Friday 26 September 2014

Orange is the New Black – I got a chance here, and I’m doing it for all of us.

Orange is the New Black: 2x02 Looks Blue, Tastes Red.

Family as a concept makes much more sense in terms of the function it performs for everyone who is part of it rather than the mere biological fact of a blood relationship. The episode centres on Taystee, but the other smaller storylines also feed into this: Daya, struggling with her pregnancy, has to negotiate both her mother’s and Gloria’s claim to her, her biological mother suddenly discovering that she does care now that Gloria, who assumes a sort-of mother role for all the girls in her kitchen, is stepping in (the conflict is resolved beautifully because Daya realizes that it is actually nice to not just have one but two caring mothers). Red struggles both with the fact that her family outside is in danger – having lost the valuable prison contracts, they are ostracized and the shop is going so badly that they can no longer contribute to her prison funds – and the loss of her assumed family inside Litchfield now that she is no longer running the kitchen (her issues with her family remain unresolved, but she finds a new potential gang in the other older women). 
But it’s all about Taystee, and her complicated relationship with family and with ambition. It’s been made clear before that she is incredibly gifted, soaking up everything that she can from the prison library, but unable to realize her talents in the face of the world that she was born into: in her neighbourhood, people don’t have careers, they have jobs, regardless of their aptitude for numbers. And without biological parents, trapped in a foster system that is indifferent at best and horrifying at worst, she is left to her own devices to try and find a way out, which she did ever since she was a child: trying to appeal to potential adoptive parents, but always painfully incapable of making herself quieter, smaller or any less witty, smart or outspoken. With the introduction of Vee (a much more formidable villain than Pornstache was last season), we meet a character with an incredible aptitude to read and understand people’s motivation.
Taystee: I’m cute.
Vee: No, you’re big, and your hair is ratty, and you’re too eager and too dark. And now your mouth is blue, but now I suppose it tastes like red.
Taystee: You’re nasty.
Vee: I just call em like I see em.
The flashbacks, showing Taystee at different stages of her life, are almost like a slow seduction, with Taystee trying very hard not to fall into the same patterns that all her friends follow, but ultimately incapable of escaping Vee and her promise of the best possible life that she can have in this world – running the books for a drug dealer who recruits children and is running an empire of sorts. It’s tricky, psychologically, because Vee, from the moment she first sees Taystee, knows that what she wants is a family, and that is exactly what she has to offer, aside from the job. She cooks meals and invites her “children” to the table, and the lines blur enough for Taystee to finally feel at home and promise loyalty, in spite of the fact that it ultimately lands her in Litchfield (the episode does not yet reveal the true depths of Vee’s power games). 
It’s hard not to see the appeal of what Vee has to offer in the face of the cynicism that reigns within Litchfield. Now that Figueroa is under the scrutiny of the press for mismanaging the funds, she starts to invest in superficial programmes that appear to profit the prisoners, but in fact are just façade – the mock job fair obviously does not prepare anyone for the careers that they are likely to have outside, and the flashbacks alone unmask the irony of the lady telling the girls to dress for the careers that they would want to have rather than the ones that are actually possible for them (and of course, Piper, the one person who might have it easiest amongst them, is still in Chicago and therefore missing from the episode). The disregard for the actual inmates is obvious in how the job fair is run, where some of them are intentionally set up for failure just to demonstrate how things shouldn’t be done. But Taystee – eternally optimistic and driven and ambitious, sees this as an opportunity to prove herself and buys into the idea that being successful here might lead to being successful outside. She studies, she applies herself, she stuns everyone with a perfect performance, but in the end, her dream of turning this success into something that will be meaningful outside is shot down brutally by Fig. 
Figueroa: This isn’t a contest. You do your best because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Why is that so hard for your people to understand, you’re like babies, where is my present, pay attention to me, give me things, fix the heat, build a gym, I’m not your goddamn mommy, grow up.
The system is indifferent at best and harmful at worst, and of course, it’s exactly in that moment that Vee reappears, the person who promised to be both – a mother, and someone offering the version of success that Taystee never truly wanted but that was the only one available to her. 

Random notes: 

The episode works very interestingly with the one before, which was so effective in terms of portraying Piper’s terrible, disorienting experience in a place that she did not know: Litchfield almost seems like home now, with familiar faces and rules. 

The third smaller storyline is Larry, caring for Polly’s baby now that Polly’s husband is on a self-realizing hunting trip, and in the course of it discovering his feelings for Piper’s best friend, which is perhaps the most dreadful storyline this show has ever attempted and will therefore mostly be discussed here.  Also jfc Polly, first rule of true friendship is to never, ever do the “secretly I am siding with you against my best friend” thing. Gross. 

Leanne continues to be the best. “What if I wanna be like, a marine biologist, do you guys have a wetsuit. […] I just wanna swim with dolphins!”

Also, the episode sets up a different dynamic: Pennsatucky is returned to general population (after a haunting stay in psych), and still confused by the drugs that have been given to her, realizes in the course of a conversation with Healy that she actually has leverage over him now, because he did not intervene in Piper’s attack. I like how this storyline ultimately pens out: the most that Pennsatucky can dream of asking for is new teeth, which will later set her up to be ostracized by her prison family (or rather, her pride over it will, and the fact that Leanne quite enjoys the peace and quiet that came after Pennsatucky left). 

Nicky: According to the aptitude test, I should be a professional athlete, a park ranger, or a correctional officer. Are you at all aware that you’ve just told an inmate in prison that she should become a correctional officer. What the fuck is wrong with you. 

Suzanne: I was hoping to work with mentally ill children. I think I could offer some insight into what they might be experiencing to help them to heal and recover. 

(I’m not a big fan of where the season is going to ultimately go with Suzanne but this small moment is so beautiful and poignant)

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