Tuesday, June 13, 2017

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - Freedom in Prison Isn't as Great as It First Seemed in 'The Tightening'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 5.09 "The Tightening"

Red senses trouble, but the others are convinced she's just paranoid. Taystee and Black Cindy enlist an unlikely ally, and two old friends clash.

There is a difference between freedom and freedom within limitations. It's a key distinction that Orange Is the New Black has been exploring this season. The inmates have much more freedom this season than at any other point in the series run. They are able to explore new corners of Litchfield. They are allowed to be anywhere and do anything. But they are still prisoners. They are still trapped in this environment. They can't escape because there are a bunch of officers waiting outside to arrest them and ship them off to max. They have freedom but it's limited. It's still presenting them with a number of possibilities though. The burden of the real world is creeping in more and more for these characters. They aren't as isolated as they once were. They have the attention of the outside world and are able to communicate with it more fully. It's a shift in power inherent to this season of television. But it won't last. The prisoners are aware of that. This riot has been fun and important but it won't be long until their lives return to the rigid structure of prison. They have to decide when that's going to be. They have to decide what they are comfortable with in terms of their quality of life. They are still going to be in this environment after the riot is over. Will they actually bring any change? Or is this just one big fantasy that they are delusional to believe in the first place? It's complicated subject matter that the show is doing a wonderful job exploring.

The flashbacks have a nice thematic connection to all of this as well. They focus on Red during her final few months in the Soviet Union. She has a part of the system. She was a free woman but freedom is subjective. She works a job because she has no other choice. She's not a slave but she is stuck in the societal pressures of the country at this particular point in time. She can't escape and embrace actual freedom without ultimately being thrown in jail for speaking out against the system. Even a minor thing like smuggling jeans into the country is seen as a major offense. Red is committed to the change. She quickly becomes passionate about it. But she's delusional as well. She thinks change will be easy. But when a crisis arises, her boyfriend immediately wants to run and hide instead of stand up for what's right. Red also returns to her job and her former boyfriend. It's a return to the life she wanted freedom from. The only way to actually from that is to escape from the system altogether. That's something she can afford to do. She can escape to America for a potentially better life. That's where the similarities of the past and the present end. Red can escape to a better world. The inmates can't. They are trapped in the prison no matter what.

Taystee is fighting to change the system. But she is still facing major resistance because Fig is still able to fire back with explanations for how MCC is meeting all of its government-set standards. The key point for debate in this episode is the educational program. Not a whole lot of progress is actually made in the negotiations. This episode is concerned with other things more. But it's still fascinating to see this debate wage on. It also brings Caputo to the forefront once more. As a character, he had so much agency in this dynamic with MCC. He was the character fighting against cutbacks and workarounds to make the prison more profitable for the private company. He ultimately had to agree to everything and incorporate them on the ground. So, he's completely complicit in everything that happened. But he's strived to do better for the inmates as well. And here, he returns to fighting alongside them. He does so because Taystee needs her demands to be taken seriously once more. They are losing credible at the negotiation table because brutal murders and assaults against guards keep getting exposed. They turned on Daya already in order to keep the talks open. But now, the dead guard revealed through the new work program comes up as well. So, these characters could once again be presented with a similar choice of handing over the murderer (in this case, Alex) to get what they want. But at what cost? This whole experience is weighing them down. They are determined. But will any of it be worth it in the end?

The characters with personal agency at the moment are the most compelling parts of the season. Gloria has some high stakes as well. She's doing things completely for herself and not the prison community. She needs to get to the hospital to be there for her son. It is a sudden shift in story for her. It makes it so her conversation with Aleida carries more emotional weight. Aleida is furious over what is happening with Daya while Gloria can't even bring up what's going on with Benny. It's devastating. It makes it seem like her only choice is to set the hostages free to get furlough. Her agenda clashes with the other inmates. Some of the Latinas are committed to the riot. They watch over the hostages with conviction. They see it as their jobs that bring importance into their lives. So freeing the hostages won't be easy for Gloria. It was never going to be easy. And yet, it's being presented as the only choice she has at the moment. She's not thinking about going to the negotiating committee to work her demand into the conversation. She needs this and it could have major repercussions for the rest of the inmates. That's strong and interesting. It seems destined to go one way. But it could surprise the audience as well in the next few episodes.

However, "The Tightening" works less overall because of its silly satire of the horror genre. The actual beats that play into the genre are quite fun. The show does take it seriously and knows how to subvert the audience's expectations. And yet, the purpose for why it's happening in the first place are absolutely ridiculous. Why in the world is Piscatella acting this way? Last season, he was a one-note villain. His actions had a direct impact on the inmates in ways that harmed all of them in significant ways. His actions did lead to the riot. So far this season, he has been on the sidelines. He's been frustrated because no one is listening to his "expert opinion" about storming the prison. But is that really justification for him breaking in and slowly kidnapping inmates one by one? Yes, it probably is the only kind of difference he can make. But he has his riot gear. He towers over all of these women. He could make it to the hostages and free them. That would effectively end this riot. And yet, he doesn't do that. Instead, he seems trapped in this battle of the wits with Red. Everyone refuses to believe Red when she says Piscatella is in the prison because she's still coming down from the drugs. It's because they don't believe her that they are ultimately taken by him. It's all building to that cool final moment that hints at a major showdown between Red and Piscatella. Kate Mulgrew sells it so very well. It's easy to get swept up into the excitement. But Piscatella's action still make no sense. This could undermine everything MCC is trying to do. He's still an employee of MCC after all. So, this could rip away any argument they have of being a safe and protective prison company. If they employ a man like this, that simply can't be true. But that's exactly what's happening. And so, it only makes Piscatella seem even more like a one-note villain to ramp up the stakes at the end of the season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Tightening" was written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Erin Feeley.
  • Freedom has also presented choices for Suzanne and Lorna. They have the choice to embrace who they truly are or try to fit into the mold of what society wants. With Lorna, it is presented as her being delusional because she doesn't want to accept what her life has become. With Suzanne, it's tragic because she isn't even given the choice. Lorna decides for her. She doesn't hand the pills over so Suzanne can decide what to do. And that could lead to even more tragedy.
  • Angie & Leanne and Flaca & Maritza have always been paired together for comedic stories. They work that way as well. But this season they have all gotten so grating and annoying because there's simply no variety to their stories. Angie and Leanne are the villains who are destroying things for Pennsatucky and Suzanne. Meanwhile, Flaca and Maritza are trapped in social media and absent from everything else going on.
  • It's not a coincidence that Piscatella's hiding place for the inmates he's kidnapped is right next to the entrance for Frieda's secret bunker. That's how Red found them. That's probably how they are going to escape all of this as well. The narrative strings are just more apparent than ever before. That's a little annoying too.
  • Furthermore, Piscatella only takes characters who have narrative significance to Red. There's a brief moment where it seems like Black Cindy is going to get taken too as it would confirm the horror genre's inclination to always kill the black characters. But that doesn't happen. It's just good for a cheap thrill and subversion of the genre and that's it.
  • Linda is forced to fend for herself for the first time in prison. Boo, Alex and Piper are all taken by Piscatella. Meanwhile, Caputo doesn't even want to acknowledge that she's from the MCC administration. To him, she's part of the problem that has led to the system getting so bad and the riot happening in the first place.
  • Aleida shows up outside Litchfield and largely just yells at everyone. That is basically all she does. She isn't able to talk to Daya to help her out of her current situation. Though keeping her on the sidelines allows her to walk past Blanca's boyfriend, Diablo, and Leanne's mother. It's nice to see some of these characters from the flashbacks in the present day.

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.