This review contains spoilers from episodes seven and eight of Orange is the New Black, Season Four.
Even in the cardboard confines of Lolly’s “time machine,” the past remains at arm’s length. The recent, the distant, the points in between: No matter where on this spectrum the fateful event falls, it is, as it’s happening, already irrevocable, already becoming “before.” This, in life as at Litchfield, is the content of regret—the knowledge that there’s no going back—but the belief that we might, if we could, change the shape of the present is more than a little misleading. With “It Sounded Nice in My Head” and “Friends in Low Places,” Orange is the New Black nods at our fantasies of unmaking mistakes, only to question whether there’s a single decision by which the die is cast. “I have no moment,” as Lolly says to Healy, “when everything went wrong.”
Who does? Piper’s now the reluctant leader of the prison’s Aryan Sisterhood, but it’s too simplistic to suggest that her competition with Maria is the sole cause—from her confrontation with Doggett in the series’ first season, to her treatment of Stella in the third, she’s long since sought power by any means necessary, shattering her moral compass in the process. The same might be said of Alex, reeling from the death of Kubra’s hitman, and Nicky, on the prowl for sex and smack, at least in the sense that their current crises stem from much earlier errors of judgment. If these women, smoking crack in the cornstalks and confessing their sins, had the chance to turn back the clock, I suspect they’d return to a time years before, when their choices were not so constrained by their circumstances.
The aim here, by my reckoning, isn’t deterministic—Orange Is the New Black is always careful to suggest that no inmate’s imprisonment was inevitable—but it can be disheartening, a potent reminder that the causes of mass incarceration are multiple and its consequences irrefutable. “I go from unemployable to unemployable with a pat on my back,” Aleida complains when Daya criticizes her lack of GED prep. “The game is rigged.” In essence, she implies, Litchfield reinforces, rather than assuages, each prisoner’s regrets: Her formal education is still incomplete, the resources for instruction shunted into craven “vocational” programs; her criminal record, and employers’ discrimination against ex-cons, leave her likelier to return to illegal activities; even her successful stint in the salon recalls her original transgression. “Of course,” she says ruefully. “I finally find a job that I’m good at, and it turns out to be a drug front.”
As is its wont, Orange Is the New Black plays the subject for laughs, too: “Chitlin’ Gate,” which arises after footage of Judy’s public access minstrel show leaks online, offers a glimpse of the insincere regret, the “Sorry if you were offended” school of public relations. Her protestations—her charitable donations, her hiring practices—resemble those of more than one famous figure (ahem, Paula Deen) caught clinging to the vernacular of the Lost Cause, and indeed “It Sounded Nice in My Head” and “Friends in Low Places” revel in upsetting the apple cart of race and representation. Taystee, the unofficial expert on U.S. Weekly understands that the image of Judy that the tabloids want is one with a clear narrative, i.e. one that frames the TV star as a white savior, and her fellow inmates as real-life Chitlin’ Joes and Watermelon Sams. That the series declines to oblige—first by photographing Judy, in her paranoia, running from Black Cindy, and then offering up “Interracial Lesbian Love Behind Bars”—is more than a cunning reversal; it’s of a piece with Nicky’s warning to Piper on the issue of optics. “Sometimes,” she cautions, “what it looks like is all anybody can see.”
Lolly’s plight, we learn in “It Sounded Nicer in My Head,” is exactly this, and the exquisite empathy with which Orange Is the New Black depicts her life before Litchfield left me with regrets of my own. It’s not that I was wrong, in my first recap, to describe her as “annoying,” but that my assessment drew on her surface, and not her depths—as to her editor, her coworker, and the policemen in her fast-gentrifying neighborhood, she seemed to me no more than burden, pitiable but peripheral. The series’ strength, of course, is to destabilize our conceptions of its characters, and the heartbreaking sequence that ends with her arrest is an indictment of the shallow assumptions that guide both the definition of “crime” and the uses of punishment: For Lolly, at least, there’s no mistake to unmake, no error to fix, no moment when everything went wrong. The game was rigged.
By the time “Friends in Low Places” reaches its conclusion, it’s clear that one need not condone the inmates’ actions, past or present, to wonder if the system’s excesses—of enforcement, or prosecution, of sentencing, of incarceration—are any more than an act of vengeance. When it comes to regrets, after all, the most tenacious tend to be self-imposed, branded on the psyche with the same permanence as the Nazi emblem on Piper’s arm. To change the shape of the present, as Red remarks, is by no means to undo the past; no matter what, it scars you. “When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window,” she says, Piper’s screams rattling through Litchfield’s kitchen. “And then you remember, there is no God.”
Other thoughts and quotes from these episodes:
Boo: “All About Eve, huh?”
Doggett: “Yeah, ‘cause Adam told her not to eat that apple, and when she ate it, she became wise. Just like me.”
Also from Boo, whose one-liner hit rate is reaching new heights: “Labor and capital can never really be friends,” she remarks to Piper. “More like fuck buddies.”
I couldn’t quite bring myself to write at length about Linda threatening Crystal Burcet with a handgun, much less the fact that she and Caputo get off on it. They’re both hot garbage, and I doubt the series will destabilize that conception anytime soon.
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.