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Orange is the New Black Season One, Episode Four Review: Imaginary Enemies
This week Orange is the New Black is at its most insulated, focusing solely on Litchfield, in one of the more table-setting episodes of the season thus far. In this fourth episode, titled Imaginary Enemies, we become more aware of Claudette, and are shown the first episode without any real look at the world outside of Litchfield’s walls.
This choice to avoid any outside chatter from Larry or any of Piper’s other friends is apt considering how little Piper is engaged in Imaginary Enemies thematically. This is arguably the first moment in which Orange is the New Black is not about Piper’s experience, as the series momentarily abandons its guide. Piper does have significant screen time in Imaginary Enemies, of course, but she is much more the passenger of important events, many of which have severe implications for Litchfield in the episodes to come. The accidental theft of the screwdriver, her new role as legal advisor, and her combative conversations with Claudette are much less about Piper and her active role in Litchfield, instead focusing on events that whirl far beyond her control, seemingly unimportant happenings that shape the future of the entire series. This type of episode, one that moves pieces into place, bracing for forward motion, is generally the most difficult to criticize. Episodes that serve to prepare the plot are often too mechanical and feel lacking thematically. Orange is the New Black, though, has the luxury of an assorted and compelling cast of characters to keep the table setting from becoming mundane and obvious.
Imaginary Enemies takes on two other massive stories, which replace Piper’s usual space as the audience’s guide. The broader plotline of the two, which shows an inmate preparing to be released from Litchfield, reveals the challenges a change to the prison status quo can present. A previously unheard of inmate named Mercy is being released, sending waves throughout the prison. Trish, a character who becomes more involving and more tragic as the series moves along, is the most important figure in preparing a part for Mercy, with whom Trish has developed a relationship. Anxieties regarding this change to Trish’s life show the ambivalent complexity of a situation that changes how one exists in a social space. Litchfield, as I have claimed in previous reviews, is essentially a small, self-contained town, one in which the population is stuck together, not because of mutual interests but because of similar mistakes made. Trish’s struggles and her decision to impede Mercy’s release by planting drugs are well-developed and clear. There is a trajectory throughout the episode, showing Trish become more and more anxious about Mercy leaving, finally bending and deciding Mercy should never leave. Trish is concerned that her role in Mercy’s life will diminish once Mercy has left Litchfield, or that she will be forgotten altogether. The fine line between setting up a farewell for someone you love and ruining their ability to leave is explored and justified in Imaginary Enemies.
The small town nature of Litchfield is showcased often in Imaginary Enemies, especially in the Mercy storyline as friends, past lovers, and even those who have never met Mercy interact with her, saying goodbyes and threatening revenge for old quarrels. In particular, a confrontation with Big Boo, a minor character who is given more attention in Imaginary Enemies, depicts the close-knit, though forced nature of inmate interaction. Alex, for example, mocks the party as pathetic, yet shows up as it begins to heat her food, the timing of which is questioned by other inmates. These interactions with those who love Mercy and those who are indifferent to her belie the endearing, yet confusing nature of a close friend leaving Litchfield, even if leaving is supposed to be a positive thing.
This storyline is told in conjunction with flashbacks to the youth and middle age of Miss Claudette, a storyline that shines a tragic, yet powerful light on Claudette. A young girl moved into a new way of life, the evolution of Claudette from frightened young girl to head lady of the immigrant labor service she runs is driven exclusively by Claudette’s love for Baptiste, a recruiter who first introduces Claudette to her new life in America.
Claudette’s story is one that reveals a hopeful, loving nature in Claudette, one that has survived despite many setbacks in life. In flashbacks Claudette is shown to be harsh and rigid, settled into an exterior that is built like stone. Yet, when she needs to be, she is shown as loving and protective, even murdering a man who abuses one of her workers. Orange is the New Black has proven yet again that the exterior is only imaginary, illusory, with various flashbacks that empathetically flesh out the lives of inmates in Litchfield. Claudette is has the look of a hardened, mean woman, yet also proves to be caring, hopeful, and fair.
All three narratives in Imaginary Enemies, the table setting screwdriver story, the Mercy story, and the Claudette story intersect beautifully with one another, thematically reminding the audience that Litchfield is essentially a small town filled with the hopes and desires of every single inmate. The lack of any outside perspective seemingly contradicts the joy of Mercy being released, but also emphasizes the daunting ambivalence being released brings to both Mercy and the other inmates. The flashbacks of Claudette, trapped forever in her illegal trade, mirror her time spent in prison, but also serve as the only external glimpse in Imaginary Enemies, a brilliant irony that reveals how stuck many people are, a striking statement about the illusion of freedom in and outside of Litchfield’s walls.
And ultimately, the notion of freedom dominates every sentiment of Orange is the New Black. There are persistent reminders that there is no freedom in any place, and that circumstances are naturally favorable to few. Though Imaginary Enemies is an episode that sets numerous storylines in motion, it is a thematically engaging and resonant episode that continues to discuss, yet transcend the social space of Litchfield, questioning the freedom and behavior of those outside. A cautionary tale about hopes for freedom, Imaginary Enemies effectively shuffles pieces into place with Piper’s story, then proceeds to warn against notions of freedom and happiness as inherently beyond the grasp of inmates in Litchfield. This fear of hope is expressed in both Claudette’s flashbacks with Baptiste and Mercy’s party, giving Imaginary Enemies the opportunity to emphasize the insular, claustrophobic nature of Litchfield, discussing the illusory nature of hope and freedom.