Review: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ – ‘Tongue-Tied/Fear, and Other Smells’

Continuing our weekly look at “Orange Is the New Black” season 3, two episodes at a time, I have a review of episodes 7 & 8 coming up just as soon as this blog is not a kinky sex fantasy set in space…

“You don't ever have to speak with me. I hear you.” -Guru Mack

The inmate flashbacks on “Orange” have tended to function like the ones on “Lost.” They allow us to get to know who individual characters were long before they wound up in this strange place, forced to interact with strangers whom they would never have otherwise met, and they help us to better understand both how they got to Litchfield and why they act the way they do. And unlike “Lost,” which had a finite number of people on that island we cared about – and had an uneven track record at trying to expand that number – “Orange” has a huge population of characters we know at least a little, and whom we will probably care about much more after it's finally their turn in the flashback rotation.

But, like “Lost,” there's only so much we really need to see of any of these characters' lives before they got here. We thankfully haven't hit “how did Jack get his tattoos?” level quite yet, but the Nicky flashback from earlier this season and the Alex flashback in “Fear, and Other Smells” both felt like they were covering familiar territory solely to support prominent stories each was getting in the present. The newbie flashbacks aren't always gems – both the Flaca and Chang episodes I wrote about last week were on the uneven side – but there's a higher upside to them than there is to revisiting characters we've already seen a time or three in their earlier lives. (I'm still a bit curious about what exactly Red did to end up here, but maybe not enough to devote an episode to it.)

Case in point: our pair of episodes this week. “Tongue-Tied” finally gives us the Norma story I've been hoping for since midway through season 1, and especially since she sang in the first finale(*), and it tells us so much about who she used to be, why she was content for so long to be Red's lackey, and why her recent experience with Gloria has inspired her to want so much more. It's both entertaining and tragic, as she gives over her whole life to a cult leader who doesn't even like her by the end, even as the lessons she learned from him come in very handy in her position as the leader of her own Litchfield cult.

(*) At the time, I wondered if this meant she was mute purely by choice. Instead, it turns out to be a situation, as sometimes happens with people with severe stutters, where singing is easier than talking.

Alex's flashbacks in “Fear, and Other Smells,” meanwhile, are designed to make us understand her paranoia so that it will hit even harder when we discover that Lolly has, in fact, been keeping tabs on her movements. But overall, it's too much of a rehash of what we already know about Alex and her relationships with both Piper and Kubra to be worth the bother.

That both flashbacks are so somber (Alex's in particular) at least makes them an interesting contrast to the action at Litchfield, which at the moment is as overtly comical as the show has ever been, even as the TV Academy insists on classifying the show as a drama. Piper turning into a bootleg panty crimelord – and giving faux-patriotic speeches to inspire other women to join her organization – is about as ridiculous as anything the show's ever done (and a good comic note for Taylor Schilling to play). Suzanne turning into Litchfield's equivalent of E.L. James or Stephenie Meyer and having to deal with fans who are too invested in her story – with Poussey on the verge of going all Annie Wilkes on her – is also light, and a good example of the show using the prison as a microcosm for all the weird things we do out in the free world. And at this point, at least, the new guards are even less competent than the old ones.

Still five episodes for me to go through this season, but it would make this whole Emmy categorization thing look even sillier if Schilling gets nominated for drama actress a year from now and her rousing speech about panty smells winds up competing with a lot of scenes of actresses on other shows going through far darker moments.

Some other thoughts:

* We get our first glimpse of Danny when he's away from Caputo, and he turns out to be not quite the dismissive corporate tool he previously seemed. Unfortunately, between the smackdown he gets from corporate for trying to push through Caputo's library agenda, and returning to the prison to find Caputo clocked out early to jam with Side Boob, I imagine he's now learned to not give a bleep when it isn't his turn to give a bleep.

* Loved the way Kate Mulgrew played Red's response to regaining control of the kitchen – particularly as she contemplated the idea that Norma genuinely did have powers to make this possible – and then her frustration upon learning how terrible the new management was about to make the job.

* Some excellent work from Dascha Polanco and Elizabeth Rodriguez in the push-pull between Daya and Aleida about what to do with the baby. Wondering if Pornstache's mother raises any kind of stink on behalf of her son based on what Daya told her, or if it doesn't matter because he had sex with her either way, which legally is rape. 

* Cindy not only has extensive knowledge of sexual festishes and how the internet has helped to normalize them, but understands the core dilemma between religious Jews and cultural ones. She tries to pose as one of the latter by watching “Annie Hall,” but keeping kosher is a religious thing. We'll have to see what the company's plan is to bust her on it.

* It's been a while since Sophia had a storyline of her own, but the conflict between her and her ex-wife, and between her and Gloria, over the different influences on Michael's life – and how Sophia's own understanding of both genders is complicating things – is an interesting one.

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 what Lolly is planning for Alex? Great! Please keep it to yourself. Thanks.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at