Orange is the New Black 2×01, ‘Thirsty Bird’: Through the air and under the bus | Gotta Watch It!

Orange is the New Black 2×01, ‘Thirsty Bird’: Through the air and under the bus

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Welcome to Orange is the New Black!  Katie and I will be leading this tour of the facilities.  Leave your phones and sharp objects with the front desk.  Do not speak to the inmates.  Do not take anything from the inmates or give anything to them.  Do not touch the inmates.  Red will be serving up lunch in the commissary sharply at noon: do not be late or you will not eat.  If you feel threatened by the inmates, report this immediately to the guard staff or warden.  If you feel threatened by the staff or warden, well, that’s just par for the course.

NO TOUCHING!

source: Netflix

source: Netflix

The return to Litchfield Federal Penitentiary is a short one as Piper is whisked away in the dead of night to parts unknown with people she’s never met, including a weary-looking Lori Petty, who I will hereby refer to as Tank Lady, a title befitting her maturity.  Piper has been in solitary for an unknown amount of time for the fight with Pennsyltucky, and the first half of the episode is devoted to the increasing feeling of madness Piper suffers as control is taken from her piece by piece by forces unknown.  She’s woken in the dead of night by guards, put on a bus, and then a plane, never told where she’s going.  She arrives at a co-ed holding facility in Chicago, and finally puts it all together when she sees Alex Vause across the exercise yard: they’re there to testify in the federal trial against Alex’s boss in the cartel.  Alex urges Piper to play dumb, telling her that ratting out the cartel will result in their untimely deaths, but Piper is torn between telling the truth and protecting the woman she loved.  In the end, Piper falsely pleads ignorant, but later sees Alex in street clothes seemingly being set free.  Did Alex sell her out?

source: Netflix

source: Netflix

The episode really does feel like two smaller episodes smushed together; the first half, an intimate view into the dehumanizing treatment granted to inmates during facility transfers, and the second, a focus on Piper’s history with Alex and how it factors in her current situation.  And that first half feels like a nightmare; Piper, roused from sleep in the shoe where she’s obviously already starting to lose her grip on sanity, she’s threatened and forced to comply with a series of demands without any justification, only the promise of repercussion for any failure to comply.  One of the most interesting things I find in this show is that while it certainly has a lot to say about power dynamics between men and women, it also makes plentiful commentary about the dynamics between inmates and the female authority figures they’re subordinate to.  Piper feels the sting of phallocentricity early and often in this episode, starting with the the bleak humor in the transport vans where the guards objectify the women in their lives couched in the newly-mandated “workplace friendly” language; this is often one of the half-hearted attempts to curb misogyny in real life, attacking nomenclature but failing to address the culture that spawned it.  “Bitch,” like any word, isn’t inherently evil or untoward, but the context that equates that word to a woman in a negative and objectifying fashion makes it so; likewise, exchanging that word for another used in the same context with the same connotations is meaningless if the intent is the same.  Renaming ketchup into “tomato dip” doesn’t mean much; you’re still putting it on your fries same as before.  However, I think for me personally seeing the violations of personhood committed upon one woman by another rankles me more than seeing it from a man; it shouldn’t, probably, but unfortunately I’m conditioned to expect that kind of behavior from men.  Scenes such as the one here involving mass naked cavity searches, where pleas for privacy are met with promises of further and worse intrusion by the smug and churlish guardswomen, feel like nothing else more than documentary footage of concentration camps, where dignity isn’t just stripped away, its absence is celebrated like Mardi Gras.

The second half of the episode intercuts flashbacks of Piper as a young girl, who we see had issues with bucking authority (even when given a pass), but carries scars from being punished for trying to do the right thing, and I think that’s a terribly humanizing aspect to bring to Piper, isn’t it?  She’s always been the girl who wanted to do right, and that’s always had a way of making her feel like she’s done something wrong.  It’s this lack of moral clarity that she brings to the stand in testifying against the cartel; protecting Alex probably seemed like the best way to toe the line of truth while not hurting the people she cares about.  In no subtle way, the thesis statement of Orange is the New Black is: Prison is terrible.  More than that, however, it argues the American penal system is broken, it works against its own purpose, it fosters and perpetuates criminality, and it solves very few real problems.  Conversely, it dehumanizes people, it disproportionately affects marginalized communities, and it has little problem with worsening the lives of the convicted for political gain.  That’s what seems to happen at the end of the episode here, as Alex apparently goes free.  Did she testify against the cartel?  Did she falsely implicate Piper?  We’ll have to wait until next week to find out, but it’s clear that Piper’s life is still out of her control and probably going to get worse before it improves.

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Source: Netflix

I think it’s important to mention that the year+ of degradation that Piper has had to endure in the prison system was mostly so she could be leveraged in a federal case in which she was only tangentially involved.  Her life was turned upside down and ruined because she held the luggage of someone guilty of a victimless consensual crime, and it appears that ruination will continue, possibly as the actual criminals that put her there go free.  That encapsulates the utility (and futility) of our prison system in microcosm.  It’s a horror show, essentially, made all the more harrowing by the fact that the events depicted are mere dramatization of real events that happened to real women.  But we need shows like this.  We need shows that hold up the mirror to the inequities our society would rather pretend don’t exist.  We need shows that proudly feature the intersectional struggles for poor women, wealthy women, young women, and old women; the divisions and connections between white women and female people of color; the insistence of identity for gay women, bisexual women, and transgender women; bravery in the face of a powerful and fearful patriarchy.  We need this show badly, warts and all.

Especially the warts.

 

 

Hit us up in the comments and let’s dish on intersectional misogyny, yo.

Atomika D.

is a writer and critic of TV and film since 2006, an alumnus of NYFA’s school of celluloid direction and production, and she once ate seven burritos on a dare. It was not pleasant. Read all about it on Tumblr.

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  • http://watchitrae.com/ Rae Bradshaw

    I think my favorite of the flashback relationships was that between Piper and her father, though we only see him briefly in this episode. Obviously Piper can’t blame him for her own incarceration, but it’s clear that the hypocrisy with which she was raised (an adulterous father who “taught her everything”) helped put her there.

    • http://atomic-atomika.tumblr.com/ Atomika

      Indeed, and I think her mother is just as much to blame in that context. She’s the one that shamed Piper for doing the right thing, and showed her that some people would rather be happy living a lie than face the prospect of being alone. She’s the one that taught Piper that the pain the truth causes is more important than the truth itself.