Friday 27 February 2015

Orange is the New Black – I am an inmate. I have nothing.

Orange is the New Black: 2x07 Comic Sans.

Orange is the New Black is a show about the characters, but it also portrays how systemic corruption affects vulnerable people. It started from Piper’s perspective but continuously reaffirms the way that prison disproportionally affects underprivileged parts of the population, and how even in prison, Piper’s privilege as a white, middle-class, well-educated woman persists. She is afforded luxuries that others don’t have – and usually called out for it, even though there is an edge to her conversation with the journalist (as much as he is right about questioning her position and concerns, there are also layers and layers to the fact that he is the one in the position to ask these questions, as genuine as his agenda is). Corruption is what allows someone like Vee to thrive, because she knows how to play the system just as much as she knows how to use individuals, their fears and dreams and weaknesses, to her own advantage. It’s a system that magnifies individual failings: of all the characters that are in a position of power in this show, Caputo is not the worst, but his policy decisions in this episode are terrible and showcase how absolute power is when it affects those without a voice that is being heard, or considered relevant. His decision to enforce a policy where his guards have to hand out a certain amount of shots, regardless of whether they are warranted, shifts the atmosphere in prison. If anything makes the women’s lives inside bearable, it’s the occasional pragmatism, the small space that is available for negotiation – under the pressure of Caputo’s policy, there is zero space. Even Fisher no longer has the luxury of being more humane and likeable than the others, and promptly punishes Sister Ingalls for trying to smuggle food out of the canteen (which she does for health reasons, as the establishment is unhelpful with health concerns). Caputo isn’t evil, nor are any of the other characters, but a combination of personal issues (learning that Fisher is dating someone else – and even worse, someone he does not respect, career ambitions, a misguided rivalry with Fig that isn’t about the inmates’ welfare as much as about his own ego) drives him to make decisions that severely affect the well-being of the people he is responsible for.  
And worse than that, it fails to address the glaring issues that actually could be improved upon. Piper, after having decided that she wants Larry’s story for herself, talks to the journalist about the obvious misappropriation of funds. There is a theme in the second season about Piper’s shifting self-perception: she has learned that is a survivor, and she does know what it takes to survive in prison, so now she approaches everything with pragmatism (which is the way to survive – it’s a stark contrast to Poussey, who attempts to be pragmatic in the episode but is ultimately so much of a romantic idealist that she won’t be able to go through with it, in a system that doesn’t really forgive that kind of weakness). 
Andrew: Prison treats inmates unfairly. If not getting a weekend off to visit the family is the worst thing that’s happening…
Piper: I didn’t even remotely say…
Andrew: Inmates are starving. They’re getting raped. And it’s not like no one’s covering this, it’s just that no one cares. Listen, do I lie awake fantasizing about personally taking down an institution that is the single greatest stain on the American collective conscience since slavery with the awesome power of my words, sure, but in the daytime, I’ve accepted that that’s not gonna happen. What I can do, maybe, is find two million dollars that have gone off the books here at Litchfield.
It works on many levels – a character like Piper is necessary in a show like OITNB, she is the Trojan horse, and only Piper is in a position to approach Healy about a prison newsletter (the first editorial meeting is interesting as Flaca turns out to have more experience in journalism than Piper has, and strong opinions on proper grammar use). We know where the money went: Fig’s husband is running for office, and the campaign is costing more than the non-existent gymnasium and the never-fixed electrical system, or that one missing bathroom. 

In the absence of responsibility, Vee can build her empire. She is an interesting villain because her ability to impose values and change customs is so impressive. This is supposed to be Cindy’s episode, but it mostly serves to showcase how completely in control Vee is. As one of Vee’s sellers, Cindy allows barter trade in case the inmates don’t have the hard currency (stamps) that Vee demands, because why should they not have access to the thriving black market of cigarettes. Vee punishes her severely, taking away the privilege of being a seller (which is supposed to give her respect and influence) and rather giving her the inferior task of packaging (secretly, in used tampon packs). Cindy used to be an airport security officer, a job she approached with a very similar attitude as the one in Litchfield, and her mother is raising her daughter as her own, because Cindy doesn’t take responsibility for her. Vee argues that what she provides her girls is a future, ambition, values – all things that she believes Cindy doesn’t have, or has given up on – and this might be how Vee sees herself, except Poussey’s perspective on Vee is just as valid. She just uses people and then dumps them and lets them take all the blame. 
Poussey understands this, and it’s why she chooses not to work for Vee, and it’s why she is so concerned about Taystee working with Vee; not just because the friend she is in love with (as Nicky elaborately explains to her – “that thing that happens to lesbians in high school”) is no longer working at the library with her and has a new crowd, but because of the danger that poses for Taystee. On the other hand, Nicky convinces her that the way to be with the friend you’re in love with is to suck it up and make the boyfriend like you, which in this case, means making up with Vee. Vee uses Cindy’s weakness, the fact that she went against her wishes, to create a space for Poussey, but in a way that means that Poussey seems weak, like she is asking for something. It’s the skewed power dynamic that Vee lives on, and she knows exactly how to use the things that are important to Poussey against her (and the thing that we learn from the situation is that it’s not just about the business itself for Vee, it is explicitly about controlling people, which is an interesting contrast to Red’s genuine desire to belong and just be respected).

These are the ways that corruption affects, moves, destroys. It destroys any good intention that Caputo might have ever had (he’s increased the shot quota, but does nothing against a system that calls leaving a helpless old woman with Alzheimer’s on the streets “compassionate release”). It gives Vee ample room to build her business. It ruins any genuine authentic emotion between Bennett and Daya. This is probably one of the most affecting and effective scenes this season, an exchange between the two in which Daya calls Bennett out on his privilege and points out how it is impossible to entirely disregard the massive power difference between them, regardless of whether Bennett abuses it or not (and he does abuse it, in this episode, when he sends Maritza to SHU, because he cannot figure out a different way to assert his position and escape blackmail). “Guards, they’re people too” – but in a system where power is distributed so unequally, with barely any checks in place, that just means that they are fallible, and therefore even more destructive. 
Daya: Fuck you, I just used obscenity. You gonna write me a shot? Assaulting an officer. Write me a shot. What? Pussy, come on.
Bennett: I’m not writing you a shot.
Daya: But you could if you wanted to, right. Because you have choice, you have the power. I am an inmate. I have nothing.
Random notes: 
Sophia: I think a nice fauxhawk will give the don’t fuck with me vibe.
Gloria: I mostly use my face for that. 
Gloria is amazing this season. She sees everything, and is very cautious in finding a course that keeps herself as safe and clean as possible, while also keeping her girls out of trouble between the increasingly precarious fights between Vee and Red. And she really just wants that cilantro.

Brook’s main function in the story so far is to showcase how much Piper has changed. This new version of Piper sees no utility in remaining a strict vegetarian in prison if it means starving to death (the pragmatic view), meanwhile, Poussey: “Bitch, look around you. We’re in the prison business complex. A cow breaks me outta here, I stop eating meat that day.” (a sentiment that fits in well with Andrew’s previous conversation to Piper about the prison system). 
Flaca: If you could care less. That means you still care. […] It should be I couldn’t care less, see. Because you hit bottom with caring. Chapman, tell her.
Piper: I mean technically, yes. But I think that’s one of those things, like literally, where the colloquial usage of the word eventually wins out. Languages involve.
Flaca: Why you gotta be like that? 
Fucking Piper with her descriptive grammar. 

Fisher, with her incredible knowledge of Spanish, figures out the pregnancy thing. 

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