OITNB: One Step Up, Two Steps Back

oitnb piperI made myself wait a little over 24 hours before I allowed myself to start Season 3 of Orange is the New Black. I felt I needed to get myself prepared. Because when I did start watching, there was no stopping me. Yes, it took me a few sittings, seeing as I do in fact have a life outside of television and this blog (surprise, surprise!), but even then it only took me a day or two to have the whole season finished.

I write this blog not just because I want to put my own thoughts to paper, but because I like to engage with other people when it comes to television. I like seeing what other people think. Sometimes I find people who are just so incredibly smart with the subtleties they pick up on or the meta they want to discuss. I’ll read other reactions or analysis and it’s like a whole new world has been opened up in front of me when they point out something so excellent that I’ve missed. Other times, I find myself wading into an opinion on an episode or a character that is just so, so the opposite or anything I agree with that it just boggles my mind with its absolute wrongness! But either way, I appreciate people who make me think, whether it’s by opening up my mind to a new way of looking at something or by making me sort through my own feelings to better articulate why I disagree so heartily.

Today’s entry goes directly into the latter category. After watching the whole season, I’ve taken some time to search out other people’s opinions on the season and for the most part people have been pretty positive. I’ve seen a little squabbling over the attention Ruby Rose’s Stella has received despite her perceived “lack of diversity” for being white. I suppose I could count it as progress that we’re at a point where a lesbian character isn’t considered to be a point for diversity, but I think it’s important to note she’s literally the only gender fluid character on tv right now that I can name. Fun fact: diversity comes in more forms than just racial diversity. And while racial diversity is still something that needs to be worked on when it comes to tv, Orange is the New Black is not really the show that needs to have that discussion.

But that is not in any way what I wanted to talk about today. No, I instead wanted to refute the claim I’ve seen all over people’s reactions to Season 3: that Piper Chapman lacks character development.

One thing I often notice when people talk about different characters, not just on this show but in general, is that they tend to assume character development goes in one direction. That you can only consider a character to have grown when it’s positive, when it’s a character who has gone from someone douchy or someone weak or someone flawed to someone better. And that’s just not true.

Piper’s actually had a lot of character development, and it’s been a long time coming. She started off Season One as someone extremely privileged but not always aware of it. She was white, wealthy, educated, and – though yes, she did smuggle drug money once – she clearly wasn’t someone possessed with a strong semblance of criminal thinking. Much of the first season was her becoming more and more aware of that privilege and coming to an understanding that she is no better than any of the other women she’s serving her time with. She had one of those breakthroughs with her mom when she admitted to the crime she committed and her deserving to be in prison for it, and then again after reading Larry’s story about her and her fellow inmates. Season One showed a lot of positive development.

However, as the series went on, Piper’s more negative qualities came out to play. But they make sense. Piper was someone who had been taught her whole life that the system was there to protect her. That cops and guards and lawyers and anyone else in corrections was there for her. And this was the first time she had to learn that maybe they’re not. When the CO was too new and frightened to help Sophia when she was being beaten by the other inmates, Sophia certainly (and rightfully) kicked up a fuss, but there was a resigned quality to her actions. She’s always known that she wasn’t someone the system worked for. Same with most of the other women in Litchfield, especially women of color and/or those coming from uneducated and poor backgrounds. But when Healy left Piper to be beaten by Pennsatucky (out of his own homophobic and misogynistic issues), Piper felt betrayed. This man who promised to look out for her betrayed her. The system betrayed her. This was bran new for her, and this betrayal was shocking. Were it someone else in Piper’s position, Healy’s act might not have affected them so severely.

That betrayal left its mark. And then, immediately after, she was relocated without any knowledge of where she was going, why she was going, or how long she was going. A good portion of the beginning of Season Two was spent in confusion and fear. And then when she returned to Litchfield, her entire support system began to fall apart. Her family had always been fairly useless (her parents were extremely cold and judgement and her brother was just as self centered as she was), her closest friend in prison betrayed her to orchestrate her own release, and finally her fiance and best friend dropped her for each other. And she doesn’t have much of a support system within prison. Her inability to see past her own life experience limits her in her ability to actually, truly form any kind of community outside of Alex. All of this leaves Piper feeling alone and isolated and needing to look out for herself.

By the third season, she’s learned she only has herself to rely on. Her selfishness is shown to have increased dramatically, causing Alex to be imprisoned again just because Piper was lonely and felt betrayed by Alex’s actions. Her insensitivity and lack of awareness of her privilege is out in full force when she cruelly cut Flaca from the panty business for bargaining more pay for her and the other panty girls. And lastly, her callous, self-righteousness comes out by stealing Stella’s release date from her in response to Stella’s theft and to send a message to the rest of the girls.

I mentioned before that pre-prison Piper doesn’t showcase much criminal thinking, and I believe that’s true. The one crime she committed was carrying a bag of drug money (not drugs, but money) and she was terrible at it. She was with Alex for the thrill of adjacent danger, but didn’t actually want to be a part of it. The only reason she helped was because she was kind of suckered into it by Alex, and she was terrified and uncomfortable and almost immediately after doing it decided that her relationship with Alex and the world Alex lived in was too much for her. There was a clear sense of “this is wrong, I’m going to get in trouble, I don’t want to do this.” And so she left. She left Alex and went on to live a relatively quiet, law-abiding life.

Like so many other behaviors and mindsets, criminal thinking is something that is learned. It’s not uncommon for men and women to become more criminal minded through a prison sentence. I used to work for a reentry program assisting men and women coming out of prison, and we would have all potential clients go through an assessment before they were accepted to the program because for some of them the rehabilitation program itself would have been detrimental because of their exposure to other, more criminal minded people. That is something that has happened to Piper. Piper is not the only character we’ve seen this in (Janae, Sophia, Red, Sister Ingalls, and more all exhibit this), but as she is still the lead character, she is the one whose development is the most pronounced.

All of Piper’s negative development – her cognitive shift towards exploitation and criminal thinking, her more prominent problematic character traits – makes sense. She’s learned to be this way. Piper’s learned to be a criminal by Red and the kitchen girls starving her out, by Pennsatucky’s vendetta against her, by Healy leaving her to die, by the prison system traumatizing and dehumanizing her, by Alex’s betrayal, by Larry and Polly leaving her. He scheme to sell the panties is a kind of gross parallel to Season One when she seized on Polly’s ability to make soap and decided to capitalize on it. The panty business is no different. She has no one to rely on now, and she knows she’ll have no one to fall back on when she’s released, so she saw an opportunity and seized it. She’s just more willing to be a little criminal about it.

I think it’s often overlooked that Piper isn’t supposed to be the hero. She may be the lead character, the person who opened the door and allowed us into the world of Litchfield, but she’s never been the hero. Truth be told, she’s even waning as the main character. Her life outside of prison has diminished considerably without Polly and Larry, and (please correct me if I’m wrong) I don’t recall a single flashback for her this season. Her purpose was to get us in: she was the fish out of water that could so easily attract both producers and viewers. She’s the person most often held up to showcase the different ways people are treated in prison. But she’s not the hero. I think a lot of people expected her to be; they expected her to be someone who became a leader within the prison, someone who pulled other women up, who was able to elicit change (which in itself is a problematic assumption). And now that she’s proven to be incredibly fallible, viewers feel a little bit betrayed by her.

But I don’t. And I don’t think anyone else should either. Let her go dark. Let her self-destruct. Let her fall. There are a lot of very positive stories within this show: stories of women coming together and supporting one another, stories of women bettering themselves, stories of women discovering what’s important to them, stories of forgiveness. And those stories are wonderful. But prison isn’t a heart warming place. Prison is traumatizing. It is. Prison is something a lot of people don’t recover from. Lolly? She’s never going to be rid of prison. That woman is a lifer. Any time she gets out, she’s going right back in. So while yes, I love watching Pennsatucky and Boo’s blossoming friendship, and I love see Taystee rise as a leader among her friends, and I love seeing Poussey taking care of people like Suzanne and Soso, and I love everything about Gloria and Red and Norma and Sophia…I also need to see the bad.

I need Aleida who gets everyone to turn on Sophia for keeping Gloria’s child from her in an effort to keep Gloria connected with her son because she can’t find a way to mother her own child. I need Leanne tormenting Soso because she so desperately needs some kind of faith to cling to and Soso was a threat to that. I need Nicky’s self destruction and Luscek’s betrayal of her sending her down to Max. I need Daya and Bennett’s ill-fated love story. And I need Piper’s rise to prison panty king and her inevitable fall from grace. It’s these moments of weakness, these stories of selfishness and fear and rage and pain that make the other stories mean something.

Let’s be clear, I’m not trying to defend Piper. She’s certainly going down a dark path and I wholly agree with the assessment Alex made of Piper before breaking up with her, that she’s being gross and exploiting the other women she has working for her. I’m not trying to make you feel something for Piper that you don’t. What I’m ultimately trying to do is defend the writers. These writers have done something deliberate with Piper. She’s been well developed and she’s been realistically developed, and I think to say otherwise is a disservice. That’s all.

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