Thursday 16 October 2014

Orange is the New Black – Everything ends. Even prison. Try to focus on that.

Orange is the New Black: 2x03 Hugs Can Be Deceiving.

One of the defining features of prisons, of Litchfield, is the proximity of other people. They are almost inescapable; living space is scarce, privacy is non-existent, and apart from the constant monitoring that the inmates experience from the guards, they are also incapable of avoiding each other as they go about their days. They eat and sleep together, they work together, even in their private conversations with their loved ones, the others are always nearby, their voices a constant murmur. Only one of the stalls in the bathroom has a door. In the general population quarters, there are no floor-to-ceiling walls. 
As we’ve followed Piper through her first day and first weeks in prison, that lack of privacy was often portrayed as invasive, something that anyone coming from outside would struggle with – not just the search procedures, but the constancy of not being alone. But there are other aspects of this state too: there is a community, systems of mutual help not just out of obligation but because it is the only way that this situation becomes survivable. Sometimes, other inmates are a source of irritation or even danger, like Pennsatucky, last season; but more often, they are a source of desperately needed comfort, they create a normality that provides a sense of belonging in an impossible situation. This is why SHU is so awful, the ultimate deprivation in a place that at first glance is so effective because it takes privacy away from its prisoners, but in the course of our investigation actually only works because nobody is forced to be alone with their thoughts, to ponder the time ahead. Piper almost lost herself in there. 
Vee understands how prison works because she knows how people do. It takes only a couple of seconds to read a person, to understand what makes them work. Vee is also the villain of the story, as much as a story like OITNB has villains – because everyone inside is selfish to an extent, self-serving, self-involved, it is a necessity, but in her case, there’s barely anything she wouldn’t do in order to gain power and control of a situation. Prison isn’t any different than the world outside in that regard, it’s just a playing ground to build something that is hers. There are two sides to this, as seen before with Taystee: it’s a community of sorts, one that provides as much as it takes, but it is also a profoundly hierarchical one in which nobody is ever safe because Vee’s personal interests always come ahead of everybody else’s. 
Hugs Can Be Deceiving is Suzanne’s episode. In the context of “other people”, Suzanne’s position within Litchfield is even more precarious than everybody else’s, and her experiences there mirror those she had growing up outside. Her adoptive family tried everything to make her feel normal and give her a normal childhood – all with good intentions, to protect her from being cast out, but at the same time not recognizing that Suzanne needed more support, that regardless of how much they pushed her to keep up with the other kids (and later, her little sister’s friends), she would always stand out. They did it out of love, but inevitably, Suzanne keeps failing their expectations, at first when she isn’t accepted into a circle of friends (“but dragons are cool!” – struggling to read social situations correctly but at the same time, bouncing with energy), later when her voice fails her in giving a graduation speech in front of her school, shaking with anxiety, being laughed at. 
Suzanne’s mother: You know what kids suffer in this world, Melanie, the ones that are told they are different. The ones that aren’t given the opportunity to succeed alongside every other kid their age and I will be damned if I label my child less than, so that the rest of the world can put her in a box and dismiss her before she’s had a chance to succeed in this life.
There’s an interesting parallel between how her parents attempt to help her, insisting she be included, and how the other inmates attempt to keep her safe even though their resources for empathy are so depleted. In the absence of any serious psychological help, and with guards who are in no way prepared to deal with her, the only thing they can do is make her keep time in their games of charades – they keep her on the outside both to protect her and themselves, and it’s the only thing they know how to do. 
Vee, on the other hand, sees an in. Like with Taystee, she watches and understands immediately what Suzanne needs and how she can bind her to her. Make her feel like she is useful rather than someone who is shoved into a corner and made quiet. Vee didn’t manage to win back Taystee as easily as she expected, but she knows exactly how to win over Suzanne. She knows to call her by her name. 
Suzanne doesn’t want to be taken care of, because that would mean that she isn’t like the other women in prison – not as fierce, not as strong. Vee sets up a whole system designed to get her back on top, and Suzanne is only a small cog in that, but the trick is to make her feel like she’s in the centre, not in that way that her parents did, not in that day that the Christmas play did, but one that makes it easy for her to finally succeed in something. 

At the same time, Piper comes back to Litchfield and delights in the familiarity of the place, knowing how to navigate it, falling back with the people who have become her community. It’s not her first day in Litchfield, and compared to the last time she walked into the prison, she is a different person, someone who now has legends attached to her which she soon realizes turn her into something else completely. She is no longer “College”, she is the girl who almost killed someone in a fight. The episode sets her up in contrast to a new inmate, Brook Soso, who resembles Piper during her first days – she comes prepared with social theory, doesn’t comprehend the seriousness of prison, and has no idea how to navigate the place safely. She reads situation incorrectly, and, since Piper still is a terrible person, the one inmate who has the knowledge to help her, who could empathize with her, since she had a similar experience, has no interest in supporting her. Brook reminds her of herself and so she finds her even more annoying than everybody else, she is a constant reminder of how much Piper has changed in prison, and how little she resembles the person she was on her first day. She doesn’t comfort Brook, not even in that way that she was comforted by Lorna and Nicky and Yoga Jones when she first got there – she does it so she gets her peaceful sleep. She has no patience for Brook. As annoying as Brook may be, with her synchronicity of life and her romanticising prison life as some form of communal living, an opportunity to perform her politics in a different environment (and it’s not like Piper hasn’t said these things, over and over, only a couple of months ago), the revealing part is that Piper hates the past version of herself enough to hate Brook more than anybody else (“I’m a lone wolf, Brook, and a vicious one. Don’t make me rip your throat out with my teeth.”)
Piper is never just one thing. She is always terrible, but also always a hundred other things. Nicky gets her, and Nicky call her out on her crap (“It’s great to see you evolving Chapman, and getting past the whole I am the star of my own movie and everyone else’s too complex.”), but she also appreciates her. 
Piper: I spent a lot of time wondering if it mattered if I died.
Nicky: In the macro sense, no. You’re one cheerio in the bulk box of life. But, you fucking tickle me, so I think it would matter.
In the greater picture, isn’t that the best thing anyone could ever say to you? Piper has just gone through one of the most terrifying experiences of her life and come back from it, seen herself through everybody else’s eyes, and it all goes back to the question of whether she is more or less herself in there, if trying to stay alive in prison is making her into something else or stripping her down to the person she has always been, minus everything that a good and privileged life adds. I bet Larry and Alex have never said anything so resonant to her. And nobody has ever done anything as kind for her as Suzanne, when she wandered outside and saw Piper beating up Pennsatucky, and stopped her. Suzanne doesn’t comprehend that this was the great act, that she’s already achieved something (and maybe it doesn’t matter anymore, because Vee already told her that Piper doesn’t matter – she’s just a dandelion, and Suzanne is a garden rose). 

This is how Vee plays, and wins. Suzanne gets her cigarettes, cigarettes get her cake, cake gets her power. Anything that is scarce – drugs, appreciation, luxury – becomes an invaluable item of trade, and it’s a process that none of the guards or the prison management would ever understand. Poussey does understand, and watches it unfold cautiously, worried. 

Random notes: 

I have mixed feelings about Daya and Bennett this season, especially since Bennett seems in no way prepared for any of the responsibility. Daya wants so much for her child, and Bennett just gets everything wrong, and never once thinks about the position he is in beyond his fear of being discovered. 

Red and Vee have a  lot of history together but for now the episode only hints at it in their little dance of attempting to impress each other, intimate each other, pretending to be friends, pretending to be harmless, which neither of these women has ever been in their life. 

The episode sets up Lorna’s storyarc, too, when she finds out that Christopher is getting married to someone else. We don’t know anything else yet. 

Larry, like any decent human being would, realizes there is another chance to capitalize on Piper being in prison and runs with it since this boy will never ever achieve anything by himself (he also has a date with a woman who is either fucking with his head to all of our delight or genuinely into men with zero ambition, or soul – would be quite entertaining if Larry’s dad had sent her in precisely for that first thing, though).

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