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There Is A Life About To Start
Caputo figures it out; now it's time to fight the power.
Joe Caputo is the only Orange Is The New Black authority figure who, more often than not, concerns himself with others first, or at all. At least, that's what we think if we remain on the surface. In the first of the flashbacks of "We Can Be Heroes," we see a young Joe not just lose a high-school wrestling match to a mentally handicapped boy who just wanted a shot as a wrestler, but get beaten quickly -- not what Joe expected. He wanted praise. He took an L. That's the best illustration for who this man has been since the beginning of the series. We later witness his band get a ten-month gig that he gives up in order to be with his girlfriend, who has become pregnant. His thanks comes in the form of losing the girl to the lead singer of the band, which is now selling out gigs all over the country.
One might view Caputo as a character who represents vulnerability. Through many attempts at doing favors for inmates, for those in his personal life, and even for his plants, Caputo often forgets to take any inventory in himself as an individual. And it makes him likable, where so many men on the program are the exact opposite. He's hardly infallible -- no one on this show is -- but he treats the women under his purview with a semblance of respect and dignity. However, there's a reason for all of this, and when we learn what it is, it undercuts all of the above.
Look to the opening scene of the episode, where Caputo is having sex with Fig. Even though it's more selfish than a lot of the things we've seen him do, he even admits he can't freely enjoy the moment, but also can't live without it. Fig, reprehensible at least 90% of the total time she's been on screen since the pilot, speaks to the cracks in Caputo's psyche and the loathing that leads to pathetic "lie to yourself" hate sex, in the process admitting how similar the two are in that regard. That conversation is illuminating to both characters, and show growth and expansion in Fig and self-awareness in Joe. He doesn't accept it immediately, but Gif nails it as she tells him that he thinks he's a good guy, but he isn't, because he wants payment, through appreciation, for his acts of kindness. He resents himself for it.
Then to the union storyline, which pops up a few different times as the key focus of the episode. Its importance for Joe is first as the MCC victim he's been to this point, and finally for the step he takes toward claiming something bigger -- not for acclaim, but for personal career advancement. After doing "solids" for all sorts of folks, Caputo finally hears Fig's advice; this time, it changes everything for him. In that last flashback, where we see his personal life crumble, the love of his life releases him by being honest, for once. And it changes everything for the audience.
"You can't spend your whole life opening the door open for people and then being angry they didn't thank you," she says. "Nobody asked you to hold the fucking door."
Caputo's addiction isn't a narcotic, but some kind of Robin Hood or Mother Teresa complex. He's actually George Costanza, pulling the money out of the tip jar at Paisano's because he wants to make sure the owner sees him when he puts it in. He's still incredibly compelling even without this reveal, but when Caputo finally realizes that his mistake is in expecting compensation or even a better result just because of a smart decision or some level of compassion -- that's when Joe becomes something else entirely. He stayed with a woman, gave up his dream of being a musician, and played father to a child, all of his own free choice; Lisa owed him nothing.
When he joins the union with his fellow employees and COs, not taking the MCC party line and spouting talking points, Caputo breaks out the first true genuine smile we've seen in ages. He's finally doing something for himself, knowing he's doing it for himself. He's working against the system and for his people, but it isn't about recognition. He's blissfully, "individual over collective" selfish in a way we have almost never seen from that character. He's smart. He's crafty. He's business-savvy. He's not a complete asshole, but he's finally going to get his and he doesn't care how it makes him look to the higher-ups. In a weird way, he's Walter White just before the final fight. He knows who he really is and he's going to embrace it. The grin isn't evil. It's a sign of honest relief and acceptance. We'll forget about the out-of-character Season 2 blowjob from Fig. Oh, and the porn stuff. Generally, Caputo's an okay guy who screws up a lot, then has a tendency to react vindictively. But he's also been kicked around quite a bit.
Joe Caputo was the one male character, perhaps other than Bennett, who enhanced the show before we found out his story -- a non-inmate who was actually interesting to watch. But after "We Can Be Heroes," he becomes a layered, self-realized, lasting character who deserves discussion. While the episode is a juxtaposition of Caputo and Piper relative to the union angle, it's Joe who remained with me after the Les Miz sing-along at the bar.
Ol' Joe finally opened the door, walked through it, and though some people were just a few steps behind, he just kept on going into that restaurant. He's hungry. Those corporate types can pull the handle just like he did.