This season of Orange Is the New Black has really tried to deal with the “big issues.” After a couple of seasons of villains, in-jokes and inmate politics, season four seems to have stepped back into its grown-up pants and started tackling social commentary with inconsistent grace. Episode five, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” opens with a mention of how feminine hygiene products are deemed “inessential” while the line at medical snakes down and around the hallway. Without the benefit of a cold open, episode five tries to stuff as many themes as possible within the opening scene: MCC’s corporate practices are inhumane; overcrowding has reached a breaking point, making the inmates violent. There is nothing worse than not having enough tampons when you’re on your period. In general, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore” tries (and fails) to weave far too many of its storylines into the same episode.
(Mey Rude also wants you to know the dinosaur information in this episode is at least a year behind the scientific community. When Angie yells “Brontosaurus Rex!” she is corrected by a nameless inmate that it’s “just Brontosaurus, period.” See what they did there? She goes on to mention that now they are calling it the Apatosaurus, saying her son is super into dinosaurs. Actually, though, Brontosaurus’ celebrity status was reclaimed in late 2015.)
In an attempt to consolidate this hydra of an episode, let’s just say that the overcrowding theme of the season is still going strong and sets up a good backdrop for Piper’s re-emerging storyline. This episode also tries to blend in a couple of C-storylines for humor, letting us watch Taystee “hold down the fort” in Caputo’s office, which just turns into a non-linear montage of her attempting to Google her friends (lol at “Sideboobrulez”) and gives us a roundabout way back into the Judy King storyline. We also get a fun role reversal bit where Morello and Suzanne have turned janitorial duty into a detective search for the shower-pooper (“Shower Pooper strikes again!”).
This episode is also filled with the most spectacular tampon commentary ever seen on television. From the oft repeated “borrowing a tampon” joke, to the menstrual cup display at CorrectiCon, to the saving grace of Maritza’s close-call with the guards, the menstrual narrations covers it like a quality overnight heavy-flow maxi pad. The menstrual cup display probably speaks the loudest to this episode because we, as the audience, understand that the solution to this issue (which at the end of the day ends up being a women’s health issue), can be corrected with a “one-time expenditure” that could severely impact a woman’s quality of life. Caputo, however, completely unaware of the reality of actually being a woman, doesn’t even consider the possibility of switching from pads to cups and instead looks at the heavy-duty metal cage display and thinks, “You know, we could really use some of this stuff.” His character, like most others in this show, is so painfully un-self-aware that he really does see himself as a benevolent face in the harsh world of corrections.
I thought CorrectiCon was a masterful way of exploring the capitalism that is driving the Litchfield machine without having to stick us in yet another board room. In my notes I gave the Hufflepuff writers ten points for that one, except I swiftly revoked the ten points (plus five more) because of the addition of Danny’s protest during Linda’s panel. Danny says what we were all thinking: “This is a disgusting display of how industry dollars are spent” and sets himself up as the righteous person Caputo wishes himself to be. But the outburst totally undercuts the creepy subtext of the whole conference and uncovers the concept as something the writers didn’t trust the audience to figure out on their own, even with the heavy-handed examples like the prison slop ice-cream, the novelty handcuffs and the Shanks for the Memories: A History of Prison Weapons panel.
I really wish that Maritza’s flashback had come in a different episode because against CorrectiCon’s social commentary, the tampon debacle, Piper’s story and everything else going on in this episode, Maritza’s background as a con-artist falls a little flat. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about watching Diane Guerrero’s doe-eyed, fast-thinking confidence, but it doesn’t really let us know much more about her than we already did. Sure, watching her speed away in a Ferrari was delightful, but her flashback just felt like a reaffirmation of something we were busy learning about her in Litchfield already: she is smarter than she looks and she’s quick in a crisis. I would go as far as to say that we learned more about Marritza from one line she had in the kitchen in the season one finale. She’s talking about her daughter being at some “marimacha collective” her cousin is a part of, but she’s not worried that they’ll turn her gay. The tenderness in Diane Guerrero’s delivery of that single line speaks volumes to the lack of substance she was given with the con-artist storyline, which at the end of the episode just feels like yet another vehicle (heh) to further the notion that CO Humphrey is a creep.
Tying this mess up at the end with a nice racial-commentary-bow is Piper’s latest storyline, which has taken root in the slow-burn of her character development. Piper has grown slightly more pragmatic in her time at Litchfield, but she’s still an amateur strategists who doesn’t have the forethought or tactics for a true manipulation of the system. Never is her naïveté more apparent than when she unwittingly starts a white supremacy movement. Her “Community Carers” task force doesn’t last more than a few minutes after she describes their mission as going against a “shadowy presence” (racist) with the goal of keeping the prison “pure” (racist) and “clean” (racist). It spins disgustingly out of her hands with chants of “White lives matter!” and a glance at a Confederate flag tattoo, as a chilling rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from Cabaret sweeps us into the credits.