As a writer, Jenji Kohan has a fascination with public and private faces. Again and again, we find her characters trying to navigate the uneasy space between what they show the world and what they fear and desire when they’re alone. Orange Is the New Black creates a uniquely volatile environment for these issues to play out because prison is a place where privacy—to the extent that it exists at all—is fleeting and easily compromised. The women of Litchfield are all attempting to present a face to the world—but that world is omnipresent and dangerous.
“Low Self Esteem City” sees this playing out in a few different ways. We have the ongoing story of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). Although she’s a new character on the show, it’s interesting how much psychic space she takes up in the overarching drama. As we’ve seen already, she’s an old school gangster who’s been in Litchfield before. From the beginning, we’ve known that she’s building a base of support among the black inmates, more or less appointing herself as their leader. This is a gradual process, and it’s not one that is explicit. Hardcases like these inmates won’t simply follow whoever shows up and declares herself in charge. Vee has to win the girls over through manipulations tailored to each one—she gives maternal love to Crazy Eyes, for instance, while she drives a homophobic wedge between Poussey and Taystee.
Only Vee knows what her ultimate plan is. She’s like Frank Underwood in prison scrubs. In “Low Self Esteem City” we find her moving some pieces into place, though we can’t see the whole puzzle. When a turf war over the bathroom showers breaks out between the black inmates and the Latina inmates, Vee moves herself into position as the chief bargainer with the head of the Latinas, Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva). She makes a trade, accepting a less than ideal shower for her girls, in exchange for some spots on the custodial staff. The scene is surprising, though. We expect it to be a fight or some kind of tense showdown, but instead Vee is suddenly weak, timid even. As Gloria struts out in apparent triumph, having gotten more than Vee out of the deal, we see what the scene is really about. The camera stays on Lorraine Toussaint’s face and we see her…well, I was going to say we see her smile, but that’s not quite right. It’s nothing as obvious as that. We see her face shift from timidity to strength. This twenty seconds or so is a pretty fine example of what it means to act for the camera. Vee is a serious customer.
Of course, so is Gloria Mendoza. In keeping with this season’s trend of exploring one character’s back story per episode (Taystee, Crazy Eyes, Morello) this time around we learn about Mendoza. We learn that she was a single mother running a convenience store in the city, plagued by an abusive boyfriend. She was running a food stamp scam on the side, saving the money up so she could skip town with her kids—but that was incidental until the cops showed up. Now in Litchfield, Mendoza is the head of the kitchen staff and leader of the Latinas. She may have met her match in Vee, though. We have to wait and see what those spots on the custodial staff mean in terms of power distribution at Litchfield. Only Red—Gloria’s deposed former rival—seems to understand what Gloria has bargained away.
The other big subplot of episode five is the “bang-off” between Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), a contest to see who can put the most points on the board, sexually speaking. So far this is being played for raunchy laughs, but I wonder where it’s going. It’s unlike the show to keep a storyline going for multiple episodes just as an extended joke. As of episode five, Nichols is losing, having put too many eggs in the basket that is the sweet guard Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus). Nichols strikes out, but we win because the scene lets Natasha Lyonne go full-on eyebrow-raising smirking super-sleaze as she tries to entice the guard to a blind spot between the security cameras. It’s a sight to behold.
As good as the episode is, it’s a come down from the highlight of Episode 4. There’s a lot of establishing being done here—Vee’s plans, future repercussions of the bang-off, Piper’s possible furlough to see her dying grandmother, Red’s new job on the greenhouse—but not a lot of forward momentum. Some side plots, like Healy’s ongoing bad marriage, are interesting. Others, however, are less so, and this brings me to something of a concern.
Piper hasn’t really had anything to do since the Season Premiere. With Alex gone and Pennsatucky humbled and Healy placated, she has no foil. She’s in danger of turning into a supporting character, and not a particularly interesting one at that. None of the major plot threads of this episode (or the last three episodes, to be honest) have really concerned her. She’s a free agent, attached to no one, threatened by no one. Her only real connection in this episode is with Larry, and none of us give a shit about Larry. Hopefully, in episodes to come, she’ll become more of a part of what’s going on around her.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.