. Even Piscatella, who calls the developer of the discredited “broken windows theory” a “hero,” barely bothers to hide his prejudice against Litchfield’s Latina population—he equates their very presence with the term “gang.” (“This is straight-up profiling,” a member of Maria’s operation says, referring to the guards’ regime of bunk searches and pat-downs.) Piper, as thin-skinned as the presumptive GOP nominee, bristles at Boo’s suggestion that the rest of the inmates now loathe her, but her craven plan nonetheless succeeds in short-circuiting Maria’s nascent venture: When she’s caught with contraband skivvies, Piscatella summarily adds three to five years to her sentence.
That the neglect of wardens and their corporate overlords allow these warring factions to thrive is clear enough from Linda and Caputo’s excursion to Baltimore, where conferees slurp up “Prison Slop Fully Prepared” (i.e. ice cream) and treat any amenities beyond the bare minimum as luxuries fit for the “Four Seasons.” It’s not surprising that the staff should discriminate against inmates. It’s policy—and after the War on Drugs, “immigration violations,” per the title of one panel, is “the next goldmine.” (Shane Bauer’s extraordinary account of four months as a guard in a Louisiana correctional facility, published this week by Mother Jones, suggests that Orange Is the New Black comes closer to the truth of private prisons than one might’ve assumed.) In essence, mass incarceration is Trumpism in reverse (but with similar effect), fencing people of color in, rather than walling them out.
For those under Litchfield’s thumb—or, for that matter, society’s—the only options are to accept, resist, or slyly circumvent the rules of the game, and Maritza, with her experience as a con artist, chooses the latter. Though the flashbacks in “We’ll Always Have Baltimore” don’t dovetail with its thematic thrust quite as clearly as Soso’s activism and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” there’s a nice back-and-forth between her earlier escapades (spilled “vodka,” stolen cars) and her attempt to smuggle an assortment of panties out of the prison; in each case, she uses sex, and her seeming weakness, to carry off the ruse. Maritza’s not too soft to step on a guy’s balls, though: “You know what gets me so hot, is when guys compare me to breakfast,” she says in response to a guard’s lewd remark. “And when they talk about me like I’m not here. How about you call me ‘that oatmeal in the front seat’ and I’ll be so yours?”
Her humiliation of the man in front of his colleagues points to the fact that dominance is never total, and in “Piece of Shit” the inmates’ opposition to those in power bubbles to the surface. (As Judy explains to Luschek, the turd of the title, “You are a straight white man. You don’t get to be the victim, sweetie.” Amen!) The problem, of course, the hour’s dark heart, is that the prisoners are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Nicky may gain a modicum of satisfaction from scrawling abusive notes to Luscheck and sending them up the hill, but in the face of Sophia’s plight it seems a small gesture, similar to slipping a magazine under a cell’s red door. This isn’t to undersell Nicky’s act of kindness, but rather to suggest the consequences of pitting prisoners against each other: To aid another inmate, at Litchfield, is often to risk harm to oneself, turning life inside into a zero-sum game.
By the time Nicky is dispatched to clean Sophia’s blood from the floor, the series arrives at the notion that the aforementioned options aren’t options at all, that dominance need not be total to be destructive. Though Sophia’s fate remains unclear, her actions to this point indicate that she saw self-harm as her only escape route, and I’m uncomfortable calling this a form of resistance—it’s too bleak, too dire, a thought. The same might be said of Nicky’s preferred form of escape, especially after three years sober. After demurring to Sophia’s request for help, it’s understandable that she decides to use again, but it’s a choice so constrained by circumstance it feels as though it’s made by someone else, someone broken, a shadow of the Nicky we knew. It’s made by someone who’s told, “It works if you work it,” but she cannot even keep the symbol of that work. It’s made, in short, by a woman whose options have been winnowed to the vanishing point by an authoritarian system: In Orange Is the New Black, the inmates’ tomorrow always belongs to someone else.
Other thoughts and quotes from these episodes:
Suzanne’s list of things that are better than being famous is A++: “Pizza; daisies; smelly markers; any animal; a really good dream; a warm bath; picking a booger, a dry one; pizza; graham crackers and ice cream sandwiches; the feeling you get when you make a really good joke and someone laughs in a nice way, not a mean one.” (Same, Suzanne. Same.)
Lolly’s conversations with Healy continue, and she reiterates this season’s attention to more informal forms of dominance: “I got a lot of prisons in my life, sir.”
The topsy-turvy relationship between Abdullah and Black Cindy finally reaches a detente in “Piece of Shit.” Though they’re now allies in the plan to sell photos of Judy to the tabloids, it’s fitting, that the two women also bond because they have an enemy in common—Scientology. Going Clear, FTW!