Tuesday 26 August 2014

Orange is the New Black - Please tell me where we’re going.

Orange is the New Black: 2x01 Thirsty Bird.

Thirsty Bird is disorienting and terrifying. It throws the viewer into an unknown environment, into a cast of characters that for the most part, we haven’t met before. The rules of this new place are strange and unfamiliar, the purpose of the journey is unknown, the outcome in its unpredictability, a possible horror. We are at the mercy of unseen forces – and all of this is perfect, because it is exactly what is happening to Piper Chapman. She spent the past weeks in segregation, after the incident with Pennsatucky, and she doesn’t even know how that ended – if Pennsatucky is alive or dead, if she stopped hitting her in time, and what the punishment for that crime will be. One day, she is hauled off to an unknown location, by prison guards who joke about sexism, take even the most basic kind of agency from Piper (she is not allowed to go the toilet; she is not allowed to know where she is going). 
It’s interesting to see Piper adapt to the new prison environment in Chicago, because it is a direct contrast to how she behaved during her first hours in Litchfield. As horrifying as the experience of it is, that complete loss of control over her life, being robbed of any kind of knowledge about the course her life will take and any choices in it, she is so much more ready to face that challenge now that she has gone through the experience in Litchfield. She knows that each prison has its own rules. She knows not to antagonize everyone she meets, regardless of how terribly they treat her. One of the most awful scenes in the episode is when Piper chooses not to intervene or help when an acquaintance – or friend (played by Lori Petty) – she makes on the plane gets attacked simply for the sound of her voice – but Piper the pragmatist knows that she cannot afford to step in. The cost of having to make that decision is clear on her face. It is the only decision she is still free to make, to betray a friend or to get beaten up or put herself in even more peril. In that sense, prison has stripped everything from her, but at the same time, the version of Piper that has adapted is able to survive this impossible situation. 
The first episode focuses on Piper because Piper was our in into the show, the Trojan horse: and here it works to give a juxtaposition to Litchfield. Piper finds that new environment strange and terrifying, and so do we, trapped in her perception of it (it’s a very slow episode, the way that environment is explored, the way the episode is so focused on just one character, it creates a feeling of being in a cage, almost). In comparison, Litchfield seems almost homely, because Piper knows how it works and she has friends there. The rules there are familiar, and as ridiculous as they originally seemed, now they provide a point of reference – while this new place is sheer chaos in the beginning, being asked to find a new cockroach to replace the one she stepped on, being preyed on by other inmates, having fewer of the luxuries that Litchfield provided. 
The situation is even more precarious for Piper because she is still struggling with how she reacted to Pennsatucky. The fact that she had that capacity for violence, that the idea of having killed a person suddenly does seem plausible, haunts her. She has no knowledge of the aftermath, but like that one time before when she shared that insight – the most terrible question of all, if prison makes her more or less herself – she is questioning her own identity. 
Piper: I don’t know if that grew there recently or if it’s always been there but that really, that dark place, that place, that let me just keep hitting her and hitting her and hitting her… I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop.
She isn’t just robbed of the ability to make choices about her life, or the knowledge of where her life is going, but she also no longer has any certainty about her own limits. She no longer knows herself that way – also because she decidedly is no longer that girl that we see in the flashbacks, hesitant to even take the slightest risk, unable to follow her family’s tradition of dishonesty rather than truthfulness, of pretending rather than being authentic. 
Thirsty Bird is an exploration of who Piper is after everything that happened the first months she spent in prison, but it also goes back further to try and track her development. She grew up with all the rules that her parents, especially her father, set out for her, to lead a simple and safe life: except she knows what the result of these rules are, secret affairs, unhappiness drowned in pills and alcohol. And then she met Alex, a whirlwind that went against everything her father ever advised her to do. It was the opposite of always walking on the right side of the street: adventure, excitement. It’s the first time that we see that it wasn’t just Alex that drew her in, but the very thing she represented, and how it was the opposite of the family that she came from. She was genuinely in love, and she was genuinely part of that life for Alex – it’s why that lie comes so easy, later in the courtroom when she makes the choice to lie rather than to tell the truth – and she lies for love, even though her first instinct when finding herself in that strange environment is to call Larry and ask him for help, because his father can help. She finds out that all of this is temporary, that Pennsatucky is not dead, that she was merely taken to Chicago to testify against Alex’ former boss – and she finds all of that out from Alex, because of course, she still haunts her, and she will never be entirely free of her or not drawn back to her. Alex asks her to lie for her, and eventually she does, because that’s what Piper will always do; and then Alex tells the truth, because it will bring her the greater profit, because she is an opportunist, regardless of what this means for Piper, because this is who Alex so profoundly is. They are terrible for each other, and they are both terrible people, but only one of them insists that she has no desire to ever change. 
Grandma: It’s making a choice that will cause the least amount of pain to others. Keeping things to yourself, sitting on information and feelings, and living with your secrets.
Piper: That sounds horrible.
Grandma: Oh it is, dear.
It was exciting to be with Alex. Maybe she was more herself, or maybe she was less herself. Not telling the truth in that courtroom is one of the few decisions that Piper can still make for herself. And Alex walks free, and Piper returns to the place that she knows better, to continue her scary journey towards knowing who she is. 

Random notes: 

What a gorgeous Andrew Bird song. 

Did you kill somebody? 
I don’t know. 

What a good title for the episode: a reference to a mural Piper started to paint in her prison cell, as she was slowly losing her mind, with the eggs that she refused to eat. 

Piper: I think I’ve moved beyond stress into something more deeply disturbing. 

Piper: I was there for Alex. She was what I paid attention to. Who I paid attention to. Everything else was just… background. 

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