Orange is the New Black Season 5: Thumbs Up vs. Thumbs Down

Orange is the New Black season 5 was both an emotional thrill ride and a disappointment. I want to discuss my likes and dislikes about the latest season. This is not a detailed review. There might be a few spoilers along the way. Continue reading “Orange is the New Black Season 5: Thumbs Up vs. Thumbs Down”

Orange is the New Black’s Damning Portrait of For-Profit Prisons

There are a lot of things wrong with the United States of America. The broken justice (injustice) system is one of the worst. In season 4 of Orange is the New Black, the for-profit aspect of that brokenness is explored in damning detail. Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison, is turned into a battlefield with corporate greed directing the battle. There are spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen all of season 4. Continue reading “Orange is the New Black’s Damning Portrait of For-Profit Prisons”

Orange is the New Black: Musings and Observations

Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is on everyone’s mind now. I’ve barely had time to watch it all. This post collects some random observations and stray musings on season 4. It is not meant to be a review of the season, but there are some spoilers.  Continue reading “Orange is the New Black: Musings and Observations”

3 Themes in Season 3 of Orange is the New Black

Season 3 of Orange is the New Black returns again and again to several themes. My big 3 are the difficulties of maintaining a family while in prison, the need for some sort of spiritual hope, and the need for love.

If you haven’t watched all of season 3 yet, there are spoilers ahead.

Parents in Prison

Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dascha Polanco in Orange is the New Black

Pregnant prisoner Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) struggled for most of the season with what to do with her baby. Her mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is in prison, too. Aleida is a terrible parent – the worst! – but she tries to guide Daya to a good decision.

Daya hopes the baby’s father, Correctional Officer John Bennett (Matt McGorry), will step up and take the baby, but Bennett isn’t up to the challenge.

Daya reported another Correctional Officer, the horrible “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) as the rapist who got her pregnant. Now she’s living with the lie.

Mary Steenberger in Orange is the New Black

Pornstache’s mother Delia (Mary Steenburgen) wants to adopt the child. Alida loves this idea because it means money. Even after Daya tells Delia the truth about whose baby it is, Delia wants it. Daya wobbles back and forth between wanting to give her baby to Delia and wanting to keep it in the family. The decision she finally makes feels right, but ends in disaster.

In other story lines about families, the character Maria (Jessica Pimentel) is dealt a painful parenting blow from her little girl’s father. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) struggles to keep her teen on the straight and narrow. Sophia (Laverne Cox) has some especially hard parenting problems.

The fact is, most women in prison have children, over half of them under the age of 18. Because of changes in sentencing laws during the war on drugs, the number of parents of minor children in prison increased by 79% between 1991 and 2007. Orange is the New Black can’t take us through story lines about the long term effects of so many mothers being locked away, so many broken families, but the series does its best to bring the problem to the front.

Think about Big Boo’s (Lea DeLaria) comments on the book Freakonomics about the number of unwanted children being reduced by Roe vs. Wade resulting in fewer neglected and abused children turning to crime 20 years later. Flip that on its head and ask yourself what the result of harsh drug sentencing laws that sent thousands of mothers to prison for minor drug crimes will be in 20 years.

Faith & Religion

Annie Golden as Norma annoints an inmate played by Danielle Herbert.

Norma (Annie Golden) is at the center of one of the crazy rumor-driven stories in the prison. Some of the prisoners decide she is holy. Since she doesn’t speak, she simply smiles and pats them on the shoulder when they suggest this. They think she’s blessing them, and eventually she starts enjoying the attention and begins to act like the guru she followed as a younger woman. Everyone wants something to hang on to, some spiritual hope, and Norma is it for the moment.

A second plot line around religion involves the discovery that if you ask for a kosher meal, you get better food. Many of the inmates start asking for kosher food. Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) wants to learn enough about being Jewish to pass the test when they ask her why she should be eating kosher.

Cindy starts off on her Jewish experience watching Woody Allen movies but soon turns to an actual study of the faith. By the last episode, she has been accepted as Jewish by other Jews and even experiences a mikveh, or total immersion in water, as a symbol of her new identity as a Jew.

The Need for Love

Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon in a scene from Orange is the New Black

Was it love that made Piper (Taylor Schilling) rat on Alex (Laura Prepon) in season 2, so she would be back in Litchfield Prison in season 3? Whatever the case, they reunite with hate-sex that involves lots of slapping, shoving and biting. Piper eventually asks Alex to be her official girlfriend. Alex says yes. Then the new inmate Stella (Ruby Rose) catches Piper’s eye and official girlfriends don’t seem so important.

Uzo Aduba and Emily Althaus in Orange is the New Black

They had to burn all the books because of bedbugs. Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) fills the gap in reading material when she writes crazy sci-fi porn and passes it around the prison. She gets fans! She has readers! Prisoners are desperate for any kind of love and/or romance they can find, and Suzanne provides them with a semblance of a love story. One fan in particular, Maureen (Emily Althaus), really wants to connect with her idol Crazy Eyes. Suzanne doesn’t know how to act around the idea of having a real girlfriend, not a dandelion. In the last episode, Suzanne and Maureen make tentative but thrilling contact.

Samira Wiley and Kimiko Glenn in a scene from Orange is the New Black

Poussey (Samira Wiley) is so lonely and love-starved that she stays drunk on her homebrew most of season 3. Soso (Kimiko Glenn) is lonely, rejected, friendless, and depressed most of season 3.  Something happens that brings these two closer and may be the much needed relationship they both lack.

The loyalties, the friendships, the “families” that form inside prison help people retain their sanity. Maria points out in the first episode, “Mother’s Day,” once people get released, they forget their prison friends. Yet, while inside, the need to feel connected, to be seen and understood by at least one other human being, does not go away. Crazy Eyes even says it out loud, “People need love.”

In addition to this big 3 list, season 3 of Orange is the New Black also deals with the idea of for-profit prisons and the lack of mental health care for inmates. It does all this while still managing to be funny, character driven drama of the highest order. It’s changing American culture, one story at a time.

Note: This post was syndicated at BlogHer.com.

Orange is the New Black: Sent to SHU

Two of our favorite characters on Orange is the New Black spend time in the segregated housing unit (SHU) in season 3.

Season 3 spoilers ahead.

According to a recent report on solitary confinement, the practice of solitary confinement is overused and ineffective.

. . . evidence mounts that solitary confinement produces many unwanted and harmful outcomes—for the mental and physical health of those placed in isolation, for the public safety of the communities to which most will return, and for the corrections budgets of jurisdictions that rely on the practice for facility safety.

Nicky

Natasha Lyonne as NIcky in Orange is the New Black

Remember the bags of Vee’s heroin that Nicky hid in the vent in the laundry? Yeah. That heroin. Well, Nicky and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) decide to get it out of the prison. Luschek (Matt Peters) will help them and will sell it in the outside world. They plan to use the tunnel that opens into the greenhouse.

That plan falls through. Nicky gets nervous and moves the bags into a fluorescent light housing in the laundry. It falls out. The girls in the laundry get stoned on it. Luschek gets all the remaining heroin from them, puts it in a toolbox with Nicky watching, and carries it out of the prison.

Nicky saves one tiny bag and sticks it under Luschek’s desk. She can’t bear to let it all go. The laundry girls talk, so Caputo (Nick Sandow) searches electrical. Of course, they find the little bag.

Nicky gets all the blame and is sent to SHU Maximum Security [see comments]. Luschek points the finger at her, and that’s all the proof anyone needs. There is no investigation. Nicky’s just carted off. Luschek is not blamed for anything.

This happens in episode 3. Nicky is gone for the rest of the season. Orange is the New Black just isn’t right without Nicky, you know?

I wish there had been an episode near the end of season 3 where Nicky returned. It would have been good to see the effect on her. Maybe that will happen in season 4.

Sophia

Laverne Cox as Sophia in Orange is the New Black

Motherhood is one of the main themes throughout all of season 3. Sophia’s story as a parent is particularly difficult and touching. Her son (Michael Rainey, Jr.) is doing the teen rebellion thing and she doesn’t know how to help with it. She doesn’t know if he needs mothering or fathering from her. She’s conflicted and upset. Her wife (Tanya Wright) says Michael is out of control.

She tries to help by having him come to the prison more often. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) is trying to see her teen-aged son more often, too. She arranges for him to ride with Sophia’s wife for the visits.

The boys get in trouble. Sophia blames Gloria’s boy. Gloria blames Sophia’s boy. Sophia’s wife stops bringing Gloria’s son to visit.

Tension between Sophia and the entire kitchen staff results in Sophia being targeted with transphobic bullying. It sweeps through the prison like a wave. She’s attacked and beaten up by other black women. They even take her blonde wig right off her head. Dirty fighting, that.

The fight wasn’t Sophia’s fault, but she gets taken to SHU “for her own protection.” Nothing happens to any of the instigators or attackers, although, to Gloria’s credit, she looks really sorry about what happened.

Misuse of Solitary

At least in Sophia’s case, Caputo argues against sending her to SHU. But the for-profit bosses running the prison overrule him. I have heard that putting transgender prisoners in solitary “for their own protection” is a common practice in prisons.

In both cases, SHU was used as a quick answer rather than a solution. In both cases, the person who will suffer the horrors of isolation for who-knows-how-long should have been handled in some other way.

There are documented cases where people are kept in isolation for YEARS. As many as 80,000 individuals may be held in isolation per day in federal facilities alone. “Long-term isolation can create or exacerbate serious mental health problems and assaultive or anti-social behavior, result in negative outcomes for institutional safety, and increase the risk of recidivism after release.”

Nicky and Sophia have decent mental health. What if Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) or Morello (Yael Stone) or the paranoid new prisoner Lolly (Lori Petty) ended up in SHU? What about the depressed Soso (Kimiko Glenn)? They would be basket cases when they came out. Or dead.

Piper (Taylor Schilling) did a couple of short stints in SHU in previous seasons, but she had more people working to get her out. What happens when no one is trying to get someone out?

I know Orange is the New Black is TV, not real prison. But I think it brings the injustice and inhumanity of the real prison system into focus for the general public with story lines like these for Nicky and Sophia.

It’s easy to understand why the real Piper Kerman came out of prison and wrote a book. And why she became an activist for prison reform. And why she continues to provide input into this series.

Orange is the New Black and American Culture

I’m in the midst of watching season 3 of Orange is the New Black. I’ll probably have something to say about it when I finish the entire season.

The pre-release publicity about it was everywhere last week. It made an impression on me when I realized how diverse the cast interviews were and how many actors have become known because of Orange is the New Black.

Here’s a short essay I wrote on Twitter.

Re: the power of media.

Orange is the New Black Rewatch Binge

June 12 and the release of season 3 of Orange is the New Black is just far enough away to let me rewatch the first two seasons in a cozy binge.

This is what fascinates me: the series starts out with the main story being about Piper, the privileged white woman who ends up in prison. The regular cast members listed are Taylor Schilling, Michael Harney, Kate Mulgrew, Laura Prepon, Michelle Hurst and Jason Biggs. By the second & third episode some of the actors like Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, and Laverne Cox begin to show up as guest stars.

Actors we’ve grown to love from the show such as Dascha Polanco, Selenis Levya and Samira Wiley were listed in the ending credits. They didn’t even show up as guest stars early in the series.

I’m struck by how much of the story of what’s happening in Litchfield Prison has moved away from the white characters and how the minor actors in the beginning like Samira Wiley have moved up to become regulars.

As viewers, we have become attached to characters that we might never have had a chance to like and respond to anywhere else but in Orange is the New Black. It’s brilliant how Jinji Kohan and the other writers let Crazy Eyes and Big Boo and Gloria and Nicky and Morello sneak their way into our hearts by bringing each to the front slowly. Not to mention Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero), Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and many others.

A scene from OITNB

After two years, the most popular characters on OITNB are played by Samira Wiley, Danielle Brooks, Lea DeLaria and Laverne Cox. We no longer have to be lead into Litchfield stories by holding hands with someone white. Because of great writing, great acting talent, great personal presence, the most “other” members of the cast have become the default stars on Orange is the New Black. The story and the characters took off like a runaway train with a momentum that has carried us far from the original story in the book by Piper Kerman on which the series was based.

There are still white people in the story. Piper and Alex are still there, Red is still around, Nicky and Morello are still there, all the correctional officers and prison bosses are still there. But Piper is no longer the chief focus. In season 2, when Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) was around, much of the focus was on her and her effect on everyone at Litchfield. We’ll see where things go in season 3, but I’m 100% behind the diversity. I’d love to see one of the Hispanic characters become more known and important.

We’ve accepted the rainbow of characters who inhabit the prison, we care about them all. It’s a act of writing and planning by Jinji Kohan that I admire and respect. Diversity on our TV screens has an effect on the culture. I can’t wait to see how OITNB brings more of it in season 3.

What I’m waiting to see is the day when a black woman or a Hispanic woman or an Asian woman can be the lead character to lead us into a drama like this one.

A First Look at Orange is the New Black, Season 2

This is my overall impression of season 2 of Orange is the New Black. I will talk about performances and high level story lines, without revealing big spoilers. More detailed discussions of particular episodes or events will come later after people have had plenty of time to watch all 13 episodes.

I watched all 13 episodes in two days, and my eyes felt like I’d just finished one of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books when I finally looked up. But the eye strain was worth it.*

The Cast and Credits

The first thing I noticed was who is listed in the main credits. Those people are Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Michael Harney, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, Kate Mulgrew, and Jason Biggs. These are the names that show up every week. The cast has been shuffled around a bit, some people have moved up into major roles. Other actors, although very important to season 2, are listed in guest roles or are listed after the main titles roll. Samira Wiley as Poussey is a key actor in season 2, and her name should have been up front, in my opinion.

Fan favorite Laura Prepon shows up in only 3 episodes, but the way the season ends it looks like Alex Vause will be back in full force in season 3. Other favorites who are there, but not necessarily for every episode include Laverne Cox, Lea DeLaria, Yael Stone, Selenis Leyva and many others. All the same officers and prison people are still running the place badly, except Pornstache who only shows up in a couple of episodes.

Vee can't fool Poussey
Vee can’t fool Poussey

Lorraine Toussaint, who comes in as a character named Vee, is in 8 episodes. In those 8 episodes she manages to throw the whole prison into quite a state.

In Praise of Brilliant Performances

There are so many brilliant performances in season 2. This is so much of what Orange is the New Black is: a showcase for brilliant talent that we don’t see anywhere else. While that isn’t true of the well-known Lorraine Toussaint, I want to call her out for her performance. She simply stunned in every way.

The cast who’ve been there all along were marvelous again this season. Taylor Schilling, Uzo Adubo, Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley gave noteworthy performances. Really, everyone in this cast gives a noteworthy performance.

The Backstories

The backstory on each character is what makes us care so much about the women in Litchfield. This season we got more backstory on Piper (Taylor Schilling), Morello (Yael Stone), Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Poussey, Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), Gloria (Selenis Leyva), Suzanne (Uzo Adubo), Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) and Vee.

The Current Story

When the season begins, Piper is pulled from the SHU and taken to Chicago to the trial of the drug kingpin who was Alex’s boss. The trip from one prison to another provides an opportunity for a guest star, something that doesn’t happen often on this show. The guest was Lori Petty. Jodie Foster came back to direct again this season and she directed the Chicago trip episode.

At Litchfield, important plot points in this season are the dangerous conflict between Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Vee, the tension between the pregnant Daya (Dascha Polanco) and the C.O. John (Matt McGorry), the tension between Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), and the problems between Healey (Michael Harney) and just about everyone.

Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you.
Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you.

There’s a contest between Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) that leads to lots of funny lesbianing, but hang in there to the end of the season for the best Pensatucky lesbianing laugh of the year. Nicky has serious challenges to face as the season progresses, too.

You did WHAT?
You did WHAT?

Piper gets involved in tracing down corruption and finding proof of embezzled funds while dealing with Larry (Jason Biggs), Alex, a death in the family and more than one huge betrayal.

Morello and Suzanne
Morello and Suzanne

One of my favorite episodes revolved around Valentine’s Day. It revealed so many deep, meaningful insights. Another favorite was an episode where a good bit of the plot dealt with the fact that most of the women were unaware of their female anatomy and the construction of their lady parts in particular. The few who knew enlightened the others in some pretty funny ways.

I’m a ukelele player. I was highly amused by the C.O. (Joel Garland) who played a banjo ukelele while making up songs about nuns and bad mothers. Ukes forever!

The finale was written by Jenji Kohan. It wrapped up some problems, it opened up new problems for next season, and was a terrific way to end the season. It left us wanting more, it satisfied with poetic justice, and it left me convinced that season 3 can’t come soon enough.

*In one scene, Tastee recommends Outlander to Poussey.