I was so affected by the “Orange is the New Black” Season 2 episode “A Whole Other Whole” — and by extension “Little Mustachioed Shit,” in which a key plotline from the episode is wrapped up in startling fashion — that I took the opportunity to ask cast member Yael Stone about it on the red carpet at last year's Emmys (you can watch the brief exchange above). Needless to say, it's Stone's character Lorna Morello who provides the emotional crux of the storyline in question.
[NOTE: There are copious spoilers below, so stop reading if you haven't yet watched “Orange is the New Black” Season 2.]
From her very first appearance, I was charmed by Morello's blend of low-key spunk, inner warmth and obvious attachment to glamour, as evidenced by her ever-present bloom of bright-red lipstick. I also had questions about her upcoming nuptials to the oft-mentioned but never-seen Christopher (“Christ-uffah”), whose perennial absence from visiting day read as suspicious, to say the very least.
One of the great things about “OITNB” is that it allows us to spend time with and often grow to love these women before getting to know their tragic backstories, always told in flashback and always adding new dimension to people we sometimes — just as in real life — judge too harshly without knowing what's landed them behind the walls of a prison. These reveals tie in nicely with the show's ultimate goal of humanizing a subset of the population that we're never forced to think about, perhaps articulated most poignantly in the Season 1 episode “Tall Men With Feelings,” in which we see Suzanne's (“Crazy Eyes'”) devastation after being described as, essentially, a freakshow during Larry's (Jason Biggs) NPR interview.
I would say that of all the backstories revealed on the show thus far, Morello's may rank as the most challenging. I've talked to a lot of people about “A Whole Other Hole,” and the overwhelming sentiment offered seems to boil down to: “God, isn't she a nutcase/crazy/insane?” I would never judge a person for voicing that perfectly understandable reaction, but it speaks to a broader cultural attitude around mental illness that they would paint a sick woman — and Morello is sick — as nothing more than a “psycho” without stopping to consider how she could have ended up that way, much less why she's been confined to a minimum-security prison when she should probably be receiving serious psychiatric help.
What happens in the middle of the episode is, indeed, shocking: after driving Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) to chemotherapy, Morello takes a side-trip to Christopher's comfortable suburban house, breaks in, tears up at photos of he and his actual fiancee before donning her bridal veil and going for a dip in their bathtub. In flashback, it's revealed that Morello began stalking her unfortunate would-be love interest after a single date, going so far as to plant a homemade bomb under his fiancee's car. (We also become privy to the mail fraud she engaged in to pay for her unsustainable designer-clothes habit.)
For my money, this is the most shocking backstory reveal in the show thus far (runner-up: Yoga Jones' marijuana-farm shooting accident), and it certainly puts Morello in a new, less-than-flattering light. But it didn't make me despise her, or even feel less affection for her. It made me sad for her. It made me want to help her (which I guess is my own delusion).
“I think what you're talking about is empathy,” Stone told me at the Emmys. And I guess that's partially true, in the sense that we can all understand the pain of romantic rejection, even if most of us are emotionally healthy enough not to stalk someone over it. But I think maybe a better word is “compassion,” in that the reveal made me want to better understand how Morello could have ended up this way (a definite clue for this is provided in the flashback to her chaotic home life, complete with emotionally-unavailable parents) instead of automatically demonizing her for being unbalanced. Partially from personal experience, I do have tremendous compassion for people who suffer from mental and emotional forces beyond their control, and who are routinely painted as “wackos” by society at large instead of being offered services that might actually help them turn their lives around.
If “A Whole Other Hole” provides the shock factor — the episode ends with Morello tearfully clutching a stuffed teddy bear she stole from Christopher's house just before tumbling out the upstairs window — “Little Mustachioed Shit” provides the emotional payoff, when Christopher makes an impromptu appearance at the prison and loudly confronts Morello in the visiting room.
As Stone correctly noted on the red carpet, Christopher is “100% innocent” in the situation, and it's certainly necessary to have compassion for him as well. But unlike Morello, it's not a leap to sympathize with his predicament, or even with the invectives he hurls at her — brutal descriptors that so many viewers would later come to parrot. What creator Jenji Kohan and her writers challenge us to do is to feel for Morello, and that's not easy. But it's a testament to the stellar writing here that I was willing to forgive her — and even felt compelled to rise to her defense as Christopher ridiculed and humiliated her in a room full of people. As A.V. Club writer Myles McNutt noted in his review of the episode: “Christopher is not wrong to be mad at Morello, nor is he wrong when he makes clear she is a dangerous criminal, but in that moment he seeks to strip away her humanity, and that goes against so much of what the show stands for.”
At its heart, “Orange is the New Black” is a humanistic show, compelling us to sympathize with and even identify with women whose lives have gone so far off the rails, and whose tortured pasts many of us cannot even begin to comprehend. However we choose to take Morello's dark reveal, I think the writer's intentions become clear in the post-confrontation scene between she and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) in the stairwell, during which Morello tearfully betrays the source of her dangerous illness: that she can't find it in herself to see the “beautiful, sweet girl” that Nicky and the rest of us do…or at least did, or maybe can find it in ourselves to see again.