Tuesday, June 23, 2015

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - Leanne Does Her Best to Hold Onto Her New Love & Connection in 'Where My Dreidel At'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 3.09 "Where My Dreidel At"

Too many inmates seem to be getting religion, so a rabbi comes to visit and Leanne tries to organize Norma's followers.

One of the biggest themes of Orange Is the New Black's third season is about the inmates needing religion or something to believe in in order to accept the realities of their situation at Litchfield as under the new management of MCC. Lots of changes have happened to this environment over the season that had the potential to break the human spirit. The system was worsening. Instead of fixing the problems, it only served to break down the inmates further. That allowed a crack in many of their psyches. It made many willing and open to embracing new things in order to deal with what their lives have become in a system so devastating to their own personal identities.

The season has done a wonderful job at depicting such belief systems in many different ways with each having its own complications as story beats. The Blacks and several others like Lolly and Sister Ingalls have used the Kosher meal program in order to deal with the major changes to the prison's food quality. Suzanne's erotic fiction brought escapism and passion to the other inmates in a time where there were no other books around. Many gathered around the TV to see chef Judy King basically admit to doing a crime as a way to find excitement in their lives. Piper has treated her new panty smuggling operation as her own kind of religion as she becomes solely focused on what it can become after a largely successful first shipment of product. And then, there's the big focus of several inmates rallying around Norma as she brings about spiritual healing and guidance. It's a story that the audience has certain knowledge about that the inmates don't. Norma wasn't the reason why Angie and Leanne found drugs falling from the light fixture in the laundry room. But that was also a deeply personal connection to them in a time of need. Norma offers kindness and acceptance in a way that so many of these woman need right now. That is comforting even in a time where many people outside the group solely look at it with judgment.

To Norma's flock of followers, she is a religion of sorts. It's a place that they all go to in order to find peace, happiness and acceptance. To know that someone else recognizes them and cares about them is the most powerful and personal feeling they can have right now. But it's still an organization of alienation. Norma wants to bring out kindness and acceptance in others. And yet, the group not having a firm list of beliefs makes the other religions look at them and laugh. They have just as much right to use the chapel as the christians do. However, they are still able to be kicked out of the room because the hymn leader doesn't care enough to understand their belief system. One woman can't be the center of attention like that. She hears Leanne's explanation for what the purpose of this group is and the other woman only cares to view it as a form of atheism. It's a destructive blow that forces the group into action to try and better organize themselves.

So much of that effort comes from Leanne - a character who has always been amusing fun but on the edges of the narrative. "Where My Dreidel At" pulls her into the main focus and tells one of the season's most compelling stories yet. One of the biggest criticisms of the third season has been that the flashbacks largely just serve to strengthen the thematic and underlying concepts of each episode. They haven't as strongly set out to tell their own individual stories that greatly impact the emotional state of the character the focus is on. Of course, there have been some great exceptions. The shift of focus in the premiere was great as was Boo's spotlight episode. But Leanne's sets out to tell its own complicated story. One that highlights the main story of the present while adding even more complexity and shading to the character and her actions.

Earlier in her life, Leanne really did have a meaningful and genuine connection filled with love. She was born and raised in an Amish community. Even after her Rumspringa, she chose to stay amongst the community because that's where she felt at home. And yet, the mistakes she made during her time away threatened to uproot every hopeful thought she had. It was during her time away from home that she discovered cocaine. She didn't become addicted but law enforcement did force her to step away from her family and lifestyle in order to take down a drug cartel - as well as the children of the other members of the amish community who had fallen down this horrible path. It was a destructive act that was complex. She wanted happiness but even in her meaningful community she felt shunned because of what she did. In the end, she chose to leave. She wasn't forced out of the community. But it was in that moment that her life truly began falling apart. She replaced that love with drugs and eventually landed in prison somehow.

But now, Leanne has found something that can truly replace the drugs in her connection with Norma. She has found peace and happiness in her life again. That's entirely because of what Norma has done for her. And yet, her past experiences with being shunned from this kind of intimate community don't keep her from making the same mistakes. Norma is preaching about love and kindness. In Leanne's efforts to organize the following, she effectively shuns Soso because she doesn't care about it as much as she does. Norma has made an impact on Soso as well. And yet, Leanne's apology only brings up her past decisions that have dominated her life. She feels connected in a way to Norma that she hasn't felt since her days in her amish hometown. She recognizes that people don't always accept or understand that way of living. But to her, it was deeply personal. Leanne was being open and Soso and Chang took that vulnerability and openly mocked it. That's what is ultimately even more devastating. These characters both need Norma in order to survive and find peace. But they are getting in their own way of accepting that happiness and kindness. That is a profound dynamic that the episode handles wonderfully though still tragically.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Where My Dreidel At" was written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Andrew McCarthy.
  • MCC hires a rabbi in order to come in and tell if the inmates getting kosher meals are actually followers of the Jewish faith or not. It brings a lot of comedy to a very dramatic hour that features lots of quick cutaways to the inmates doing their best to prove that they are Jewish. In the end, only Sister Ingalls is capable of convincing him and even she is not a believer.
  • The stuff with the rabbi does culminate in a wonderful way with Cindy using the plots of both Annie Hall and Yentl as her life story. The rabbi is amused instead of upset by the performance and how far she is willing to go to prove her fake-Jewishness. 
  • Stella really is starting to play as simply a sexual object for admiration on Piper's part. That's the entire purpose of her elongated nude scene in the bathroom. It props her up as something that should be desired by Piper. In the end, Piper does admit to there being an attraction and connection between the two. And yet, it still feels like the weird set up of a love triangle without a whole lot of nuance to it.
  • Despite the weirdness happening with Stella, Piper still is having a lot of fun. That stands in deep contrast to Alex who continues falling down the paranoia rabbit hole. Her finding Lolly's notebook detailing her movements basically confirms that she is going to be one big red herring though.
  • Pennsatucky and Coates were a charming pairing in the previous episode. But now, it's taking a turn as he uses his position of power in order to manipulate her. He's a controlling presence which means this story is probably going to get much worse before it gets better.
  • Red's constant insistence on telling everyone that she did not cook the food that they are eating was so amusing. The strongest moment of pure comedy for Kate Mulgrew on the show so far. Though it's a dynamic that could really only work for an episode.
  • Things have been up-and-down between Sophia and Gloria all season long as their sons are getting closer while they are imprisoned. It was a devastating moment watching as Sophia comes to the realization that her son is the true troublemaker and that her absence or transition may be the reason why. It was devastation but she still holds some semblance of pride by not apologizing to Gloria again for misjudging Benny. 
  • So many of Suzanne's writing admirers feel like characters but they don't really have names associated to them yet. It's meaningful that her writing is allowing her to connect with other people in a genuine way that she has struggled with before. But it's still so odd that it's happening with characters who the audience don't really know.
  • Caputo pointing out the similarities between MCC's management style and Big Brother was a very astute comparison.

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.