“Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison…It’s coming face-to-face with who you really are. Because once you’re behind these walls there’s nowhere to run, even if you could run. The truth catches up with you in here…and it’s the truth that’s going to make you her bitch.”
HELLO INTERNET. My name is Hillary. I like serialized storytelling and bulleted lists and I’ll be your Orange is the New Black recapper for the forseeable future. What I’m doing here is a crash course in season 1, to catch up the die-hards and hopefully draw in newbies before season 2 begins on Friday, and the regular recaps start.
I’m gonna give a whole post to the first episode, because it has a lot of relevant table setting, and smush the rest of the episodes into two or three posts – we’ll just have to check in with characters, see how their plots are moving along, note their flashbacks, maybe engage in a little light speculation. Now, ready? AWESOME.
A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORICAL CONTEXT:
Ladies-in-prison stories are old hat at this point. Most notably, they were a fixture of lesbian pulp novels in the 50s, which were totally a thing (A DOPE AS HELL thing you should all be aware of, def read a couple then come talk with me about them). But a lot of those novels, as well as many other women’s prison narratives, were often written by men, for the titillation of other men. Maybe they did tell compelling stories about women in a pressure-cooker environment, but that was secondary to the smutty stuff.
Skip over several decades of lady prison stories I don’t know as much about (gimme a break here) and now we have Netflix, desperate to be taken seriously as a creator of quality binge-able tv-style media content. And Jenji Kohan, who you might recognize as the former showrunner for Showtime’s suburban-mom-as-pot-dealer dramedy Weeds. They produce the wildly popular Orange is the New Black in 2013, which follows privileged convict Piper as she navigates Litchfield, a women’s prison in upstate New York.
OITNB’s selling point for a certain set of viewers (a set to which I enthusiastically belong) is its hugely diverse cast of women – plenty of women of color, queer women, queer women of color…a decent chunk of the spectrum that we don’t generally see on the small screen, or the large one for that matter. There’s even a non-sex worker role for a Black trans woman ?! Weird. It’s almost like people enjoy watching TV shows that don’t star angsty white dudes with dead girlfriends who have intense relationships with each other. (Do you hear me, network execs?) (No, you do not. On the internet, no one can hear you scream.)
One good criticism I’ve read about this storytelling dynamic is related to our heroine – a privileged, wealthyish white lady (she is queer, but that’s a complicated discussion for another time). By using her as our POV character, the narrative creates a subtle othering effect with regards to the characters of color, and those coming from lower income backgrounds, and implies the need for their stories to be “legitimized” through a white lens. That’s definitely something I’d like to keep in perspective as I move forward with this recap, although, full disclosure, I am a white lady myself, so there’s only so much I can do in that area without swerving out of my lane.
ON TO THE SHOW
“I’ve always loved getting clean,” a voiceover tells us over the soothing opening strains of the Staple Singers’ “I Know a Place.” We watch a conventionally pretty white/blonde human grows up in a series of baths – baby-in-sink followed by kid-in-bubble-bath followed by adult-making funny-business-with-a-smokin’-hot-lady followed by adult-making-funny-business-with-less-hot-dude.
WHOOOOOOMP. Smash cut to a slightly grodier shower head, pan down to the same lady, recoiling and looking at the water pouring from the aforementioned like its sewage (it isn’t, for the record). This is our erstwhile heroine, Piper (Taylor Schilling). She comes off a little like an amalgamation of liberal, bourgeois-bohemian white person stereotypes. As time goes on, we will learn that this is exactly the case. Another woman, Black, clad in a baggy housecoat thing, is urging her to finish up. She does, and pulls open the shower curtain, nipples peaking around the edge of her modesty towel.
“Damn, you got some nice titties!” the other lady enthuses. “You got them TV titties! They stand up on they own, all perky and everything.” Piper is uncomfortable and I’m enjoying it, not even completely in a malicious way.
Walking away, Piper sneaks a peak down at her “TV tits” and allows herself a small smile. I warm to her slightly, as I have also been known to derive comfort from my breasts and the mere fact of their existence in times of trouble. They’re like cuddly little pets that can never leave you. In the background, Piper’s tit-appreciator is singing her own rendition of “I Know a Place,” and doing a damn fine job of it.
THEME SONG TIME: “You’ve Got Time” by Regina Spektor
This is aggressive for Spektor – more Riot Grrl lite than twinkly-piano-and-cutesy-French choruses. It feels weird. I’M INTO IT. Super close-up shots of female faces – either just the eyes or just the lips. Already, we’re seeing a wider range of women than most series will show in their entire run, in terms of both age and race. We’re seeing them in merciless minute detail: wrinkles, piercings, glasses, freckles, varying amounts of makeup, tattoos. Thousand-yard stares, curled lips. It’s flat-out gorgeous, I’m head over heels in love. The rest of the show can bomb, at least I have this. All is right with the world.
Cut to something labeled a “roasting box,” and two dudes discussing it. Silverman from Saving Silverman and a British one. “So there’s an entire pig in there?” Brit is asking. Silverman, who we’ll learn is Piper’s fiancé, responds and I DON’T CAAAAARE CAN WE HAVE THE THEME SONG AGAIN PLEASE but no, they persist in both talking and not being lady prisoners. Shot of Piper drinking a beer, talking to a pregnant woman, her best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia). This is her “going away” party. There are a few more scenes of Piper’s life on the outside, preparing to go away – Piper and Silverman getting ready to have their last schtup for 15 months, the two of them driving upstate so she can surrender, their fraught goodbye before she heads inside.
All you need to get from this is that Piper is a little neurotic and self-absorbed, but largely well-intentioned, and she’s played by a pretty solid actress. Also that Silverman (FINE. Larry, played by Jason Biggs) is boring and irritating.
I do not like Silverman.
NOW, as Piper gets processed and sent to her new home, we get introduced to the rest of our lovely supporting cast. ROLE CALL, IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE:
- Lorna Morello (Yael Stone): Youngish, white, hell of a New York accent. She’s apparently trusted to drive the prison van. Planning her wedding to fiancé “Christaphuh.” Friendly to Piper because “we look out for our own,” i.e. white people. “It’s tribal, not racist.”
- Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy): Even younger, Black. All we know about her for the moment is that she’s kinda sullen and prickly.
- Dayanara “Daya” Diaz (Dascha Polanco): Watson’s age, maybe. Latina. Upon arriving in the compound, a middle-aged lady approaches and slaps her across the face. This is her mother, Aleida.
- “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber): 30-something correctional officer, owner of an unpleasant mustache. Swears a lot. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as indicated by a Southern(?) accent of the type used by Northern actors trying to convey dull wits.
- John Bennett (Matt McGorry): Another CO. Younger, cuter, more generally pleasant. Not too much smarter.
- Sam Healy (Michael Harney): 50ish dude, Piper’s counselor. Seems to like her, tries to comfort her. Has a weird fixation on lesbians (“They’ll try to be your friend. Just stay away from them.”) Don’t trust him.
- “Yoga” Jones (Constance Shulman): White, middle aged. Teaches yoga. (If she sounds familiar, it’s because she voiced Patt Mayonaise on Doug)
- Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva): Middle-aged, Latina. Calls Daya a “fucking coconut” when she doesn’t understand Spanish.
- Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne): Youngish, white. Just got out of solitary for telling a CO to kiss her ass. ‘Nother conspicuous NY accent, and I’m starting to feel like I’m at a family reunion. She has big hair, therefore I like her.
- Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler): Oldish, white. Nun (?!)
Things now get marginally plot-y-er, so I shall abandon the list format.
Piper sits down across “Yoga” Jones and a few others in the cafeteria. Yoga shares an elaborate metaphor about Buddhist monks who create elaborate sand mandalas, then wipe them away. That’s how Piper should look at her time in prison – try to make something meaningful, then forget it all when you’re finished. Not a bad sentiment, but the delivery is very white-person-who-feels-they’ve-reached-enlightenment-via-cultural-appropriation. I wait for the show to call her out somehow, but it doesn’t happen.
Someone named Red appears at the head of the table and slides cups of yogurt to a few of them, including Piper. “Thank you, mommy,” Nicky mutters (“maternal figurehead,” she’ll clarify). At this point, my fellow Trekkies will be clutching their fat little fists to their mouth in joy. IT’S CAPTAIN JANEWAY (Kate Mulgrew). PLAYING A GRUFF RUSSIAN-ACCENTED AUTHORITY FIGURE. My pulse, it quickens.
Feeling companionable, Piper whispers, “The food here is disgusting.” Round of reaction shots – everyone’s looking like she just professed an admiration for Stalin or Macklemore or something.
Turns out Red runs the kitchen.
“Honey. I know you just got here, so you don’t know what’s what. Well, I’m gonna tell you,” Red says. “You don’t like the food? It’s no problem.” She leaves. It appears there’s going to be some sort of problem.
Next, Piper heads to prison counselor Caputo’s office on Morello’s advice, and manages to wrangle a phone call with a few crocodile tears (that probably, under the circumstances, ain’t so crocodile). She has a quick, desperate conversation with Silverman, vomiting up random chunks of what’s happened so far through her tears. Silverman encourages her. We don’t really learn anything new. Just bringing this up because I thought it was important to mention how when she leaves, Caputo tells her to close the door behind her, and drags out a giant bottle of lotion and starts unzipping his pants. Well.
Cut to the bathroom. Nicky is eating Morello out in the shower, just out in the open, like it’s no big thing. She makes eye contact with Piper. Piper leaves quickly. Come on Piper, don’t make it weird.
Cut to the lunch line. A tall lady tells her that she has pretty hair, and that Piper should come to her when her roots are showing and also stay away from Danita, who will burn the shit out of your scalp. This, we will learn, is Sophia Burset, played by the esteemed and inimitable Laverne Cox. I obviously love her, and we’ll be talking about her much more later on.
The lady behind the counter gives Piper a tray made especially for her. Because Piper is an idiot, she thinks this is a gesture of kindness. Back at her table, she unwraps the lone sandwich presented. There’s a tampon in it. Uproarious laughter. Piper runs outside to get some air, panting, panicking collapsing against a brick wall
“Maybe this is a bad time to say hi.” This comes from a tall, foxy brunette in Elvis Costello glasses, Alex Vause. Shit.
FLASHBACKS: This show is waaaaayy heavy on FLASHBACKS– they’re used to flesh out character back stories, and give us a little breathing room, a break from the claustrophobic, monotonous atmosphere of Litchfield. Here’s what we learn about Piper in this episode via FLASHBACKS:
- She’s from an uptight, waspy family
- She used to date a foxy lady with a sketchy job, the aforementioned Alex Vause
- Said fox had her move some drug money in Europe while they were involved, about 10 years ago. That’s why Piper is serving time. expect DRAMA.
- Yadda, yadda, more stuff with Silverman.
And THERE’S THE FIRST EPISODE. Like I said, I’ll be doing another two or three posts to cover the rest of the series, hopefully a little cleaner, hopefully with more pictures.