For the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black, Spencer Kornhaber and Sophie Gilbert are discussing the series via recaps, taking turns to analyze one episode at a time. Spoilers abound; don’t read further than you’ve watched.
Episode 12, “The Animals”
Read the review of the previous episode here.
This was, beyond doubt, one of the most engrossing, well-plotted, timely episodes of television that’s come out in years, but I couldn’t watch it again right now if you paid me. I made four pages of notes on a legal pad and they end with the same word written three times: Poussey.
The lament that prison changes people is an oft-repeated truth on Orange Is the New Black, but up until now it’s mostly been prisoners saying it. In this episode, directed by Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner, it was Caputo instead, warning Bayley that if he didn’t leave Litchfield and do something else, he’d turn into a monster, “stumbling around crushing whole cities.” This place, Caputo said, “crushes anything good.”
This was exemplified in the cruelest fashion imaginable in the final scene, by the literal crushing of Poussey, a tiny woman with the biggest smile (and heart) in the prison. Yes, morality is complicated in this show, but P’s soul was hard to doubt—she was unequivocally one of the sweetest people in Litchfield, whose crimes amounted to possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana (for which she got six years). At this point, having known most of the prisoners for four seasons and learned their histories, almost anyone’s death would have been gutwrenching. But the fact that it was Poussey who was suffocated by Bayley as he wrestled with a hysterical Suzanne seems deliberate: The point was to fundamentally shock both the inmates and the viewers—to say that the system is so broken that this could happen to anyone, and has.
Watching the fourth season play out against a backdrop of Trump has felt uncanny at times, as racial tensions escalated to new heights in the prison and inmates made dubious alliances under the pretext of keeping themselves safe. That said, at the beginning of “The Animals,” it felt like the various factions might make peace with each other in pursuit of the same shared goal: bringing down Humps and Piscatella. When Suzanne was punching Kukudio in a fit of rage, it was Ruiz who signaled to pull her off. As the prisoners processed how fundamentally screwed up life in Litchfield had become, they decided to work together to take down the most psychopathic guard of all. “Ain’t y’all the people trying to reinstate slavery?” Taystee asked the Aryans. “I guess if you were gonna rank our hate, you guys are here, and Humps is here,” Sankey replied. (Later, she remarked to her shaved-head crew that “some of the ladies seemed pretty nice,” before hastily adding the coda, “for a bunch of mud bunnies and spics.”)
For a few scenes, it seemed like intersectionality might win out. Meanwhile Judy, post-orgy, was raging against people desexualizing women her age, Alex and Piper were making plans to be old people together, eating soup and getting colonoscopies, and Lorna was raving about Benedict Cumberbatch, whom she memorably described as “the hottest Holmes since John.” But the major theme of the episode, which has recurred again and again throughout the season, was time travel, and what the inmates might do if they could move back or forward in time. Poussey and Brook pondered their future together in Lolly’s time machine. Piper asked Alex, “If you could go back... 10 years ago, or whatever... and do it all again... would you?” In a place in which time is both a familiar concept but also the metric by which punishment is meted out, it’s easy to see how the ability to go back—to do things differently—might appeal. But Alex, ever the determinist, seemed convinced she would have ended up in exactly the same place, and that there’s nothing to be gained from imagining otherwise.
Throughout all its four seasons, Orange has shown how seemingly minor decisions can lead to unimaginable consequences. Over the past 12 episodes, the most notable example of this has been Caputo’s decision to hire veterans to work in Litchfield to take advantage of a tax break, which in the show’s telling has put some severely traumatized people in charge of the similarly traumatized inmates. Tactics more typically used against prisoners of war—sleep deprivation, humiliation, being forced to stay in one position for days at a time—have become routine ways to punish inmates. No one working in the prison except Caputo, Bayley, and possibly Luschek seems able to believe that its residents are anything other than enemies to be overcome. “Everyone around here forgot the only thing that mattered,” Piscatella said, in the face of the prisoners’ peaceful protest. “You’re criminals. You deserve nothing.”
It’s a harsh statement, but also an effective summation of what MCC seems to believe, not to mention so many in society at large. Why else would Bayley and his friends, in flashback scenes, throw eggs at inmates who were quietly picking up trash? (“I’m a fucking human being!” an outraged Frieda screamed back.) Caputo, perhaps the only advocate left for the “inmates-are-people” school of thought, was rapidly crushed by Piscatella, another monster of his own creation, when Caputo tried to discipline Humps for forcing the prisoners to fight like animals. And now Bayley, a kid who used to scoop ice cream and laugh at the women behind Litchfield’s walls, has killed one of them.
Meanwhile Healy, unable to cope with sending Lolly to Psych, checked himself into an infinitely cushier version of the same place, taking care of himself, but failing Red. Caputo returned to the tentacular embrace of Figueroa. Tellingly, in the saddest and most punishing episode the show’s aired to date, the only moments of grace and humanity came from the prisoners: Tucky telling Boo why she’d decided to forgive Coates in a beautiful speech on pain and suffering, and Gloria helping Sophia become herself again. “The Animals” wasn’t totally devoid of hope, but it’s hard to conceive of a happy ending for the season after such a senseless death, and amid such institutionalized cruelty.
Best line: Taystee: “Why all of a sudden do you bitches wanna murder folk? It’s like it’s a new fall trend or something.”
Questions: Will Poussey’s death force Caputo to take action? Will the fact that the FBI are investigating hiring practices thanks to Aydin’s four social security numbers have any consequences for MCC?
Read the review of the next episode here.
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