Friday, June 19, 2015

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - A Day in the Life of Chang, Plus O'Neill Rants About Red Velvet in 'Ching Chong Chang'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 3.06 "Ching Chong Chang"

Regime change isn't going over well with the staff, but Red makes it work for her. Lorna finds a way to meet men. Chang shows her private side.

Chang truly is one of the most enigmatic characters in Orange Is the New Black's deep ensemble of characters. As Pennsatucky points out to the new inmates joining Litchfield - including the return of Lori Petty as Lolly - Chang works at the commissary, speaks very little and doesn't interact with many people. Chang has been in every season of the show. But she doesn't have meaningful relationships to any of the other regular inmates. She's always just in the background. She's a good source for humor - like the first day of improv class where she insisted on genital humor. But she hasn't really opened herself up to any of the inmates or the audience. That makes a deep dive into her backstory so interesting. She is basically a clean slate. So the show really could have produced anything that would have given her more texture as a character.

The flashbacks do do that for Chang. Whenever she appears in the future, the audience will have the knowledge of how her identity as a plain, ugly woman has shaped her life. And yet, the flashbacks only take all of that subtle character work and make it more apparent. It's not a story with a whole lot of nuance to it. Nor does it delve into emotionally deep character work that makes her a much more sympathetic face in the prison. It's simply a story of her using her invisible status as a human being to the advantage of her brother's criminal business. That works for her. But she's still never able to escape the mold of her own personality and how the rest of the world sees her. This is all she is ever going to be in life. That's depressing.

But Chang's story is much more interesting and compelling to watch in the present day. The rest of the inmates see her as a mystery like the audience. This is her focus episode and it doesn't try to present her with some big emotional moment that will connect her better to the other characters or the audience. It simply allows the audience a peek into her existence at Litchfield where she continues to use her ability to be invisible to her advantage. It's an observational story filled with many peculiar story beats with a day-in-the-life feel. She is able to get food out of the cafeteria but only uses that to mix crumpled Fritos and peas together in the microwave. In the bathroom, she brushes her teeth with salt. Elsewhere she has her own private stash of oranges. But most importantly, she has a phone in the storage shed out in the yard. It's a really high-end phone too. Not the typical flip phone that gets smuggled in. And yet, she doesn't use that for some grand personal connection to the outside world. No, she just uses it to watch Chinese television. It's incredibly simple storytelling that is made profound simply by the mysterious nature of it.

Of course, it all does lead up to some emotionally affecting moment as Berdie has tasked the drama class to write a short story that will be acted out by their peers. Chang uses that opportunity to tell the rest of the inmates her own personal story. It's a moment that the audience sees twice. Once being acted out in the class and again as it really happened. This moment is Chang opening herself up for the first time. It probably would have been more effective to just see the other inmates reading the story from her script. That way it can expose Chang's history while still allowing some sense of mystery. Seeing how it actually occurred does bring clarity to the subject but also takes away a certain amount of fun. It's great and tragic that Chang exposes this part of her past only for the other inmates - except Suzanne - to reject it right away. She takes it all back saying it was just an act of fiction. But there was an apparent pain in Chang wanting to expose herself and open up to the other inmates. It is nice that the story ends with Piper apologizing to Chang after her and Alex's mean encounter with her earlier. But that doesn't offer up a whole lot of shading to the future for Chang. Yes, every interaction moving forward will make her history more apparent in the eyes of the audience. But it doesn't really seem like any kind of emotional progress was really made for Chang. She will continue living life the way that she has. She'll remain a mystery and an enigma to the rest of the inmates - which was certainly a stylistic choice that does take some weight away from this story.

Chang's story does pull a lot of thematic strings together over the course of the hour as everyone has to deal with the way that the world sees them and how they feel about themselves. At times, it's just a little overbearing and on-the-nose. Because of her typical white privilege, Piper is the one trying to reenforce the idea that wearing lingerie is suppose to be empowering instead of overtly sexual. Cindy, Janae and Flaca bond over the lack of racial diversity in the magazine. Lolly is able to use the system and people not being able to ask about religion in order to get (slightly) better meals. Red is able to continue manipulating Healy in order to get a job back in the kitchen. Poussey comes to the realization that she needs love in this desperate and dark time without her beloved books. Morello has to change up her personality in order to lure in a prison pen pal. Sophia and Gloria discuss the importance of looking like a woman while in prison. It's very much a big theme on the show's mind. The show continues to be very smart about all of these things. It's just too apparent what the theme is in this episode. That's certainly happened before on the show. It just wasn't as numbing as it was here.

In fact, the episodes strongest plot points came out of the threat to the overall prison system - as felt by Caputo, the guards and the inmates. The folks at Whispers don't want to hear any kind of constructive feedback from the inmates. Piper's idea may well be a better operating system for the design of the lingerie. But to this corporation, the inmates are less than human beings who don't deserve to be heard or respected. Likewise, MCC came in to save Litchfield from closing but with an operating structure that makes the system more bureaucratic and by-the-books. They believe that they can bring the same structure to every prison that they take over. It's a very impersonal approach to business. The inmates weren't aware of how they were being manipulated when they took that personality test for the new job. But the manipulation still existed. The ramifications of which are being dealt with in the sewing room. The changes are much more life-threatening to the guards. MCC has no emotional investment. Caputo does love them and is willing to fight for them. But Pearson is still able to manipulate Caputo into doing exactly what MCC wants to get done. It's funny that O'Neill's epic rant about red velvet is able to come full circle with the donut employee landing one of the new jobs at Litchfield. But it still pulls into the overall tragedy of the season. How much change is too much for Litchfield? It hasn't hit that limit yet. But it is coming.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Ching Chong Chang" was written by Sara Hess and directed by Anthony Hemingway.
  • Do you agree or disagree with O'Neill's assertion that Red Velvet should not be a thing - especially when it comes to donuts?
  • What was your favorite fake Morello story? Biggest jewel heist in Chandler, Arizona? Most wanted arsonist in Winter Park, Florida? Top contract killer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming?
  • Alex and Piper's previous conversation about "prison blindness" comes into effect again with the debut of Ruby Rose's Stella as a previously unseen inmate who has also been assigned to the new sewing room. Her views on gender are very progressive. I'm intrigued by how she'll continue to play a part in this season - especially since there seems to be some attraction to Piper in her debut.
  • Taystee did come clean to Poussey about drinking her honey sauce. And yet, it happens offscreen which makes their later discussion at the lunch table much more about the plot turning to Poussey needing to find a girlfriend than of any actual emotional repercussions of Taystee's reveal.
  • A Sophia-Gloria friendship seems potentially interesting. However, it could bring several real-world ramifications to both of the women - as Gloria needs Sophia's family to drive her son to visit every weekend.
  • This has already been a somewhat religious-themed season with everything that is going on with Norma. So, it should be interesting to see how Lolly getting the kosher meal program started will merge with that.
  • It was also very deliberate that Lolly and Piper were kept apart in this episode, right? They had a very memorable interaction in the second season premiere. This way it allows Lolly to become fully immersed in Litchfield as her own character first.
  • Poussey's favorite TV chef, Judy King, was convicted of tax evasion which means she may be headed to Litchfield soon. Also, Poussey may love her but Red does not.

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.