Standing still with Orange is the New Black

“Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.” You’d be forgiven if you thought these words came from Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician, who famously said that all of humanity’s problems stem from the fact that people are not able to sit quietly by themselves. The words come not from Pascal, but his twenty-first century avatar Regina Spektor, who sings them in her latest single “You’ve Got Time,” which is the theme song for the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. The show has gotten a lot of good press, and it seems as though everyone in my demographic watches it. The good press the show has received has focused rightly on the solid writing, the excellent acting, the tight storyline. And although I appreciate all these things, I also think Orange is the New Black is the most morally serious television show since The Wire. It helps us confront uncomfortable truths.

[Below there is some profane language and perhaps a mild spoiler.]

 

Orange is the New Black was created by Jenji Kohan, who brought us Weeds, the television show starring Mary Louise Parker that portrayed a widowed suburban mother who grew and distributed marijuana to support her family. I always thought Weeds was cheap. The story line was too predictable, the acting was subpar, and the vulgarity was there to mask show’s defects. It was high on titillation and low on cogitation.

Orange is the New Black is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. In the show, we meet Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) who has to serve a 15-month jail term in a federal prison in upstate New York. She was convicted of carrying narcotics for her then-girlfriend, the international drug dealer Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), even though she committed the crime 10 years earlier. It turns out Alex is serving time in the same prison as Piper. Piper’s wedding to aspiring writer Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) is put on hold until she serves her sentence. The characters include a Russian mobster (Kate Mulgrew), a Haitian maid-cum-murderer (Michelle Hurst),  a transgender former firefighter and credit card thief (Laverne Cox), and a Latina mother and daughter who were both involved in drug running (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dascha Polanco). There’s even a nun who was convicted of protesting nuclear facilities (Beth Folwer). The list goes on. The show does a remarkable job making you care about all these characters. We get flashbacks on some of them, which help us understand why they ended up behind bars.

Orange is the New Black has its share of vulgarity, of nudity, of profanity, but it somehow never feels pornographic. We understand that these are some of the ways the inmates deal with the monotony of the lives they lead. It’s not that nothing happens in the prison. There are disagreements and fights, sex and abuse, real moments of joy and laughter. There are guards who bully the inmates and guards who seem to care deeply about them. Ultimately, though, the prisoners are stuck inside their own heads. They busy themselves because the time itself is almost unbearable.

In what I take to be the climax of the first season, Piper confronts a young girl who is visiting the prison as part of the “Scared Straight” program. Here’s the exchange:

Piper: I know how easy it is to convince yourself that you’re something that you’re not. You can do that on the outside. You can just keep moving. Keep yourself so busy that you don’t have to face who you really are. You’re weak.
Deena: Back the fuck off me.
Piper: I’m like you, Deena. I’m weak too. I can’t get through this without somebody to touch. Without somebody to love. Is that because sex numbs the pain or because I’m some evil fuckmonster? I don’t know. But I do know I was somebody before I came in here. I was somebody with a life that I chose for myself. And now? Now it’s just about getting through the day without crying. And I’m scared. I’m still scared. I’m scared that I’m not myself in here. And I’m scared that I am. Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison, Deena. It’s coming face to face with who you really are. Because once you’re behind these walls, there’s nowhere to run, even if you could run. The truth catches up with you in here, Deena. And it’s the truth that’s going to make you a bitch.
After Piper walks away, one of the other inmates, Poussey Washington, says:
Day-mm. You cold.
Piper: Bitches gots to learn.

And what, exactly, do they “gots to learn”? Well, I wonder if Augustine, whose feast day we celebrate today and who so influenced Pascal, is helpful here. In his Confessions, when he contemplates why someone can hate the truth, which is the only way to the good life, Augustine writes,

It must be because people love truth in such a way that those who love something else wish to regard what they love as truth and, since they would not want to be deceived, are unwilling to be convinced that they are wrong. They are thus led into hatred of truth for the sake of that very thing which they love under the guise of truth. They love truth when it enlightens them, but hate it when it accuses them. In this attitude of reluctance to be deceived and intent to deceive others, they love truth when it reveals itself but hate it when it reveals them. Truth will therefore take its revenge: when people refuse to be shown up by it, truth will show them up willy-nilly and yet elude them. X.23.24 (Boulding translation)

What Piper realizes – and what she forces all of us to realize – is that without the petty distractions of our days, we would have nothing to distract us from uncomfortable truths. The truth will catch up with us. We’re scared to come face-to-face with who we really are. The thought is terrifying. And without the choices she had outside prison, this is the only thought Piper has.

The show has been renewed for another season, and I have to admit that I’m of two minds about the renewal. Needless to say, I’m already looking forward to the find out what happens next. I want to get more backstories on the characters. The portraits aren’t yet complete. I’m especially interested to see what happens next because the first season ended violently. The last scene blended the sacred and the profane in a way not seen since the end of the first Godfather. The show made me uncomfortable precisely because it cast the truth on me, made me wonder who I really am. It forced me to stand still. I worry, I suppose, that in another season, there will be too many steps, too much evasion. When you’re alone with your thoughts, it’s hard to stand still.

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Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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