This article contains spoilers. It comes from Den of Geek UK.
There are few shows on television that cover as many different tones and scenes of mood whiplash as Orange Is the New Black. Officially billed as a “comedy-drama,” the show embraces everything from broad slightly surreal comedy – Kate Mulgrew’s famous chicken speech in season one being a prime example – to serious drama that takes on life and death issues from the real world. Uzo Aduba has even won Emmys in the both the Comedy and Drama categories for playing Suzanne Warren.
No episode of Orange Is the New Black is entirely without humor, but some lean more heavily on the comedy than others, and many have produced powerful drama. Those episodes that really pack a punch do so, not in spite of the comedic elements of the show, but because of them. Tune in to an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, and you know you’re probably going to see something grim and unpleasant. Tune in to an episode of Orange Is the New Black, and you don’t know whether you will see a hilarious story about erotic time travel fiction, a horror movie pastiche, or a dramatic punch to the gut that leaves you an emotional wreck.
Here, we celebrate 10 times the show produced some really powerful drama that stayed with us long after the episode ended:
Who Knows Better Than I (Season 6, Episode 1)
Because it’s the one where… Suzanne struggles to cope without her medication in the aftermath of the riot. With the cast stripped down to half its former size, we discover the new world of Maximum Security prison through Suzanne’s eyes, and the show uses surreal hallucinatory sequences to re-introduce our main characters. The advantage of this method is that it forces us to focus on the characters’ emotional state. Daya’s brutal beating from the guards becomes a modern dance sequence, emphasizing her helplessness and the repetition of the beatings, while Frieda’s attempted suicide appears as a surreal magic trick, allowing the viewer to focus on her facial expression of despair rather than on blood and gore.
And also: Suzanne’s confusion is made worse by the fact Cindy has convinced her to cover up the fact that they overheard the SWAT team moving Piscatella’s body in order to pin his death on the inmates – meaning at least one of these women is going to be accused of a crime she didn’t commit. We’re also introduced to the culture of Max more generally, including the guards’ game of Fantasy Inmate, which has them setting inmates against each other to win points for themselves. Like all season openers, this episode is primarily about setting up the storylines for the season – but this season’s storylines are powerful even in the setup.
Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally (Season 5, Episode 6)
Because it’s the one where… Taystee, who has become one of the most important characters on the show, gets some more of her backstory highlighted, and Samira Wiley makes her last appearance as Poussey Washington (in flashbacks). We already know the essentials of Taystee’s upbringing in the system from her Season 2 flashbacks, which centered around her relationship with Vee, but to see her young self’s hopes for a relationship with her birth mother dashed is heartbreaking. And on top of that, we’re forcefully reminded of what Taystee is fighting for – justice for her murdered friend – through some beautiful flashbacks to her friendship with Poussey. Season 5, the riot season, struggled in places with juggling Orange Is the New Black’s trademark shifts in tone, since the overall subject matter of the season was so serious – the season’s strongest elements by far were those dealing with Taystee’s fight for justice for Poussey.
And also: Boo defends Pennsatucky in front of the other inmates, basing her defense on Saved By The Bell, and Lorna realizes that she is pregnant. Introducing a pregnancy adds another level of danger to the riot, and while Pennsatucky’s mock trial is a little contrived, it does offer a good opportunity to showcase her friendship with Boo, one of the most surprising and affecting on the show.
Mother’s Day (Season 3, Episode 1)
Because it’s the one where… Another season opener, “Mother’s Day” introduces the warmest and lightest season of Orange Is the New Black – but stories about love and joyful or bittersweet emotions can be just as powerful as stories about tragedy or cruelty. Caputo’s attempts to soften life in the prison, including allowing special family visitations for Mother’s Day, allows the show to explore a wide variety of mother-child relationships, including Sophia finding new ways to bond with her son now that she is mother rather than father, Boo helping Pennsatucky work through her feelings about not choosing motherhood, and, of course, Daya and Aleida struggling with their on-going issues and how these relate to Daya’s pregnancy.
And also: One of the strengths of this episode is that it pulls together multiple stories (with multiple flashbacks) involving different inmates relating to the same theme. All the stories in this episode relate to mothers and motherhood in some way, with the technical exception of Bennett’s, which relates to fatherhood in the absence of mothers.
Fool Me Once (Season 1, Episode 12)
Because it’s the one where… Taystee deliberately violates her parole because life in prison is better than her life on the outside. Her conversation with Poussey sums up her sad situation perfectly and cements how important they are to each other in surviving life in prison. This episode is also the last time we see Miss Claudette, who, crushed after her appeal is denied, attacks Fischer, who was attempting to assert her authority. Miss Claudette’s story is one of the grimmest in the series, and all the more affecting for being contained within Season 1 – a short story about abuse and limited choices.
And also: We find out about the tragic mistake that landed Yoga Jones in jail – shooting and killing a young boy she mistook for a deer. We also learn Pennsatucky’s backstory, and while some of her actions are reprehensible (shooting a woman for disrespecting her), it’s clear that her life has been harsh and difficult in many ways.
Be Free (Season 6, Episode 13)
Because it’s the one where… Orange Is the New Black is carefully structured so that each season leads to a climactic series of events, which means that the most powerful episodes are often the season finales. In the case of Season 6, it’s once again Taystee’s storyline that hits home the hardest, as she is found guilty of a murder we know she didn’t commit. As a young black woman with prior drug convictions, no connections beyond Caputo, and her friends testifying against her to protect themselves, we could see this coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch, and Danielle Brooks’ performance is phenomenal. Meanwhile, Blanca thinks she is being set free but is instead hustled into an ICE van while her boyfriend Diablo waits in vain outside.
And also: The Season 6 finale suffers from some uncomfortable tonal shifts – the transformation of the kickball game from a pitched battle into a friendly match is surprising, and Piper seeing the change she has managed to bring about is rather heartwarming, but this feels like it belongs in a lighter and softer story like that of Season 3 – it’s hard to care about when Taystee is facing life in prison. However, the revelation of what Fantasy Inmate is for (preventing a riot, essentially) is interesting, and Piper and Alex’s prison wedding before Piper is released is a happy moment that feels more earned and satisfying.
We Have Manners. We’re Polite. (Season 2, Episode 13)
Because it’s the one where… Miss Rosa goes out in a blaze of glory and takes Vee with her. Vee was so utterly horrible that to see her mown down (for rudeness) is extremely satisfying. Meanwhile, Miss Rosa’s bittersweet ending perfectly suits the character. Rosa did terrible things in her youth and is serving a life sentence for armed robbery, but she has been in prison for a long time and is barely the same person – and it’s impossible not to feel for her slow decline caused by her cancer (which the prison will not pay to treat surgically), leaving her with no prospect of ever getting out of the prison. Seeing her drive away, Thelma and Louise style (and we later learn she met a similar end, crashing into a quarry) is a moment of elation for the audience.
And also: Piper and Caputo manage to force Figueroa to resign, and Healy and Luschek manage to protect Suzanne when she can’t protect herself, which is surprisingly positive coming from them.
It Sounded Nicer In My Head (Season 4, Episode 7)
Because it’s the one where… We see Lolly’s backstory. It’s already clear that Lolly has serious psychiatric problems and that being in prison is not helping her, as she needs medical care. Her backstory doesn’t entirely add anything to that story, but it is tragic watching her fall into homelessness and then prison because her mental illness (most likely schizophrenia) is going untreated.
And also: Piper became increasingly infuriating over the course of Seasons 3 and 4 as first the smug head of a panty smuggling business and then the accidental head of a white power group. She is, however, essentially well-intentioned, and so it comes as a nasty shock when Maria leads a group of Hispanic inmates to brand a swastika on her arm.
Bora Bora Bora (Season 1, Episode 10)
Because it’s the one where… This episode is Tricia’s story, as we see her life in flashbacks and her death in the prison. The first character to be killed off in the show, Tricia’s death was a shocking moment rooted in the cruelties of the prison system. Tricia was a good person who lived a terrible life, including sexual abuse as a child, homelessness, and drug addiction, and who committed suicide when she could no longer see a way out of being manipulated by the guard Mendez, whose power over her was almost total. Stories like Tricia’s are the stories the series was created to tell.
And also: This episode also features a group of at-risk teens brought in for the Scared Straight program. This is where we first saw hidden depths to Suzanne, who quotes Shakespeare with gusto, and where Piper succeeded in scaring one girl straight with a quote that sums up her character as a whole – “I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am.”
Trust No Bitch (Season 3, Episode 13)
Because it’s the one where… Although plenty of bad things happen in Season 3 (the season in which the prison is taken over by MCC) overall it is the softest and lightest season of the show – it’s the only season in which no one dies inside or just outside of the prison. The finale is powerful in a joyful way, rather than a tragic one, as the inmates of Litchfield slip out to enjoy some time by a nearby lake, mostly without any expectation of actually escaping, and Cindy is able to complete her conversion to Judaism. The scene is made bittersweet, however, by the arrival of dozens of new inmates as MCC increases their cost-saving measures, at the cost of the inmates’ living conditions.
And also: Although technically no one dies in the prison in Season 3, Alex ends the season in mortal danger in the greenhouse – and Season 4 quickly opens with the death of the man Kubra sent to kill her. Meanwhile, Piper gets Stella sent to Max, which is rather satisfying for anyone who isn’t a fan of Stella, but fairly cold on Piper’s part.
The Animals/Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again (Season 4, Episodes 12 & 13)
Because it’s the one where… These two episodes are tied together by the most tragic and shocking plot development in the history of the show – the killing of Poussey Washington by the guard Bayley. Poussey, as one of the most likable characters in the series, was inevitably the chosen victim when the series decided to nod to the Black Lives Matter movement, and there’s no question she did nothing to deserve death, only trying to help Suzanne. At the same time, the show complicates her death by having her killed not by Piscatella or Humphrey, both of whom are known to be vicious, abusive guards, but by Bayley, who, through a combination of panic, poor training, and possibly subconscious racism, ends up making himself a murderer. Danielle Brooks’ grief when Taystee realizes Poussey is dead is heartbreaking, but most horribly of all, her body lies untouched on the canteen floor for hours and hours while chaos erupts all around.
And also: These two episodes build up to the Litchfield riot, and we see how the prisoners make every attempt at peaceful protest before resorting to violence only after the death of one of their own. In the wake of Poussey’s death, it’s impossible not to sympathize with Taystee as she stirs up the riot, or with Daya as she finds herself pointing a gun at one of the most unpleasant of the guards. The image that resonates the most from the season finale, however, is the beautiful shot of a smiling Poussey looking directly into camera from a flashback that is completely heartbreaking on several levels, for not only does it show her enjoying a joyful evening of freedom before her incarceration – the drugs she is trying to get rid of and her choice to stay in New York will lead to her imprisonment and, eventually, her death. We don’t see too many smiles on Orange Is the New Black, but this one will stay with you.
Orange Is the New Black season 7 arrives on Netflix on July 26.
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