[Warning Below: So Many Spoilers]
Orange is the New Black has, in this writer’s humble opinion, jumped the fucking shark.
It only took one moment – when the magic of the show was finally, definitely lost – but that moment wasn’t a fluke. It results from the show’s writers trying, apparently, really, really hard all season to be meta and grandiose.
The moment occurs after creepy new guard, Humps, listens to two prisoners debating whether they’d rather eat ten dead flies or one live baby mouse. Humps has forced Maritza (one of the two who had the debate) into his home, and presented her with ten dead flies laid out on a napkin beside a shot glass containing a hairless, wriggling newborn mouse.
“Choose,” he tells her. And we’re all supposed to buy it.
But I can’t. A newborn mouse can’t survive hours away from its mother in a heatless glass, even assuming Humps is from a different reality where mice give live birth on-demand and can always be found when you want to make a point.
The technical impossibility of it might not have been so offensive – after all, it’s not the first time the show has used animals behaving unrealistically. There was the flying mystery chicken of Season One. And the cigarette-laden passenger cockroaches of Season Two. But I always had the feeling these were moments of self-conscious absurdity. Nobody’s character development depended on our believing in them. They weren’t necessary to the plot. They were silly, not tied up in any heavy drama.
The baby mouse episode, by contrast, insists upon our taking it seriously and feeling bad about it. Maritza’s bestie Flaca listens to her description of the ordeal and cries, for the first time in the series, real tears over painted ones as she declares, “The guards, they think they can do whatever the fuck they want!”
Nothing like being hit over the head with the moral of the story, just in case we missed it. This is the point of the stupid baby mouse: to make us believe in the badness of the guards. But the baby mouse isn’t real – there’s no convincing myself that it is. So it does worse than not convince. It undermines the message that there are real problems in the prison.
A guy like Humps – a cruel, sadistic, truly evil person – is an animal fundamentally difficult to wrap one’s head around. Denial and disbelief are pretty much hallmark reactions to actual recorded-in-fact genocide, child abuse and rape. If the show’s creators are going to try cranking up the prison’s bleakness to Guantanamo-bay levels, we deserve at least a little persuasion, emotionally-speaking. We can’t be expected to believe in the suffering of prisoners at Humps’ hands when Humps has this magical ability to manifest grim imaginings but no backstory and no motives at all.
And OITNB has writers with talent enough to convince us of horror. They’ve done it before, nuance and all.
Consider that moment during the first season when creepy guard Pornstache nails home his villain status. Prisoner Morello is driving him in the prison van, on a deserted stretch of road. We already know that he’s dead-set on finding out how Red’s sneaking contraband into the prison, so we’re not surprised that he starts asking questions. But then he tells her to pull over. And pauses.
Everything happens in that pause, inside our own imaginations. Morello’s lip begins to tremble. This is it, we think. She’s trapped, alone. He’ll rape her. We wait, fists clenched and breath baited.
“Ok, then,” Pornstache says at last. And they keep driving.
Nothing happened. But this is a moment that can stick with you a long time. Because something could’ve happened. It could’ve. We get that the guard can do whatever the fuck he wants, without there being a whole circus-of-the-grotesque spread out on a table for us. Without there being tears and protests afterward. We get it.
Unfortunately, that baby-mouse dramatic epic-fail is presented alongside a ripped-directly-from-headlines episode in which someone dies in police custody after gasping the words, “I can’t breathe.” So the dramatic epic-fail actually might come at a cost to a real-life movement aimed at making people see and believe in systemic travesties.
Heavy criticism to level against just a tv show – but that’s what happens when you go meta. People might assume you have something real to say, and listen.
Unfortunately, the mouse baby isn’t the only instance this season where proselytizing compromises believability. Suddenly, no one is making fun of Piper for trying to insert references to classical literature into every conversation. Now it’s just the thing to do (unless you’re white trash). We have Alex, while fretting over the exposure of a murder, make sure to relate her feelings to “The Telltale Heart.” We have Boo finding Poussey’s uncovered body in the cafeteria thinking about the river Styx and Pensatucky earning a smug chuckle by not knowing what she’s talking about. A similar chuckle is apparently expected of us when one of the meth-heads hasn’t read enough Sherlock Holmes to know who Microft is.
People seem mostly up on intersectional feminist and multicultural principles, ready to refute Broken Window Theory and disengaging by telling people not to be all Kumbaya. Dayanara’s highest dreams for the baby girl she just lost to DSS involve organic food and wooden toys. Soso and Poussey, just before the latter’s death, resolve an argument they’ve had regarding privilege, idealism and protest by all joining the ranks of prisoners who take their stand on cafeteria tables.
Is it a coincidence that as the prison devolves into a racist battlefield of barbarity, all of the prisoners except the poor whites are suddenly sounding like undergrad students at a liberal arts school? Or is it, once again, a result of the show’s creators trying too hard to be meta?
Gone, now are all the scenes that illustrate life progressing as normal outside of the prison’s bubble. We don’t see Piper’s boyfriend going to bars and hitting on women, or Polly, her best friend, juggling her baby and her failing business. We don’t have family visits in which Piper’s rants about chicken sightings and redhead cooks trail off into lines like, “That’s the big news in my little world.”
We are, in fact, led to believe that whatever happens within the prison is synchronous and even causal to what happens in the broader sphere of society. Drones drop from the sky to capture pictures of inmates digging in the garden. A TV chef they used to watch and love now goes there, and colludes with other inmates to sell more pictures to tabloids. An inmate’s death is all of a sudden big national news, after multiple deaths due to drug overdoses and fucking prison breaks in seasons past were successfully swept under the rug.
All of this can be read as an attempt to make the fictional prison into a microcosm of the real world, onto which the show’s creators get to project their own conscientious musings on social justice.
So what, in this universe, are they actually trying to say?
I think the message is nicely summed up when Piper gets branded by a Swastika.
“Maybe I deserved it,” she whispers after. We think, yeah, maybe. She had, after all, allowed racism to protect her interests. She’d played on the guards’ insecurities to get what she wanted and allowed neo-Nazis a space at her table. She’d made money by being white. Still, she didn’t want to be branded a racist. So she’s pretty much every liberal white college-educated woman in America. And she’s really, really sorry.
In this season, white, college-educated, liberal, sorry America has to first get branded a racist, to re-brand itself, with a window.
The revolution’s coming soon, we’re assured, and it’s going to look like courage in the face of certain evil. And while everyone is being courageous in the face of evil, there will be literary references everyone will get, except for poor white rednecks who are obviously not like us but we’ll represent their bests interests with our revolution anyway.
The revolution’s coming soon, and it will be perfectly understood by all that we are doing the right thing and we are the good guys who share the same dreams and are basically all the same regardless of what color we are and what we’ve gone through in our lives. We will be bursting with pride when the first to offer comfort to the suffering and the first to stand on the table of her own free will is our friend Piper, from Smith.
And I do not buy it.
I don’t buy that everyone in the prison knows and cares about social justice in the same terms as a collegiate liberal arts major. I don’t buy that Greek mythology is more compelling and relevant than fucking anything when you’ve just stumbled over the dead body of a chick you used to know. I don’t buy that the bad guys know they’re bad guys or that the good guys get to buck the system, even for a second, while they fight it.
The season ends in a hallway, Dayanara’s hands on a gun pointed at the guard – all inmates poised at the brink of revolt. OITNB writes us an uncashable check here. Come next summer, it’s implied, not just the drama of the prison, but the moral and narrative of an actual, historical, national movement will be sorted out and encapsulated within that show’s little universe.
The presumption that anyone wants to hear the narration of a whole big important movement told in real time by someone else pretending to be objective is enough to turn me permanently off. Plus, they killed Poussey. Go to hell.