OITNB is starting to remind me of Friday Night Lights. But with more tackling.
A lot went down this episode. Gloria gets her flashback to days of abuse and small time fraud. Gloria and Vee wind up in a chess match over working showers and job assignments, although Gloria probably didn’t know they were playing. Red and the old gals started fixing up the greenhouse. Boo, Nicky, and others compete to see who can score the most points by scoring.1 Healy and Caputo bro out. Fischer becomes less trusting.2 Piper gets bad news, but then a surprising offer of help from Healy.
And you know what? It all worked. Like, no anvils of plot parallels, no drifting along as sometimes happens. OITNB advanced characters and plots – both plural – in an hour. That’s not mocking3; I’m just noting that this episode hummed along at a tune I like, a lot.
There’s a lighter, more assured touch with the characters this season. The pacing is much more consistent as the actors condense their reactions and their feelings; it’s a look and then moving on, an inflection of voice in the midst of an exchange – but without a lingering camera telling you what that inflection meant to either party. OITNB is feeling more like Friday Night Lights in how it mixes multiple storylines and advances several at a time with short but effective exchanges, trusting audience and actors to carry the throughlines from episode to episode.
Some of it is giving the characters an action to play, instead of making the emotion the scene’s focus. Look at Healy’s interaction with his wife this episode as compared to last season. I didn’t realize how much that storyline told instead of showed the first time around until both Healy and Katya got a few lines4 to illustrate the way Katya feels trapped, the way Healy feels impotent in the relationship. Once any amount of character depth or motivation is established the scenes can really fly – without setup, without extensive explanation. Bennett hasn’t had a more watchable moment in the series, Watson hasn’t seemed more a part of what was going on as when he throws her to the floor after she trips the pregnant Diaz. It’s a scene that lasts all of 40 seconds with cutaways.
Unsurprisingly, the comedy in this comedy-drama is jelling as the cast spends more time together, as the writers internalize the characters’ language. Piper’s guessing game with her brother and mother rolls thanks to the comic timing of all three5 and because it’s not overwritten, letting Piper and Cal zip back and forth from strong foundations.
Here’s the thing, though, and maybe the reason I’ve been talking mostly about the white people in this episode: I’m less and less sure about the value of the flashbacks now. If the series is crackling for me because it’s taking established traits and running with them, then the flashbacks are necessary evils in as much as they give us the traits.6 It’s harder and harder to have even a very well acted flashback land with any real emotional weight because the flashbacks are primarily about the emotion and the rest of the show is using emotion to shade in whatever plot or Plot is underway.
Speaking of plots, two notes to close out this episode: Despite a little too much lingering on Lorainne Toussaint as she constantly calculates and holds close her cards, the introduction of Vee has been a spectacular shot to the arm for the show. Red was maintaining order; Vee is looking to create a new order. Her presence is crystallizing the lines between inmates, subtly redrawing relationships without turning the show into Oz: Ladies Night.
And meanwhile, I’d love to think Red just wants to run a garden club, but I can’t wait to find out what’s really going on.
Monday: Mike catches us up on ‘You Also Have Pizza’.
Ohmgerd I think I just got the metaphor about sh*t bubbling up……..
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- In the sexy way, not the drug way. ↵
- You know. Of the criminals. ↵
- Note the lack of an exclamation point at the end of that sentence. I could have gone there. I didn’t go there. ↵
- Both in Russian, interestingly enough. ↵
- Seriously – Michael Chernus and Deborah Rush deserve an Emmy nomination for best comedy ensemble after this episode. ↵
- Flashbacks that parallel plot developments – like Vee and Taystee in episode 2 – are a different story, literally. ↵