This review contains spoilers from episodes nine and ten of Orange is the New Black, Season Four.
“Action from principle—the perception and the performance of right—changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was.”—Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849)
The leader of Litchfield’s brewing revolution is one Blanca Flores, of the unibrow shaped into a permanent scowl and the scent of a skunk that “OD’d on vinegar.” She’s the hero her fellow inmates never knew they needed, an unassuming student of the performance of right, and her resistance to prison’s indignities sets her incarcerated sisters aflame. The members of Maria’s crew join her, disrupting the guards’ degrading searches with sardines and spoiled pudding, and when Blanca turns the tables by climbing atop one, the odor of change fills the air. In this most political season of Orange Is the New Black, “Turn Table Turn,” with its echo of Magnificent Montague’s Watts riot slogan (“Burn, baby, burn!”), sets off an ideological depth charge, dense with conflicting interpretations. For now, at least, we might trust Blanca’s own: “Jenga is a game,” she explains to a threatening CO. “This is civil disobedience.”
If you’ll indulge me, this is what I want to discuss here—not Morello’s jealous outburst, or Kukudio’s trick on Suzanne, or Piper and Alex’s cheeseburger dreams. These threads are woven into the whole so half-heartedly that the series might want us to forget them, too, vestiges of subplots the writers seem impatient to scuttle; one result of Orange Is the New Black’s recent evolution is a narrative so overstuffed it bursts at the seams, spilling its contents pell-mell. With the exception of Red’s heartfelt, sobbing plea (“You look like you’re dead already!”), even the arc of Nicky’s addiction slips in and out of focus, unable to gain much purchase in the confusion.
This also begins to get at why “Turn Table Turn” outstrips “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull,” a function of structure as well as substance. With its sprawling ensemble, multi-pronged narrative, and assortment of comic and dramatic elements, Orange is the New Black benefits from the shape its flashbacks lend the storytelling—a kind of clothesline on which to hang its detours, tangents, and asides—and this season’s intermittent use of the technique has left the series struggling to build momentum. Blanca’s prior dalliance with dissent contextualizes the relationship among the forms of protest we see in “Turn Table Turn” and “Buny, Skull, Bunny, Skull”: Sister Jane’s trip to the SHU, with a clever assist from Mendoza; Piper’s “moral outrage,” in repentance for her brief foray into neo-Nazism; Caputo’s decision to leak Sophia’s photograph to blogger and prison reform advocate Danny Pearson. With Flores at the center, these choices assume a different cast—it’s notable, for instance, that the personal risk to each character depends on their position in the prison ecosystem.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the vitriol of certain factions at Litchfield has begun to recall the conservative counterrevolutions of our own political culture. During the screening of The Wiz, for instance, the white supremacists’ insinuations become outright slurs; the guards’ unpleasantness descends into sadism. (Humphrey forcing Maritza at gunpoint to choose between eating ten dead flies or a live baby mouse is so repugnant I fast-forwarded through it.) Loathe to give a single inch, Piscatella turns to retrograde punishments and extravagant tortures, but the sight of Blanca pissing and shitting herself in the middle of the cafeteria only weakens his power: The moment she refuses to yield, he’s fighting a losing battle. “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be,” Thoreau argues. “What is once well done is done forever.”
As Aleida suggests upon her release, in one of the most deftly constructed sequences in “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull,” inmates aren’t animals. “I got people in there,” she says, bristling at Cesar’s girlfriend’s assumption that the women at Litchfield shower en masse and carry contraband under their breasts. “I got nobody out here. I got $40 and an old bus pass.” This is, after a fashion, Blanca’s long-ago realization: She and the landscaper, Dario, are diligent and kind in the face of their employer’s incessant demands, and do more for her than her distant, estranged daughter, but in the end there’s always another “reason” for their dehumanization. His tattoos. Her “distraction.” Their names, their native language, their complexion, their occupations. “He’s a person, and I’m a person,” Blanca says finally, as if to foreshadow her prison insurrection. “I don’t just live to work for you.”
And so the “rebel genius,” the “Che Guevara of hallway groping,” reasserts herself—on the chaise longue in her employer’s bedroom, with a wicked, forceful grin; on the table in the cafeteria, with physical and mental strength beyond Piscatella’s imagination. It’s unclear, at this point, exactly how her protest will play out, especially after the corpse is unearthed in the garden, but as Blanca well knows, action from principle is an agent of change. Because of her, it’s blowing in the wind. Time to batten down the hatches.
Other thoughts and quotes from these episodes:
In my focus on Flores’ civil disobedience—the defining feature of “Turn Table Turn,” and a through line in “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull”—I left out Doggett’s halting reconciliation with Coates, but she does whisper one of the season’s most poignant sentiments: “Do you ever feel like a person without a country?”
Orange Is the New Black reviews Breaking Bad: “Man, we’re missing the best TV!” one of Doggett’s old crew comments. “I swear, I might’ve cleaned up my act if I’d known I was gonna end up in a place with only network.” (They do get USA, though. You think Litchfield’s revolutionaries are into Mr. Robot?)
She hasn’t been the subject of much attention this season, but Mendoza is so big-hearted here it would be a shame not to mention it. She’s not flashy about it, but from attempting to protect Daya from Maria’s “dangerous game,” to urging on Sister Jane’s effort to get sent to the SHU, her warmth and compassion is a nice change of pace as Orange Is the New Black grows darker.