The Monster Factory: Perpetrators & Victims in Orange is the New Black’s Season Finale

Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, appalling cases of police brutality have gained much deserved publicity and entered the foreground of public consciousness.  Like most, I find many of these stories unthinkable.  An African American man who’s pulled over for a busted tail-light is shot dead while reaching for his license?  A hard-working street peddler from Guinea is brutally shot 41 times for looking “suspicious” while simply stepping outside his apartment for some fresh air?  How does this happen?  When horrific miscarriages of justice such as these occur, who do we condemn?  who do we hold responsible?

Sometimes the officer is at fault: he’s prejudiced or power-hungry.  But other times both perpetrators and victims of police brutality are casualties of larger social, historical forces: widespread racial bias, lack of training, or the justice system in general.

The most obvious victim of the Orange is the New Black’s season finale is Poussey.  After a season simmering with racial tension, it was satisfying to see Litchfield’s women unite against the malevolently punitive Piscatella.  Outraged that a guard was killed on his watch, he forcefully grabs a feeble-looking Red by the arm and makes an announcement to the cafeteria:

“Things have been pretty lax around here if you ask me, so lax, in fact, that one of my men was murdered on prison property by one of you.  It seems like somewhere along the way, everyone around here forgot the only thing that matters.  You’re criminals and you deserve nothing.”  

Here, Piscatella embodies a pernicious belief in “us vs. them.”  Because he demonizes the inmates under his watch and is so quick to dehumanize them (Alex is not a person with justifiable reasons for defending herself against a guard who was about to whack her…she is a ruthless, cold-hearted killer), he immediately breaks up a peaceful protest, which leads to riotous chaos and Poussey’s unnecessary murder.

piscatella

Of all Litchfield’s inmates, Poussey didn’t deserve to die: she wasn’t a violent offender or gang banger-hell, she barely even qualified as a “criminal.”  When the MCC’s lawyers try to paint Poussey as a dangerous threat to excuse Bailey’s excessive use of force (and, more importantly, save themselves from a PR nightmare and potentially very expensive lawsuit), they come up with diddly squat.  “She was convicted for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute…not even half an ounce!” they groan defeated. “Even her intake shot is adorable!”  

As is characteristic of Orange is the New Black, the last episode relies on the clever use of flashbacks to relay characters’ back stories.  In “Toast Will Never Be Bread Again” the device is never used so poignantly.  After Poussey is accidentally murdered, we see her on the night before her arrest.  The night-much like her future-beckons with magical possibility: she parties with a hilarious group of drag queens who say she looks like Whitney, smokes a joint with an Improv group dressed as monks and contemplates her exciting new life in Amsterdam, a life-we know- she’ll never have.  

poussey

As is often the case in instances of police brutality, we may feel tempted to villanize Bayley as a bigoted, corrupt cop.  But Bayley, too, is a victim.  Orange is the New Black consistently portrays him as one of the only “good” guards along with Coates (though Coates’s membership in that class is more debatable).  Bayley’s involvement in Piper’s panty smuggling ring seems laughably innocent compared to Hump’s sicko mind games and Piscatella’s cruel refusal to let Red sleep.  

Is Bayley flawed?  Yes.  But he’s also redeemable.  Though he participates in the idiotic mischief of adolescence- he trespasses to climb a terrifyingly high water tower and smoke pot, he indirectly steals from his boss when he gives away $30 of free ice cream a day to cute girls- he isn’t malicious.  When Bayley and his friends embark on yet another one their juvenile shenanigans and egg his ex-boss’s house, he participates willingly.  “No one fires Baxter Bayley!” he laughs, reassured.  

Later as the boys pass through the crimson trees of the Litchfield prison grounds, they see half a dozen inmates raking leaves.  “Everyone armed?” Bayley’s handsome, Abercrombie-looking friend asks excitedly, “On my count. One, two, three!”  Bayley and his friends then chuck eggs at the unsuspecting women. “You think that’s funny?”  Frieda screams infuriated, “I’m a fucking human being!”  Seeing Frieda’s reaction, the futility of her outrage (after all, he gets to drive away; she gets shoved by a CO and is forced to go back to work), Bayley’s boyish amusement quickly metamorphoses into empathy…and shame at his own behavior.

What’s brilliant about Orange is the New Black is that it recognizes the fundamental unfairness of holding Bayley completely accountable for Poussey’s murder.  At first, MCC’s lawyers want to shift blame onto Poussey but when they realize that’s not going to work, they decide to use Bayley as a scapegoat.  But in the end, is it fair to point the finger at either party?  Poussey never posed a threat, never displayed a predilection for violence but Bayley wasn’t a rouge cop either: he was simply an incompetent, poorly trained guard whose lack of training led him to panic and make a fatal error.

bayley

The season finale’s genius lies in this very ambiguity.  Though we as an audience possess enough context to recognize the impossibility of neatly classifying those involved as perpetrators and victims, the question of responsibility obstinately asserts itself throughout the episode: if Bayley’s not to blame, who is?

Despite MCC’s attempts to craft a “story” and cast clear villains and victims, we know the real story is far more complex than that.  Poussey wouldn’t have died had Piscatella not irresponsibly ordered the guards to break up a peaceful protest.  She wouldn’t have died had Humps not forced two mentally unstable inmates to barbarically fight the night before.  And she wouldn’t have died had Crazy Eyes not been so traumatized from brutalizing her former lover that she started attacking Bayley.  Poussey’s murder is the tragic result-not of a single man’s misconduct-but of a system, which makes her death all the more upsetting.  After all, individuals can be thrown in prison- systems cannot.

The only character that bridges the perpetrator/victim divide is Caputo, whose negligence throughout the season makes him a tacit accomplice in MCC’s failures.  In many ways, Caputo is also a victim.  Whenever he wants to make positive changes at Litchfield, he meets yet another road block in his path: if it’s not maddening bureaucracy, it’s the heartless, corporate obsession with the bottom line.  At one point in the season, he tries to launch an educational program only to have most of his ideas scraped.  “What happened to all my classes?” he asks Linda as he hopelessly searches Litchfield’s course catalog, “There’s no science, no English, no math.  None of these classes were in my original proposal!”  Turns out rehabilitation through education was just a ploy to exploit free labor.  Rather than offer real courses that could break the nasty recidivism cycle, MCC decides to provide “life skill” classes like “Cement 101” instead.  Caputo’s understandably upset but- like Figueroa before him- his hands are tied with red tape. 

This is just one of Caputo’s many compromises: at first, he compromises his ideas for restorative justice reforms like education and, at first, such compromises seem reasonable.  After all, “Cement 101” might not be exactly what he envisioned but at least it’s a start.  But as the season progresses, we see Caputo strike a Faustian bargain of sorts: to be warden, he exchanges his morality for a sharp $1,000 suit.  Even though he knows he should be at Litchfield after they’ve discovered a guard’s body, he lets his girlfriend convince him to stay home.  Caputo may be one of the only morally upstanding members of MCC’s privatized prison machinery but he’s still guilty by association.  It’s his absence that enables this tragedy in the first place.  What if he had been there the night the body was found?  What if he had fired Piscatella?  Like the first domino, what Caputo does (or doesn’t do) sets a whole chain of events in motion.caputo

On one hand, Caputo’s refusal to scapegoat Bayley at the end of the episode is a triumph but- as film critic Myles McNutt notes– “it is a hollow victory. It is a victory in that he is resisting the narrative MCC is presenting, but it is a failure in that it fails to acknowledge the full complexity of what really happened in that cafeteria.”  Caputo may accurately recognize that Bayley was a “victim of circumstance” but-by refusing to name the true perpetrator-he condones the actual forces responsible for Poussey’s murder.  In his statement, he never mentions Humps, he never mentions Piscatella.  More importantly, he never mentions the million and one institutional failures that culminated in this disaster.  And the cost of these failures is high.  Just as toast can never be bread again, Bayley can never recover his innocence and Poussey can never be brought back to life.  

So when horrific miscarriages of justice happen, who do we hold responsible?  There’s no one to blame but the system that renders such events inevitable.

“This place crushes anything good,” a distraught Caputo warns Bayley, “It’s like a monster that’s grown too big for its stubby little legs and now it’s stumbling around crushing whole cities.  You can’t survive it.”  

“Which one are you, the city or the monster?” asks Bayley.  

“Neither,” he stutters, “Both…Even if you’re the city now, one day you’ll be the monster.”

3 Reasons Why I Loved Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things”

Finished Netflix original series Stranger Things after a few hours of major binge-watching last night. Called the surprise hit of the summer, Stranger Things has been building a steady following since its release and-some have said-is on the road to cult status.

The series begins with the mysterious disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), an average 12-year-old boy from Hawkins, Indiana. As Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) launches an investigation, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder) and friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) embark on their own search and quickly discover there’s more to his disappearance than meets the eye. Filled with horrifying monsters, a girl with telekinesis, and portals to other worlds, Stranger Things is the intersection of the ordinary and supernatural. Though I could go on and on as to why Stranger Things deserves all the hype, here are a few reasons why I loved the show.

stranger things cast

1. Mystery

What are stories but mystery boxes?” director and filmmaker J.J. Abrams once posed. Abrams, the mastermind behind such puzzling television riddles as Lost, knows that good story-telling is about ambiguity; it’s what you don’t know-not what you do.

Stranger Things builds edge-of-your-seat suspense by constantly denying us access to the box. Creators the Duffer Brothers, in fact, padlock the box and throw away the key. With each episode, the enigma of Will’s disappearance deepens: where is Will? Who keeps calling Joyce, Will’s mother (played by a convincingly distraught Winona Ryder)? Who is the practically mute girl the boys stumble upon in the woods and where did she come from? Why did the state claim jurisdiction of where Will’s body was found and later bring in their own guy to perform the autopsy? Just when you think the show can’t get any more bizarre, just when you think you have a handle on the sinister happenings of this strange town, something even weirder happens to complicate your theories.

This series reminds me of one of my all time favorite movies: Donnie Darko. In terms of genre, both dabble in the paranormal and both play with the possibility of other worlds.  Like the cult classic, Stranger Things preoccupies itself with the questions-not so much the answers. So if you adore slightly offbeat shows that are one part sci-fi and two parts mystery/thriller, watch this show.

dr. brennar & hawkins lab

2. Conspiracy 

In her astute analysis of the sixth episode, AV Club critic Emily Stephens considers both the literal and figurative meanings of monster:

“El’s powers opened a portal between universes for a creature to slither through, but she’s not the monster. Even that creature, horrifying as it is, isn’t the worst monster of Stranger Things. The monster didn’t have to cross over from some darker dimension. The monster was here all along.

The monster is Brenner, persuading college kids to trade a couple of hundred bucks for the risks of his mind-bending experiments—in Terry Ives’ case, a lifetime of near-catatonia. The monster is Steve’s jealousy and entitlement, blotting out his affection for Nancy and his vacillating sense of decency. The monster is the vindictive rage of a bully, who forces a classmate to jump from the quarry’s cliff by holding his friend at knifepoint. The monster is the blank resolve of a government bureau eager to exploit a gifted child, pushing her to make solitary contact with something unknown, unknowable. As Stranger Things already hinted in the title of “Chapter Two: The Weirdo On Maple Street,” with its nod to a classic Twilight Zone episode, the monster isn’t the thing from another world. It’s us.”

When a frightening, alien-like monster wriggles through a hole between the real world and the upside down and begins tormenting Hawkins, we can’t help but think it’s the antagonist we’ve been waiting for. But as Stephens so insightfully points out, the real monster is not some creature from another world-it’s within us.

The central antagonist of Stranger Things is not a literal monster but a figurative one: Hawkins National Lab. Since the 1960s, we learn, diabolical yet socio-pathically kind scientist Dr. Brenner has been performing mind control experiments on human subjects. He kidnaps his most prized subject, a young girl named El, from her mother when it’s discovered she has telekinetic powers. Since then, Dr. Brenner has been trying to harness her abilities for the more malevolent purposes of weaponry and espionage.

In their pursuit of truth, Joyce and Captain Hopper realize Will’s disappearance is a part of this massive government cover-up. And the U.S. government is a titan adversary. The more unsettling truths they uncover, the more they realize they have nowhere to turn. Stranger Things creates a twitchy, anxiety-laden atmosphere where no one-especially those in positions of authority-can be trusted. Brenner and his team are unstoppable: dissenters who try to expose the truth are easily made to look insane…or are mercilessly killed off.

Dr. Brenner, Hawkins Lab, the U.S government- all represent the most terrible kind of monstrosity: indifference to one’s fellows. As Brenner and his colleagues ruthlessly exploit El’s powers for their own advantage, the government remorselessly covers it up.

If you love underdog stories, you’ll find it immensely satisfying when Hopper goes all renegade cop and tries to untangle Brenner’s webs of lies and cover-ups (though it’s hard to believe he’d emerge from some of his discoveries unscathed). Like all underdog tales, Stranger Things derives its tension not from the anticipation that we might encounter a real flesh and blood monster but the certainty that a less easily defeated foe lingers around every corner. 

stranger things

3. The 80s

If you’re an 80s kid like me, Stranger Things will be a nostalgic return to the ambient synth and bad hair of yesteryear. Watching this sci-fi/horror is like being teleported to 1983, a time when anti-communist paranoia was its height and we thought-for some reason- that mullets looked good. Creators the Duffer brothers do a superb job of accurately reconstructing the period, never stumbing into overblown caricature territory (you won’t see any Madonna-esqe fish nets or neon eye shadow here).

Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan fittingly coined Stranger Things a spooky shot of 80s nostalgia straight to your heart. In their 1980s tribute, the Duffer Brothers pay homage to every cinematic genius of the period from Spielberg to Steven King. The group of best friends coming of age whilst chatting over walkie talkies recalls Stand By Me (not to mention another classic period piece Now and Then) while the otherworldly girl with telekinetic powers conjures up images of ET.  All that’s missing, as Mangan notes, is the glowing finger. Ryder herself is a relic of the era, bringing to mind the pseudo-intellectual banter and dark morbid humor of such movies as The Heathers.  Add a dose of creepy spirits communicating through electronics a la The Poltergeist and you have the perfect cocktail of heart-warming coming-of-age tale and spooky, eerie sci-fi thriller.

Master of None Series Finale: A Review

Funny.  Real.  Heart-breaking.  All of these words describe the excellent season finale of Aziz Ansari’s superb Netflix original series “Master of None.”

From the opening credits, the episode preoccupies itself with numbers. In a comic scene, Aziz and Arnold debate what to have for lunch:

“I’m starving!” Aziz complains.

“Me, too” Arnold agrees.

“Well, what do you want?”

“How about tacos?”

The next 2 minutes trace an experience made all the more hilarious by its all-too-real familiarity: determined to find the “best” taco joint in all of New York, Aziz frantically searches Yelp reviews and looks for input on Google. 45 minutes later Aziz is exhausted from too-much-information syndrome. Overloaded with information meant to aid the process of buying, consumers are ironically paralyzed by indecision when confronted with too many possibilities. The once relatively simple task of finding a place to scarf down a taco has now-with the advent of rating sites like Yelp and Google Plus- become a kind of art. One must consider average ratings across multiple criteria, assess the validity of reviews, a complex process indeed. And what’s usually the result? Like Aziz, we find the ideal taco haven only to show up at the food truck and find it’s closed 40 minutes later.

The rest of the episode concerns itself with similar issues of indecision and regret. After Aziz attends a friend’s wedding and witnesses their blissful, seemingly perfect romance, he begins to question his compatibility with his quirky, live-in girlfriend Rachel. “If you had to rate the likelihood of us being together forever on a scale of 1-100, what would you rate us?” he interrogates Rachel.  When she responds with 70, Aziz is upset and hurt:

“70? ”  

“What?” she defends, “It’s a high number.”  

“It’s not as high as 80 the number I wrote.”

Dev & Rachel

Though from an outsider’s perspective his request is so ridiculous it borders on the absurd (after all, how can you forecast something as unpredictable as whether or not you’ll stay with someone?), his desperate need for certainty is a desire most of us can relate to. In your late 20s and early 30s, doesn’t everyone have that lingering fear that “this is it”? that the man we’ve dated for 5 years out of habit will be the man we end up with?  that the job we just “fell into” will be our career?

Quarter-life is a turbulent time riddled with anxiousness and self-doubt:

“You’re so indecisive!” Aziz’s father scolds, “You’re like the girl with the fig tree!”

“Huh?” Aziz wonders, confused.

“Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar. You need to read more…”

As Aziz strolls through an idyllic New York park pondering his life choices, images of all his potential lives flicker across the screen: a quiet, domestic life with a wife and family; a traveler’s lifestyle of excitement and adventure. Like Plath, Aziz finds himself tormented by the countless possibilities open to him and terrified he’ll choose the wrong one.

A Wonderful Future Beckoned & WInked

By forcing Rachel to assess the seriousness of their relationship, Aziz inadvertently inspires her to assess her life, ultimately leading to her decision to move to Tokyo.  “I don’t want to be like my sister,” Rachel divulges, “She always wanted to live in Paris; now she never will. I’m afraid if I don’t do this, I’m never going to.”

Though this-at first-seems like a heartbreaking, too-soon end to an adorable love story (after all, who didn’t love Aziz and Rachel?), Rachel’s decision to end the relationship and pursue a life-long dream rouses Aziz out of the immobilizing, I-have-to-do-everything-perfectly indecision that has been plaguing him all episode. In the episode’s final scene, we see Aziz on his way to what we can only assume to be a plane to Tokyo. Just when we assume Master of None is going to settle into the predictable conventions of rom-com, the show violates our expectations and surprises us:

“Have you ever been?” a round-faced Japanese woman leans over and asks Aziz.

“To Italy? No, no,” Aziz shakes his head, “this is my first time.”

Italy

Enlightened Series Finale: A Review

In the genius, if underrated, HBO series Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe, former corporate executive turned idealistic do-gooder, struggles to change the world after having an affair with her boss and suffering a mortifying, at-work breakdown.

What’s interesting about Amy is that she is a flawed character and her quest is not an entirely noble one.  From the beginning of season two, we get a sense that her lofty ambition to take down corporate giant Abaddon may conceal a less enlightened desire for vengeance.  “What kind of revenge play do you have going here?” LA Times reporter Jeff Flender asks when she leaks confidential company emails, “Did one of these guys screw you over?”  Outraged, she rebuttals: “This isn’t about revenge, it’s about justice.”  But is it?  Throughout the series, the true nature of Amy’s motives remains uncertain.

Co-creator and writer Mike White isn’t interested in having his characters fit cut-and-dry black or white categories, which makes for compelling and at times, unbearable, television.  There is a duality to Amy: she is alternately contemptible and heroic, awkward and charming, psychotic and sane.  On the one hand, she despises the superficial materialism of the 1% but, on the other, she longs for their particular brand of power.  “I’m tired of feeling hopeless and plastic and numb.  Please,” a desperate, teary Amy begs Tyler, “don’t make me go back to being nothing.”

Being somebody, doing something: this is the heart of Amy’s goal.  It is up to us to decide whether her crusade is a commendable one.  Amy yearns for something more but her starry-eyed aspirations are often complicated by an egotistical lust to climb the social ladder.  One of my favorite scenes is when Amy rushes to take her trashy Entertainment Weeklies off the table before Jeff comes over.  “We don’t read those,” her mother says confused as Amy spreads out copies of TIME magazine and the New Yorker.  No, they don’t but she wants Jeff to think they do.  “He’s a big deal,” she tells Tyler.

Though Amy may be caught up with impressing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and schmoozing her way into the liberal, activist elite, upon watching season 2, I think we can agree she is a pretty remarkable character.

When the finale opens, we see Amy watching TV, transfixed by footage of the Arab Spring.  “Am I my higher self or am I in the mud?” Amy wonders via voice over (a clever device used throughout the series to glimpse her inner dialogue).  “Am I an agent of change?” she muses, “Or a creator of chaos?”

In the preceding episode appropriately entitled “No Doubt,” we see Amy become less and less certain of her decision to expose Abaddon.  When Charles Sizdon, her supposed nemesis and Abaddon’s nefarious CEO, offers her the community outreach position she’s been hoping for, the once radical, burn-the-fucker-down Amy can’t help second-guessing herself: had she made a mistake?  Would it have been better to impact change from within?  Before she had been fighting a concept, an idea-corporate greed, the inhumane exploitation of workers and the environment-but now she was rallying against a living, breathing human being.  Sizdon is likable, charming even, and Amy can’t help questioning whether sending him to prison is the right course.

enlightened mom

 

This doubt continues to play itself out in the final episode.  Sane, adult-like pragmaticism finds form in hyper-sensible Helen, Amy’s mother.  After confessing that she has helped to expose the evil-doings of her slimy, unethical employer, her mother is disappointed, not proud.  

“Why would you do that?” Helen asks, exasperated yet again at her daughter’s refusal to fall in line and conform.

“Cause the guy’s a criminal…”

“And why is that any of your business?  They brought you back after all you did (never mind that Abaddon wrongfully  transferred her out of her department in typical boy’s club fashion, siding with her sleazy, dick-headed boss) and this is how you repay them?  You have done a lot of foolish things in your life but this is too much.”

Where Amy expects to find confirmation, she meets disapproval (and a chilly suggestion to pack her bags and move out).  Ms. Jellicoe may be doing something great but Helen-like the rest of the world-just doesn’t care.

Enlightened makes the upsetting suggestion that the majority of Americans don’t care.  If we knew what Amy knew-that our company’s CEO was bribing a government official, essentially rigging the system to line his own pockets-would we do something?  would we be compelled to action?  

For the creators of this one-of-a-kind tragicomedy, the answer is no.  

White never makes this observation in a condescending, predictable people-are-sheeple kind of way but he maintains the claim regardless.  So many of the show’s characters-Amy’s mother, Krista-are unwilling to face the reality of the world in all its injustice and terror.  At the end of the episode, Amy stands alone as the only one willing to wake up and be “enlightened.”

amy and levi

“Am I crazy?” she asks ex-husband Levi in one of the episode’s most gorgeous final shots.  

“No,” he responds, “you’re just full of hope…It’s a beautiful thing to have hope for the world.”

 Like Amy, the idea goes, we have to be a little crazy if we want to change the world.

 

30 Rock Series Finale: A Review

 

30 Rock - Season 7

Overall, I was impressed with the continuity and narrative closure of the episode.  Everyone, including Liz, gets their “happy ending”: Jack becomes CEO of KableTown (his lifelong goal) only to feel unsatisfied and empty, resign and go out in search of himself; Liz finally finds love and achieves her dream of a family, adopting twins who appropriately remind her of Tracy and Jenna, the infantile, wildly self-absorbed actors she’s spent seven years at TGS caring for; Jenna marries Paul, the androgynous, sex-crazed female impersonator and thus marries herself; and Kenneth, the noble page turned janitor, is finally rewarded for his incorruptible virtue when Jack names him the new president of NBC.

Though the last few episodes felt crammed as if the creators were rushing to tie any and all loose ends (Liz gets married, adopts and consoles Jack after his mother’s death all in three or so episodes!), as an audience it was gratifying to see our characters get the endings they deserved.  The closing of Pete’s narrative arc, for example, was dark but totally hilarious; after seven seasons of existential dread and an inescapable mid-life crisis, Pete fakes his own death and begins a new life in what looks like a South Carolina suburb.  Of course Paula tracks him down and drags him home a year later, but we feel contented knowing Mr. Hornberger gets his freedom, if only for a brief interlude.

Liz & Jenna

30 Rock’s signature metafictional quality made the finale especially poignant: after all, the end of TGS inevitably means the end of 30 Rock.  This masterful reflection of the real in the fictional made for a moving, affecting performance by many of the actors: when Liz tries to one-handedly save the show, doing everything from cutting the budget until all the cast has is a green screen to bringing a disgusting, hilariously misogynistic broseph on board to sponsor, we as an audience recognize the absurdity and hopelessness of her efforts.  “It’s over Liz.  This isn’t TGS anymore,” Jenna tells her.  Ironically, it’s her loony cast, her ragtag team of goof offs and losers, that helps Liz accept the show’s end and move on.  And when Liz cries, we cry, because we know Tina Fey is crying too.