Wow. Weekends lately, right? How can I support all the great women-centric entertainment this weekend? Continue Reading: An Abundance of Riches
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.
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.
Orange is the New Black mixes a lot of serious themes in with all the stories about individual lives and the comedy that the show uses to make its points. The Orange is the New Black theme I want to explore today is power and how it corrupts.
Let’s explore this theme by looking at individual personalities.
Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) is the most blatantly corrupt user of power. She’s willing to destroy lives without a second thought to maintain her income and her grip on her followers. She recruits people for their weaknesses deliberately, knowing that she’ll want to use that weakness at a later time. Her goal is greed, profit, and purely personal. Her grip on power is not accidental. She works for it.
Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) used her power to steal from the prison system. She didn’t feel she was actually hurting anyone with her misuse of funds. So the prison didn’t have a gym or a classroom – not really a problem, right? She used the money to buy expensive things for herself, but she also used it to promote her husband’s political career and to buy his love. She covered up wrongdoing with lies and rationalizations, but not violence.
Caputo (Nick Sandow) thought he was better than Figueroa. He thought if he could just get her job he would fix all the problems Figueroa created with her embezzlement. Yet his second day on the job he told John Bennett to be quiet about being the father of Daya’s baby and left Mendez in jail thinking the baby was his. He perpetrated this injustice to protect his grip on power. Power corrupts instantly. One day he’s a good guy. The next day he’s part of the problem.
Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) power, when she had it, was almost benign by comparison with the others. Yeah, she starved out Piper for a while, but she didn’t bring in drugs and she didn’t try to cheat anyone. She simply wanted to make life in the prison easier for herself. When she lost power she did something stupid that hurt Gina (Abigail Savage), but it was more of an accident than a disregard for Gina’s welfare. When she thought she could use the greenhouse to regain power she still wasn’t doing anything that hurt anybody. Later, she tried to put an end to Vee but couldn’t go through with it. Red’s saving grace is her weakness.
Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) is a sad case. She gets violent quickly if she feels disrespected. She wants power because it makes her feel respected and loved. When being the poster girl for the anti-abortion movement went bad for her, she latched on to the idea that she could somehow become powerful as a lesbian because of the the lesbian agenda. She’s dangerous, but not very smart.
The thread that connects every story – prisoners and prison officials – is that the quest for power carries with it corruption, lies, manipulation, and frequent disregard for the good of others. The Ghandis, the Mother Teresas, the characters like Poussey (Samira Wiley) who resist corruption – they are an anomaly. Most human beings, when given power, succumb to the need to keep it no matter the consequences to others.
Whatever message Piper Kerman, the original author of the book Orange is the New Black, or Jinji Kohan, the writer of the TV series, had in mind as they wrote, this is one message I get: prison doesn’t work. The current American prison system doesn’t work. One reason why? Power corrupts.
I didn’t even get into Mendez. How about it? Are there other characters you think make interesting points about power Orange is the New Black?
There are many films that can make you feel as if you’ve been assaulted by life, by pain, by damage and abuse, by hurt. August: Osage County is one of these. It peers into the way abuse and pain carries down, almost intact, from one generation to the next. In this particular story, the damage is inflicted by the women.
The story begins with a father’s death. Sam Shepard as the Oklahoma poet Beverly Weston dies. The family gathers. Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston, the not-exactly-grieving widow and mother to Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis.
Violet Weston has cancer of the mouth, both physically and metaphorically. She’s addicted to about 11 different prescription drugs, which she pops with malicious intensity. The drugs do not have pleasant effect on her behavior.
Julianne Nicholson as Ivy is the daughter who stayed in Oklahoma, near her parents. Julianne Nicholson’s performance in this part is quiet and nuanced and complete perfection, especially when contrasted with the overblown emotionalism of some of the other characters. Okay, not some of the other characters; Meryl Streep’s character. She seemed too big somehow, too much.
I’m sure Meryl Streep intended her to be too big and too much. The woman doesn’t make mistakes. Violet Weston was too big and too much on purpose, I’m guessing.
Julia Roberts drives in with her husband, played by Ewan McGregor, a buttoned down kind of man, and her 14 year old daughter, played by Abigail Breslin. Her marriage is breaking up. Julia Roberts is simply wonderful in this part. She’s the eldest daughter – strong and bitter and angry. She’s the wronged wife with a cheating husband. She’s the protective mother whose 14 year old daughter attracts the attentions of her sister’s smarmy fiancé, played by Dermot Mulroney. She’s a wounded lioness, just like her mother, with sharp teeth and powerful claws.
Juliette Lewis has her own coping mechanisms for dealing with her family. Get as far away as possible, pin all sorts of unrealistic hopes and wishful thinking on a man, and pretend the realities of her upbringing never happened.
Add to this menagerie of family Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, played expertly by Margo Martindale. She’s married to Chris Cooper. Like Violet’s husband, Mattie Fae’s husband is a kind and tender man. How did these two sisters manage to find such good men to marry? They have a mother-whipped cowering mess of a son played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Bring all these characters together for a funeral, make them stay together for several days, and all hell breaks loose.
I want to give a particular mention to Misty Upham, who plays a Native American woman hired by Beverly to cook and clean just before he goes missing. (Perhaps you remember her from Frozen River, where she had a bigger part.) Misty Upham needs to be pulled out of the Native American niche and put into other roles. She’s terrific and should be given parts that aren’t so bound by ethnicity. Hey, Jinji Kohan, how about giving her a part in Orange is the New Black where actresses are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters?
This story is brilliant in its specificity. It’s filled with outstanding performances. Any awards that go to August: Osage County are deserved. Like a lot of movies that deal with harsh reality, it’s hard to watch at times, even though it has moments of redemption and beauty.
I recommend August: Osage County wholeheartedly. It’s not the kind of movie you want to watch more than once, but it is the kind of movie that should be watched.