Sunday, June 21, 2015

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - Alex Fears For Her Life While Piper Delivers a Rousing Speech in 'Fear, and Other Smells'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 3.08 "Fear, and Other Smells"

Piper gets creative in order to grow her business. Suzanne's sci-fi sex story for drama class is a hit. Alex doesn't trust new inmate Lolly.

What exactly is Alex's purpose on the show this season? Her story has been so intrinsically linked to Piper. Their romance has largely been the biggest thing defining her story. However, Piper has been able to have her own agency as a character outside of the relationship. Piper has been bit by the entrepreneurial bug and is making significant progress on her panties business all by herself. Alex was originally seen as a partner in that new enterprise. But now, she is just so isolated and seems to be dragging the whole show down with her. She doesn't have meaningful interactions with anyone except for Piper. Her paranoia over her former drug kingpin boss sending someone to kill her isn't totally without justification. But for the bulk of its running time, it has just been meaningless speculation. More damaging than that though, Alex's story doesn't really gel with the big picture stuff happening to Litchfield as a whole. Her story stands out. It would be different if it was good and meaningful. But in actuality, it just seems overworked and contrived in a way to create suspense without really earning it.

"Fear, and Other Smells" really is a great episode for the season but it does get dragged down by trying to establish stakes in Alex's story. The show is capable of telling a story where one individual brings about chaos that effects the day-to-day lives of the inmates. That's what Vee did last year. This season the show is moving past that in order to be more ambitious in showing the crumbling reality of Litchfield as an institution where most of characters are trapped with no power in their lives. Alex's story isn't connected at all to that. Her problems and fears all stem from her actions in the past. Actions that worked really well in the second season but seem out-of-place this year. Lolly is a fun character capable of being a part of the regular Litchfield ecosystem. And yet, trying to shoehorn her as a threat to Alex in order to derive stakes doesn't seem like a good or even interesting use for that character. I suppose it all hinges on whether or not the viewer actually likes Alex. Some portion of the audience does and was probably really excited but scared by the final reveal that Lolly is writing down all of Alex's movements. And yet, I read it as confirmation that this story isn't going away any time soon. In fact, it will only be getting bigger in the future. That is so problematic because it is not really grounded in anything connected to the rest of the inmate culture.

That's not even accounting for the episode's continued use of the flashback structure. Alex is a character who the audience has already seen a ton of in the past. She was a crucial part of Piper's story for why she got sentenced to prison in the first place. She has been seen a ton in the flashbacks over the course of the show. So, the audience doesn't really need to see yet another portion of time in her past that proves just how right she is to fear for her life. Over the course of the series, Alex's exploits with this drug operation have been made clear. The audience should know that the stakes are real. It doesn't have to be seen yet again. That takes away too much crucial screen time that could be better used fleshing out the rest of the characters in this universe.

As I said previously, this episode is really good when it doesn't focus on Alex. This season as a whole has been really well structured. Problems that appeared at the beginning of the year are still providing valuable subtext and consequences now. That is just strong storytelling. The bed bug infestation forced Caputo to burn all the books in the library. That lead to his current frustrations with new management over needing the legal books for the inmates as well as a job training program, Poussey falling into a deep depression (and seeking comfort first from Taystee and then from Norma's healing group) and various inmates getting so captured so quickly by Suzanne's erotic fiction story. All of those story beats offer plenty moments of devastation and humor. Sophia's attempts to continue parenting Michael with advice on girls fuels into the latest discussion of her and Gloria being unable to truly be there for their kids to make sure they don't make poor choices. The management shift at Litchfield has caused so much turmoil that some inmates have exploited it to their advantage while others are being threatened to fall even further down the cracks of the system.

Piper is having a lot of fun right now in her pursuit of making her business idea into a reality. She has already recruited Stella to her cause. And now, she is able to continue to use the worsening system to her advantage. The new food is practically inedible. Because of that, Piper is able to buy all the flavor packets from commissary in order to properly incentivize her friends into joining her business. Piper's big stump speech to Morello, Boo, Yoga Jones and Gina about why they should join her in this new pursuit is a fine acting accomplishment. It's certainly the strongest comedic moment that Taylor Schilling has been a part of on the show - though it would look strange being a part of a drama actress tape. That moment is inspiring in a time of pure chaos elsewhere.

The conditions at the prison are only getting worse. That's apparent immediately when Pearson goes to the big corporate meeting with the rest of the MCC board and its CEO. Up until this point, Pearson has largely been the everyday company man who was on the ground at Litchfield but represented all the dangers of this new corporate partnership. And yet, that makes for such a wonderful reveal when Pearson actually does bring up all of Caputo's concerns to the rest of the board. He actually is being genuine when he says that he wants to be Caputo's friend in this whole arrangement. It certainly doesn't feel that way to Caputo - who is right to scream sing that Pearson should just take on the title of being the new warden. And it's not a reveal that promises to shake things up too much because Pearson continues to operate for MCC. But it was a moment that added nice texture to the character and to the performance. Mike Birbiglia has been fantastic as the new face of the season who brings chaos to Litchfield. The one thing that doesn't really work in the corporate meeting scene is just how everyone else on the board is only a broad caricature. There's an interesting conversation being started here about the practical needs of Litchfield as a functional prison vs. the corporation's desire to look good to shareholders. But it's also an off balance conversation because there is so much nuance and humanity on the Litchfield side of the equation because they are the ones who have to deal with all the trivial but important decisions that the corporate overlords are making. They lack the understanding and only want to do whats best for them. Pearson is in the middle of that dynamic but isn't really positioned to make a massive change to the way that things have been running this season. And that is a very exciting place for both drama and comedy.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Fear, and Other Smells" was written by Nick Jones and directed by Mark A. Burley.
  • Pennsatucky is tasked with teaching new guard Coates about the procedure when it comes to taking the prison van out on runs. It's a story without a whole lot of plot and substance to it. And yet, it's quite endearing because of Pennsatucky being able to use her escape from prison for such simple things like talking about the logo on the donut store where he also works and then feeding ducks old donuts. It's simple but really fun.
  • Healy is really being positioned as a poor counselor this season. When Soso comes to him because she's depressed, he says it's all in her head and wants to medicate her right away. That lends itself into the discussion about the system quite well. Some people think drugs are the answer while others think there are more psychological issues at play. Presenting that as a professional rivalry between Healy and Berdie is interesting. Though I could do without Healy sniffing Red's jacket.
  • The corporate guys have a real problem to deal with in the abuse of the kosher meal program. And they decide to handle it in the most oppressive way possible that could very well open them up to a civil rights lawsuit. They don't care because they think they are above it and can avoid it if it does theoretically happen.
  • It's easy to understand why Poussey falls into the loving embrace of Norma's "cult." Her friends may mock it but to her it represents a sense of love and connection that she is desperate for. She can't continue living the way that she has been. She has come to accept that thanks to Taystee. But joining Norma isn't the kind of answer Taystee was trying to get across.
  • So, has Lolly actually been sent to Litchfield to kill Alex? Or is it just one big red herring? And do you actually care what happens to Alex?

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.