WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS!!
Let’s talk about formula. Whether most audiences realize or not, every show has it’s own formula – what makes it tick, how story is worked into a structure, and how the drama is kept interesting within a pre-established narrative. For most of the show’s first three seasons, Orange Is The New Black stuck to its formula. Usually episodes straightforwardly deliver the primary storyline; add a few small glimpses at developing side plots; and of course, flashbacks that gave us insightful backstory on the show’s overflowing cornucopia of supporting characters. This formula has typically worked in the series’ favor, but by the end of the third season, it began to grow stale.
After this season’s refreshing and unpredictable premiere, episodes 2-4 feel like the series is back on autopilot, returning to it’s all too familiar story structure and tropes. This time around, we get backstories on Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), and Officer Healy (Michael J. Harney). I think the best way to talk about each of them might be individually:
Maria’s flashbacks, in the second episode, “Power Suit,” were completely useless — they added nothing to the episode’s story or themes. The focus in this episode was on the racial tensions between inmates. This is obviously something that has been a part of the series from Day 1, but is highlighted moreso now due to an influx of a largely Hispanic new inmate population.
In Maria’s backstory, we see the fallout with her father (a druglord of some kind), and one of her first drug-related interactions with law enforcement. She also asks “What does it mean to be Dominican?” It’s an obvious and expected attempt to relate her backstory to the race war, which her character is undoubtedly a part of, but it never goes past surface level. It feels obligatory and – perhaps moreso – disposable. So what does it mean to be Dominican? Well, I’ve seen the episode and I have no idea.
Soso’s flashbacks in the third episode, “(Don’t) Say Anything,” while more insightful and genuine, felt very much out of place. The episode itself focuses on three things:
- Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) new job as Caputo’s assistant.
- Morello (Yael Stone) struggling to keep her long-distance marriage alive.
- The miscommunications that befall Soso and Poussey (Samira Wiley) as their relationship becomes more romantic.
In the flashback, we meet Soso as an 18-year-old activist striving to get as many signatures as she can to stop a Walmart from tearing down local infrastructures. Along the way, she dares (for $50) to enter the house of man labeled a sex offender. To her surprise, he’s a nice, gentle man who wholeheartedly believes he has been incorrectly labeled due to a misunderstanding. However, the community looks down upon by default, regardless of the circumstance. This is an interesting commentary — several films and other stories in the past have attempted to shift the view on how the general public views sex offenders, and, to its credit, Orange Is The New Black does it effectively. The problem is that feels remarkably contrived — it doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the episode, or even anything that’s happened in the series beforehand. I can easily imagine Jim Danger Gray, the episode’s writer, wanting to make a statement about sex offenders, but not having a proper outlet to do so, so he just shoves it into Orange Is The New Black instead. Similar to Maria’s in the previous episode, you can take these flashbacks out of the episode entirely and it wouldn’t make a noticeable difference.
Healy’s flashbacks, on the other hand, in the fourth episode “Doctor Psycho,” feel much less heavy-handed and more inline with his storyline in the episode. Watching his relationship with mentally ill mother crumble as a young boy, only to find a failed attempt at reconnecting later in life was both entertaining and insightful towards his character. Healy’s hostility towards women has always been his most unexplained characteristic, and at long last, some light is shined. The juxtaposition of these flashbacks next to the story involving himself and the new celebrity inmate Judy King gives the episode just the edge it needed to separate itself from the staleness of the previous too.
“Doctor Psycho” also features the return of two characters not seen since last season – Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Sophia (Laverne Cox). Nicky is only seen briefly and doesn’t do much, but Sophia returns in a way we’ve never seen her before. Now locked up in SHU (Security Housing Unit) for acts in violence in Season 3, she is the broken shell of the character of the character we once knew and loved. Cox appears with no facades — no wig, lipstick or any other previously recognizable factors associated with the character. She looks damaged, miserable and – dare I say – manly. From the first second she reappears on screen, it’s evident that this is a character who is on the edge of sanity, and it comes as no surprise later in the episode when she floods her cell with toilet water, then sets it on fire to force the guards to bring her out.
“Doctor Psycho,” as a whole, picks up the pace in comparison to the previous two preceding episodes. While the season premiere had a good balance of being uneventful, but still interesting, “Power Suit” and “(Don’t) Say Anything” leaned too much being hum-drum and mundane that they started to drag their feet. It always seemed as if nothing was happening, even when there was. “Doctor Psycho” feels like the episode that should have come after the premiere, and it’s redeemed even further by its twist ending…
After Freida and Alex collectively realize that Lolly is too mentally unstable to keep secret their murdering and burial of Aydin, it is decided that she must be done away with. After she’s caught rolling around in the garden (ya know, like every crazy person does) and brought into Healy’s office to be disciplined, she confesses her crimes. This is where Healy’s flashbacks come into play once again: he decides she’s making it up, as he’s dealt with mentally unstable middle-aged women before. He lets her go, and for a moment, everything is okay again.
The twist ending is a refreshing spin an otherwise standard episode, but it brings to mind one underlying thread that’s been unable to escape my mind since the premiere: How incompetent does Litchfield’s staff have to be to notice that the newly hired guard (Aydin) hasn’t been to work since his very first day? I have two theories: The first is that he wasn’t really hired, and he somehow managed to sneak into Litchfield – wearing a custom made Litchfield CO uniform, mind you – at the exact same time that a bunch of inmates happened to escape. The other is that there’s been so many different happening at one time since the events of the third season finale that no took the time to notice. It seems ridiculous either way though, doesn’t it? Somebody somewhere forget to do their homework.
all photos credit: jojo whilden/netflix
402 – “POWER SUIT” OVERALL RATING: 6/10
403 – “(DON’T) SAY ANYTHING” OVERALL RATING: 6/10
404 – “DOCTOR PSYCHO” OVERALL RATING: 7/10
Dylan Brandsema is a staff writer for Pop-Break specializing in film and television. When he isn’t writing reviews or spending too much analyzing the medium, he’s writing and directing his own independent films as well as drinking way too much soda. Currently at full-time film major at Full Sail University, Dylan eats, sleeps, and breathes everything related to the cinema. You can follow him on Twitter @SneakyOstrich69.