I recently finished viewing the sophomore season of Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange is the New Black. Said viewings occurred mostly during my toddler’s naptime, whichin case you’re wonderingmakes for a disorienting afternoon born of incongruous situations: lesbian love scenes and prison sewage crises in front of me, a two-year-old’s babbling in the monitor beside me. Anyway. After watching all thirteen episodes, I sought to find a cohesive narrative among the season’s themes (and a reason to justify watching almost fourteen hours of TV instead of coming up with a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ordecorating our next son’s nursery). Instead, what I came up with was a list of life lessons taught to me by the ladies of Litchfield, who resemble much of life itself: funny, sad, violent, transexualI mean, transforming, and real.
1) Bloom where you’re planted. And if that garden happens to look more like solitary confinement, or the SHU (special housing unit), than Eden, then pull from the memories you’ve stored up from those years of subscribing to Martha Stewart Living and set about making your new quarters as homey as possible. Artwork is always a great first step.
2) Timing is everything. So when you’re planning a stakeout of the house where the object of your restraining-order-issuing-obsession lives with his fiancee, make sure you have enough time allotted in the prison van you’re driving to get to and from the house and grab an indulgent bath, stranger’s wedding veil included. Added bonus: always have an exit strategy just in case that “ex” of yours gets home while you’re soaking in Epsom salts and crazy.
3) Keep your personal items close, and your electronics closer. All that skepticism you have about what the TSA does with your stuff when you’re not looking? Totally founded. So, when you reach your ultimate destination, you might want to make sure they have a laundry room. And carry on that iPad.
4) Don’t get other people to do your dirty work. Especially really old, sight- and ethically-challenged people. If you’re going to go to the trouble of putting a hit on someone, make sure the target is clear. (This is also a good time to point out that not all black people look alike.)
5) As goes the hair, so goes the sanity. But this is not always a direct relationship. Cases in point: The crazier, more magenta and spiky that Red’s hair is, the more poised and in control she really is. In contrast, Vee’s downward spiral was mirrored by her hair’s descent into frizzy madness.
6) Always make a memorable entrance. If that entrance involves returning to the job that let you go, make said entrance with memorable wheels; namely, a bitchin’ Camaro.
7) Manners are important. Even in prison.
9) Correctional officers are people too. Not only was this a featured section in the short-lived Big House Bugle, but redemption was a theme among the prison staff as the show delved more into their backstories: Caputo’s rejection of his pervy lotion tendencies and the revelation that HE’S IN A BAND (!); Healy’s visits with a therapist that led to his efforts to start a Safe Place for inmates even as he is rejected by his mail-order bride at home. And he brought cookies!
10) Inmates are people toowhich brings us to the overarching theme of the show: the humanity behind the mug shots. The fact that they each have a struggle and a story that ended up here, at Litchfield. The more we see of these women, the more we know them, and from Poussey and Taystee’s “Amanda and Mackenzie” schtick to Daya’s drawing talent to Rosa’s cancer-ward friendship, the fleshing out of characters prevents them from becoming two-dimensional caricatures of People Who End Up in Prisonor, to those of us watching from our plush couches at home, the “Theys” of this world. These women are more than what they’ve done. And aren’t we all, hopefully?
I doubt this applies to any of you, but occasionally I notice a touch of judgment, of cynicism, in my personality. It’s easier to summarize someone than to know themand much less risky. But what great stories do is introduce us to characters that won’t allow us to walk away without relating to them. I find myself identifying with more criminals and alcoholics and drug addicts these days than ever (even imps aren’t off-limits!). So thank you, television, and Orange is the New Black, for reminding me that empathy isn’t a weaknessit’s a sign of humanity. (But I’ve still got my eye on you, TSA agents.)