Orange Is the New Black: The Importance of Short Memories

Spoilers for Orange is the New Black up to Season 4

For a brief moment at the end of the OITNB season 4 finale, I had to ask myself a question: why Daya? Why should she be holding the gun? Certainly there were more women who were mistreated by the guards—why not Red, or Blanca, or Taystee, or Sophia? Each had endured an injustice this season that should have qualified them to hold the gun in the end-of-season cliffhanger. So why Daya? And that’s when it hit me. Her last words became crystal clear: “You guards all think you can do whatever you want.” Of course she’s referring to Bennett, her ex boyfriend who knocked her up and left her high and dry when she needed him most.

While this lapse in memory could obviously be attributed to my own stupidity, I believe it is connected to a larger theme which persists throughout the series: grudges, hope, and despair are all luxuries these women can’t afford. “Let that shit go” is practically a catchphrase used by every inmate at one time or another. Prison is just as much an entrapment of the mind as it is the body—inmates often have to pull each other back from fantasizing too much about the outside world, because it’s the easiest way to lose all semblance of sanity behind bars. The same principle applies with long memories. Litchfield has undergone several regime changes over the past few seasons (be it within or without the prison walls) and each has dramatically changed how the inmates react to one another.

As an example, racial hostility was present in the first season, but each ethnic group at least knew where they were safest, and most of the women were somewhat cordial. That all changed by the second season with the emergence of Vee. Her stranglehold on the black camp turned everyone against each other to the point where, two seasons later, things are only just now starting to get better. In terms of individual characters, Suzeanne beat up Pousey for not getting in line with Vee in the second season, and most of Pousey’s third season arc revolved around her descent into alcoholism after failing to move past being abandoned by most of her friends.

Compare this idea of toxic memories to a show like The Sopranos and the situation is flipped completely. In The Sopranos, the only reason a character like Chris Moltisanti could live for as long as he did was because of Tony’s love for Chris’ deceased father. Tony’s constant forgiveness of his mother and uncle leads to an attempt on his life and a war almost breaking out. With the RICO statutes and the end of mob life looming over the horizon, the past is all the men of The Sopranos have for comfort, whereas the only thing the women of OITNB have is time. When you’re constantly looking at your feet, it’s hard to know where you’ve gone and where you’re going, which can lead to some strange bedfellows in certain circumstances. Boo and Doggett’s alliance forged out of Doggett’s rape in season three would have likely never happened when she was still a religious zealot/meth-head back in season one. Even in the course of a season, Piper’s attempts to maintain her panty business led to her accidentally forming—and then being ostracized by—a white supremacy group.

Which leads to a key factor many prison leaders’ downfalls have in common: an obsessive need for control. Vee left the prison so polarized that when the shit finally hit fanward, she didn’t have anyone to turn to. Piper’s panty scheme went completely off the rails when she got in over her head and tried to eradicate all possible competitors. She even admits that her blind ambition and faux-badass demeanor were a result of her not being able to accept her imprisonment after all this time. Red is the only person who manages to come out on top in most situations, and that’s primarily because she knows how to trick people into thinking they’re in control. She played on Healy’s insecurities with his mail-order bride to give herself more powerful positions in key areas of the prison, as well as gain a strong following among the non-racist whites. Piper tried to do something similar with Piscatella and Hapakuka, but her failure to commit to the manipulative/“kingpin” façade left her abandoned and vulnerable to her enemies.

Letting go of control and forgetting who you were the day before—or even the appearance of doing so—is the easiest means of surviving in Litchfield while still retaining some dignity. Daya’s fatal mistake was trying to get revenge for being humiliated by Bennett, for remembering the pain he caused her for leaving their baby with nowhere to go, and if the show’s history is anything to go by, that grudge will almost certainly lead to her demise in season five.

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