One of the true classics of the prison genre flick is the 1947 Jules Dassin noir Brute Force. The movie helped establish many of the archetypes and motifs (and, yes, clichés) that we’ve seen in so many of the prison movies of the subsequent sixty-seven years. Like Orange Is the New Black, Brute Force introduced us to a prison community and then, via flashback, showed us the choices which led specific inmates to their present incarceration.
Great as it is, I bring up Brute Force to point out one of its weaknesses. In telling us the back stories of its characters, it cheats a little. None of the inmates it looks at are really gangsters or hoodlums or bad guys. They all seemed to have been swell fellas before some twist of fate landed them inside.
If Orange Is the New Black hasn’t made the same mistake, it’s probably because the show’s mastermind, Jenji Kohan, doesn’t seem to believe in swell fellas. You can see this in her previous series, Weeds, where pretty much every character was deeply, irredeemably, flawed. This isn’t to suggest that the characters on Orange aren’t lovable or funny or capable of kindness. Many of them—maybe even most of them—are. But they all have their flaws. Some, like Janae, are in jail because they made a profound mistake. Others, like Morello, are in jail because of some deep-seated, unaddressed problem.
And then you have Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat). When we met her in Season 1, she was a surly cancer patient, a lifer who knew all too well that her destiny is to die slowly, bald and nauseous, behind the walls of Litchfield. In Episode 8 of Season 2, “Appropriately Sized Pots,” we learn how she landed behind bars. After so many sad or tragic back stories, it’s actually rather refreshing to meet a stone cold criminal. In flashbacks to her youth (in which she is played by Stephanie Andujar) we learn that Rosa was a professional bank robber. When we see her go on her first job with a smooth-talking boyfriend, we think we know what to expect: young woman roped into a life of crime by a bad man.
Nope. Rosa ain’t nobody’s pretty sidekick. The boyfriend gets plugged by a security guard. Rosa’s upset, but it doesn’t stop her from going on another job. And another. Because here’s the thing: Rosa loves robbing banks.
Unlike many of the back stories that we’ve seen in this show, Rosa didn’t fall into a life of crime because of poverty or rage or misplaced love. No, Rosa is a bank robber because she’s an adrenaline junkie. We see, in fact, that her life of crime cost her a lot, even at the time. But that didn’t stop her from going on job after job. “The smell of money” she sighs. That’s her high. That’s her drug.
Finding out all of this, of course, makes Rosa’s present day sickness even more sad to see. She dreamed of going out in a blaze of glory, she laments. Instead, she screwed up and got caught and now she’s dying—a slow and boring and depressing death. All she wants is just another little taste, for old time’s sake, just a small jolt of the pure joy of honest-to-god larceny. Will she get it? Is orange the new black?
Much of the rest of the episode is split between a couple of main storylines. First, Piper gets her furlough to go see her dying grandmother. Since no one gets furloughed, the rest of the inmates are furious that Blondie is getting the special treatment. Is it because Healy has a heart, after all? Well, sure, though his heart seems especially susceptible to pretty white yuppies. The furlough causes Piper more grief than she would have liked, but when she tries to “return it” to Healy, he gets mad. Later in the episode, Piper finds out that her grandmother has passed away sooner than expected. She could, now, of course inform the prison of this development and stay at Litchfield. That ain’t gonna happen, though. She’s already catching hell for the furlough. Why take cafeteria brownies to the back of the head for nothing?
The second storyline will probably have a longer lasting impact. After Fig comes down on Caputo for laxity among the staff, Caputo starts cracking the whip, demanding that the guards toughen up in their treatment of the inmates. When Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) voices a complaint about the new conditions, Caputo fires her.
While it’s sad to see Fischer go (goodbye, world’s most adorable prison guard), the development has one upside. It sets into motion the return of the mustachioed Satan himself. No matter how you cut it, things are about to get more intense at Litchfield.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.