Friday 23 August 2013

Orange is the New Black - Your head’s not here yet. Don’t worry, it’ll catch up.

Orange is the New Black: 1x01 I Wasn’t Ready.

Piper Chapman, a 32 year-old college-educated woman currently running her own chain of beauty products with her best friend and engaged to an underemployed writer, goes to prison for eighteen months because ten years ago, she carried a suitcase filled with drug money across international borders for her girlfriend and someone told on her two years before the statute of limitations ended. This is the story of the first episode of Orange is the New Black, which follows Piper – other episodes will focus on different characters inhabiting the prison somewhere in New York state, but Piper is our in, the person we follow into this building. Once she’s in, the only escapes left are flashbacks and the characters who aren’t prisoners – relatives and the guards.
Piper as the main character of this story, as the “Trojan horse” that allows the writers to portray characters that wouldn’t stand a chance otherwise, works on different levels, because as the first season progresses, Orange is the New Black plays with all the expectations the first episode raises. Piper seems to be someone who has left that life that landed her in prison behind a long time ago, she’s chosen a different, conventional path, she is intending to follow it once she gets out and frames the experience as a sort-of break that will take her away from her normality (and she will “get ripped” and learn a trade, and reads books in advance to prepare herself, as you would for an adventure holiday or a city tour). Her past caught up with her, but she isn’t the same person anymore that said yes to carrying a suitcase filled with money into Brussels (“that one time”, as she insists, because the idea is that she isn’t really “that kind of person”, except the show will make a point that nobody actually is, by giving other prisoners a voice to tell their own story). While her mother makes up stories for her friends that are more appropriate, while her friends and her fiancé try to find narratives that make sense to them, Piper remains rather elusive throughout the first episode, apart from one moment during the night before she goes to prison, when she is finally alone for a bit and breaks down crying. She’s surrounded by people before going to prison and constantly performing this story about the good girl with the bad past, and then after, when she’s actually in prison, she barely gets a moment of respite since the whole point of the situation that this biotope creates is to not be alone or ever at peace. Piper as a character isn’t interesting because she’s the “normal” girl that the viewer supposedly identifies with (which already assumes a lot about the viewers, but it’s also how this story got sold to Netflix, supposedly, how the book it is based on sold), she’s at her best when she is trying to make sense of herself in this new context and when the way she feels about herself in prison forces her to ask questions about who she was before, and who she will be, after.
For now, Piper has one last party with her friends and then goes to surrender herself the next morning, and it’s all about the experience of losing all the things that she used to take for granted before, the privacy, the intimacy. Prison life is intrusive, from the strip searches to the constant surveillance, the lack of personal space, the way that the only moment Piper is alone once she’s in prison is when she breaks the rules and storms out (and even then, her past catches up with her and intrudes on her break-down). It’s also surprisingly familiar, because each and every person inside is struggling to find ways to survive, and apparently (or at least so the show argues) this means building a normality and maybe even a sort of (if uncomfortably racially segregated, dubbed “tribal” by Morello) community, with odd rules and rituals that work to create a bearable everyday life. You don’t sleep in the bed. You keep your cell clean. You don’t insult the woman who is responsible for all of the food, or she’ll starve you out (except this is what you do with new people, talk about the weather, talk about the food – it’s what Piper is used to, so a day into her prison experience, she fucks up).
Larry: You love adventure, that’s what got you in there, and that’s what’s gonna get you through. This is all a big adventure with liver, Yoga Jones, and racism!
This is the other interesting story about Piper Chapman: while she is figuring out who she truly is, if the person she is when she is stripped of all the things she is taking for granted outside and reduced to this person struggling for comfort and trying to find a place for herself there is more true and authentic than the one selling soap and getting married to the guy who knew when to order Chinese, Larry is trying to make sense of the experience as well the only way he knows how to. He appropriates the story she tells him, which sound ridiculous to his ears (and this is only the beginning), turns them into anecdotes he tells back to her to try and comfort her except this is now her reality, and none of these stories are his to tell.  There is a more general question here if any relationship can survive the strain of living in completely different realities, but also a very specific one about Piper and Larry as people with weaknesses, and Piper especially as someone who is very good at performing, so good that she’s lost sight of who she is when she isn’t. 

Random notes:
Piper: I love you. Please keep my website updated. I love you so much.
This show is so filled with immediately sympathetic characters – Piper’s first experiences in prison are like a buffet of loveliness, from Morello to Nicky to Yoga Jones. And we haven't even really met Sophia, Poussey, Taystee and all the others yet.  
Nicky: Piper, can’t be taking advice from a nun and a hippie.
Jones: By all means, seek out the supreme wisdom of the junkie philosopher.
Sister: I pray for you, Nicky.
Nicky: Aw, I pray for you too, Sister. I lust after you, Yoga Jones, those sinewy arms. Gotta love a yoga body.
The pilot episode is a bit of a mixed bag but one thing that really works and that I’ve only noticed the second time around are the conscious juxtapositions between flashbacks and current prison life – the comfort of Larry warming Piper at the beach to Morello telling Piper to tap her foot so she won’t get cold in the prison van, Alex’ seductiveness and the intrusiveness of a prison strip search, etc. And the search for some kind of comfort starts almost immediately, and Piper is surprisingly resilient and resourceful. 

Another theme throughout the season is the relationship between the guards and the prisoners, and the inherent problem of the asymmetric distribution of power - and what happens when misuse of power and abuse go unsupervised and unpunished. Between Healy's creepy fascination with Piper's supposed innocence and Caputo being helpful but also grossly inappropriate, it's difficult for the inmates to retain their dignity (but it's also a game to an extent about manipulation and information, and will be even more so in future episodes).

The shower scene at the beginning is a great way to introduce how prison works, and specifically, how it affects privacy (and also how quickly humans adapt to new situations and create new normalities).