The Prisoner as a Young Woman OITNB review by Jade Sharma
The Prisoner as a Young Woman Orange is the New Black: Season 2 Now Streaming On Netflix
Jenji Kohan framework tends to be one in which an upper middle class attractive white woman who has been living a fairly sheltered life must contend with her world falling apart. In ‘Weeds” it’s the untimely death of Nancy Botwin’s husband leaving Nancy to figure out how to maintain her suburban lifestyle and raise her two kids. In OITHB, Piper Chapman, is engaged to be married and the expensive soap and her best friend Polly make is about hit Barney’s when her past rears it’s ugly head in the shape of a post-college lesbian relationship with an international drug trafficker. Just as Piper is about to marry a man and secure a conventional life, her ex-lover Alex gives her up and she is sentenced to a year in a minimum security prison.
After these inciting incident these women found themselves in the underbelly of society (for Nancy Botwin it’s the world of drug dealing; for Piper Chapman it’s prison.) The white washed polite world they grew up in still shows its mark as when Nancy Botwin bundles her weed in cutesy little packaging. Similarly, Chapman instead of throwing down with the prison chef, who she unwittingly insulted, she makes her a special lotion out of hot peppers to soothe her back pains. After being pushed out from the white upper crust and having to hustle to survive both Kohan’s main characters find strength they never knew they had, forming real connections with people who have never lived in their economic bracket, and like Walter White find a thrill in their new identities. They find the little badass inside their white girl body, and not only do these women survive, but most of the time thrive.
This fish-out-of-water, is a tired premise and is tailored to white middle class educated viewers. As both Botwin and Chapman play the audience’s guide into these rough subcultures. The implicit notion is the idea that the white educated upper class view, is the ‘normal’ one. Although OITNB gets more stars on the chart for diversity it is problematic that Kohan feels she must use the white upper class point of view to evaluate ‘the other,’ mostly low income african-american, latinas, and white trash meth-heads. In one way the show is light years ahead in it’s willingness to deal with racial issues and showing women of different shapes, sizes colors, and ages but it is still working within a normative white viewpoint.
The main problem with OITNB is the least interesting character is Piper Chapman. She’s got her facial expressions for disdain, shock, and incredibility down but besides being a visual guide on how a “normal” person would react to, say, seeing someone take out a tube of vaseline out of their ear, she’s not worth the top billing she gets.
The first episode is an eerie one, Chapman is released from ‘the shoe’ or solitary with no idea where she is being taken. Her demands to know where she is being taken, saying it’s her legal right are completely ignored by the guards escorting her who are deep in conversation about how women’s gotta have a booty.
This is one of the formula’s of OITNB: Piper reacts in outrage or disdain and is either ignored or at laughed at for being so naive. The very set of factors that gave Piper privileged in the world: being educated, white, and attractive, leave her vulnerable at Litchfield. Her P.C/liberal ideals are put to the test. During the first season, she ‘studied’ for prison, and when asked by her cell mates what she did, she stammers, “I read that you weren’t suppose to ask that.” She apologizes, tries to keep to herself, and feels uncomfortable by the racial divide in the prison, as a white prisoner had given her soap and a toothbrush saying, “We have to look out for one another.”
The second season Piper is in the midst of her transformation. The second season acts more as a bildungsroman, a novel of education or coming of age story. Normally the term is used for books about children entering Piper adolescence is a child-of-sorts, living a sheltered, wealthy bringing until she’s thrown into prison where she the raw environment transforms her to be more savvy at dealing with the world . She’s still got use for her look of incredulousness, as when she enters a new prison, and upon walking into her new cell she inadvertently steps on ‘yoda,’ a cigarette running roach and is told she must replace it. After she spots Alex Voss in the play yard but is unable to reach her she bargains with a male inmate to pass a note to Voss. When he asked what she can do for him. She says, “a kiss,” which makes him break out into laughter. “Well, you can’t sexually assault me in public,” she reasons. They agree to trade Piper’s unchanged four-day panties for the inatime to give Voss a note. Afterwards one of her cell mates explains that he is a hit man to which Piper replies, “Thank god, he’s a hit man I thought he was a rapist!.” This is a Piper with a new set of normal. She didn’t wince when the male inmate asks for her panties, and finds comfort that he’s a hit man and not a rapist, because her concerns have grown to be completely self-involved.
We lose Vose who gives up information, while Piper is given a longer sentence for perjury. The loss of Voss impacted the show by making this season a less-Piper centered and more focused on the rival, the newly arrived “V,” who quickly becomes the leader of the African-American group with the latinas. V, a middle-aged drug dealer, tells the African-American young women of the good old days when the black women ruled the prison and encourages them to re-take their place as the upper caste in the prison’s hierch. V, also, rekindles a grudge with Red (a fiesty, Russian women who is a “mother” to the young drug addicted women who enter the prison, provided tough love to keep them clean). Last season left Red outcasted, as she was framed by Guard Mendez was who went from creepy to plain evil by planting drugs in Red’s underground railraod of pantie-hose, lipstick, and other prohibited items for the girls. With the introduction of V, things are less like a bad day in high school and a bit more like a really bad day in high school in a rough ghetto. As one prisoner, tells the FBI who come to investigate the final blow-out between V and Red, “It wasn’t like camp but we weren’t trying to kill each other,’ she says.
V illuminates one of the most endearing characters of the show, Tastee. Basically, Tastee was an abandoned kid who V helped when she was in trouble and by becoming a maternal figure for her manipulated her into being part of heroin drug trade. Tastee, shown as a precious child, had a head for math and business but V held her back, luring her with maternal love, to keep her within ‘the family’ of drug users.
Each episode, illuminates a back story. We always knew something was off with Loreno, during the first season, she was obsessed with planning a perfect wedding with Christopher, who curiously never showed up to visit but the truth is more heartbreaking as we see that for all her lovable quirkiness, Lorean is completely delusional. After one-date with a man she meets in a post office she obsessively stalks him. During court proceedings the man says he’s moved three residences because of harassment. In one episode Lorena, who is trusted to drive Garcia to chemotherapy, shoots out of her parking spot and ends up at her stalking victim’s house. The scenes of Lorena going through the idyllic kitchen, bedrooms, closets, are equally parts, suspenseful, and utterly gut wrenching. The character’s face is filled with a heartbreaking naivety, as if she a little girl peering into a great mansion, hey eyes glittering with envy at a bottle of expensive bubble bath. She ends up in the bathtub donning the veil of the fiance of Lorena’s “Christopher.” then comes to her senses, grabbing a little teddy bear, that reads with tooth-rotting sweetness, ‘love lives here” and makes it back to the hospital in time, and is never found out.
The Lorana storyline is one of the show’s most poignant threads. While most of the show could be a group of rag-tag high school kids, giggling at toilet humor, using mirrors to figure out what hole pee comes out of it, making fun of one another, and playing games for hours, we forget about the prison/crime part of the situation. The Loreana storyline shows us that this character that we’ve become attached to her for being a little nutty, that her lovable naivety that is uncommon in the rest of population, not only broke the law, but could actually be a danger partly because her naivety is part of what produced her disillusionment that Christopher was a true soul mate. This is hard to take as a viewer as we confronted that however likable a character might be and however much we want to root for them, that many of these characters are where they are suppose to be and that’s kinda, well, sad.
There are a lot of great plots as when the latina’s showers are unusable due to sewage pipes being backed-up, when the entire prison’s power goes inciting one of the heart warming moments of the women breaking out into a sing-along.
Piper’s lot goes from bad to awesome as her ex-fiance sleeps with her best friend, her grandmother dies, and she losses Voss, we see how prison how changes her. As she pretends to forgive Voss and in a visit gathers information that she is planning to leave town, she carries out a plan to have Voss caught by her probation officer with a gun and plane tickets to get her back in prison. Piper, also, has a brother’s wife, leave a message for her best friend who betrayed her by leaving a sack of shit on fire on her doorstep. But her final act of retribution is for the greater good of the prison, during the power outage she steals files that confirm the warden is stealing money that she then diverges to the assist warden who gives a speech at a bar about how stifled he feels that he is encumbered to make living conditions for the women any better.
The last scene breaks out of the realistic mode and becomes a farce. Garcia, who is on her last legs due to cancer, breaks out of prison in a van, and on her way out she sees V, who has escaped, via’s Red secret tunnel, hitting her body, cartoon style, flinging it off the road.
OITNB is at it’s best a social commentary about prison, race, and inequality. This season had less to do with Piper’s whining and crying and more about the other more interesting characters. It’s hard with such a huge cast but Kenji’s has the show come off smoothly. Piper’s character was on the verge of becoming a tiresome, but the latter part of the season, shows that her transformation is worth watching. OITNB is more than quality viewing, it’s important viewing. It proves to TV execs that a show with an entirely female cast, wearing baggy unattractive prison duds, with different ages, has mass appeal. That good writing and acting will win out over watching pretty people acting out the same tiresome scenarios. Tolstoy wrote the function of art is to show the commonalities of all people, showing them another world is possible, beyond the divisions between people in life.” OITNB, while keeping with the accurate barriers in prison, does show us in a larger sense from the audience to the prisoners. In watching the back story what we see is not maliciousness or greed, but weakness, longing, and suffering showing us that the wrestling human heart in all it’s gut-wrenching glory.