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.
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.