Saturday, June 20, 2015

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - The Inmates Attempt to Get Power & Control Back in a Changing System in 'Tongue-Tied'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 3.07 "Tongue-Tied"

Norma's healing powers draw more believers. Piper creates a new business venture. Caputo breaks in the new hires.

The theme of Orange Is the New Black's third season - or the entire series actually - is: How does one maintain some sense of power and control in an environment that fundamentally has to strip those attributes away? The inmates landed in Litchfield because they are criminals. That becomes their sole identity to the outside world as well as to the system that is responsible for their well being. But as the show has strongly pointed out across three seasons, these women are incredibly diverse and come in a multitude of different personalities. They all handle their imprisonment differently. That character study has largely been the foundation for drama and comedy since the very beginning. This season is especially showing a tighter focus on the crumbling of the regular system around the inmates. The guards and prison staff have to straddle the line of still enforcing the rules while their futures are uncertain in the face of all the changes in prison management. This massive change in the wake of MCC taking over has given the characters just as many opportunities as it has taken away. That allows for some characters to find new forms of power and control while others are left to deal with the devastation of theirs being taken away yet again.

Piper is a drastically different person than when she first came to Litchfield. Everyone around her still uses her status as a privileged white woman from the upper class against her in a judgmental way. And Piper still makes it so easy for them to openly mock her for it. And yet, she's in Litchfield just like everyone else. They all came from different walks of life outside. Their futures are uncertain when they do finally leave this place. And yet, they all are a part of this system right now. Piper has slowly embraced her prison lifestyle as her being her genuine self. She's been allowed to have more fun this season because of her effort to drop all the pretentiousness of needing to be liked all the time. That was a fascinating transition for the character. Sure, those qualities are still present. But now, she's also planning her own underground business as a way to stick it to corporate America and their need to trivialize the inmate culture.

Corporations like MCC and Whispers have taken away a lot of free will from the characters at Litchfield - even more so than before. It's a management style that feels efficient to the people above who don't have day-to-day interactions with prison life. Even the representatives from MCC and Whispers couldn't care less about the emotional ramifications their systems have on the inmates and guards. They only truly care when it effects their product. When Cindy messes up one of the panties, she tries passing it off as a new hat. It's a humorous moment that helps keep this new work environment fun and loose. But the Whispers guy pops out from his corner to firmly state that this material is Whispers' product and can't be used for anything except the panties. It's an assertion without emotion. He is simply doing his job. It's impersonal to him. But it's incredibly personal to the inmates because it's a moment where their voices and personalities aren't being heard.

That's why it is so easy for Piper to latch onto this new opportunity. The world is perverted and she's just tapping into that market. It's fun when Piper, Cindy, Flaca and Stella are talking about all the weird fetishes people have in this world and why they are so popular nowadays. Cindy does have a point in saying that it's largely the Internet's fault. But that conversation also presents this new opportunity for Piper to express herself in a way that is fitting with her new personality. It's not a criminal operation like before where she was completely oblivious to it. She is the one making the arrangements for it to happen - enlisting the help of Alex and her brother, Cal. She knows that the excess fabric from Whispers can be used to create even more panties. The company didn't want to listen to her ideas because of that impersonal connection. Now, she's just using it to her own advantage. It's not without its risks. She has to enlist the help of several of her fellow inmates in order to ramp up production and actually wear the panties for the creeps of the world. But the story ends on a very hopeful beat. The operation is running smoothly and even Stella is willing to help with it.

Elsewhere, Red has also been using the restructuring from MCC to her advantage. She was able to get back into the kitchen. It was just a lowly position amongst the staff with Gloria and the rest of the Latinas not wanting to trust her. But she was back home. She was well positioned for when Gloria had had enough of the constant pressure she was under as head of the kitchen. Right now, Gloria simply wants to be a good mother to her son. She can't realistically do that though because she is in prison. She is doing her best. She has made arrangements with Sophia's family to get him there for visitation. But she's not able to help all that much because she is called back to the kitchen right away. In fact, this arrangement ultimately only hurts her. She gives up her power and control in the kitchen because it's an unjust system. It was a spur of the moment decision that she made out of passion for herself and her need to be a good mother. For a moment she forgot she was in prison. The kitchen gave her that power in the first place. And now, she's giving it up with no other option to replace it. It only leads to Sophia being furious for her - since Gloria's son was a bad influence on Michael - and Red getting the kitchen back.

That rush of love and excitement was the exact kind of feeling Red desperately wanted in this play for her old job. The kitchen is her baby and her baby is finally hers again. The staff may be different than it was and she may be in a different headspace than before. But she is once again in control. And yet, her management style of the past plagues her from maintaining this power. She is allowed one meal of full control. One meal where the operation ran smoothly just like it used to. That one meal was enough for her to believe in Norma's magic. And yet, that happened for just a moment. Caputo then comes in with the surprising twist that the kitchen will now be serving pre-prepared meals for the inmates as part of MCC's bid to be more efficient. Caputo may be clashing with Pearson on a number of issues when it comes to running Litchfield as an efficient but still working facility. But he is happy to cooperate with this request because it means taking away the control from Red. Caputo was reluctant to reassign Red back to the kitchen. But now, he's at peace with that decision because she will not be able to run things the same way that she did before. He took so much of the free will and control out of that work environment. That's the most destructive thing he could do to Red in a time where she truly wants to just do the work and not extend her sentence.

That moment also leads to a true turning point in Red's relationship with Norma. Despite all the horrible things that Red did while running the kitchen the first time, Norma still welcomed her back to the position with open arms. Norma was the one who wasn't afraid of Red having a knife in her hand. The two of them are friends. It's a dynamic while Red is the bossy leader and Norma is the silent follower. That's simply how those two characters always operate as human beings. The flashbacks of the hour point out that Norma is willing to go along with the people who see her for who she truly is without her needing to speak. She does respect the bond she has with Red. But Norma is also recognizing her own opportunity to stand as a leader.

The flashbacks this season continue to largely just provide context to the backstories of the various inmates instead of telling big emotional stories themselves. Norma's past includes her falling in love with a cult, pledging her commitment in an elaborate marriage sequence, standing by the leader when everyone else has turned on him, and ultimately being the one to push him off the cliff because he no longer saw her for who she is. Norma has frequently been the follower in life. Because of that, it's easy for her to see the fellow inmates looking at her for spiritual and supernatural guidance as nothing more than a farce. But Red re-entering her life in a big way is enough for Norma to see that this is something that she actually wants. She actually does like being the leader and the person others look to in times of crisis. That is empowering for her. After a lifetime of people being uncomfortable with her muteness, it is the one thing that is giving her strength and love. Despite the friendship, Red can't truly speak for Norma and what she wants in the prison ecosystem. Norma wants to be in the chapel with her growing flock of followers. Her guidance may not produce anything of actual merit. But believing in her power is enough to give voice and clarity to the other inmates in this system as their lives are under a near constant change. Norma ends the hour with the most personal power of anyone else. Sure, it may not last for too long. But it's a highly rewarding experience for those willing to listen and embrace it for what it can do for their lives.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Tongue-Tied" was written by Sian Heder and directed by Julie Anne Robinson.
  • Poussey may not have found love but she did found a purpose and escape from life again in reading Suzanne's new erotic fiction. It's a story of love and aliens that is way too perverted for Berdie to allow in drama class. But it's powerful enough to give Poussey and Suzanne excitement and direction again.
  • How will the new pre-prepared meals effect Cindy, Taystee, Janae and Poussey's workaround the system in getting Kosher meals? Also, it was hilarious when Cindy was looking to cinema to prove her newfound Jewishness - and hoping that Woody Allen would be enough.
  • Alex's paranoia hasn't been that good of a story this season. So, I don't wanna fuel the speculation and make it even more important. However, it's deliberate that Lolly didn't want to be recognized and friendly to Piper when she was with Alex, right? Or it could just be one big red herring because Lolly is a fun character for commenting on just how great Litchfield is in this time of immense change.
  • Mike Birbiglia really is doing a fantastic job of playing Pearson as the corporate "villain" of the season. His bit about the flow of information in the new system was phenomenal - as was Caputo's reaction to it.
  • Despite the tension always present in their relationship, it's important that Daya and Aleida are choosing to remember times in their life together when they were actually happy. For Aleida in the season premiere, it was the day Daya was born. For Daya in this episode, it was her 17th birthday. Daya has a big decision to make regarding the future of her baby and she's actually putting a lot of meaningful thought into it now. That's a scene of her actually learning from the mistakes of her past. 

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.