Orange Is the New Black, Season 2, Episode 5: “Low Self Esteem City”
Written by Nick Jones
Directed by Andrew McCarthy
Released Friday, June 6 on Netflix Instant
This felt mostly like a “the more you know” episode of Orange Is the New Black, which I think is my least favorite type. “The more you know” don’t call a black guard a “sister” if you are a black inmate. “The more you know” black people get 20% longer sentences than white inmates for the same crimes. “The more you know” hitting your girlfriend and stealing her money will bite you karmically in the butt. That last one, by the way, seems to be most of what Gloria’s back story amounts to, as she takes center stage, kind of, in a way, in this scattered installment.
I can’t say that I expected Gloria to be the focus of an episode anytime soon, but in retrospect it does make complete sense, and is definitely necessary to flesh out the Latina group. The black and white characters are well-drawn on the show, hogging up the spotlight with their outlandish personalities, while the Spanish-speaking group has had a tendency to blend together. However, they are becoming more pivotal to the story, as they now have control of the kitchen, apparently control of movie night, and are Vee’s main contenders for running the prison as a whole. It’s just a shame, then, that after a Gloria-centric episode, there is still little investment felt, wasting the opportunity to amp her up to the interest-levels we have for the other racial matriarchs, Red and Vee.
Although, of course, the title of the episode is “Low Self Esteem City” and that may be part of the point. Gloria’s perhaps not really the best matriarch, and not up to the job like we previously thought. She looks strong but she has weaknesses, weaknesses that lead her to not learn her lesson after being slapped in the face; weaknesses that Vee can prey on. Still, a lot of these connections are tenuous, and are left open-ended. Because of Gloria’s abusive boyfriend, is she not going to let herself be made a fool of again? Or is the point that she is just simply susceptible to manipulation? Vee gave her stale cigarettes for fresh cake, and she sucked it up. Vee also got what she wanted in the bathroom turf battle. Is retribution coming?
By not going far back enough in time, like we did with Suzanne, Taystee, and Piper this season, we don’t have the foundation to hazard a guess. With the odd final minutes of her boyfriend dying in a fire, the story feels like it can take any direction, when a little guidance would go a long way. In this sense, the show can take a page from its predecessor Lost’s playbook. Although it was often too on the nose, it made good use of resonating transition lines and meaningful looks. The flashbacks were in the character’s memories, and deeply relevant to their current situation. The same thing is not happening here, to its detriment.
The other thing that the episode lets get the best of itself, sadly, is its amount of cast featured. With so many check-in scenes, it makes one begin to wonder, should everyone really be in every episode like they seem to be? Boo and Nicky are having a “bang-off” that is humorously raunchy and makes use of their characters, but also feels utterly disposable and predictable. The premiere, with its focus on Piper and Alex made for an absorbing hour, while every episode since has seemed at least slightly overstuffed. We are even now beginning to see Caputo outside of the prison. It was a good scene between Healy and him in the bar, and is important to be the beginning of Healy’s rehabilitation, but loses its shock effect when we see so much of everybody all the time anyway.
Who was actually nice to see amidst the chaos, however, was Cal and Piper’s mom. Because of what we saw in the premiere, it’s a true gut-punch that Piper’s grandmother is dying, something that would seem banal if we didn’t realize how important she was to Piper’s upbringing, due to her less-than-ideal parents. Piper is now paying a price for being in prison that she and the audience maybe never even considered, and it’s the kind of lesson I like to learn from the show, no statistics necessary.