Yep, I’m late. Orange is the New Black is one of those shows I only watch on the treadmill (anything my partner doesn’t watch, cuz I only watch TV alone if I’m exercising), and then the gym closed, and then we had 16 months of treadmill repair/delivery customer service nightmares and I finally dove into the last two seasons in July.
I sympathize if you were never drawn to it, or quit after the first season: I did for several years. It’s promoted as a “pretty, rich, White lady has to go to prison!” dramedy (read: One of US temporarily becomes One of THEM; presumed “us” = White and not poor). Piper is pretty annoying, and most other characters’ depth is slow in coming. I only kept on because it was good treadmill watching – a fantastic opening song, some excitement, some comedy, some violence – all stuff to keep you runnin’ (though I usually walk). But it got better and better, exploring some of my favorite (hated) subjects in great depth: private prisons, inmate abuse, post-incarceration hell, and the immigrant detention system. It did win a Peabody, so I’ll let that stand to defend it and carry on with my personal opinions.
Some seasons are better than others, and for my money season 7 was the best of them. Was that because it made me cry again and again? Maybe. It was super dark, but not without joy & redemption. Quite a bit of redemption, actually. And perhaps even more than the fact-based portrayals of the horrors of the “justice system” in the US, that is what I appreciated most about the show. Not for the dramatic tension so much as the social lesson. I do believe the vast majority of people are redeemable, if given the environment and assistance to support healing and restoration, and OitNB writers seemed to agree. Not only is psychopathy rare, it’s less interesting in the long term than complexity and doubt and the difficult journey of trying to make amends. The Wire knew this too. A lot of characters could be terribly cruel, but Marlo Stanfield stands out as one of the few without conscience.
There are a handful here: the guard who replaces the warden in the final episode, Clitvak in the ICE facility, inmate Carol, Linda Ferguson, “Vee” Parker and a couple of minor prisoners are either sociopaths or so needlessly cruel and/or self-ignorant they seem incapable of change. But many more either go through transformational change or at least are developed enough to earn our sympathy. And unlike some of Jenji Kohan’s plots & wacky sideplots (see Weeds), the transformation is believable. Prison generally comes, if not at the result of the worst thing a person has ever done, at least as the culmination of a life of getting into trouble due to their environment, poverty, or, of course, race. So as unwelcoming an environment as it clearly is for growth and self-reflection, one can see the potential in having nothing but time and a life away from your familiars offering the possibility of a better understanding and a path to a better way of living.
What I find interesting in my own sympathies is that I am most intrigued by the White folks’ growth in OitNB, and that says something about the show. Most of the Black and Latina characters (women, really; and there is only one significant Black character who is a guard or administrator, which is realistic) don’t need redemption. Vee, Taystee’s former employer, is incapable of anything beyond selfless manipulation. (She’s killed off, so at least we feel redeemed.) The rest of the BIPoC women are the products of their environment and circumstances, even more than the White inmates (and let’s be clear, I think this is true for everyone). This isn’t supermax; they’re not murderers. Most are there for drug-related crimes or theft. I enjoyed observing as my perception of individual women changed from irritation to enjoyment the more I learned about them, and you learn something about almost every recurring character. However, I didn’t need some dramatic change in order to come around to compassion for any of the Black or Latina women (except for evil Vee and maybe Aleida), whereas the White folks were a much bigger struggle for me, and for the show. They bad White folks seemed like inferior humans by design, which I found really interesting in a mainstream, White-led series.
Perhaps a better show could have evoked empathy without flashbacks, shown the good in folks without cutting to their previous innocence or joy, but there is a real benefit to flashbacks in this show. Not only do you get to see a bit of what brought people to where they are, you get to see them in normal clothes, doing normal things. Prison, like war, dehumanizes people in part by turning them into barely distinguishable , uniform representations of wrongness. Seeing them in makeup, in street clothes, with friends, shows them for the potential they had, and the whole humans they are, rather than the situation they’re stuck in.
As to my favorite White redemptions, they are Tiffany Doggett (Pennsatucky), and the awesome combo of Joe Caputo and Fig. Doggett is perhaps the most hateful character in season one: trashy, loud, uneducated, openly White supremacist, violent, literally preachy, petty, violent, irrational, and cruel. If protagonists were built on change alone, she’d be the main character of the show. Over seven seasons she drops the religious act, cleans up, gets new teeth, learns about patriarchy through the guidance of a masculine lesbian, excels in class, becomes close friends with one Black woman and tutored by another, stops allowing men to treat her as a sexual object, surrenders herself to the cops after escaping prison, and learns both to forgive and let go. As she says herself, prison fucks most people up, but it made her better. And she is made better by being exposed to a far wider range of life than she ever would have been in her poor, Southern town where her mother tells her that her vagina is the only thing that gives her value, and her dad abuses her when he isn’t completely absent. Suzanne is the clear, consistent heart of the show, but Doggett steps up as someone you can really root for, which makes her self-loathing drug death, and Taystee’s discovery that she passed the GED, all the more devastating.
Caputo and Fig, the dynamic duo that are occasional wardens and administrators before and after the private takeover of the prison, are both essentially burnt out when the series starts. Both are changed not only by their weird and somewhat hilarious relationship to each other, one in which they each accept the other for who they are (Fig the bitch; Caputo the porn addict), and in that way lessen the less than desirable qualities others rejected. This clearly opens up soft spots in both of them; and from the other side, the horrors of prison profiteering does just as much to bring them around. As firsthand witnesses to the abject cruelty and greed of the corporation they work for, as wardens and then, worse, ICE warden for Fig, they feel compelled to work against its destructiveness, even if in little ways – starting a Restorative Justice program; testifying on behalf of an inmate; getting a refugee, pregnant through rape, a Plan B pill or a legally guaranteed translator. They go from defeated and defensive to hopeful – hopeful enough to adopt a kid, which is a powerful symbol for this middle-aged couple. (The actors are both exceptional, which definitely helped.)
And I particularly liked the subplot of Caputo’s #metoo moment, even though (or perhaps because) it made me sad & uncomfortable at first (I do become loyal pretty quickly). His actions aren’t exaggerated or ignored, but the accusation is ultimately recognized as legitimate. Calling out his behavior on social media doesn’t ruin his life: it’s the actions he takes thereafter that get him removed from his jobs and force him to pull back from the legitimately good work he’s doing. But even that is put in perspective – Fig is the perfect partner to have when the story breaks, though he refuses to follow her wise advice – she has little tolerance for weakness and has clearly dealt with sexual harassment her entire life and is hardened against it, while still acknowledging it’s pervasiveness. And when the baby killer – the worst of the worst in prison – offers her sympathy and advice, it really does put things in perspective. He’s being punished, but it won’t be forever; he has to get through his sentence just like the prisoners do.
Maybe this focus on White redemption isn’t the best choice; maybe having so few Black villains isn’t fair or representative; maybe it’s minimizing rather than glorifying, but it certainly works for me. In fact, it’s perfect for me, because I believe the salvation of our country rests on White people changing and growing. If we give up on that, we’re pretty much fucked. There are too many poor, ignored, abused, brainwashed White folks out there for us to restore democracy and more toward equity without them.
So I take back my eyerolling and snarky comments about Orange is the New Black in years past. It’s weird, it’s a little uneven, but it has obvious value, an important portrayal of our carceral system, and a big ‘ol emotional punch to boot.