“Orange Is The New Black” Episode 406 Review: Piece of Sh*t

Orange Is the New Black episode 406 is about being and feeling like a piece of shit. It is about guilt and growing a conscience. It is also about Nicky Nichols, played by Natasha Lyonne who is, as usual, wonderful. Unfortunately, though, we open with Luschek dumping butterscotch into his coffee mug. And I groan, because that means this episode is going to heavily focus on a male guard, and we have the rest of every piece of fiction on page or screen to focus on men. I do not come to this show for the guards. Particularly this one, who fucked Nicky Nichols over SO BAD and is so clearly a burned out troglodyte who is inherently unethical due to his own self-interest and stupidity. I suppose characterizing authority figures in prisons this way is important, because fictional narrative does have a way of changing people. Like if even one person lays eyes on on Luschek and questions the perceived moral superiority of uniformed authority figures, cool beans, ya know? But it does mean I’m gonna have to endure a lot of man-plot when all I really want is to get to Nichols already.

“You’ve gotta show up high on your first day, man…but no, you had to go and make a good impression,” he says to his friend who’s given him a ride here because he’s got a boot on his car and his bike is in impound. “I don’t really like to pay too much attention to anything around here, especially if it requires me to do something as a result.” Of course I am angry hearing this, because only a mediocre white dude could pull such a bullshit move and remain gainfully employed. But mostly what I feel is pity. He’s passionless and constantly drunk. He’s sad, Luschek, both for us to watch and literally in the show. He’s especially sad when fellow CO Baxter Bailey tells him his mailbox is overflowing. When he pulls out notes written on yellow lined paper that say things like, “Fuck you, you piece of shit,” he knows instantly the notes are from Nichols. If you’ll recall, Luschek got Nichols sent to max last season because he fingered her as solely responsible for a bag of heroin in the electrical workshop when, in fact, they were in it together.

Due to these notes and these notes alone, Luschek seems to grow a conscience, which feels accurate to me. Like, only by getting notes from the person he fucked over does he feel guilt or even remorse. That feels both in character and also true to human nature for many people.

We do get to Nicky Nichols shortly after. She’s getting her chip for three years sober. After making a few jokes, she sighs and gets real. “This valueless piece of crappy plastic really means a lot to me…well screw it, you know, I’m fucking proud of myself, so…” But upon exiting the meeting, as she’s staring proudly and lovingly at her chip, the guards take it away. It is contraband. And thus we know exactly what direction this episode is going—it is just like the rest of the season. Wherever there is hope, it will be stamped out. It’s a bleak view for the writers to take right now, but it makes sense. 2016 has been a terrible year on the whole. But this particular tiny act is also brilliant foreshadowing. Perhaps in any other place, she’d get to keep that three-year chip. But here, she doesn’t. 

I wish I could spend one paragraph and one paragraph alone on Piper, but I can’t, because the episode is entitled Piece of Shit, and Piper’s been behaving like a piece of shit for four seasons, so. Here we are. The first time we see her in this episode, she is literally running from a white supremacist. Symbolism much? She fed that monster, riled it up, and then is like NOPE, BYE. She has control over at least this aspect of the system and she benefits deeply from it, but she is unwilling to face its awful root causes. Her “task force” tries to stop the Latinas from congregating. Here’s where we get the first racial slur of the episode. It escalates hard. 

I can’t imagine that Orange Is The New Black has always been free from racial slurs, but I can’t remember them ever coming this hard and this fast, and out of the mouths of tattooed white faces so casually. Like they are discussing how best to cook eggs, or something. It’s horrifying and overt and it just keeps happening over and over again. And you know what? Like much of the piece of shit behavior, this feels accurate to me. As does Piper’s reaction when Sankey, one of her white supremacists, outs a possible panty operation and Piper’s first response is to frame Ruiz, who has formed a competing panty-racket. Instead of getting sent to the SHU, Ruiz gets an extra three to five years on her sentence. It is awful. It’s even worse than Stella, somehow. The only thing in this episode that doesn’t feel accurate is Ruiz’s decision to turn to selling drugs after she gets busted for panties. It’s not a leap I understand. It feels like the writers need a drug ring in minimum security for the story they want to tell next.

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There is no end to people being pieces of shit in this episode. It’s like piece of shit thunderstorm or piece of shit blizzard. Caputo pitches a classroom initiative that includes liberal-arts-style classes and we can already tell that his terrible girlfriend is going to fuck with that because: no hope allowed. Prison guards stop and frisk only people of color looking for panties and Piper’s response is, “They’re not even looking in our direction and they’re never going to.” Luschek wants to finish a video game after Gina gets hurt with a drill, so she calls him a piece of shit and Donuts kicks him out of the house so he’ll go do his job (once again, no compassion until someone makes him). They put the words “If she’s telling you she needs something you need to listen to her,” into the mouth of a rapist. Judy King has the best line of the episode (“You are a straight white man. You don’t get to be the victim, sweetie.”), but coerces Luschek into sex he doesn’t want to have (this is rape) in return for helping Nichols get moved back out of max. They’re not going for easy characterization here. Nothing about this episode is easy.

One of the only people who’s not behaving like a piece of shit in this episode is Nichols, who seems to be taken by waves of circumstance in really heartbreaking ways. While performing her duties as a cleaning porter in max, she finds Sophia in the SHU. She does her best, but won’t bring Sophia a blanket because she doesn’t have extra and could get into more trouble. It’s gut wrenching to watch, because we all want to believe we’d find a damn way to bring Sophia a blanket in this circumstance. We all want to believe we’re chaotic good in alignment. But the hard truth is that we’re not. Many of us wouldn’t break the rules if it meant consequences for us.

Instead, she gives Sophia a Newsweek magazine with Hillary on the cover and tells her to read every word slowly, even the ads. She’s resisting all the drugs available in max and even tells Stella off for using around her (the dialogue feels hella clunky in this scene by the way—like Ruby Rose can’t believe what she’s saying). But when Luschek comes and unburdens his emotions on her for trying to apologize, and when she sees copious amounts of blood in Sophia’s empty cell, she begins using again. And a guard gives it to her. Just as she’s about to get returned to minimum security. It is heartbreaking to watch her spiral out of control, to make the active choice to go down on a guard in exchange for drugs. She sees the hopelessness and responds in the habitual way, even as we are all screaming at the computer screen. And it all feels accurate.

Remember when Orange Is The New Black used to have comedic scenes as well? There are two things we get that are close to comedy in this episode—Taystee, Cindy and Suzanne trying to get a photo of Judy King to sell to tabloids and Alison and Cindy bonding over reading Going Clear. Lolly also gets more and more delightful in her conversations with Healy and Alex. She’s humorous, charming and quickly becoming one of my favorite characters. “I’ve got a lot of prisons in my life,” she says of literal prison and of mental illness. And because of the way this season is going, where hope isn’t allowed, the very fact that they are building her up means that nothing good will happen for her. Poussey and Soso are adorable together, as per ushe, with Poussey reassuring Soso that she doesn’t have to do anything sexually she doesn’t want to do. AND THEY SAY I LOVE YOU TO EACH OTHER DURING THIS EPISODE AND IT’S THE CUTEST. Too bad this is the No Hope season.

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 545 articles for us.

20 Comments

    • (And a long sentence to make sure no spoilers show up in the sidebar for this comment too. Not sure how long is reasonable before we don’t have to do this anymore but I figure a week?)

      I cried my face off during the scene between Poussey and Soso, now that I know what’s coming. I was on the fence about whether to finish watching the season past ep. 11, but based on how devastated I already feel every time she shows her face onscreen, I think I won’t put myself through that. :(

      • Here is a sentence. Here is a long long long long long long long long sentence so spoilers won’t accidentally show up in the sidebar. I will do this for as long as it takes for everyone to catch up because I personally hate spoilers and had to stay off the internet until I finished the season.

        When I read what Samira Wiley’s said on the subject, I feel tons better.

  1. I ALSO HAVE A SENTENCE, A GREAT, CARING SENTENCE NO ONE DELICATE WILL LOOK PAST YOU’RE WELCOME

    “and this fast, and out of the mouths of tattooed white faces so casually”
    I feel like actually this is the least casual the white racism has been portrayed, I remember like yesterday Piper being so weird about the whole cliquey way it worked in season one, only now it’s not just about who you get your toothbrush from which, like you mentioned, feels more accurate.

  2. The plot line with Piper and the white supremacists really reminded me of the GOP and Trump.
    “Yes, we were trying to do things to benefit white people at the expense of POC but you can’t do it so openly and vulgarly! Dog whistles only, y’all! (Uh-oh – did we just create a monster we can’t control?)”

    I also liked how Judy King raping Luschek made it clear that a violent system is violent and dangerous for everyone – even for white men who rarely experience consequences for their actions. Just because you’re more powerful than most, in a violent system full of power imbalances, coercion, and no safe way to seek recourse for harm done, you’re still in danger.

  3. While the behavior of the white supremacists is very accurate this year, it all felt a little TOO real. There was just so much of racial slurs to the point where I wanted them all bludgeoned to death by the end of the season and had a hard time separating the actors from their roles. That’s rarely a problem for me but skinheads with face tattoos spewing disgustingly hateful things kind of imprint on your brain after a while.

    I don’t know this would be considered a spoilery to say but I can’t tell you how glad I am that the writers actually gave Jessica Pimentel so much to do this year but I wish they hadn’t done it at the expense of having to give her character a complete personality transplant. I’m sure loosing a child and then getting extra time on your sentence definitely does something to a person but I just don’t buy that the Maria from previous seasons would suddenly become this drug dealing ringleader that all the other girls, including Gloria, seem to bow down to and be afraid of. Or that she would be as ruthless as she was about carrying out certain things. That said, I enjoyed Jessica’s acting all season.

  4. As much as I hate Luschek, I am truly angry at the rape storyline. It just happens, then it stays unadressed forever, except to be played into a sad joke. I mean this whole season was bullshit with Pennsatucky’s storyline, but…rape isn’t funny. I don’t find it humourous that an old lady rapes a man.

    • I don’t find rape in any context funny either. What I do find ironic, and twisted, is the ease with which Judy King finds her “payment for services rendered to Luschek”, in, coercing rape from him.

      The abuse of power by anyone in this episode is phenomenal. The unequal power and privelege of inmate Judy King contrasted with other prisoners, and prison staff, and the dances done around her by staff and inmates alike to mitigate the lawsuit she may aim against their prison service after she is discharged, the payment she commands for favours provided, the stakes involved, everything and everyone has a price, and because it is a prison environment, one can charge the price one wants, if one is powerful, and desperate, enough.

  5. p sure it was butterscotch schnapps, which is disgusting.

    and i’ve said it before, but damn, heroin addiction really agrees with stella, she looks like she’s been shooting up wheatgrass and spirulina. the healthiest looking prison junkie i’ve ever seen.

  6. the scene with nicky getting drugs from the guard jarred me in a way i didn’t expect. like, oh, yes, women are just as abusive in this fucked up system as men! great! to quote suzanne, everyone gets “mad with slight empowerment” apparently…

  7. Spolier-preventing sentence here, just taking my time getting to the substance of what I want to say because I want to spare my sisters from the sidebar. Not sure how long the sentence needs to be. I hope this is long enough….

    The hopelessness is hard to watch, but I also think that feeling that way makes me… well… if it’s hard for me to watch, it’s all that much harder for people to LIVE. So, in that sense, I feel like it’s necessary to be honest.

    As long as the show is realistic and not making shit up just for the sake of being bleak, I feel it’s necessary. People find glimmers of joy and reasons to live, even in the worst places. But still– a show about prison that’s too amusing would be terribly dishonest and exploitive, in the sense of taking a real situation and using it for the entertainment of others, while burying the reality it came from.

    Of course, again, it’s also a danger to just turn it into pity, or “awareness porn”– but I think the show has made a credible case for the strength, beauty, creativity, and humanity of the women portrayed, so it’s not just the hopelessness, but also the value and the signs of life and love that get shown.

    I think in the best case scenario, seeing the bleakness would be cathartic for those who’ve lived it. I know that at a certain point in my own process of getting through some extremely horrific experiences, I sought out media that portrayed exactly how horrible things were, because it validated me and helped me to be able to process my experiences. I would like to read reviews of this show written by actual prisoners or ex-prisoners. I think I did read some after season 1, and if I recall correctly, they mostly felt the show was not bleak enough, that it was sugar-coating and pulling punches. Maybe they changed the tone and dialed up the bleakness in response to that.

    I still feel so much pain watching it. The more you grow to love and appreciate the characters, and to realize it’s NOT pure fiction, but speaks to a real situation in the world, the worse it is that it’s credibly hopeless. But that’s how we get activism, that’s how we get social change, right? I wish this show came with a manual of Things To Do, so some of that can be channeled more easily. But then again– there’s that privilege, wanting to be spoonfed answers, wanting ease.

    I read a book years ago, called “Sing Soft, Sing Loud” by Patricia McConnel. She talks about her experience winding up in prison and eventually getting out. She says that it’s 100% true that the system is rigged to destroy you and you can’t escape that– and that also it’s 100% true that you have to own your life and take responsibility anyway. That the only way to survive it is to BOTH recognize how much of a victim you are AND ALSO how it’s all your responsibility.

    I read that book a very long time ago, so I’m heavily paraphrasing from a fading memory. But I bring it up because watching OITNB, I think it’s kind of saying the same thing. On the one hand, it’s impossible what these people are up against. On the other hand, if they just get stuck focusing on that, it’s worse. That both/and perspective is like juggling your brain, but I guess that’s what it takes in an impossible situation. Prison isn’t the only time that rule applies.

  8. Ok, I’m gonna bring up an aspect of this episode which, comparatively speaking, is atrociously trivial. Thus it’s perhaps unsurprising that it spoke most directly to me. It was the sexual dynamic between Poussey and Soso. I have been swimming against the tide this season, trying to enjoy the sweetness of their dynamic, despite Soso’s racism, despite the fact that Poussey deserves someone…better, stronger, more authentic and honest. And then, at the same time, feeling bereft when Soso becomes yet another apparently bisexual character who is NOT IDENTIFIED AS SUCH. (Plus, isn’t it shitty that the two bisexuals so far have been the two most privileged characters, Piper and Soso, as if bisexuality were some sort of designer sexuality?) So, now, we find out that Soso is a ‘Lazy Femme,’ a ‘pillow princess’ and ‘not lesbian enough.’ I’ll spare you all the kinda exhausting conversations this sparked with my sociologically minded dad. And just say–really? Do we need this? A bisexual, feminine-of-centre woman who isn’t willing to go down on her girlfriend? (Leaving aside that Poussey is as exquisitely sensitive and lovely in this situation as anyone could hope.) It is not the largest thing in this episode, not by far, but just a thing that stuck with me, which no one has yet addressed…. Big old bisexual sighs.

    • I think Lorna is bi too, right?

      And Soso… I don’t know. It felt like she was still doing a lot of processing about her identity. Like maybe even though she’d slept with women before, she hadn’t spent a lot of time reflecting on it. Now that she has nothing *but* time, she’s thinking it all through. Maybe she’ll grow into a label for herself? But I felt like her behavior rang true to who this character is and where she’s at right now.

  9. Soso is gross. NO SPOILERS because I know something terrible is going to happen later in the season but I don’t know what it is, but I wish it would be something that would eliminate this character forever. (And I know it’ll probably be the opposite.)

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