Sunday 1 June 2014

Orange is the New Black - They’re just women who’re trying to do their best.

Orange is the New Black: 1x11 Tall Men With Feelings. 

At its core, beyond the fact that Orange is the New Black is about women in prison, it’s a show that asks questions about property and ownership. With the lack of privacy and personal space and the lenient way in which prison deprives the inmates of their rights so casually (taking away Sophia’s hormones, locking up Piper for dancing with Alex, in this episode, taking any kind of agency from Pennsatucky once she finds herself in Psych), Orange is about the space that they nevertheless carve out for themselves, or the space that they manage to win back in their daily struggles. In this specific episode, in the aftermath of Tricia’s death, the women claim back their right to grieve for her the way they choose to, to respectfully deal with what she left behind, to honour her memory the only way they think is appropriate. It’s such a fierce defence of this right that even Pornstache has to back out, and it’s their private, personal ritual, one that Piper, who is new and tries to apply her own understanding of grief (thinking a “memorial” is appropriate) still has to understand. It’s a heartfelt tribute, a loss that breaches the dividing lines within the prison population. Tricia was one of them, so it is their right to mourn for her in the way that feel right. In this case, it’s getting drunk on prison-made booze and sharing stories.
Of all the things that prison can take away from these women, Pennsatucky goes through one of the worst ordeals (and it’s worth discussing this, since she’s set up to be sort of a classic antagonist for Piper, because with her story yet to be told, it’s difficult to empathize with her, except at the same time, what she’s subjected to is objectively awful, so why is that?) Sent to Psych after Piper set her up, stripped of the grace that her religious convictions provides her with, opposed by a psychiatrist who insists that she is delusional, that the one thing in her life that gives her meaning and purpose is a sign of her pathology, who doesn’t take her seriously and merely sedates her while she is literally locked up in a cage. 
This is maybe what it is about, even before the central thing happens in the episode: the question of who gets to tell the story and provide the interpretation, and who is the subject of those stories, potentially robbed of their own voice and of the ability to tell their own story. Diaz becomes a pawn in her mother’s and Red’s plans, her love for Bennett making her vulnerable, even if it’s her choice to participate; the psychiatrist’s interpretation of Pennsatucky will always win because he has all the power; the women successfully claim back the right to talk about Trish and what she meant to them, but Trish herself became the victim of Pornstache’s business. Possibly the most heartbreaking among them is Suzanne, who finally does get a chance to tell bits and pieces of her own story – she is occasionally sent to Psych and knows how incredibly terrible it is, and finds words moving enough for Piper to realize that she can’t leave Pennsatucky there, but it is still impossible for her to see herself through the eyes of everyone else (“How come everyone calls me Crazy Eyes?”, because she is serious, her feelings are serious, but nobody takes her seriously. She is so genuine when she makes that connection with Piper, explaining herself to her, and then realizes who she is, or at least was, in Piper’s eyes, when she hears Larry’s story on the radio. It’s a completely terrible moment, the way the unkindness of the storytelling meets a character who is struggling so hard against the way she is perceived in the world, and constantly robbed of opportunities (this is why one of my favourite moments is Suzanne performing Shakespeare, because she is brilliant at it). Her feelings for Piper were serious, but Piper has turned her into a parody, an anecdote, and Larry, in telling that anecdote, has completely sold her out, taken ownership of something that is so essentially not his. There are some things that Piper can fix, maybe – she can confess to Healy and save Pennsatucky from Psych, the place nobody returns from except Suzanne, she can maybe try to heal some of the scars she’s left on Alex, by rediscovering how much they meant to each other, regardless of how dysfunctional they are together – but what she did to Suzanne is possibly unforgivable, the same way that what Larry does in the episode – take ownership of all these stories, which are about real people, in a terrible situation – is not forgivable. 
Piper and Alex are dysfunctional, and nothing will ever change that, but the show has a way of reminding the viewer that they are both terrible at being in love with each other. Alex, all those years ago, asked Piper to smuggle drugs for her again, because she couldn’t find a way out of it herself – a betrayal, trying to use someone she supposedly loved in that way rather than growing, and then arguing it was justified because Piper knew what she was getting into – and then Piper left the moment Alex was the most vulnerable, something she shouldn’t do to a friend, much less to someone she at least used to love.  
And at the same time, they are inevitable tied together by how they feel for each other, a feeling that they are now both rediscovering. It’s the same question that Piper asked last episode: is she more or less herself in there, brought to her limits, in absence of anything that could distract her – is she clinging to Alex for warmth (“We’re just being human, we’re not having an affair”) or is she discovering that at her most essential, she loves Alex rather than Larry. 
Alex: I am proud of you.
Piper: Yeah?
Alex: I mean it was really brave. It was dumb, but it was brave.
Piper: I don’t think that anyone has ever used that word to describe me in the history of the universe.
Alex: I’m glad we have each other in here kid.
Piper: Yeah, me too. I’d rather be on a beach in Tahiti but this is a close second. Why do you always feel so inevitable to me?
Alex: I heart you.
Piper: You heart me?
Alex: Yeah.
Piper: What is that? Is that like I love you for pussy
Alex: Say pussy again. […] I heart you too.
Is it the difficulty of a long-distance relationship vs. the immediacy of Alex, who is right there, or the power of a shared past, or more importantly, the importance of the shared experience of being in prison, of seeing each other struggle with it and helping each other through it, maybe changing together? Impossible to answer. The camera captures the moment when Piper realizes that she is in love with Alex (maybe never stopped or maybe fell in love with her again). 
Larry sees them all as a “cast of characters”, because he is a writer and this is his way of understanding the situation, it’s the position he is in as the person listening to Piper’s story, without the experience of being in prison with her and without the empathy of realizing that he is talking about actual people, stuck in that horrible place, when he tells their stories to the rest of the world. More than that, he doesn’t realize how severely he affects Piper’s position in being revealed as the person who harbours all these thoughts and opinions about the women now closest to her – Miss Claudette, on the one hand desperately waiting for her freedom because she now has something to live for, but also dangerous, because maybe she murdered someone, Suzanne, somehow still clinging to the idea of happiness in spite of what she goes through, hearing herself described as “crazy” for falling in love with Piper. They aren’t tropes – they are people, and this isn’t Larry’s story to tell, it’s theirs. 
Piper: So was this your revenge? Trying to get me killed?
Larry: Wait wait, so you’re the victim in all of this?
Piper: They’re just people Larry, they’re just women who’re trying to do their best. And you make them sound like…
Larry: Criminals?
Piper: Jesus. Who are you?
Larry: You’re the one asking me that right now? I can’t believe that. Actually of course I can. I totally can, because god forbid I would get to dictate the conversation, ever.
Piper: There hasn’t been any conversation to dictate, you haven’t picked up the phone in over a week. Do you have any idea what it has been like in here for me, how lonely I’ve been?
Larry: Lonely, really, you’ve been lonely. That’s, okay, that’s interesting, because I just assumed you’re okay, because you have Alex now. Do you love her?
Piper: No, that’s, it’s, it’s difficult.
Larry: Do you love her?
Piper: Yes.
Larry: She named you, you know. She’s the whole fuckin reason you’re in there. How does it feel, to be in love with the woman who ruined our lives?
Piper: You lied to me.
Larry: Guess that makes us perfect for each other.
Piper: I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.
Larry: I think I need some time.
Piper: What does that mean?
Larry: I don’t know, I need some time, okay, I need some time away from you.
Piper: You have to let me fix this.
Larry: I don’t know if you can. 
Random notes: 

Larry just being called out repeatedly before even going on air – talking to a guy whose husband has been in Antarctica for two years, “I get to see her pretty often”. 

Piper: By all means, attribute my legitimate feelings to menses. 

(also let's just ignore the title of the episode and Pornstache as it's really only interesting in as far as it opens a window of opportunity, a vulnerability, to Diaz, who uses it well, even though the fact that she'll have to do it again is awful. Pornstache is the objectively worst)

It’s interesting to see how alliances are formed between people who have nothing else in common: Red confirms that Diaz is pregnant, and comes up with a plan that will both set up Pornstache for his fall and protect Bennett from prosecution. It’s a good plan, but it’s also a terrible, terrible situation that Diaz finds herself in, becoming a pawn in someone else’s power play. 

Larry: You really have to admire how these women find meaning in their days, how they take care of each other.

As much as I resent Larry, the question here isn’t if he is a bad person, it’s why he is in the privileged position of being able to tell these stories, and why he chooses to do so without reflection, without consideration either for the consequences it will have for Piper or whether he is actually allowed to tell them, just because the women he talks about are locked up. The mere fact that they are in prison doesn’t mean that he has a right to turn them into a “cast of characters” or “tropes”. (but the interesting consideration is maybe also – why does Orange is the New Black exist? Why was it told by the person that it was told by, of all the people it concerns? And then the next step – how come the only way these other stories can be told is by turning Piper’s story into a Trojan horse?)

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