Continuing our weekly look at “Orange Is the New Black” season 3, two episodes at a time, I have a review of episodes 5 & 6 coming up just as soon as I tell you how I really feel about red velvet…
“She's invisible.” -Chang's brother
Once again, “Orange” offers a pair of episodes that make for a matched set, spotlighting two characters from waaaaay down on the end of the bench – or, in Chang's case, a few rows back in the stands – whose stories in both past and present are largely about how often they're overlooked.
Flaca's always been more prominent than Chang, in that she and Maritza are one of the show's go-to pairings for idiot savant Greek chorus action. But she's still been a pretty minor part of her own social group, let alone of the entire series, and it's a position she's well aware of. We see in the flashbacks that she turns to a life of crime – selling fake acid tabs, which is something she thinks could never get her in real trouble – because she doesn't want to end up another anonymous seamstress like her mother, making designer knock-offs and never going anywhere or doing anything. (Not surprisingly, her first big purchase after starting her fake drug lord career is a new pair of boots, and she later ponders investing in “some more emotional clothing.”) At Litchfield, she gets whatever jobs Gloria knows others are likely to object to more, and everyone laughs at her suggestion that she's smart enough to qualify for whatever the secret new work detail is.
At times, “Orange” flashbacks present the characters as victims of circumstance. In Flaca's case, she comes from a stable, if poor and unglamorous, home life, and lives down to everyone's assumptions about her intelligence when she doesn't properly think through all the consequences – including what one of her hormonal friends might do under the placebo effect of the fake acid – of her new business. When she lands on the new work detail, it's not because she aced the test, but because, as Danny reveals to Caputo, they just pulled 40 names at random. And for all of Flaca's dreams of having a more exciting life than her mother, where does she wind up but behind another sewing machine?
From a story standpoint, if not a personal one for Flaca, the new work detail is a step up. She now has regular excuse to interact with Piper – and because the 40 names cover such a demographic cross-section of inmates, to interact with lots of characters whom she might otherwise share a scene with once or twice a season while they're on line at the cafeteria. Even though “Ching Chong Chang” isn't her spotlight episode, she's prominent in a way she's rarely been.
Ideally, that's the way these spotlight episodes should work, particularly as the series ages and turns its focus to more minor characters like Flaca or, last season, Rosa. (Though in Rosa's case, she was already becoming an emotionally important character before we got to witness her bank robbing career.) It may be that Flaca largely remains comic relief, but her voice and personality feel far more specific after this one.
I'm less optimistic about getting more of Chang going forward, if only because the whole point of “Ching Chong Chang” is that no one ever has or ever will pay much attention to her. In her youth, she was too plain(*) for anyone to notice, let alone want as a mail order bride. At Litchfield, as the only (from her perspective, anyway, since she considers Soso to be Scottish) Asian inmate in her dorm, she's even more of an invisible woman. She can sneak food out of the cafeteria when others can't to make her strange chips-and-peas concoction, and she has the place so wired that she somehow has a hidden cell phone – along with a data plan presumably paid for by her brother, Fu, or someone else who owes her for this incarceration – she can use to watch her stories in the peace and isolation of the shed. The others tend to view her as a freak, and she seems to prefer it that way. It's been her life, and it has its advantages, whereas when she tries being human and honest in Rogers' drama workshop, it just scares everybody. That is a thing about her they will remember, at least for a few minutes before their own private hells at Litchfield cause them to once again forget she exists except when they're in line at the commissary. This was a solid character portrait, even if it's one that may not pay off further down the road.
(*) Or, rather, the actress they cast as young Chang was covered in acne makeup.
Obviously, the corporate takeover of Litchfield is the biggest element going on in these mid-season episodes, and we're already seeing how much these people are not the saviors Caputo wanted. The seemingly laid-back Danny expertly manipulates Joe at every turn – look how he gets out of the discussion about hiring part-time guards without even once acknowledging the concern – and we can see early signs that the prisoners, and even the guards, are treated as a product every bit as fungible, and to be treated with every bit the same lack of deep thought and care, as the panties that Flaca, Piper and the others are now making. Slashing the veteran guards' hours to avoid providing them with the benefits of full-time employees is a familiar corporate move in this day and age, but one that assumes being a corrections officer is something anyone can do with minimal time and prep. Given how bumbling we've seen Ford, O'Neill and some of the other guards be, they haven't necessarily earned lifetime job security, but early moves suggest things at Litchfield could actually get much worse than they were under Fig.
And then there's Red's clumsy yet effective seduction of Healy to get back into the kitchen. I have to admit to briefly being suckered in about her interest in him, if only because Kate Mulgrew was so convincing at playing just how awkward Red was at flirting, when you might expect her to be much more skilled and goal-oriented if she was scamming him. It's remarkable how different Mulgrew looks with softer hair and makeup, and smiling a little, just as Michael Harney looks like a completely different person once Healy starts enjoying life and talking about his childhood visit to Woodstock (if, indeed, that's where he was). Their confrontation in “Ching Chong Chang” – where Red suggests a woman in this place eventually ends up with one coin: “it”s tawdry and demeaning, but if she has to, she will spend it” – speaks not only to what Red is up to – but the scam a lonely and bored Morello (also looking very different, multiple times) tries running with her various pen pals to get more commissary money. (Which she would then spend while ignoring Chang, of course.) That she inadvertently connects with one of these men, and that Healy understands that Red was trying to manipulate him but goes along with it anyway, suggests that it is possible to make human connection even in this place, even when it's run by a corporation. It's just not easy to do, because nothing at Litchfield ever is.
Some other thoughts:
* This week in Alan Wants A Web Series: “Poussey's Book Club,” where every week, Poussey tries to synopsize books based solely on their titles.
* Gloria shuts down Norma's side business in Santeria, but it turns out she may have a valuable second career as a therapist, given how easily her silence leads Soso to an emotional breakthrough. (Which Soso then squanders with her condescending attempt to befriend Leanne and Angie.)
* With Aleida as her mother and Cesar as her well-meaning but monstrous stepfather, and with Bennett off learning how to get away with murder in a legal sense, it's hard to blame Daya for opting to let Pornstache's mother adopt her baby.
* Because most of them live on the East Coast, actors from “The Wire” tend to pop up often on shows filmed in New York, whether “Good Wife,” the “Law & Order” franchise, or this one. Still, it's one thing to have Pablo Schreiber playing a prison guard (and with a mustache), or Deirdre Lovejoy as a therapist, and another to just cast Corey Parker Robinson in a brief role as the detective who busts Flaca for dealing (fake) drugs. I'm just going to pretend that he was playing Sydnor and wait for the day when Cool Lester Smooth turns up.
* I'm a devout chocolate loyalist above all other forms of desert, so I can't speak to the accuracy of O'Neill's anti-red velvet screed, but it was awfully funny in the main, and then in the payoff at Caputo's office.
* We get a couple of notable inmate characters, one familiar, one not. Lori Petty's Lolly (from the season 2 premiere) transfers in, though she hasn't yet reunited with Piper. Ruby Rose's Stella, on the other hand, has already caught Piper's eye. Once again, I'm not watching ahead of the episodes I've reviewed, but when the show casts a beautiful model/actress as a character whose first notable moment is discussing gender fluidity in front of the show's bisexual main character? You are not exactly trying to hide the metaphorical salami in that case. Seems only a question of when, not if, Stella complicates Piper and Alex's current dance of mutual self-destruction.
* I also assume Judy King – or, as Poussey describes her, “the one with the plantation vibe going on, but in a fun way?” – is going to wind up at Litchfield, whether later this season or early next. You don't cast Blair Brown for a series of brief joking cameos, do you?
* It turns out that the Lutheran Lolly likes (say that five times fast) the kosher meal, which sets up the amusing spectacle of Black Cindy demanding the same, and telling Ruiz, “Shabbat shalom, bitch!”)
* In other food news, I assume someone in the real world has already attempted to make and review Chang's special Frito patties. UPDATE: And of course someone has.
* Pennsatucky on why being a Christian is awesome: “You can tell everybody what to do, and then they do it, so they don't hurt your feelings, because that's against the law.”
Finally, a reminder that while many of you have likely finished the whole season by now, we are only going to talk about the episodes that have been reviewed so far. I'm deliberately not watching past what I've written about so that my writing won't be influenced by events to come, and for the benefit of both myself and anyone else watching the show at a more traditional pace, I don't want to see any discussion of or spoilers for the later episodes. You know if/when/how Stella and Piper get involved? Great! Please keep it to yourself. Thanks.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com