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'Friends In Low Places' Marks A Season High For Orange Is The New Black

A little crack here and there doesn't hurt.

Eight episodes in, Orange Is The New Black's "Friends In Low Places" distinguishes the new season as the most compelling of the series. Sure, you could argue that there have been "stronger" seasons, but this is its most politically and morally ambitious by far. Its ideas aren't anything new to its universe; the honing and careful execution of them that makes all the difference.

It’s a common misconception that OITNB is beloved. Okay, to be fair, it is -- to a point. That point, of course, is the series's motley crew of characters, and the diverse cast that brings them to life. Both together and, more often than not, individually, they create a compulsively watchable environment, and transcend the shortcomings of any individual episode (or season's) writing.

Unless you're Piper, the show's most frustrating character, who just happens to be the lead. At least, that used to be the case; thankfully, this season sees her lean so far into the entrepreneurial spirit that she emerges on the other side of it scarred and godless. Finally, for the first time, she's faced with the consequences of her actions, and unable to talk her way out of them. And as fucked up as it sounds -- especially considering how the last episode ends and this one begins -- it's great.

I, for one, would much rather see Piper, mouth agape, dazed in bed following retaliation by Maria and her crew than dazed in the cafeteria, mouth agape, playing the straight man as she listens in on a conversation. Acknowledging issues in a wry and horrific way, the series not only expands Piper's scope and everyone else's, but that of the series itself. Finally, it's grown into itself and doesn't mind leaning into the darkness of its comedy, or darkness on its own.

Let's take a look at some of the episode's most important moments, ranked from least effective to most.

  1. Mr. Softee, Meet Taystee
    It's lunchtime, and Taystee won't accept anyone complaining about their new "job" -- a vocational course called Construction 101, since Piper inadvertently got everyone fired from Whispers -- which Taystee doesn't think is any harder than hers. Sellout! Thank god for Poussey, who realizes that work, any work, is considerably easier inside than out. Could be worse, they could all work for Maria. Or be Piper, whom everyone hates now.

    Not that it'll matter once they get a photo of Judy King, of course.

  2. "I'm Linda. I'm Here To Eat Spaghetti."
    In an episode chock full of big moments, this one in particular feels like one beat too many. I'm grateful it's getting us there -- wherever that is -- but thus far, the Sophia Burset storyline feels underdeveloped. But it's a testament to the episode's strength that even this scene, jarring as the transition from Litchfield to Caputo's house is, still works -- thanks, largely, to Beth Dover's dynamic Linda, whose wide-eyed determination makes for moments that are as funny as they are uncomfortable.

    Take exiting Caputo's house with a handgun to confront Crystal, instead of staying inside and watching the sauce. Crystal only wants information on Sophia because MCC's hiding behind its private/corporate status and not complying with a request made under the Freedom of Information Act. But Linda wants Crystal to go away and never come back so that Linda can eat spaghetti and, for some reason, have sex afterward. Part of the scene's problem is how easily it de-escalates and finds Caputo and Linda making out instead of launching back into one of the ten arguments they should be having, or the sauce they should be stirring.

  3. The Honeymoon's Over
    Nicky's reverted back into a feral, unpleasant addict who knows exactly which buttons to push when she doesn't get what she wants, and decides to lash out in the cool, detached way only a spoiled, unloved rich girl can.

    Worse than stealing from Red to buy drugs from Maria in the salon is that Nicky's punishing Lorna for moving on and establishing a relatively healthy life for herself while Nicky was in max. Playing into her worst fears, Nicky discredits love, and in doing so, discredits Vince -- who, she tells Lorna, has "probably been banging the single mom next door the whole time."

    All of which builds to, you guessed it, Lorna believing Vince is having an affair, and pleading with her sister to look into it because she "can't stand to think he's using some other housewife's oven-mitt" while she's away.

  4. And Release...
    Diaz is two days from being released and knows what she wants to do: start a salon. Changing roles, Daya tells her mother that she's "got make believe on her mind," and that she can barely afford to buy a few bottles of polish, much less a salon. Then she catches herself, and tells Diaz she believes in her because she's a fast learner who will probably take over someone else's salon in no time. Unfortunately, Diaz is a little slow on the uptake and just now realizing Maria's been dealing drugs out of the salon and jeopardizing Diaz's release. Once again, she tries to move on with her life and ends up right back where she started.
  5. King Of Kweens
    You've got to hand it to Judy King: the woman knows what she's doing. ...Okay, so maybe she doesn't. Whether or not Poussey came up with the idea for her to run up to Cindy and kiss her for a candid shot they could sell to the press is moot. For once in this episode, everyone involved wins, and I'm here for it. Judy gets to be the star of a photo that'll prove she's not racist; the women get a photo they can sell; and everyone potentially has a new friend in Judy, who's either a shrewd businesswoman or a crazy racist. Just kidding: it's 2016 and she can be both.
  6. The Crack Adds Character
    Resigned from digging after having been branded, Piper finds Nicky and Alex in the garden's cornfield...smoking crack. Naturally, it's all fun and games until they jokingly offer it to Piper and she accepts. The irony here is that prison isn't just chipping away at Piper piece by piece and turning her into a full-blown criminal; it's turning her into an actual person.

    It isn't long after Piper's exhaled that she's showing Nicky and Alex her swastika and experiencing a breakthrough, realizing that in trying to brand herself as something she was branded as something else -- and that it wasn't unwarranted. "I always got too far and I can't fucking stop it," she cries. "I think that I've been trying to 'win' prison, and I've destroyed people's lives." Eventually, Alex takes a hit and tells the others that she killed someone and that they're sitting on parts of his corpse. The show's finally exploring Piper outside of her fickle, WASPy anemia and is better because of it. Nobody's perfect.

  7. Pennsatucky, "Donuts," and Judas Priest
    This one's complicated. I'm not sure I agree with the direction it seems to be headed in, but it's powerful nonetheless as the scene shifts hilarious hypothetical as posed by Pennsatucky to the women working construction to a chilling moment in which her rapist answers the question about what he would do if he could go back in time. His answer: return to the night he was supposed to see Judas Priest in concert but never made it past the parking lot after his friend challenged him to drink a 30-pack. Naturally, Pennsatucky doesn't like that answer and storms off.

    Pennsatucky, being devout, clearly wants to forgive her assailant. After all, she did originally like him -- whatever that's supposed to mean. It's unclear how the writers want us as viewers to respond. It's a troubling but admittedly spellbinding watch as the two dance around each other, unsure what to do. As part of the show's wider reach this season, this kind of moral and ethical Choose Your Own Adventure is perfectly at home.

    But it's what happens next that's even more puzzling. Apologizing to Pennsatucky toward the end of the episode, Coates changes his answer. Of course he'd go back and stop himself from hurting her, whatever that means, because he really is a nice guy -- for a rapist. It's an affecting scene for a ton of reasons, most likely because I can only imagine that it's meant to serve as a learning tool for our constantly shifting rape culture. If the world post-Brock Turner taught us anything, it's that it doesn't matter how "nice" a rapist is. Yet here we are, in a scene that, with a few tweaks, wouldn't be out of place in a romantic comedy. And I suspect many have conflicting feelings about it.

  8. Red's Windows
    Defeated after getting confirmation that Nicky's using drugs again and stealing from her to buy them, Red returns to her bunk and stumbles upon Piper. Briefly taking her frustrations out on Piper by threatening to end her if she reveals what Alex told her, she softens when Piper breaks down and says she probably deserves what happened to her. Later, back in the kitchen, Red, Norma, and Alex gather to fix Piper's brand before it's too late, with Red leveling off the sides of the design saying, "when God gives you a statsticka, he opens a window. And then you remember: there is no God." Litchfield might be a godless place, but it's one that makes you think about what matters most.
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