Friday, June 12, 2015

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - The Inmates Host an Event That Connects Them to Their Outside Lives in 'Mother's Day'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 3.01 "Mother's Day"

Caputo's new regime includes organizing a Mother's Day fair for the inmates that brings up a lot of mixed feelings about family.

"Mother's Day" is largely an episode that works to get the audience readjusted to the show's rhythms after a lengthy hiatus between seasons. It's an ensemble episode that works amazingly well as the focus is spread out amongst the show's deep cast. Lots of characters have fun and amusing and emotional moments in this premiere. The episode also doesn't rush into the main story for the season. Alex is back at Litchfield but her sudden return doesn't take attention away from the main celebration. The events of the hour are largely just these characters and the audience being reminded of the lives they live outside of these prison walls. It's a fun episode that highlights its cast in a great way. It's also an episode without a whole lot of plot to it. There are moments of story and ways that the episode as whole connects together on a thematic level. But "Mother's Day" isn't introducing the audience to the story of Season 3. Instead it's just reaffirming who these characters are and what makes this place and storytelling so special. And that works too - especially since the previous premiere episodes were heavy on plot.

The season surprisingly opens on Pennsatucky as she's driving the new prison van and accompanying two guards as they buy the supplies for the episode's big Mother's Day celebration. It's a sequence that starts with the camera directly on Pennsatucky while she's saying weird sentences in a sexy voice. All of it is used to demonstrate the weird comedic rhythms of the show and its characters. It shows that Pennsatucky has a diluted way of thinking in some regards but is very practical just a few moments later when it comes to finding good deals at the store.

That opening sequence also establishes the thematic running story of the episode by delving into flashbacks of multiple characters that show their relationships with either their mothers or their children. These snippets of memory don't inform the audience of anything completely new about the characters. But it does help remind everyone about the distinct personalities and complications each of them have had in their lives. There's no big explanation for who gets a flashback and who doesn't. Each character who does has a moment of reflection on this personal subject and then the storytelling device quicks in. The episode shows how Pennsatucky, Nicky and Poussey's relationships with their mothers made them the way that they are. Aleida's features a life of brief happiness following birth before all the complications happened. Sophia's occurs pre-birth while she is still a man and dealing with all those complications but in a non-explicit way. Healy's offers further illumination on why he often has difficult relationships with women. And then, there are the characters who don't have any flashbacks. Piper and Alex share a brief moment talking about their mothers (amongst other things) but they don't get any flashbacks. The audience largely understands those relationships though. So they didn't need to be seen. Likewise, the hour sets up for Suzanne to have a moment as well when Healy tells her she can't go outside but she doesn't get one. Though that could just be a stylistic decision because Suzanne is still holding onto the hope that Vee is still alive somehow.

Even though most characters don't get flashbacks, everyone does have a solid moment in the present about what it means to be a part of a family. This event highlights the type of lives these people would be living outside these prison walls. In Litchfield, the inmates compose a makeshift family. But that's not the same as their flesh and blood. This event allows each of them to have more intimate contact than their average visitation day. They are allowed to have fun outside either talking or playing the games that the inmates had to scramble together to create. It's a sad state seeing just how depressing those games are. The guards don't have a bat for the piñata nor did they fill it with anything. The blades move way too quickly on the mini golf course. The balls just barely fit into the cans the kids are tossing them into. But the episode doesn't linger on that reality too much. This event is all about the inmates connecting to their outsides lives - or the lack thereof.

Two of the premiere's best moments come in character interactions where none of the characters have anyone visiting them. When Pennsatucky is holding a Mountain Dew-sponsor funeral for the six babies she had aborted, Big Boo is able to take away some of her pain with the argument that she never would have been able to make upstanding citizens. In Big Boo's argument, Pennsatucky did the world a favor by getting six abortions. It's a twisted take on reality. But it's a genuinely earned moment because of the weird friendship between the two of them. Similarly, when Poussey, Taystee and Cindy are presiding over the ball game, they share their outspoken thoughts on motherhood and family without recognizing how sensitive the subject is to Poussey - who had an honest and genuine connection with her mother only for her to die early in her life. Cindy doesn't hold any kind of responsibility for her daughter who is being passed off as her sister while Taystee is done with mother figures after the torment Vee caused her last season. It's still a powerful scene because the characters don't share in their emotional realizations. It's understandable why Taystee and Cindy act this way and why Poussey holds her mother's image so close to heart. It doesn't make it any less heartbreaking in the end though.

Overall, this is a very strong opening to what promises to be another exciting season of Orange Is the New Black. Again, it doesn't get into strong detail what the main thrust of the season will be. Big Boo tells Nicky her plan for the remainder of Vee's drug business while Red is busy filling the escape route with cement. A new counselor joins the staff as Caputo is finally getting some stability in his new job - though he's still technically doing two jobs. Piper doubles done on her lies and passes off Alex's re-incarceration as the fault of the system. Red's family is still keeping up the illusion that her beloved store is still open for business. Daya has received a letter from Pornstache's mother who could provide her baby a much better life than her family. Poussey seems to be headed towards some spiritual awakening by seeking out Norma's guidance. Everyone is looking ahead to the future instead of focusing on the past. And the ones who are stuck in the past seem to be the ones tragically stuck within the Litchfield walls while this celebration is happening. It's a complex episode that wonderfully opens up this universe once more. Now that the characters and narrative have been reopened, it's exciting to see what's in store for the rest of the season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Mother's Day" was written by Jenji Kohan and directed by Andrew McCarthy.
  • The moment where Maria Ruiz's baby daddy tells her that he'll no longer be bringing their daughter around because he doesn't want her to think it's normal to visit her mother in prison is another heartbreaking moment but one that just suddenly occurs. Surely, there could have been a better time for him to bring that subject up.
  • It's also stunning seeing just how tragic and sudden this happy day can end. This is still a prison after all. It's heartbreaking watching all the inmates having to lie flat on their stomachs surrounded by their children who don't understand what's going on. It's just because one of Aleida's daughters wanted to spend more time with her.
  • Most of the inmates are good parents. And then, there's the one who uses her baby to smuggle in drugs and snorts them in the porta potty while her baby is all alone on the ground outside.
  • It's fantastic that Sophia can still teaching her son how to be a man even though the world around her is curious as to if and how she should celebrate this day. It's a sensitive subject that the show continues to handle well.
  • It's great that none of the characters really believe Morelo when she tries telling a tale of having four children. But at least she still got a hair styling out of pity.
  • It's still just so awkward seeing Bennett try to interact with Daya's family. He doesn't know how to act with them which should be creating more tension than it actually is. Though I still don't really care about the Daya-Bennett romance despite Bennett's declaration to Caputo that it's much more than a sexual fling.
  • The premiere reunites Piper and Alex but they don't steal that much focus away from the main events of the episode. In fact, their story is quite simple. I wonder if it will stay that way over the season.
  • It's also confirmed that Rosa died after she used the stolen prison van to run into a quarry. Sure, it would be nice to know if she did anything else on the outside besides run into things. But that was still some nice resolution to have from the end of last season. Though things are still unknown as to whether or not Vee is still alive.

As noted in previous reviews from this series, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments section, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.