Review: 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 3, 'Finger in the Dyke'

Orange is the New Black
The inmates of Litchfield on 'Orange Is the New Black.' Netflix

Since the advent of DVR sent appointment viewing the way of the pager and eight-track player, the mole-people critiquing TV have been scrambling to find a new model for reviews. Netflix’s strategy of dumping entire seasons of original programming onto the Net all at once has only complicated matters further. Do we try to pump out as many reviews as quickly as possible once a show’s online, or ignore the change in the breeze and continue to mosey along at the once-a-week pace? What of spoilers, the pop-cultural scourge? What use does episodic criticism have when the viewer (or, for that matter, the writer) already knows what’s going to happen?

Newsweek’s reviews of Orange Is the New Black’s third season will run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next month. More importantly, each piece will include a Word on the Street section after the review, specifically working through various spoilers as they circulate and how they affect our reading of the show. There are two sorts of people left in the world, and our coverage will cater to both of them. The binge-watchers get the bird’s-eye view they want, and those viewers attempting to savor the season can take it at their own pace. Power to the people.

Episode Four: “Finger in the Dyke”

Even as the many inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary scramble about their own messy little lives, they’re all really striving towards the same objective. In the suffocating, depersonalizing prison environment, everyone’s trying to hang onto some notion of selfhood. In the season premiere, Morello lied about children she didn’t have just so she could get a haircut, all because having a spiffy new coiffure makes her feel better about herself. Gestures like this are mostly symbolic, but while getting a snip won’t immediately change Morello’s life, the confidence and feeling of agency that it affords her is all too real.

Through stories great and small, “Finger in the Dyke” poses challenges to various characters, testing their resolve and determining just how far a prisoner will go in compromising her identity. In a brief but potent scene, a total island in its complete lack of plotted connection to any other sequence in the episode, one of Soso’s friends from the outside comes to visit her. She’s bubbling with cluelessly bougie condescension, talking to Soso about prison like she’s doing Habitat for Humanity. Soso, naturally, drops some furious knowledge on her ass, informing her that there’s nothing hip or cool or trendy or interesting about going to prison. This is the reality of her life: It’s boring, frustrating and demeaning. She entered Litchfield as a clueless dilettante, the exact sort of person that now draws her ire. But over the course of one short season, she’s already shed a lot of the naiveté that defined her when she was first introduced. Her friend’s tone-deaf remarks bring out a hostility in her we haven’t previously seen. It’s not to say that the Soso of Season 2 has vanished entirely—after all, she was doling out improv tips just last week. But showrunner Jenji Kohan knows that in fundamental, undeniable ways, life in prison changes people. It corrodes character, roughens edges.

Soso’s one-scene wonder provides the episode with a highlight, but Lea Delaria’s streetwise butch Big Boo has her time to shine in this hour. In Kohan’s universe, sarcasm always belies deep-seated hurt, and Boo’s got an appropriately difficult past to match her propensity for killer one-liners. As per usual, Kohan goes heavy on the flashbacks in service of character expansion, but here she takes a sly approach by jumping into the woman formerly known as Carrie’s past life after any point of personal transformation.

But Boo’s reflection on the time surrounding the deterioration of her mother’s health syncs up perfectly with her scheme to fleece sympathy dollars from a church of chicken-fried bigots. (Though it never feels transparently obvious in its parallelism; Kohan’s in full form here.) To hop on Pennsatucky’s monetary gravy train, Boo experiments with religion and a pitifully incongruous haircut, all so that she can play the role of the lost sheep that returns to the heteronormative flock. In sanding down her rougher edges simply to appease the regressive-minded pastor, Boo’s doing what she swore to herself she’d never do back when she was living at home. Even when her mother’s on her deathbed, at her very last opportunity to see the woman that’s made her life so difficult, Boo refuses to compromise and alter her appearance for her mother’s sake. Her father’s futile pleading for her to dress up and be the nice feminine girl her mother always wanted is nothing short of heartbreaking, but it’s important to note that the stakes are much lower in her scheme on the pastor. She has the luxury to simply call it quits and return to her true exterior, which is commonly accepted at a prison chockablock with queer women. Kohan presents a compelling and complicated truth, that the most effective forms of imprisonment take place outside of jailhouse walls, and that having freedom does not necessarily make one free.

Meanwhile: Alex and Piper are feeling grouchy, and the world continues to rotate beneath their feet. The looming privatization of the Litchfield provides a far more promising thread on which Kohan will most definitely tug. This transition and the financial tsuris sure to go along with it could open up unprecedented opportunities for scathing Kohan-brand commentary. Into this late-capitalist hell we plunge!

Word on the Street

The only news blown through on the winds of Twitter this time around spoiled an oncoming episode that sees Cindy convert to Judaism for what sounds like a reason very similar to Boo’s pseudo-awakening. I’ve been surprised at the relative paucity of spoilers that have crossed through my browser since beginning this experiment. For all the digital ink that’s been spilled on the subject, is it possible that spoilers and binge-watching do not represent the cataclysmic threat to our way of life that we once assumed? Spoilers are avoided easily enough when one makes an active effort—muting Twitter isn’t all that difficult—but perhaps the real danger is in being left of out of the larger cultural dialogue. Not being able to obsess over minutiae in any given episode excludes a viewer from the hot topic of chatter, which might just be the chief motivator to watch TV in the social media-saturated digital age. Catch up or get off; there is no third choice.