“Orange Is The New Black” 411 Review: “People Persons”

This season of Orange Is The New Black has been criticized for introducing too many new characters, thus spreading the character development too thin – packing this many new storylines into one season makes it difficult to keep track of them all. With so much going on in every episode, it’s hard to feel like any storyline truly resolves itself. It also makes it difficult to gauge how outraged we should be by the endless villains this season has to offer – Piscatella, Humps, MCC, Judy King, the white supremacists, the prison industrial complex as a whole, the writers of this show. No one antagonist commands quite the same attention as Vee, which is a relief as Vee was often painted as cartoonishly evil, but in the end, no one antagonist truly stands out. The only consistent thing throughout this episode is this season’s theme: utter hopelessness.

Piper’s allegedly courageous stand from the previous episode has all the markings of typical privileged Piper bullshit, especially when she’s allowed a drink and Blanca isn’t. That all disappears quickly when the whole prison is put on lockdown following the discovery of the murdered guard’s corpse. Poor Alex has barely been holding it together this season and she immediately begins fearing the worst, but Red and Frida remain cool as cucumbers; both of them have been through this before, in one sense or another. Honestly, the more we learn about Frida, the less I understand about what she’s doing in minimum security prison; that lady is stone cold.

When Red is interrogated, she remains unflappable, even when the dead guard’s keys are discovered hidden in her office. In the end, it’s Lolly who goes down for the whole thing, which is unfortunately the safest option for everyone else involved. Lolly has a hard time keeping track of her own reality, and no matter what she tells the guards, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever believe her. Lori Petty has done an amazing job breathing life into this character, and it’s heartbreaking when she’s dragged off to psych; the system has failed to protect Lolly in every way imaginable.

Equally heartbreaking is Suzanne’s backstory, which is so heavy it feels almost unnecessary. We already know that Suzanne has difficulty gauging other people’s boundaries, but it was brutal to watch her misguidedly kidnap, frighten and ultimately endanger a child. Suzanne spends much of the episode trying to understand appropriate boundaries, especially when it comes to her relationship with Maureen. This whole process is further complicated by Humps and the other guards, who use the lockdown as an excuse to play sadistic games with the inmates at their disposal. Poor Suzanne is so gentle and earnest, trying as hard as she can to assume that Maureen has the best of intentions, so afraid of upsetting a potential friend – but when Maureen taunts her by saying some truly unfair things, Suzanne breaks. She pounds Maureen until her face is bruised and bloody, until other inmates have to drag her away sobbing. The guards do nothing.

For some reason, this episode works very hard to drum up sympathy for Healy, Caputo and Coates, who are all dealing with the discovery of the guard’s corpse in very different ways. Unfortunately, all three of these men have treated women like disposable objects, and I have a really difficult time caring about their feelings. I especially take issue with the humanization of Coates, a man the writers seem determined to turn into a sympathetic character, the most compassionate of the guards. While I appreciate the show’s attempt to flesh out their already complex characters, there is no reason for Coates to exist in a grey area. Lest we forget, this is a man who forced an inmate to crawl on the ground and pick up a donut with her mouth before raping her in the back of a van. I honestly don’t care if he gets scared in a cornfield, on a night Bayley idiotically describes as “an important night in the history of the prison.”

I do feel sorry for one guard, though, and that’s Luschek. The man’s a lazy, cynical fuck-up, but at this point he’s the only person on staff at Litchfield who still seems like a human being. He’s clearly shaken up when Piscatella puts him in charge of guarding Judy King, which is very understandable considering she coerced him into sex against his will a few episodes back. Still, Luschek being Luschek, he isn’t able to resist slacking off and doing MDMA with Judy and Yoga Jones when it’s offered. The results are so messy I hardly know where to start.

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Judy is a very different kind of villain – everything is a power play for her, and she uses her time in lockdown to establish a very creepy sense of dominance over both her roommate and her guard. Encouraged by the wide-eyed earnestness the drug brings out in the three of them, Jones tries to explain to Judy that other people exist even when she’s not trying to use them to her own advantage. For one brief moment, Jones seems to realize the degree to which she’s let her own privileges affect who she is and how she treats people, but an unfazed Judy King works her magic and before you know it, everything’s going exactly Judy’s way once again. It’s chilling to see these three sharing party drugs and having a wild night as the mental and physical health needs of other inmates are ignored and/or willfully violated.

Truly, this is the season of no hope.

Stef Schwartz is a founding member and the self-appointed Vapid Fluff Editor at Autostraddle.com. She currently resides in New York City, where she spends her days writing songs nobody will ever hear and her nights telling much more successful musicians what to do. Follow her on twitter and/or instagram.

Stef has written 455 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. Also can we talk about the blatant racism disturbingly embedded in the production throughout this season? Not only does Piper get water and Blanca doesn’t, and at the end of the literal stand off, the camera follows how Piper brokenly gets helped down from the table with open arms from her white comrades. We get nothing about Blanca, who has been standing there for arguably three times as long with much more sacrifice and grit. This season keeps planting all of these egregious moments of crisis and violation, then follows the emotional arcs of white characters–e.g. Piper planting the panties in Maria’s bunk, then the focus is on Piper’s guilt and come-to-jesus moments, but Maria just gets more gangster without more than thirty seconds of scrutiny on how Piper’s flip decision impacts her life?? If I had a Nichols for every time this season made me say “What the actual fuck,” I’d drown in runny mascara and frizzy hair.

  2. I know most people are more devastated by the ending of 412, but Suzanne breaking is the moment that OITNB completely gutted me. I was, and still am, gutted by that scene. I cry just thinking about it.

  3. I think this episode is incredibly difficult to watch. The overview doesn’t really explain fully that in fact it wasn’t just Maureen being rude and horrible to Suzanne that broke her, it was a powerplay and a GAME made up by the guards so that they could see someone get beaten up.

    You see Suzanne battle with herself so much to try and prevent any harm being done by her (we’ve seen previously the consequences for her when she thinks or has done harm to people), and you see her resist that both mentally and physically… Only to break. To be taken back to that moment with the small boy where she is rejected and seemingly alone. It’s sad because we are seeing a vulnerable person being abused, and it’s difficult to watch because who knows what our limit would be in that situation.

    Similarly too, we see with Lolly how she has been failed, and been manipulated. In both cases Lolly and Suzanne are two people who should have had the support and proper assistance outside of prison to ensure that they never got there. They should have had access to medical professionals and care staff who had the means to aid and help them. Instead they were both let down, both put into an institution for which they never belonged, and both victimised by their experiences within those institutions.

    Also, it’s really worth reading up for those who are not aware, of the human rights abuses and war crimes committed in Abu Ghraib (which the guards do mention), and particularly what Philip Zimbardo has to say on the matter. Very relevant to many of the themes of this season.

  4. I’m still confused about the ending of Suzanne’s flashback. Did the boy die? It looked like he fell from pretty high up. Not the kind of fall you survive. Maybe he’s just paralyzed. I feel like if he had actually died, Suzanne would have been a lot more unstable in previous seasons. Then again, something tells me these writers just came up with this backstory.

  5. the scene where suzanne beats up kukudio is too much. it felt awful watching her do this thing she didn’t want to do, it felt awful to watch the guards watch her with delight/disgust when they set this whole shit up. i hated this episode.

    i’m also not sure i want to watch this show next season, but i’m damn sure that if i do, i don’t want to see any of the new guards. like, i’m all about actors getting paid, and i think that’s important, but these are not good characters. and i don’t mean in the moral way, like duh they’re guards, they’re shitty, but like, these are poorly fleshed out characters who are there for the shock value and it feels lazy and manipulative and i hate it.

  6. I think people need to realize that just because something is “hard to watch” does not automatically make it “bad”. Shows are supposed to reflect real life, and life is hard to watch sometimes.

    • TV shows are supposed to reflect real life?
      Hmmmm well then someone needs to tell Game of Thrones to cut back on all that magic and shit then.

      And L&O SVU to not convict way way fewer rapists.
      And NCIS LA to not have fatal shoot outs every damned episode.

    • i really appreciate this comment. while on the whole i absolutely think this season was trauma porn and exploitative i agree with what you’re saying. it’s a fucking prison for christs’s sake. maria’s character was poorly fleshed out but everyone screaming that she would never have branded another inmate don’t realize how prison can affect a person. her partner already refused to let her see her daughter, which was a huge blow to her – does no one remember her face after she came back from giving birth and having her daughter taken away? imagine what it feels like being told you’re contaminating your daughter and then not being able to see her. and then a racist idiot adding time to your sentence, as well as being branded a gangster by the prison – she’s fully aware how that will follow her even after she’s left the prison. these are awful, painful things to happen to a person – that people want this character to remain patient and forgiving is ridiculous.

      • For me, Maria doesn’t have to stay patient or forgiving at all. But I want the same care and attention paid to her emotional arc through all of that as we give to Piper’s poor wittle burned arm.

    • Also, this is not a documentary Sheila. Like come on. This is fictional television. How many people do you think are watching OITNB and then going out and doing something to change the prison industrial complex?????? people watch this shit, get desensitized to black/brown pain and trauma, read an atlantic article about the woes of privatized prisons, and then go on their merry ways, maybe telling a colleague about “this great article i read about how awful prison is” and then they forget about it. for a year. until they binge again next year. this show isn’t revolutionary. people aren’t changing things because they’re showing the hard, real truth of prison. the writers are making the show more and more gruesome from no reason.

    • I can’t help but agree. This season is clearly designed to make everyone feel sick at the events that are being portrayed, just like many movies and many tv shows that depict real or otherwise “realistic” stories. I struggle to understand how something that happens to a character that explains their backstory is something “unnecessary”. Without the hard scenes OiTnB is just a regular drama. I appreciate the effort to make it more valuable than that, even if it’s via shock. And I get that not everybody will agree, but i’m a bit confused at the complaints this season, it seems to steem from a notion that everything that happens is too horrible or that the characters don’t deserve it. The characters have hardly deserved all the horrible stuff that’s happened to them since literally episode 1 of this show. But it’s what this show it’s about! I doubt it’s supposed to even have a happy ending. It’s trying to bring awareness to the horror.

    • I’m confused about what people expect out of a drama about prison. People complain if it’s too light and fun or too sad and awful. It’s painful to watch, yes, but I do think it is ultimately a good thing to see these things portrayed in a serious way. It’s good to have racism exposed and explored on tv. Exploring these things isn’t supposed to be easy. Watch something else if you want easy.

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