Thursday 27 March 2014

Orange is the New Black - I'm scared that I'm not myself in here and I'm scared that I am.

Orange is the New Black: 1x10 Bora Bora Bora.

Who is Piper Chapman? It’s a question that the show has been asking since its beginning, but it’s only now that Piper is noticing with terror that she can’t answer it herself. Bora Bora Bora captures the moment that she would likely pinpoint as changing from who she used to be when she started to go on adventures with Alex (a self she is reminded of now that falling back into the intimacy with her seems so easy – “I feel like that when you have a connection with someone that never really goes away. You snap back to being important to each other because you still are.”) to becoming the person who is Larry’s fiancé – getting bitten by a dog on the street, seeking refuge in her best friend’s apartment, finding Larry there, plant-sitting, zero chemistry but all the comfort in the world of a person who knows when it’s time to order Chinese food. And who is she now, sneaking off with Alex at any opportunity because she craves that comfort? Who is she if falling back into being with Alex is so easy? 
There is already a noticeable difference between the Piper who went to Litchfield and Piper, now, and that difference becomes more distinct if you consider that Larry hasn’t changed much, because apart from being separated from Piper, his circumstances haven’t changed. He is going to get a story about “long-distance relationships” on that fake This American Life programme, another narrative about his feelings about the whole thing which completely disregards Piper’s experience and all the bits and pieces of it that are impossible to communicate to someone who is on the outside. He hasn’t even spoken to her about it – or anything, since Healy called him to tell him exactly why he sent her to SHU – so once again, Larry Bloom is writing the story of Piper Chapman as Piper herself struggles to figure out who she is. 

This is what happens when the structures the inmates rely on fall apart: Nicky, feeling like Red was letting Tricia down, told Pornstache how Red manages to smuggle things into prison, and he used that knowledge and his power to get in drugs, which in turn in this episode get Tricia hooked again, after she went through a gruesome withdrawal and is left without Red’s support (the awful thing is that all of this is a big misunderstanding, lack of information – Red doesn’t know until the end of the episode when it’s much too late that Nicky was the one who told Pornstache, and Nicky didn’t know that Red’s plan was to uncover Pornstache’s smuggling to protect her girls from the drugs he kept bringing in). This is Tricia’s episode: one of the youngest people in there, apparently for theft, she kept a book of all her debts when she was living on the streets, intending to pay each of them off, not owing anyone anything eventually. The episode is about all the debts that others come to collect, and following her own moral code by the word, she can’t turn them down. Pornstache demands that she sells drugs for him to pay off the ones he gave her before, Red turns her back on her because she feels betrayed (it was only meant to be a lesson, but she never realizes how serious the situation is). On the outside, it meant getting arrested for trying to pay back for stolen headphones and stealing a necklace in the process, a vicious circle of debt (a circle that made it impossible for her to accept a kindness offered that might have saved her), on the inside, it eventually costs her life. Without Red and Nicky, with her girlfriend on the outside never responding to her calls, she has nothing left, and dies of an overdose that Mendez covers up, makes it look like a suicide, a final act of disrespect towards someone whose life he has destroyed utterly. 
Tricia: Problems are problems. We all make bad choices. It’s just that some of us got different bad choices to make.
In a way, the episode is about stakes, and Tricia will always pay a higher price for not having the support that she needs than Piper does, but still, the struggle for identity, for knowledge of herself (and the fear of who she might find if she looks into a mirror) is a more profound one than that for simple comforts, the more superficial ways in which prison deprives each of these women. 
Those kids sent to prison to be scared straight are afraid of the performance the inmates tasked with it deliver, but the real punch in the gut is Piper, explaining the psychological effects of prison to a girl who has probably been through more hardship than anyone else in the room. She is the one who leaves an impression, because none of it is performance, it’s telling the truth to someone she will never meet again. 
Piper: You know I could tell you a lot of things that would scare you, Dina. I could tell you that I'm going to make you my prison bitch. I could tell you that I'm going to make you my house mouse, that I will have sex with you even if we don't have an emotional connection; that I'm going to do to you what the spring does with cherry trees but in a prison way. Pablo Neruda. But why bother? You're too tough, right. Yeah, I know how easy it is to convince yourself that you're something you're not. I mean you could do that on the outside. You can just keep moving, keep yourself so busy you don't have to face who you really are. But you're weak.
Dina: Back the fuck off me.
Piper: I'm like you Dina. I'm weak too. I can't get through this without somebody to touch, without somebody to love. Is that because sex numbs the pain or is it because I'm some evil fuck monster? I don't know. But I do know I was somebody before I came in here. I was somebody with a life that I chose for myself and now, now it's just about getting through the day without crying. And I'm scared. I'm still scared. I'm scared that I'm not myself in here and I'm scared that I am. Other people aren't the scariest part of prison Dina. It's coming face-to-face with who you really are. Because once you're behind these walls there's nowhere to run, even if you could run. The truth catches up with you in here Dina and it's the truth that's going to make you her bitch.
This is what SHU did to Piper Chapman: Forced her to confront herself. Nothing seems more ridiculous now than the idea that prison is a learning experience, that maybe she’ll learn some practical trade, come out of this place with some new anecdotes to tell at the dinner table. It’s impossible to pretend that she isn’t a different person than she was a couple of weeks ago – but at the same time, the change scares her. 

What happens when you lose the things that your survival on prison is built on? Alex and Piper play the long game to take revenge on Pennsatucky, setting her up to believe herself a saviour, a healer, ridiculing her religious beliefs in the process, the one thing that Pennsatucky has (we haven’t yet seen exactly how unprivileged she is compared to Piper, even compared to Alex, but the moment will come). The worst thing is making someone believe they are someone and then taking that security away – which is exactly what Piper does, setting Pennsatucky up to be taken to Psych (it’s a tiny shot, but Suzanne knows exactly what that means, and it’s sheer terror on her face when she hears just the word). 

The bigger picture: what do you do when you are confronted with the question of who you are, alone in a room, with no escape? And politically, what do you do when you’re trapped by a system that is corrupted, without any check and balances, and has just taken the life of someone that you care about? Piper goes to Alex, instinctually. Red gathers her troop to go to war. 

Random notes: 

It’s like chess, in a way, the pieces aligning: Diaz has decided she wants to keep Bennett’s baby so they need a way to make that work without having him fired or go to prison, and Red is making plans to take Mendez down for good. 

Alex claims that she didn’t change since she was with Piper – “I’m pretty consistent”, which is one way of framing it but also a reminder of the fact that Alex feels like she was wronged somehow by Piper leaving and has no insight into why Piper did leave, or interest in finding out. They have all the chemistry in the world, but at the same time are completely terrible for each other – and remember that Piper told Polly that she wants both comfort and adventure, so both Larry and Alex aren’t exactly what she wants. (on the other hand, there are these small moments: Piper automatically stepping in front of Alex to defend her, Piper turning to Alex for comfort when she finds out that Tricia is dead, that very basic human instinct of turning to the person you’re closest and you need the most when something has gone wrong, so it’s a lot more complicated than that). 

Poussey: I’m gonna make them cry. Cry like they’re going through a haunted house. Haunted house called ‘Life’!

Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Tricia’s friend from before, also does a brilliant job in House of Cards (brilliant job as in, possibly one of the main reasons why I even watched the second season of House of Cards, since Robin Wright and Molly Parker’s excellent faces only go so far). 

Miss Claudette has her first visitor, after ten years. Hope is a dangerous thing. 

Polly argues that “Adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self.” but equally, comfort is sometimes just a nicer-sounding word for boredom. 

It’s an excellent, heart-breaking episode all around (when originally watching, it felt like Fucksgiving was the moment when OITNB really picked up the pace, came into its own, and Bora Bora Bora is a perfect follow-up) – but there’s a very special place in my heart for Suzanne doing Coriolanus and completely freaking out the kids with that delivery, and also the meta-comment on the fact how few opportunities there likely are for black actresses to get to perform Shakespeare (also points for “little honour to be much believed” in reaction to Piper claiming she isn’t gay). 

Poussey’s palatable terror about the possible gang of handicapped people is delightful. “YOU ALL JUST ROLL UP ON PEOPLE??”

“And don’t embezzle or illegally download media.”

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