Wednesday, June 14, 2017

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - The Inmates Become a Part of a New Hostage Situation in 'The Reverse Midas Touch'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 5.10 "The Reverse Midas Touch"

Taystee tries to keep the negotiations on track. Angie comes up with an idea for fixing Leanne's finger. Piscatella's past is revealed.

This is easily the worst episode that Orange Is the New Black has ever produced. It plays immediately like the creative team coming up with something silly to pad the story out for thirteen episodes while keeping things as intense as possible. The show has done tremendous things over the years with its overall narrative. Each season has a clear arc to it. Each episode does an effective job building the story and revealing new layers to both it and the characters. It knows how to tell these sweeping stories and how they affect so many people in so many different ways throughout this system. But the events of this episode have almost nothing to do with the overall story of the season. It's not a byproduct of the riot. It's not motivated by the actions of the characters and some deep, personal dynamic that the audience understands. It is instead just a cheap plot device to build suspense. It is effective in doing that. There is just absolutely no reason to care. Plus, it makes no sense at all. It just turns a really nuanced and complicated show into a one-note stereotype that shows no interest in exploring the dimensions of its characters.

Piscatella has always been a difficult character on the show because he's refused to be more than a single-minded character who refuses to see the inmates as human and loves to inflict violence on them. The fourth season brought in all of these new guards. Their actions affected the inmates in some profound and deeply traumatizing ways. The undertrained guards looked to Piscatella for guidance. He made it clear to them what was okay in this system and what wasn't. Of course, his leadership meant that basically the guards could do anything to the inmates because the system would never take the word of a criminal against an honest, hard-working citizen. It was a one-note characterization last season. But now, Piscatella has transformed into this over-the-top villain who has no nuance whatsoever. He's the big boogeyman who enters the prison at night to terrorize the inmates. He's roaming the halls kidnapping the girls who have a close connection to Red. Once he has them all assembled, he starts torturing them with violence both physical and psychological. He knows that he can't kill them. But that seems to be the only awareness he has of the situation at large here. As someone whose priority was always protecting the system, that just seems completely baffling and hard to digest.

Moreover, Piscatella is the focus of this episode's flashbacks. That narrative device could have been used to great effect to show some humanity in him. Or it could at least provide the audience with a new perspective for why he is the way he is and why he's doing this to Red and her friends. And yet, the story of the flashbacks is basically just dramatizing everything that Red discovered earlier in the season simply by reading his file. It confirms that all of it did happen. At his old job at a male prison, he fell into a relationship with one of the inmates. He got a tattoo of that inmate's initials on his wrist. After that inmate was attacked, Piscatella killed the other by burning him alive via a hot shower. It's a brutal sight. But what's the point? It serves as confirmation that Piscatella is a monster. But it doesn't reveal anything new to help the audience understand the man underneath all the violence. So, that basically just makes him the monster and not an actual human. Perhaps that's the point. He so frequently brutalizes the female inmates because he doesn't see them as human beings when in fact he's the one who has no humanity whatsoever. If that's the case, it just really doesn't work from a dramatic perspective. The story itself is largely just a bunch of screaming and cheap thrills. That's basically it.

So, Piscatella wants Red to suffer because she was the one catfishing him and trying to lure him into a trap. She did that because of how unfairly he treated the inmates last season. And yet, this feud between Red and Piscatella seems so random and impersonal. It's as if they were thrusted together because the creative team needed to give a story to both and thought it would be compelling to watch. It does give a lot of the characters something to do in this episode. But it's also far removed from the main focus of the season. It's this completely new and separate thing. It could carry consequences that could affect the results of the negotiations. But any kind of repercussions will have to wait until later. Because right now, it's just a bunch of female characters screaming in fear as a man brutally tortures them. He believes he can get away with it because he has a superiority complex. But it's also painfully clear that he is going to be punished in some extravagant way. The show has a tendency to punish its villains in strong and definitive ways. Its antagonists to other characters are allowed to evolve and continue creating problems. But the villains need to be punished. In the last episode, it was clear the characters in Frieda's secret bunker would ultimately stop Piscatella and save everyone else. As such, it's not surprising when that actually happens. He's knocked unconscious with a whole bunch of women rightfully wanting to take revenge on him. And yet, all of it still feels like a massive waste of time and a distraction from the issues that are really important in this narrative.

Plus with all this violence, it only makes the tonal whiplash of the show even more stark and problematic. While all of this is going on with Red and Piscatella, Angie and Leanne are running around kidnapping the doctor and Stratman in order to perform a finger transplant. It's completely crazy and silly. It's really annoying too. Those two characters have been in a lot of this season. They are no longer as fun as they used to be. Now, they just seem unbearable and idiotic. Even the main plot gets lost in this episode as well. There is still no significant progress made in the negotiations. It continues to feel like that plot is stalling until it can do something big and dramatic near the end of the season. The tension is ramping up with a number of the inmates feeling tired and antsy. It won't take much to spark even more violence in the prison. The news is reminding everyone that these kinds of demonstrations end with a ton of casualties. Taystee is trying to avoid all of that. And yet, the story is largely stuck in Caputo and Fig arguing with each other through sexual innuendoes. There is a time and a place for that. But it's certainly not right now when the stakes are so high. It just means they get off track for the episode. Plus, there's the big reveal that Humphrey has actually died. That will surely complicate things. And yet, it's a reveal that isn't given the time to breathe. Instead of being a big and damning complication, it's played as something incredibly silly because Suzanne is rolling him around the prison. I hope the show can bounce back from this episode with a serious game plan for the future. But right now, it's just very depressing to watch for no reason whatsoever.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Reverse Midas Touch" was written by Rebecca Angelo & Lauren Schuker Blum and directed by Laura Prepon.
  • As a character, Suzanne has largely just been reacting to the world around her for almost her entire time on the show. She is never really the driver of her own story. But that's the point as well. It's important to see how she falls apart when the system does. She's spiraling because of the lack of order and control. The meds are out of her system and her friends are busy trying to enact change. So, she's getting ready to explode.
  • However, it's incredibly moving to watch as Suzanne watches her face to remove the white paint and reveal her true self once more. It's a profound moment that reaffirms just how important that character is in this show. She is just trying to be herself in a world that is constantly manipulating her.
  • It's also sad to see Suzanne abandon Maureen in the infirmary. Her wounds are getting inflicted because she can't get the health care she deserves right now. She could die as a result of this riot. Suzanne does genuinely care for her. But then, she gets too distracted by Humphrey and needing to ensure that he stays alive for Taystee. 
  • Frieda is a very private person who doesn't want to share her past with the people around her. And yet, she invited them into her personal space and they are seeing all of the things she's collected over the years that carry personal significance. She even had a romantic relationship with one of the prison volunteers back in the 1970s. That's a fun reveal.
  • Gloria's attempt to free the hostages doesn't go well. It's such a minor story here. That makes it clear that this story is simply just giving her something to do. It presents as an additional complication to the negotiations. The inmates have many different agendas. But Gloria's story is just too predictable and formulaic.
  • Linda and Pennsatucky bonding is really special. It's nice to see them having a nice and honest conversation about the realities of the prison system. Since MCC has taken over, Pennsatucky has lost her space to breathe. Her comforts are being taken away. It's a good conversation. But it also ends in a great way with Pennsatucky punching Linda in the face.
  • It's still incredible that the nurse was able to just chill in the infirmary for all of this time. He wasn't collected as one of the hostages. He was able to continue with his job. But he didn't reach out to the negotiating committee. He didn't try to keep the systems operational for the inmates. He was basically just doing nothing which is really weird for a character in Litchfield who isn't an inmate.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, 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.