Friday, July 1, 2016

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - The Inmates Stage a Peaceful Protest Against the Guards in 'The Animals'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 4.12 "The Animals"

Alliances shift among the prison "families" as Piscatella and his guards crack down. Poussey, Judy and Alex prefer to look ahead to the future.

The Netflix release model has always been very difficult for episodic reviewers and avoiding spoilers. The streaming service releases entire seasons of is shows all at once. It's a model that encourages binge viewing. So at the exact same time, the viewer is already behind on a season while the spoilers are out there to ruin the enjoyment or appreciation of the story arc. There's no set guideline to discussing spoilers when it comes to Netflix shows. It's a problem with all of their originals. How soon after being released can we talk about who plays the reverend who took Kimmy on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? How soon until we can talk about what happens to Danny on Bloodline? How soon until we can reveal how long Kate Mara is in House of Cards Season 2? How soon until we can break down the villains on Daredevil and Jessica Jones? The episodes are out there waiting to be discussed. But there's always going to be someone who hasn't gotten to that point of the season and the visceral reaction to an episode like "The Animals" is lost. It's a huge problem with no immediate solution.

I bring all of this up because I was spoiled about Poussey's death in this episode the day after the season was released. Over that first weekend, it was a huge talking point. And then, on Monday morning, there were all of these post-mortem interviews with Samira Wiley breaking down the events of the episode. That's a system that rewards binge-viewing. Orange Is the New Black is certainly the most binge-able show amongst Netflix originals. Most of their original series are a slog to get through. Orange Is the New Black is the rare show that still shows an appreciation for the episode. Yes, the season-long story is the most important thing - and this season has been fantastic in that regard. But it's nice to have episodic pleasures as well and not just watching an hour of television hoping that it will all pay off later in the season. That's no way to structure a show but it's getting increasingly more common. Poussey's death isn't surprising given the context of this season. In fact, it highlights just how well-constructed this batch of episodes have been. But I watched these episodes knowing that it was all building to this tragedy. I didn't know the specifics but I knew it was coming. That certainly affected my perspective of things. I'm not the kind of viewer who can binge an entire show in a weekend. I pace myself. I try to do an episode a day. Orange Is the New Black has been very rewarding to that method of viewing as well. So, I can still have such a strong appreciation for this episode. But it does not change the fact that it's big twist was spoiled.

But again, how important is that? Like I said, knowing that Poussey's death was imminent altered my viewing experience. It made me watch her burgeoning relationship with Soso in a different way. That was a story this season that didn't have a whole lot of actual conflict to it. It was simply these two relaxing into a romantic relationship. It was sweet and simple. That was much appreciated in a season of complications, oppression and trauma. Poussey and Soso's relationship was the light amongst the darkness. And yet, that light has been extinguished. Yes, it's silly that they get into a fight regarding the peaceful protest. That's a huge signal that something tragic is about to happen to Poussey. So was her making plans for the future. She wanted to escape the harsh reality of Litchfield and imagine her life with Soso ten years in the future. When everyone else escaped to Lolly's time machine in the laundry room, they talked about where they would go in the past to change their lives. Poussey was the only one who wanted to go to the future. That shows just how optimistic she has always been. She has had to deal with many horrible things during her incarceration in Litchfield. But it has never broken her human spirit. She has never given up on her friends even when they have given up for her. She would do anything to protect the people she cares about. That's what makes her death so significant. She dies because she's trying to protect Suzanne from the guards who don't know how to handle her. Those specifics weren't known to me heading into this episode. And yet, it's completely in line with the character we all have loved and sympathized with for four seasons now.

Poussey's tragic fate is the most significant death on the show so far. This is a violent world where many dark and cruel things can happen to the inmates, guards and administrators. Characters have died or gone away before. But Poussey is the most meaningful and tragic one so far. She has been on the show since the very first season. Not only that, she has been a major character since the beginning. Her relationships with the other characters have meant something. Their lives have changed because they got to know her. This simply wasn't her time to die. Of course structurally, it was. This season was building to a dark final few episodes. A major character death was the only one to truly highlight just how dysfunction this prison system has gotten under MCC's management. But any character could have been the one killed here. The episode certainly does set up a lot of options. Inmates are making peace with their lives which would only add to the tragedy of a surprising death. Piper and Alex are adjusting to a quiet and simple life together again. Pennsatucky and Boo reconcile with a conversation about pain, suffering and forgiveness. Sophia returns to the prison and Gloria is able to help her find herself again. Any one of these characters could have been the victim. The signs pointed to Poussey as well - especially with her going to Judy King asking for a job once she's released. But it's still horrifying to see Poussey laying on the ground under Bayley's weight as he and the rest of the guards are trying to handle Suzanne.

It's also very important that Poussey's death is an indictment of the entire system and how it's broken. It's not specifically Bayley's fate even though he's the one who kills her. He's simply doing what he believes is necessary in order to maintain peace in prison. He is still relatively young. The flashbacks of this episode could play as incredibly unnecessary. But they also show that Bayley was just a high school student not too long ago. He was simply a teen hanging out with his friends acting like they rule the world. He has had no sense of what it means to be an authority figure. He has always been seen as one of the good guards to the inmates. But he doesn't really know better when he sees Humphrey and the other guards abusing their power. He doesn't have the experience on the job to know what's right and wrong. He knows that what Humphrey did to Suzanne and Maureen was wrong. He tells Caputo about what happened during the night with Humphrey and Piscatella's own investigation into the murder. Caputo is the only one who learns that the murdered guard may not be someone worth defending this vigorously. That's not enough to change this system though. Things have gotten this bad because Piscatella comes to Litchfield with a max sensibility. He wants to view the inmates as criminals and nothing more. Yes, that has become a very one-note characterization. Piscatella flashbacks could have been really important this season in fleshing out the character.

However, Piscatella's management was only able to happen because of MCC's mismanagement of the prison. Their decisions have really piled up and created this mess. The inmates want to hold Piscatella personally accountable for what has helped. He has been inflicting cruel punishment on the inmates even though they haven't done anything wrong. He is the threat that they can see. His abuse has gotten the inmates to unify for the first time this season. It's amusing to see all of the community leaders meet to discuss how to get him fired - or killed as Red suggests. The racial divides have been encouraged and pronounced because of the guards' profiling. And yet, they try to come together because Piscatella has been ruining all of their lives. They don't feel safe under his supervision. He has created an atmosphere of danger and mistreatment. The inmates want to stage a peaceful protest in order to oust him from the prison. That would not solve all of their problems. They view Piscatella as the danger of this regime. But MCC really is the entity that should be held accountable. They could escape all of this scot free too. It will be difficult. Two murders have happened in close proximity to each other. But it doesn't feel like the FBI will be doing a whole lot to handle that situation. There's no source to make sure MCC is held responsible for its role in everything that has happened. Every major issue stems back to MCC taking over Litchfield. Piscatella was hired because MCC refused to compile with the well-trained guards' demands. The veterans came in so that the company could get even more money from the government. They are trying to fill the facility with as many inmates as possible. But that's what has created all of these problems. The guards don't have the training to do this job.

Caputo is the only one who sees just how far Litchfield has fallen. He played a significant role in the creation of all of these problems too. He has come to realize just how horrible the job of warden really is. He apologizes to Fig for all the hurtful things he said and did to her. It doesn't solve any of the problems. In fact, it only amplifies things because Caputo isn't at Litchfield right now. The prison needs strong leadership that knows how to handle the inmates. Piscatella sees them all as criminals who deserve to be punished. They don't deserve any kind of special treatment. He wants to take away all of their human dignity. He's a cause for change. The rest of the guards don't even know it's happening. Caputo warns Bayley that he should leave this job before it corrupts him past the point of no return. Bayley wants to listen to this wise advice but he has no understanding if that can really happen. He has compromised himself a little bit by helping with Piper's panty business and asking for a hand job in exchange for hamburgers. But he hasn't done anything to make the lives of the inmates considerably worse. He wants to know if Coates has been corrupted by the job. The audience knows he has been. He raped Pennsatucky because he was able to abuse his power. He has been more introspective about himself as of late. But he hasn't reached the point of admitting his flaws to his closest friend. There's also no reason to believe if he had that it would have changed how Bayley conducted himself during the concluding moments of the episode. It was a tragedy bound to happen because of the policies put into place this season. It's an action that ensures that no one can escape the darkness that is currently swallowing Litchfield whole. None of this makes Bayley less guilty. He killed Poussey and will need to be punished for that. But it's also very understandable how such an action was able to take place.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Animals" was written by Lauren Morelli and directed by Matthew Weiner.
  • Yes, you read that correctly. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner directed this incredibly dark hour. It's nice to see him use his directorial talents on a show other than his own. He created some very distinctive images on the AMC drama. This hour is yet another beautiful showcase for him as well. The chaos of the conclusion works because of how well choreographed and filmed it is.
  • It's so much more powerful that it's Taystee crying over Poussey's dead body than Soso. Poussey and Soso's relationship has been very important to this season. But Poussey's friendship with Taystee has been a defining dynamic of the entire series. There wasn't enough of it this season. But that final moment was still so chilling.
  • Sophia returns to the prison unsure of how to handle all of the changes. The Dominicans are controlling her salon and using it as a drug front. She doesn't know how to react to this new world. And yet, she's not the victim of any trans hate - at least not yet. She seems to be on the road of recovery after the trauma she's experienced this year. But her only friend seems to be Gloria.
  • Poussey was fighting for Suzanne because no one wants her to be sent to the psych ward. The inmates understand that she is a loving person who is just misunderstood. She is not the violent criminal the guards see. So much damage could be done if she's sent to psych. But that seems like the exact fate for her as well.
  • Healy has truly been broken by the revelation that he isn't good at his job. It's a psychotic break too. He was rational when it came to returning to Litchfield to tell Piscatella that Lolly was responsible for the murder. But now, he doesn't seem to be connecting to the world and has decided to visit a mental health institution as well. 
  • Pennsatucky reaches out to Boo in the only way she knows how - with candy and the Bible. And yet, it still works too. That friendship is restore. However, Boo still doesn't trust Coates and is ready to kill him should he do any other horrible thing.
  • Morello falls further into her delusional fantasy of her husband cheating on her with her sister. She's starting to break but is still able to hide behind the facade of reality with her friends in prison. Instead of confiding in them, she maintains the illusion with dreams of getting pregnant despite the obvious difficulties.
  • Judy has avoided conflict over the past few episodes because she was under the belief that she was going to be released early. She was essentially saying goodbye to this world with her threesome with Yoga Jones and Luschek and offering Poussey a job in the real world. But now, she may not be getting out after all.
  • It's going to be so sad not to have Poussey on the show anymore. Though I'm already very excited for Samira Wiley's next gig - a recurring role on the upcoming third season of FXX's You're the Worst.

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, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.