How Orange Is the New Black Fails Taystee’s Fight Against the System

(Episodes 5.11 and 5.12)

TV Reviews Orange Is the New Black
How Orange Is the New Black Fails Taystee’s Fight Against the System

I figured I’d borrow a line from Taystee (Danielle Brooks) to catch you up on all the crazy shit that happened while Frieda (Dale Soules), Red (Kate Mulgrew) and company dealt with Piscatella (Brad William Henke) in their cushy little hideout. So here goes: “Previously on the fucked-up prison channel,” Gloria (Selenis Leyva), whose son is still in ICU, made a deal with MCC. In return for releasing the hostages and risking getting lynched by her fellow inmates, she is to be granted furlough. She has schmoozed her way onto the guard watch run by Pidge (Miriam Morales) and Quija (Rosal Cólon) and proves herself as a promising intern in “Breaking the Fiberboard Ceiling,” by way of inflicting mental torture tactics on the hostages—though, admittedly, they probably aren’t quite as bad as Zirconia’s (Daniella De Jesús) forcing them to watch the classic “2 Girls, 1 Cup” without looking away.

Gloria confesses to her deal with MCC to Ruiz, momentarily forgetting that she is also a mother aching to get back to her kid. And like any mother, she will do anything to make it happen sooner rather than later—even if it means ruining Gloria’s only chance at furlough. No one is quite ready to question the “mixed morality” of their actions. With the negotiations leaning towards a positive conclusion, there is still a tiny shred of hope to cling to—the hope of a better future for the inmates and, subsequently, their children.

In focusing scenes outside the prison (usually reserved for inmate flashbacks) on the women’s children, Orange Is the New Black injects “Breaking the Fiberboard Ceiling” with a much-needed bite of reality. Thus far, we’ve only ever really gotten the perspective of incarcerated mothers helplessly trying to fit into their children’s worlds from behind barbed wire fences, but in presenting us with their sons and daughters’ reactions to the ongoing riot, the audience is reminded of just how much the imprisonment of a loved one affects all involved.

If the children weren’t aware of the abysmal conditions their mothers are forced to live in, they sure as hell are aware now. And while it’s important for these stories to be made public via gruesome videos of Piscatella breaking Alex’s (Laura Prepon) arm on YouTube, when it comes to the inmates’ children, I wish they could have been spared these images. There’s truly nothing worse than being forced to sit helplessly by, knowing your parent is suffering through a situation you cannot resolve.

Taystee (Danielle Brooks) has now spent twelve long hours negotiating the Litchfield ladies’ list of demands with Figueroa (Alysia Reiner). She handles the negotiation with the skills of a seasoned lawyer and activist, and shuts Figueroa’s bureaucratic bullshit down with proven facts and studies until there’s practically nothing left for her to say. In many ways, Taystee takes her fight for Poussey and against the system more seriously than the series itself does. Throughout this season, she has been the only one to remain 100% focused on the cause at hand, without allowing herself to get distracted by the chaos and funny business surrounding her. If it hadn’t been for Taystee, Season Five’s message would have been buried under the pleading sobs of poo-bound hostages and pill-popping and gun-wielding madness.

Brooks’ exceptional performance ensures that Taystee is heard loud and clear: Each argument she offers to counter Fig’s, each example of racial profiling, poor healthcare, sexism and violence she presents, reflects the real-life conversations we continue to have, the protests we continue to march in, the tears we continue to cry.

The same can be said of Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne, who represents the myriad of vulnerable inmates who were failed not only by the prison system, but by society at large. Trapped in a tumultuous situation without the tools or the medicine to help her process it all on her own terms, her psychosis reaches uncontrollable levels. Words fail to express just how riveting Aduba’s portrayal is—she has brought to life a character so sweetly complex, kind, lovable and tormented by her own mind that I often have to remind myself that she is indeed a character.

In a recent interview with Paste, Adrienne C. Moore, who plays Cindy Hayes on OITNB, discussed the importance of empathy to truly embrace a role. This ability to channel a character’s emotional journeys is very much apparent in Cindy’s storyline this season. I was happy to see her taking on the maternal role in Taystee’s absence, especially given that she is finally coming to grips with the consequences of having abandoned her own daughter. In a most telling scene, Cindy comforts Suzanne by singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and stroking her hair, and while she’s physically present in the moment, you can tell her heart is elsewhere: She is thinking about all the hair-stroking, lullaby-singing opportunities she missed out on with her own daughter, who is still under the impression Cindy is her sister.

Taystee clearly found her calling as Litchfield’s unofficial representative and, for a split second, she experiences a moment of triumph when Fig informs her that the governor has agreed to meet all the demands within their jurisdiction—CO Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) not being one of them. She is faced with a tough decision: Continue fighting for the one demand that has not yet been met and risk losing out on the chance to change the future of many, or pick her battles and find peace with what she has achieved thus far.

Given the fact that she hasn’t slept in days and has not had the chance to properly mourn her best friend, I see why she would tell Fig and Caputo to fuck off until all demands are met. It’s not until she is informed of the hostages having been released unbeknownst to her that she realizes she’s made a big mistake. But before she can rectify it, an army of officers in riot gear storms the prison, and the screen turns orange.

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.

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