Orange is the New Black: 2x13 We Have Manners. We're Polite.
One way to see this season of Orange is the New Black is as a stage play. What happens between and to the inmates of Litchfield is the play itself, with classical conflicts, villains and heroes, stories that have grander themes of love and betrayal, trust and conflict. Characters rise to power and then fall tragically. Friends turn against each other. Small wars are waged.
But the show also shows the play as a play, with the context of its own production included. What happens on the stage is embedded in a greater system which sets limits. Policies, the prison administration, politics – all of these things influence what happens on the stage, just as a director would influence how a particular play looks on the stage. An incompetent director dooms the actors on the stage, just as the incompetent prison administration dooms the inmates of Litchfield. Both stages of Orange of the New Black are connected, and these connections are at the centre of the finale.
Nobody on this show, with the exception of Vee, is ever only one thing. Caputo, on the rise, is ambitious, and ever the reliable misogynist, mostly delights in seeing Fig fall (the show has made it clear repeatedly that a good part of his disdain for her stems from not wanting to receive commands from a female boss). But he is also in part an idealist, someone who wants to care for the women who are his responsibility, someone who has seen Fig mismanage the funds, and therefore making it impossible to even meet the most basic demands that the inmates make. He wants to do better. Part of that is sheer arrogance and wanting to be liked, but there is also a genuine desire to do well – except, what if Fig started that way as well, before everything went awry? What if the entire system is set up in a way that regardless of how good the intentions of the individuals are, the structures inherently corrupt those that work within them? It takes two days for Caputo to go from having good intentions to reform and improve the lives of the inmates to being corrupt enough to send Bennett away when he wants to make a confession. It suits him to have that scandal resolved with Pornstache’s indictment, and he cannot afford to be seen as falling into the same patterns as Fig. He robs Bennett of the ability to stand up and be a father to his child, even if that means prison time. He perpetuates Fig’s corruption because he wants to stay in power, and there is no other way to stay in power except by perpetuating corruption. This is the frustrating, terrible world of Orange is the New Black – hope has to be found elsewhere, not in structures that are too solid to ever be reformed through actions taken by these incredibly flawed individuals.
Caputo’s strive for power and ultimate fall when he fails his own ambition to do better is mirrored and then contrasted with how the inmates act in the wake of Vee’s attack on Red. Each and every one of them knows that it was Vee, and yet, her hold on Janae and Cindy is still strong enough for them to give a false statement to the police that is investigating the incident, and even more devastatingly, she is able to control Suzanne to the extent that she makes her believe she committed the crime. Her manipulation of Suzanne’s ultimate vulnerability, her inability to trust herself and her own mind, reveals what kind of villain Vee is, and how skilled she is at what she does. She feeds into both Suzanne’s uncertainties and her need to please the person that has become her stand-in parent. Vee doesn’t ask her if she did it, she speaks to her as if she knows that she did – as if Suzanne did a favour for her, and she is now thanking her. She gives her a gift in exchange for that good deed which she never did.
Taystee: Why would you take the blame when you ain’t done nothing. That woman is evil and tries to frame you and do you harm.
Suzanne: No, don’t you dare speak ill of her.
The ruse only starts falling apart when Cindy and Janae realize the extent of Vee’s evilness, and how far she is willing to go to ensure her own safety. They realize their own power when they see that Vee has nobody left, and they know that it is possible to stand up against her, since Poussey has been nothing else since the start of this season – stubbornly refusing to pay into the idea that the fact that she is imprisoned means that she gives up on all her values. They turn against her, and Vee becomes a fallen villain, someone who has always completely depended on being followed blindly and having others to fall on the sword for her, suddenly finding herself being utterly alone, and cast out.
Red: You know she didn’t do it. I’m trying to do the right thing here, Healy. Help me.
Healy: I don’t know anything.
Red: You’d take the crazy one take the hit for the real evil? Where’s your fight, Healy. You used to care.
Healy: Where was your consciousness when they were here the first time.
Sister Ingalls: It was buried under her distrust for the system. She’s trying to do right.
Healy: Yeah, you know what you get when you try around here? Not much. Have a nice day. You take care of yourself, okay.
Her downfall coincides with Healy’s realization that he has to do better as well, even though the failure of his safe place – now failed ultimately because Litchfield is not a safe place, it is the kind of place where Red can be beaten to an inch of her life without having any kind of support – makes him cynical and threatens to ruin his growth. Pennsatucky thanks him for listening to her, and for trying. It’s a good enough moment, realizing that he can still try and do better, that he actively attempts to save Suzanne from being innocently convicted. He does so by faking a record – also a form of corruption, but at least not to save himself. It shows that not even Healy trusts that the system that the administration provides works, that he himself believes that the system has to be cheated to guarantee justice. Like Red says to Sister Ingalls, who appeals to her to reveal who attacked her: “I should trust the administration while they’re force-feeding you with tubes?”
The things that happen in this show happen because the administration is not a source of trust and safety for the inmates. They have to rely on themselves, develop their own strategies of survival, in the absence of a greater force that will provide that for them. Nicky comes up with her own plan to avenge Red, she steals her heroin, triggering Vee to attack and alienate her remaining allies and ultimately losing everything she has. Red only decides to share the information on who attacked her after Sister Ingalls trades with her – she will eat, in exchange for Red to speak. They will both abandon their values, Red will not get the revenge that she seeks and Sister Ingalls will stop getting the attention she so craves from the outside.
This idea of being a “good person” in spite of what Litchfield is returns again and again in this episode. Characters use it to manipulate other characters into certain actions, because they know that there is barely anything as motivating as being thought of as good. Piper knows that when she gives Caputo the tools to destroy Fig – she knows that it isn’t enough to appeal to his thirst for power and his vanity, that she has to use the idea that he would do better than Fig. Larry is so obsessed with still being a good person that he takes Polly to ask for Piper’s blessing. Piper has been struggling with this idea since the start of the show, wondering which version of herself is more real, and who she is changing into. Alex tells her that she has decided to run, to violate the conditions of her control, because she feels unsafe, which means that Piper, now that Larry and Polly are together, would be left with nobody. A conversation with Brook triggers her realization what she needs to do: “God, this is the loneliest place I’ve ever been.”
Brook: I don’t think I’m gonna be the same when I get out.
Piper: Maybe that’s okay.
Brook: It’s not fucking okay.
Piper: I know.
She knows that being alone in there, not having a person to rely on, will kill her. So she betrays Alex, and probably saves her in the bargain, but she also ensures that she will survive being in Litchfield. In a way, it’s a kind thing to do, since Alex feels as lost on the outside as Taystee did, lacking the qualifications to do anything but sell drugs, and lacking the support that she would need to build a new life. Litchfield is terrible, but in many ways, it’s also home.
That idea of not being the same when you get out, and the helplessness of that, of being turned into a different person by a situation that is often unbearable, is almost being refuted by that final scene. It’s an act of ultimate defiance, of reclaiming the dignity to not die in Litchfield, the dignity of being told what is happening to her and then being able to make decisions, rather than having no choices at all. Morello helps Rosa escape, and this accidentally becomes the final piece in Vee’s downfall. “They looked backward and said goodbye.”
Poussey: Listen, T…
Taystee: Stop. Can we please not have a whole talk about our feelings and what happened and our status, because I never learned that and it really makes me want to jump out of my skin. So can we just sit here and be cool now?
Poussey: Maybe just a little talk? I mean, look, what if Amanda talked about it. Her fucked up relationship with mumsie and how hard that made things for Mackenzie when they took their cruise to Spain and shit.
This is a beautiful moment, because Poussey refuses to go back to the time when she wasn’t allowed to talk about her feelings, which led to their split in the first place, and Taystee understands that Poussey needs to be able to talk about it, so they fall back into their old patterns, smoothly, and genuinely.
Natasha Lyonne is stunning – her fierce and complete anger over what happened to Red, the person she considers her mother, her willingness to do everything, even confront her old demon, to help her.
Piper: I like this sweater. It’s soft like your resolve when they offered to plead you.
Sister Ingalls: There’s this statue of Jesus on the cross that was particularly ripped. That was my guy.
Amazing small moments for characters in this ep, but jfc O’Neill’s are out of this world. He has a history with nuns! And a banjolele!
"This is a little song about the Nuns... Fearsome, meaner, crueller, cruder than the Huns. I am forced to babysit them, when I thought I had quit them. Oh, I hope that they all get the runs. […] This is the song about my mom and dad... And the divorce that they should've had."
Piper: The first person that you fuck when we break up is my best friend. My married best friend. And you, you have a new born. And then you did the worst thing. You decided to fall in love. And then you thought, you know what would be a great person, let’s go visit Piper in prison because that’s where she lives, because things are going so great for her, and let’s sit across from her and ask for her blessing so we can walk away feeling absolved of all the fucked up choices that we have made.
The show has explicitly quoted Shakespeare before, but I think this episode is also especially an example of how conscious the show is of its own theatricality, how much it relies on its classically trained actors (and gives them an opportunity to deliver almost Shakespearean dialogue in this episode, especially Suzanne’s lines)