Orange is the New Black follows last week’s excellent Tit Punch with another showcase in non-linear storytelling. Orange is the New Black has consistently used a liberal approach to time and how the show presents it in order to develop characters and explain their behavior. While Piper is always shown in a flashback at least once, Orange is the New Black has also focused on a seemingly minor figure in each episode. In this week’s episode, Lesbian Request Denied, this character is Sophia, a transgender inmate in Litchfield. The result of these flashbacks is one in which Orange is the New Black provides an intriguing, original perspective on themes of race, sexuality, gender, and social deviation. By utilizing flashbacks, Orange is the New Black has proven able to transcend Piper Chapman, exploring the rich, yet upsetting lives of her fellow inmates.
And, much like Orange is the New Black shows Piper at her best and worst, her most naïve and most self-aware, the show never denies that Sophia is a criminal. In fact, the first image shown in Lesbian Request Denied is one in which Marcus, Sophia’s male identity, is stealing credit card information, abusing his position as a firefighter to access vital and personal information. Though this is a clearly criminal act, one we know Sophia pays for dearly, it is also presented as a potentially justified crime in the subsequent Sophia scenes, which range from Marcus dressing in female undergarments, trying one of his wife’s dresses on, and eventually being arrested. These flashbacks walk a fine line, blurring the clearly defined notions of right and wrong, simultaneously justifying Sophia’s crimes and decision to remove her penis, while also highlighting her selfishness. Orange is the New Black empathizes exceptionally well with its characters, but never denies their guilt. These figures are allowed to be both good and bad at the same moment.
This behavior translates to the present in interesting ways. Sophia holds a certain level of self-respect that Marcus clearly lacks in the flashback sequences, and her role in the prison, that of the hairdresser, is firmly entrenched within the society of Litchfield. So, when Sophia’s estrogen pills are downgraded to a smaller dosage due to prison budget cuts, a recurring obstacle in Litchfield, Sophia’s hard-earned identity becomes challenged.
This affirmation of a new sexual and behavioral identity is set in close proximity to scenes of Piper’s past in Lesbian Request Denied, as her flashbacks reveal how she met Alex. The chemistry between Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling is clear and the relationship becomes highly endearing as the scene moves along. The more time spent with these two characters, the better. The naïve, young Piper becomes firmly entrenched in a relationship with Alex, establishing her lesbian identity. Previous flashbacks have also shown Piper’s post-lesbian life, a life in which she has taken the lead over Larry and confidently moves throughout the world. In Lesbian Request Denied we are shown Larry becoming even more independent of Piper, not visiting her every week so he can have a life beyond her. Piper clearly struggles with this revelation, emphasizing how alone in Litchfield she truly is. Yet, while Sophia has proven herself adaptable to life in Litchfield, it becomes evident that Piper is still an ongoing process. Much of Lesbian Request Denied focuses on Piper dealing with uncomfortable situations–Crazy Eyes taking Piper as her wife, Piper being moved into the ghetto bunks, Piper’s mother visiting Litchfield, Larry moving further and further into independence from Piper–and emphasizing just how far outside of the prison’s social sphere Piper actually is. Prison has revoked Piper’s identity, leaving a confused and wayward person without any genuine social standing.
Taking the ideas started in Tit Punch, Lesbian Request Denied further develops other inmates in Litchfield, particularly Crazy-Eyes, Healey, and Sophia, showing interesting perspectives on each character. With Crazy-Eyes, there are obvious issues. She is easily enraged and socially problematic, but she is also fiercely loyal and loving to Piper, hinting at a more human aspect of Crazy-Eyes that Orange is the New Black is taking its time to explore. Meanwhile, Healey becomes more entrenched in his homophobia by scolding Piper for engaging in lesbian activity, showing his unwillingness to help those who refuse to listen to his advice. Healey has begun to show signs that his calm, almost friendly demeanour is selective and fluctuating,
There are aspects of Orange is the New Black that are troubling for different reasons, and that come up again in Lesbian Request Denied. Some are simply less developed, such as the romantic subplot between Daya and Bennett, which I’ve failed to discuss in past reviews, while others, such as Pornstache or Healey, are challenging to write because of their problematic world views. Daya and Bennett’s romance is not particularly engaging or believable, having failed to move beyond the meet-cute end of the spectrum. Though Daya and Bennett have some chemistry and the relationship could work eventually, there is little to really keep the audience engaged in Lesbian Request Denied.Pornstache and Healey are simply underdeveloped, without any story to show why they behave how they do. Hopefully these two aspects of Orange is the New Black come together in more realistic, sympathetic ways as the show moves along.
All in all, Piper serves as a means for the audience to relate to the other prisoners in Litchfield. Her similarities–struggles with identity and her failures to fit in socially–resemble Sophia’s pursuit of a body she can inhabit comfortably. And like Sophia’s family, who struggle with Sophia’s transformation, Piper’s family continue to struggle with hers, though they endure these challenges because they care for her. In particular, the scene in which Sophia’s wife implores her to keep her penis, one that borders on begging, is a challenging and heartfelt moment of sincerity. This is a woman who has stayed to keep her family together because she loves them. Though Piper’s family does clearly less, there is a similar understanding of her flaws and their love despite those flaws. However, Lesbian Request Denied shows the world moving on without Piper even more at the same time, effectively challenging her established identity outside of the prison, raising questions about the devotion her family may have.
With Lesbian Request Denied, we are shown that Orange is the New Black has the ability to acknowledge and even value the fractured, many-sided face of one’s history, to empathize with characters who are good and bad in turn, and to value the inherently human ability to establish social mores and friendships in even the most deplorable spaces. Lesbian Request Denied is a humorous, sympathetic look at identity and the value of knowing thyself and expressing it outwardly. By focusing deeply on those around Piper, setting her up as a guide for the audience to explore Litchfield, and comparing her struggles to those around her, Lesbian Request Denied makes even the most personal problems relatable and bittersweet.