Saturday, June 13, 2015

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - Big Changes Happen in the Daya-Bennett & Piper-Alex Romances in 'Bed Bugs and Beyond'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 3.02 "Bed Bugs and Beyond"

Tempers flare when bed bugs invade, as Alex cracks, Red lashes out at Piper, Aleida interferes with Daya and Bennett, and Caputo gets bad news.

The premiere episode of Orange Is the New Black's third season did a phenomenal job at reintroducing Litchfield and the various inmates to the audience. It was an hour that didn't have a ton of forward momentum but it excelled by placing the focus on its deep cast of characters. Even though the stories were spread out, they were all being told in an interesting and overall compelling way. "Bed Bugs and Beyond" offers a hint of what the main story of the third season will be: Litchfield closing down and soon. And yet, that prospect is only just briefly introduced in this hour before it retreats back to the hour's primary concerns. That's a stylistic choice that doesn't entirely work in this hour. This episode is meant as a showcase for the Piper-Alex and Daya-Bennett romances. Those two stories largely exist outside of what is happening with the day-to-day character interactions at the prison. The threat of Litchfield shutting down has immense weight to it. The show has spent two seasons making it a fantastic place for audiences to visit. The introduction of this story needed to be done well. And here, it's basically an afterthought. It's a complication to the bed bug invasion that leads to a melancholic conclusion. The hour doesn't focus on Litchfield at its best or most unique to make that realization hit the audience in the gut as strong as it needs to. It's instead played as one moment for Caputo to have and that's it.

So, the big Litchfield reveal doesn't work in the context of this episode. It still presents major complications for the rest of the season - especially with everyone working so hard to look forward to the future. The relationship angst that fills the majority of this episode needed to happen. And yet, it's not completely compelling either. The Daya-Bennett relationship has been incredibly boring with almost no plot stakes over the first two years. They are both dumb people just making things up as they go along with none of it promising to be more interesting than their last decision. The Piper-Alex dynamic has largely just been played out. Even though Laura Prepon is a series regular again, the show needed to find a way to revitalize that relationship while also making sure it didn't completely take over the show again.

Of the two, the violent shift between Piper and Alex works much better because they are getting all of their issues out there and embracing their own identities. Sure, it's a narcissistic and manipulative world view. But it's completely in tone with those characters and how they exist at Litchfield right now. Becoming sex buddies again will only bring about more pain and destruction. But now, they both have all their cards on the table. Piper has always walked around the prison with a superiority complex. She relishes in showing off to people just how worldly she is with her vast (and often useless) information. Piper is often living in her reality. At times, that does isolate her from the rest of the prison society. Alex and Red can't be the only characters she interacts with on a daily basis. And yet, that is absolutely true in this episode (with the sole exception of the brief interaction with Taystee, Cindy, Suzanne and the guard in the bathroom). Piper always wants to be seen as a nice and likable person. She isn't. That's what has always made her a polarizing character on the show. It was never abundantly clear if the show itself bought into all of Piper's delusions. Or if it showed them as a coping mechanism for that character while still acknowledging that she is more messed up than she is willing to admit. But now, she does come to that realization. After Alex and Red call her manipulative and a liar, it truly sinks in that she is no different than the people who have surrounded her for her entire life. She now sees her mother in herself. That's an exciting prospect for the rest of the season. But it also manifests in the end with her and Alex having a sex-fight in the condemned library. That dynamic won't be what it was. They are more actively violent towards each other. That is a significant shakeup. But is it enough to make things compelling again? That's not abundantly clear by the end of this episode.

The hour also returns to its usual flashback device with one character dominating those brief scenes. In this case, that character is Bennett. He's not really someone who needs to have his past exposed to the audience. He is at Litchfield because it's his job. He didn't have a drastically different or tragic life outside of the prison walls. In fact, he can leave whenever he wants. That's his luxury. So, the flashbacks seemed tedious before they ever began. And then, they got more meaningless because it didn't inform the audience about anything with him that wasn't previously apparent. Bennett is a coward and a dumb man. Across three seasons now, that is not new information. So, what was the point of showing another instance in his life where he made a horrible choice to protect himself and harm someone else? That brief story didn't spend enough time laying the groundwork for the climatic moment. So, there's very little payoff from showing Bennett's army days and how they effected his life. The audience has no association with how important these characters were to him. So, it's emotionless when several of them die in the final sequence. That shouldn't be the reaction the hour as a whole was shooting for. And yet, it's ultimately what it produced.

It was all leading up to that final climatic moment with Bennett in the present. He got an inmate pregnant and then decided (with her and her mother) that it was a good idea to frame the sadistic prison guard for the crime so that they can continue to be delusional about their love. With this relationship, it has always seemed like the show is more into it than it has any right to be. They are given a big proposal scene which is meant to be seen as romantic (if the music cues are telling enough). And yet, Daya and Bennett have never read as a couple meant to last because they have never fully embraced the realities of their situations. They will face real-life hardships because of this baby. Bennett can't claim that the child is his because then he would be sent to prison. Daya can't take care of it because she will still have several months left on her sentence. Aleida's family is a trainwreck being looked after by her boyfriend Cesar who is paying the kids not to mention that he's sleeping with a new girl. Aleida and Caputo are covering for them. But there's no real weight to any of their actions. It's a big deal that Bennett finally has a strong realization over just how crazy his life has become because of Daya and leaves the baby crib on the side of the road. But after the day he has had with Cesar, that's the only kind of acceptable reaction to have. He may have some type of love for Daya. But that's not enough to overcome just how crazy and ridiculous this life would be. Mendez's mother is trying to adopt the baby. Even though Bennett didn't want to hear about it at first, it seems like a good idea to him in the end. One final way to bring an end to this whole twisted affair. Will it be worth it in the end? Who knows. This suggests that things between Daya and Bennett won't be the same. And frankly, that shakeup is much appreciated.

This episode does have some great stuff in it. An invasion of bed bugs is great typical sitcom fodder. But the hour never fully embraces that concept as its big hook for the hour because it has to spend most of its time on relationships that rarely even acknowledge its existence. The bed bugs rarely inform the actions that Alex, Piper, Daya and Bennett take in this hour. It does expose the ugly truth to Caputo that Litchfield will be closing soon. It leads to the most comedically rich and tragic moments of the hour. It culminates in an exciting way in a tracking shot showing the inmates preparing for bed in their own ways to avoid the bed bugs. That specificity is only capable of happening in such a brief increment of time because of the audience's understanding of the characters. But the shot still lands back on Piper and Red in order for them to have their big realizations together. Those two characters are still great. But they and all the relationship angst did steal a lot of attention from the fun stuff happening elsewhere at Litchfield.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Bed Bugs and Beyond" was written by Jim Danger Gray and directed by Constantine Makris.
  • Red thinks the world is better when one looks at it as black and white... and red. Piper and her husband lying to her is enough to make her want to shun them forever. That doesn't hold up later as she still talks with Piper and Healy puts her back in her place. But it's still the mindset she has throughout the episode's final act.
  • It is great that Healy is still lashing out because of the turmoil in this personal life. Those lingering issues aren't just going away. He recognizes that he crosses that line with Red regarding the lifelong commitment of marriage. But it's still tragic seeing those issues bubbling to the surface once again.
  • Suzanne is still getting aggravated whenever someone mentions that Vee is no longer alive. The show still hasn't definitively said that she is alive or dead. That mystery is intriguing - even though most of the characters are moving past her immense presence from last season.
  • This really has been the year of Mary Steenburgen so far. She seems great as Mendez's mother who doesn't quite know what went wrong with him (since she has two other sons who turned out well). Things will definitely intensify with her the closer things get to Daya's delivery date.
  • Any guesses as to who stole Nicky and Big Boo's drug stash from the laundry room? Would it be too easy to assume its one of those workers?
  • It wouldn't be all that surprising if this was the last the audience sees of Bennett. Matt McGorry does have a regular job on ABC's How to Get Away With Murder. Leaving that crib behind would be a satisfying final moment for the character. Though it would be surprising if he could just so coldly and resolutely leave his child behind that.

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.