By now we’ve grown used to popular series adopting certain genre styles for single episodes (Buffy’s “Once More with Feeling” or Community’s “Modern Warfare,” for example), but I really didn’t see it coming on Orange is the New Black. “The Tightening” takes on a slasher-style format, with Piscatella (Brad William Henke) creeping through the halls unseen, chloroforming all the women closest to Red (Kate Mulgrew) before tying them up and duct-taping their mouths shut in the janitor’s quarters. Given the location, it works: the long, dark prison hallways and their flickering lights offer the perfect backdrop for Piscatella’s torturous tendencies, and with the added effect of creepy phone pranks and Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza’s (Diane Guerrero) accidental homage to The Shining’s spooky twins, the damning atmosphere is set.
So far this season, the humorous aspects of OITNB haven’t interfered with the gravity of the situation too much. And if they did, it felt like a purposeful decision to do so. But by turning the guards into singing and dancing hostages in “Litchfield’s Got Talent” and Piscatella into a psychotic caricature in “The Tightening,” the balance between social commentary and comic effect is getting lost. The violent and degrading scenarios that played out under Piscatella’s supervision in Season Four were frighteningly believable, as were the reactions of the affected prisoners. I’d like to believe that the previous season opened the eyes of many oblivious viewers as to how flawed the prison system really is. By introducing a host of sadistic, undertrained and ego-tripping assholes and calling them guards, the show sent a powerful message. By employing these stylistic choices in “The Tightening,” however, the credibility of the Piscatella vs. Litchfield storyline is undermined.
It’s a shame. I’ve enjoyed the limited (but loaded) Piscatella moments in Season Five thus far. Pinterest-worthy snapshots of Piscatella’s life outside of prison suggest that there’s a softer part hidden deep inside that intimidating build, but at this stage I imagine it’s been sucked into a black hole of rage. He’s lost all power over the Litchfield situation and finds himself having to answer to his superiors’ commands. They continuously ridicule him and his new, clean-shaven look only adds extra fodder. This is the first time we recognize a vulnerable side to Piscatella, but you can see it in his eyes: He’s not going to go home and cry about it. As clichéd as it may sound, these types of schoolyard-bullying tactics shaped his need to prove himself as a man and an authority figure.
Red, whose “hot flashes are having hot flashes” now that she’s trying to kick her new amphetamine friends, finally comes to understand what Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) went through with her countless drug withdrawals. The role reversal is not lost on either of them, and Nicky’s opportunity to finally give back brings them even closer. When she insists on getting Red a cold compress, her adoptive mother begs her to stay, to no avail. She disappears into the prison halls, never to return. Upon realizing she hasn’t seen Blanca (Laura Gómez) in quite some time either, Red springs into action, determined to find her girls. She’s at a loss when she finds a hand-drawn map to Frieda’s hideout. Studying it, she is convinced there is a relationship between this secret place and the disappearance of her friends, and sets out to find them—armed with a frying pan.
When Red finally reaches the room marked on the map she is horrified to find Flores, Nicky, Boo (Lea DeLaria), Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) unconscious and bound. Before she can do much, Piscatella appears behind her. She puts up a fight, but she has no chance against him. She pleads for him to let her girls go, happy to sacrifice her own life for them, but that would just take away the fun for Piscatella, who lets it be known he likes an audience.
In “Reverse Midas Touch,” we follow a younger, susceptible Piscatella entering the prison world as a guard. I suppose many professions viewed as reserved for men come with a fair share of homophobic attitudes, but any job that involves a locker room and the mentalities that usually go with it is a whole different beast. Add to that an environment charged with high levels of frustrated testosterone, in which perceived weaknesses are immediately preyed upon, and it’s clear why Piscatella was adamant to stick to his role as the friendly, no-shit-taking guard. Upon meeting Wes Driscoll (Charlie Barnett), a sweet, quiet inmate who tends to keep to himself and shares Piscatella’s passion for crossword puzzles, however, it becomes harder for him to keep up his act.
Piscatella is besotted with him, and the feeling seems to be mutual, although it’s not entirely clear whether Wes may have had ulterior motives—after all, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to have a guard on your side. All is well as can be in their budding romance until they’re caught by an inmate in a moment of unbridled affection. Soon after, Piscatella finds Wes surrounded by a group of inmates, naked, beaten and raped. The inmates offer him a “turn,” promising him that they have “loosened him up real good.” There is no mention of what happened to Wes following the attack, but we already know what happened to the main culprit, Rosado—he did not survive Piscatella’s wrath.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone reacted to this sort of trauma in that manner, but to pin Piscatella’s lust for violence and the degradation of prisoners entirely on this incident seems far-fetched. In a conversation with Wes, he alludes to mommy issues, brought on by her reluctance to accept him for who he is. Pair these underlying insecurities with his male chauvinist attitude and his continuing need to prove himself in a world ruled by machismo, and the emotional torture he inflicts on Red starts making sense. By chopping off her hair, removing her make-up and further humiliating her in front of her helpless girls, he strips her of her femininity to prove his manliness.
Things aren’t looking too good for Red and her girls. But, as I had eagerly anticipated—it’s Frieda to the motherfucking rescue!
Read all of Paste’s reviews of Orange Is the New Black Season Five here.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.