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‘Orange Is the New Black’ Review: 3.01 “Mother’s Day” / 3.02 “Bed Bugs and Beyond”

 

Episode 1: Mother’s Day
Written by: Jenji Kohan

Directed by: Andrew McCarthy

“I’d scratch that eczema” -Wanda Bell.

The premiere of Orange Is the New Black’s third season doesn’t waste any time with exposition. The show assumes you’ve already spent over twenty hours in rapt attention and, as such, caters to those already interested in its ensemble of characters. Even if you don’t remember what happened at the end of Season 2, you’ll appreciate this introduction best if you have some stake in the major relationships and storylines at play. That’s partially because the players shaking things up in last year’s main climax—like Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) and Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat)—have left behind a group of familiar faces in the regulars who have no way out.

The Mother’s Day setting of this episode helps reinforce the idea that the many of our main characters continue to maintain external relationships with as much relevance as their internal struggles within the Litchfield complex. Many of the prisoners have long dealt with their estrangement from the nuclear family ideal. The holiday occasion provides a jumping-off point from which to reenter the prison world for a third time, demonstrating how little time has passed and, simultaneously, the level of distance between the bunks and the outer world. This setting is familiar to regular viewers, but it’s still far from typical.

Despite this apparent willingness to reminder viewers of the complex connections between the women here and their real-life context, the premiere hardly leaves behind a dark imprint. The overall tone is upbeat—more so than that of many previous episodes—and harkens a new kind of silver lining, for both the show and the prison’s inhabitants. We see inmates and guards wrestling with the intricacies of piñatas, kid-friendly beer pong, and lame mom jokes, all in the green outdoor landscape of Litchfield’s more human backyard.

Several characters reflect on their roles as mothers—current, past, potential—as well as on their relationships to other mother figures. For Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) the absence of Vee marks the need to reexamine the idea of a mother-daughter relationship (positive or negative). For Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Mother’s Day provides a somber opportunity to reflect on past abortions and their implications on her current life. Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Bennett (Matt McGorry)anxiously wait out a pregnancy built on an unequal relationship between prisoner and guard and further exacerbated by their desperate decision to place the blame on Mendez (Pablo Schreiber).

Mother’s Day, for these characters, represents a chance to reconsider relationships in a different light. For Bennett, it’s a confusing reminder that Daya’s family has a lot of thoughts, a lot of children, and a lot of preconceived notions about what might happen to his and Daya’s baby. For Sophia, a visit with her son Michael requires the two to consider their current relationship and Sophia’s (Laverne Cox) particular role, allowing them both a chance to figure out how she can provide guidance, humor, and support in spite of their distance.

Unrelated to the holiday activities, Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) call to Alex’s (Laura Prepon) parole officer now has a thundering effect on her life as a downtrodden, ashamed Alex returns to the scene. Piper must reconcile her desire for her ex-flame’s return with her guilt over being at fault. Are they now even—bunk for a bunk, tattletale for tattletale—or is Piper playing an unrecognizably bad role? While lacking a direct correlation to the pervasive theme of motherhood in this episode, the Piper/Alex relationship nonetheless touches on all of the pressing ideas raised by the Mother’s Day event: trust, connection, respect, and the question of whether present is determined only by past.

The episode also hints at ongoing problems among the authority figures at Litchfield. Under pressure from his new role and new financial accountability, Caputo hires a new corrections officer, leaving Healy (Michael Harney) threatened. One of Daya’s young relatives goes missing, prompting an abrupt and alarming end to the holiday celebration. Even if our characters—inmates, guards, elements of relative normality here—can set themselves and the audience up for a day of calm, humor, and interpersonal exploration, the harsh and unreliable setting ultimately prevents any sort of comfort. The incarcerated residents here, and those helping to maintain their everyday reality, struggle to tow the line between the equally pressing identities of “women” and “inmates.”

As a setup for the season as a whole, the premiere details some immediate problems but primarily raises a great deal of overarching questions that will provide a moral and emotional framework for the stories to come. Featuring flashbacks of many characters as children (including Nicky [Natasha Lyonne], neglected by a forward-thinking mother, and Poussey [Samira Wiley], bonding with a mother she would soon lose early), the episode doesn’t focus on a particular character’s past and the present the way several other episodes have. Instead, as Season 3 begins, we’re led to consider a larger scope and lingering arguments about the ensemble’s time and place. If Mother’s Day marks the start of these themes, there’s little doubt that we’re about to deal in more detail with the many issues at stake. Betting on our existing investment in the characters, OITNB lets this episode start things off without underlining too many of the strings attached. We care already; the episode helps us decide where to focus our attention in the episodes to come.

Grade: A-

Episode 2: Bed Bugs and Beyond
Written by: Jim Danger Gray
Directed by: Constantine Makris

“Stop trying to mold the real world into the one
inside your pointy, blonde head.” -Red.

In the second episode of Season 3, bugs in the system cause mayhem, discomfort, and honesty. The initial representation of this theme is an outbreak of bed bugs. The inmates must strip down and throw their clothing and bedding over to the laundry team. The guards’ incompetence results in a lack of cheap replacement scrubs, and characters spend a great deal of the episode in their underwear. The idea of contagion spreads throughout the episode, providing an undertone of familiar responsibility, fear, and annoyance among all of the prisoners.

The Piper/Alex relationship takes center stage here, in this messy environment. Alex, covered even less luxuriously in a trash bag, mouths off to the newest guard about her right to take a piss, risking serious punishment. Piper steps in, before Alex falls to pieces in a bathroom stall and Piper’s only available encouragement is the sentiment that “it’s not your fault, Alex.” She would know: in Piper’s case, she’s been bitten by the bug of dishonesty. She called Alex’s parole officer to report her for having a gun for protection. Now that Alex is back, Piper’s the tattler who doesn’t know if she’s been caught. Piper tries pretty hard to encourage her ex-lover to look on the bright side: at least they’re in there together. Yet Alex’s discouragement and self-blame only increase Piper’s guilt. Ultimately, Alex must coax the truth out of Piper, explaining that it’s much better if it’s all out on the table—“seriously.” Piper’s an even worse liar than truth-teller, after all.

Even when Piper admits that she called Davey Crockett, she tries to come up with excuses. “I just wanted to protect you!” she claims, knowing how ridiculous that is even before Alex cuts her off and leaves. That Piper tries so hard to maintain the twenty-minute status quo shows how desperate she is for power, for love, for a sense of self. But it’s equally obvious that she’s deviating quite far from the goody two-shoes personality she may once have been assumed to have.

It’s not hard to see how Litchfield’s lack of cleanliness takes on literal and figurative meanings here. When Piper explains to new bunkmate Red (Kate Mulgrew) that you can’t actually feel the bites of bed bugs, Red reminds her that, whether that’s true or not, the bugs definitely exist. We’re bitten, constantly, even if it doesn’t hurt us in the moment. The less aware we are, the more easily fooled. As Piper laments the fact that whether she “truths” or “lies,” she “can’t get anything right,” Red provides a sense of stability, lying flat on her back without her bug-ridden mattress. Red reminds us that a strong backbone’s always necessary here—for each individual, for the prison as a whole, and for any relationship trying to thrive there. If Piper can’t even admit her mistakes, how can she move on?

With everything stripped to the core, Piper greets Alex in the hallway, they lock eyes, and Piper turns away to push her way into the closed-off library. Alex looks perplexed and yet understanding. She knows that by following Piper into the library she’s only going to perpetuate the confusion in their relationship. But she does follow, and the violent, sexual interaction that ensues comes as no surprise. They both need some sort of connection. Alex is mad, Piper is guilty; Alex is ashamed, Piper is responsible. The back and forth dynamic of their relationship has a perfect parallel in the destructive, unhealthy, reciprocal scene that transpires in the library. To hit is to know? To want is to push? For these two, there’s no misunderstanding for the audience: chemistry can mask dysfunction, and Piper and Alex thrive on dysfunction. Trust, truth, gentleness—these are irrelevant and nonexistent for now.

For this episode, at least, they’re able to embrace the ever-present bug—giving the audience little doubt that, as the season progresses, these characters will need a lot more to go on in order to survive. No one can live in a parasitic, exposed environment; eventually the laundry crew will put things through the heat cycle, and all of the characters will have to start anew in fresh prison uniforms.

Grade: B+

 

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Emily Ambash is a writer, arts marketer, web designer, and deep sleeper with a penchant for thought-provoking TV shows and films. She has a BA in English and Theater from Bryn Mawr College and a MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University. She also has three seasons of "Punky Brewster" on DVD and a strong attachment to puppies. Originally from Boston, Emily currently lives outside of Philadelphia. She apologizes now (but insincerely) if you dislike the Oxford comma.