Episode 5: Fake It Till You Fake It Some More
Written by: Tara Herrmann
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener
“The opposite of me is better.” -Suzanne.
“The opposite of you is…boring.” -Taystee.
The fifth episode of Season 3 provides a compelling reminder of the relative, transient nature of home. While Flaca (Jackie Cruz) jumps at the chance to leave her comfortable position in Gloria’s (Selenis Mendoza) kitchen, Red (Kate Mulgrew) yearns for a return there at any cost. Red needs a sense of the familiar in order to feel powerful and to find a purpose now that she’s estranged from her husband and sons. Flaca, on the other hand, needs more than the comfort of her kitchen family and believes her ambition sets her apart from her friends. Even in prison, the idea of sticking to a situation just because things are “gelling” seems awfully simpleminded. She’s determined to find something better, to stave off the assumption that she should just go with the flow. “When I wear that apron in the kitchen,” she explains to Maritza (Diane Guerrero), “I’m really wearing it ironically.”
When the inmates have a chance to be chosen for a new work assignment—one that will pay significantly more than any existing assignment—Flaca is intent on taking that chance. This episode shows us her history as the daughter of a seamstress and a woman whose entrepreneurial spirit took off in high school. Sarcastically explaining that she doesn’t want to end up performing sweatshop labor, young Flaca creates and sells fake drugs as a way of making her own money. After a young man buys her product and subsequently jumps off of the high school roof, the police arrive at Flaca’s house. “They are arresting me for not selling drugs!” she explains in Spanish to her mother.
A new work assignment represents, for Flaca, an opportunity to prove her worth. Despite her current circumstances, she’s spirited and sees being chosen for the job as recognition of her larger potential. This is true for many other inmates, especially because the new job comes with a slightly-closer-to-humane paycheck. Interested inmates must take a personality test in the cafeteria, surrounded by the noise and uncertainty of other anxious women. Flaca can’t even finish her test before panicking and being told to leave by Officer Maxwell (Lolita Foster).
She ends up getting the job, as do a variety of other inmates. Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is chosen—to no surprise—as are Black Cindy (Adrienne Moore), Janae (Vicky Jeudy), and a hodgepodge of other familiar faces. As Caputo (Nick Sandow) learns, however, the inmates have been selected randomly; the idea that they’ve been chosen by merit or personality type is false, yet it’s further played up by Pearson (Mike Birbiglia) as he unveils their new assignment. They’ll be sewing lingerie for Whispers, a private company. As Flaca enters the new warehouse, we can sense the irony. Sewing is her mother’s specialty, so succeeding at Litchfield has actually landed her back in the land of the familiar. And, just as her drug profits were based on false pretenses (influenced perhaps by her mother’s assertion that “more often than not, people believe what you tell them”), her journey to Whispers is based in corporate lies.
In this episode, characters deal with constant uncertainty, and that often means taking advantage of how easily others perceive identity. Red takes advantage of Healy’s (Michael J. Harney) sadness and lack of confidence by emphasizing her sexuality, showing just how much she wants a role in the kitchen, even if it means gaming the system. Healy expresses his disappointment at her request, telling her, “I thought you were different.” Yet Healy does submit a change request to an equally distracted Caputo, himself surrounded by unsatisfied employees who feel they’ve been screwed over in the sale of Litchfield.
In all of the upheaval—of personnel, of routine, of power—the authority figures within the prison have been more clearly depicted as pawns in a larger system. Throughout this hour, the dissatisfaction of the prison employees combines with the increasingly obvious manipulation of the environment by corporate powers to highlight how limited the individual prisoners’ struggles actually are. Flaca’s concern with achieving a new role is dwarfed, at episode’s end, by the deeper implications of the public-to-private sale and the resultant shifting power dynamics at the prison.
As Flaca muses at the rows of Whispers sewing machines, resigned to the idea that ambition paid off unexpectedly, Red benefits from the flurry of new changes in the system, landing herself back in the kitchen with a recovered fierceness. Really, these two may feel differently about where they’ve ended up in relation to their families, but they’re both tiny ants in a giant prison sandbox. Corporate greed only encourages the inmates’ internal conflicts and senses of success—all a ruse to keep the sand moving for those who sell it. Even Caputo is sheltered from changes beyond the perimeter. While Flaca and Red have found their own temporary versions of home, their prison context is still in flux.
Episode 6: Ching Chong Chang
Written by: Sara Hess
Directed by: Anthony Hemingway
“You know what sucks? Belonging to a race that doesn’t commit enough low-value crimes to be relevant in a place like this.” -Soso.
Episode six finally gives viewers an opportunity to get to know Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), a character known primarily for offbeat comments and for a lack of easy communication with other inmates. Like Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Chang is often relegated to the background simply because she’s unusual. She doesn’t try too hard to fit in, she doesn’t seem to take things seriously, and she’s rarely given much attention by the most vocal characters on the show. Since she’s Chinese, Chang also represents what seems to be an incredibly underrepresented population at Litchfield. When Chang insists to lonely bunkmate Soso (Kimiko Glenn), “You Scottish,” Soso highlights the persistent self-absorption of many at the prison with this stark affirmation: “Not to white people I’m not!” But Chang isn’t wrong: Soso’s American and, even if she lacks a “big Asian prison family,” can’t claim a real relation to Chang, whose language barrier and cultural differences pose different types of problems.
In the past, Chang has come across as a bit of a pessimist, occasionally providing snarky comments but mostly keeping to herself and accepting the odd nature of things at prison. Here, she keeps on doing things her own way, but we’re forced to consider the reasons for her behavior. The other inmates don’t learn much here—they’re not seeing the flashbacks we see—and that is perhaps the point. Even if the audience learns enough to be more sympathetic to Chang, that doesn’t change her situation when those around her don’t give her a second glance.
Her solitary nature doesn’t always seem like a bad thing. We see Chang walk out of the cafeteria with milk cartons full of food she intends to alter to her liking later on, moments after a guard stops Angie (Julie Lake) for trying to walk out with a snack. Chang’s oddities don’t make her any less unassuming, and that people don’t pay much attention sometimes even helps her.
The series of flashbacks shows us that a potential suitor rejected Chang, who was then pressured by her brother to pay him back for the dowry he didn’t receive. She wasn’t good enough looking for the man to be interested. When she defends her brother later on after a business transaction goes wrong, he acknowledges that he owes her, and she knows what she wants: to exact revenge on the man who rejected her years before. Chang claims her power by embracing a certain sense of ugliness. She chooses to have the man’s gallbladder cut out—a very physical punishment that harms his physical self. Instead of trying to prove her beauty to someone who wouldn’t see it before, she performs a horrible act. She isn’t interested in conforming to traditional standards of beauty, and the power she eventually finds rests in her unladylike behavior. Inasmuch as she spent her life unacknowledged by others, Chang’s current sense of self seems especially rooted in her individuality and the control it gives her.
“My eyes squinty but ears work fine,” Chang informs Piper and Alex (Laura Prepon) in the bathroom early in the episode. Alex apologizes for her obvious amusement over Chang’s actions (pouring the contents of a salt box onto her toothbrush) by explaining, “I’m sorry—I laugh when I see something super weird.” Although viewers might relate to sympathetic characters like Alex more regularly, this episode serves as a reminder that there are plenty of inmates who are much less outwardly sympathetic or relatable, and they’ve got equally interesting stories—if only those around them would learn. Toward the end of the episode, we find Piper in the bathroom again, this time alone. She’s looking at herself in the mirror, naked except for a pair of stolen pink Meadows panties. When Chang emerges, Piper pleads with her to forget what she just saw: “I just wanted to feel pretty.” She pauses before leaving to apologize again for the other day. One gets the sense here that even Piper, often a fairly self-absorbed person, realizes that Chang surely feels the same way at times and that being fodder for others’ laughter probably doesn’t make her feel very pretty. Although they’re unlikely to interact more closely in the future, it’s clear that both characters easily have their confidence shaken and both find ways of regaining power.
This common ground appears often on the show. Chang may not be given much respect, as a minor player who doesn’t necessarily stand a chance of earning her place within the larger storyline. Still, the fact that an oft-sidelined inmate was given a backstory at all is a testament to Orange Is the New Black’s awareness of its limitations. We can’t know everyone that well, and most of the inmates will never ask much about most other inmates. But we should at least remember that everyone has a story, somewhere.
That awareness may be even more necessary than usual as Season 3 progresses. The corporate influence on life at Litchfield has already had far-reaching consequences, and it’s clear the company in charge doesn’t care much about any particular person’s backstory. We see this concept illustrated in a scene in which Piper makes a practical suggestion about making more underwear out of the same amount of fabric. The shop leader thanks her and turns his back, claiming that Meadows clearly knows how it wants its business run—as if it wasn’t already obvious how little control inmates have over what they’re doing. The mill needs them to crank out its products, and anything valuable they venture to say simply won’t be heard.
If that’s true for Piper, who has always benefited before from her outspoken nature, then it’s all the more true for someone like Chang, who has learned to quiet herself so that others don’t do it for her. Chang knows no one’s going to listen, so she finds power in other ways, stealing peas in milk cartons and enjoying oranges alone in a shed—willingly invisible.