Review: 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 3, 'Tongue-Tied'

Red
Red takes back on the kitchen on the stellar seventh episode of 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 3 on Netflix. 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 Seven, “Tongue-Tied”

Something was bound to happen sooner or later. When she scrubbed Jason Biggs’s Larry from the show for this third season, showrunner Jenji Kohan created what could be fairly called a Larry Vacuum, a negative space in the show in need of filling by another aggressively milquetoast, squishy-looking white guy. When Piper’s brother Cal mentions that Larry now works as a regional editor for Zagat (the TV writer’s equivalent of “We sent Fido to live at a big, happy farm upstate!”), he reminds us that as fun as the run of recent character-driven episodes have been, the show needs an antagonistic force around which it may organize the rest of the season. Piper’s relationship with Larry and the complications that destroyed it once formed the central pillar of the show, but Kohan’s moved on to bold new territory.

And so it is with the utmost pride and sincerity that episode seven, the supreme “Tongue-Tied,” pulls back the curtain on New Larry. Fellow squishy-looking white man Mike Birbiglia has been something of an unknown quantity on the show, neither active nor passive in shaping the plot, intended more as a conduit between the breathing, living human beings that run Litchfield and their new faceless corporate overlords. During the scene in which Birbiglia’s Danny explains the nonsensical flow of information in MCC’s convoluted structural hierarchy, his position becomes startlingly clear. Danny’s a mealy-mouthed, ineffectual corporate middleman, but as the show’s New Larry, he represents the vanguard of a larger, more sinister, and more banal sort of evil. Danny’s a harbinger of bureaucratic doom, Shiva the Destroyer in a wrinkled flannel.

As much as we regular folks enjoy dumping on corporations, the reality of business-class indignity does not necessarily lend itself well to compelling television. So Kohan sticks to what works, the aspects of MCC’s new reign that clearly and directly illustrate the inadvisable shift of power taking place inside the prison. Apart from Danny’s speech that says many things while meaning nothing, the other critical scene of “Tongue-Tied” sees a 21-year-old rookie guard pepper-spraying a pair of inmates (and, inadvertently and hilariously, himself) having a dispute over a game of UNO. It’s exactly the sort of thing that Caputo warned would happen and just the incident required for him to wrest control of his facility back from his new benefactors. Caputo saw the big picture: cutting back on guard hours leads to part-time employees with no experience, and the truncated training program practically invited a horrifying incident such as the undue Macing. He was wrong about the last part, though. The apparent failure of MCC’s oversight does nothing to change their policy. If their cost-cutting methods aren’t working, it’s Caputo’s job to make them work, not for the higher-ups to rethink their game plan. The part-time guard who discharges his pepper spray doesn’t even get fired. Food’s now coming to Litchfield in giant bags. Corporate culture resists change, disruption and, as we saw in the moment where Piper helpfully informs her supervisor that Whispers could be manufacturing more products from their fabric provided only to be swiftly shot down, it even resists reason. All it knows is status quo, and the means through which it can be most efficiently propagated.

In spirit and execution, it’s the exact opposite of Piper’s scheme to—suppress shudder—sell her used underwear to anonymous perverts via the Internet. If a decent form of American industry exists in Orange Is the New Black, Piper’s homed in on it. Her business relies on creative problem-solving, hard work, determination, and resourcefulness. Kohan’s not knocking commerce writ large, just the neutered and impersonal conglomerates such as MCC. As a shameless product of the privileged void, Piper knows the value of a mom-and-pop shop full well. (Which is, in essence, what her brief-smuggling operation is.) While it provides the season with a much-needed sense of direction, Piper’s operation simultaneously brings her character in a refreshing new direction. She’s still prone to saying formidably clueless, tone-deaf things; to quote Morello ("Do you hear yourself sometimes, like, when you speak?”), but seeing her apply herself, exercise ingenuity and work hard does wonders. It’s still far in the distance, but we could very well one day live in a world where Piper’s not the worst cast member on the show.

How ironic that I’ve eaten up this many words already without addressing Norma’s subplot, a narrative about the agony of being ignored and the ecstasy of being heard. Her literal voicelessness lends itself to ham-handed symbolizing, and Kohan has no reservations about playing this card, occasionally to rather obvious ends. Regardless, there are too many profoundly affecting moments in Norma’s tale of bigamist-cult strife and woe to write off the flashbacks completely. The look on Norma’s face when she steps aside at her own wedding ceremony so that the next bride can receive the exact same words, none of them sincere, is heartbreaking. Broken down to its component parts, Norma’s plot line is a patchouli-flavored recapitulation of the most typical Litchfield origin: Woman shoulders abuse and/or disrespect, things get worse, and then she decides she’s had enough and reclaims her agency, usually through an act of violence that lands her in the clink. Despite hitting a few fine emotional beats, Norma’s story tells the audience little it hasn’t already heard several times by this point in the season, apart from casting new full-circle significance on her accepted role as a faith healer. It’s certainly an interesting milieu, but Kohan will need to deviate from her winning formula if this season’s going to maintain the high bar it’s already set for itself.

Oh, and that final scene with Red returning to the kitchen amidst the strains of Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”? I want that as the background on my laptop. I want it as my ringtone. I want to get that scene tattooed on my back. Red is an inspiration to us all. May the holy light of her badassery provide clarity to those of us beset with doubt, and strength to those of us that are weak.

Word on the Street 

Despite my best efforts, I have not been able to escape the flow of information regarding the newly crowned People’s Champion, Ruby Rose. Aside from the tiresome claim from heretofore straight women that they’d totally “go gay” for her, as if being gay was like sampling Ethiopian cuisine, it’s come to my attention that Piper and Alex break up, Piper begins seeing Stella, there’s a betrayal, and then a double-betrayal. Whoop-de-dang-do. Orange Is the New Black is too busy and too intelligent a program to get mired in the great molasses flood of tedium that is Piper’s love life.