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The new season of Orange is the New Black has a villain problem

What happens when your enemy has no face?

Contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black Season Five (Episodes 1-7)

Orange is the New Black isn’t short of uncomfortably compelling moments: when you’d like to look away, but can’t look away. Rosa knocking Vee over with her car. Mendez framing Tricia’s death as suicide. Humps forcing Maritza, at gunpoint, to choose between eating ten dead flies or one baby mouse. Piscatella degrading Red. Poussey’s death. All of these moments have one thing in common: a ridiculous, hateable villain – the kind of villain you want to see humiliated and annihilated.

Orange is the New Black lives and dies on the strengths of its villains, which have changed shape considerably over the course of its five seasons. When Piper first arrives in Litchfield in Season One, potential enemies are everywhere – fellow inmates, guards, her councillor, even her friends and family on the outside. In Season Two, the caricatured prison gang leader Vee was reviled by audiences for her manipulation of Suzanne, and her death was one of the most satisfying revenge fantasies (and series finales) the show has ever had. (Her villainy was only rivalled by the fraudulent prison administrator Natalia Figueroa.) In Season Three, the rivalry between Piper and Stella replaced a single, hateable villain (to the series’ detriment). And in Season Four, two guards, Humps and Piscatella, took up the mantle with great effect.

There’s a pattern at work here. As the seasons have developed, the villains of Orange is the New Black have become increasingly representative of structural oppressions. It seems bizarre to remember that Suzanne, one of the sweetest, loveliest women at Litchfield, makes her debut as a villain: “Crazy Eyes”, Piper’s sexually aggressive “prison wife”. Then we meet Vee: she, through her bullying of other inmates, serves to demonstrate the ways in which good people can be manipulated and blackmailed into larger crime syndicates, but she’s still a black, female prisoner who has fallen foul of police corruption herself.

Season Three explores the potential for Piper – who has until this point functioned as a kind of proxy for the audience – to become a villain herself thanks to her white privilege. Season Four’s villains are a collection of corrupt guards and MCC – the company that owns the prison – itself. With each season that passes, the villains are relocated higher and higher in the systems of oppression that keep Litchfield’s inmates down: and all the while, the corruption and misconduct of MCC takes on a larger role in the story.

Now, Season Five is reaching even higher. After Poussey’s murder by a guard, the inmates are rioting, and they’re directing their anger not just at the individual guards that have wronged them, but at the discriminatory and dehumanizing prison system that allowed things to get to this point. While inflighting flourishes in the chaos, key characters like Alison and Taystee remain focused on a larger structural enemy. “Our fight is not with Judy King,” Taystee insists after describing the celebrity chef’s preferential treatment. “Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor brown people. Our fight is with the folks who hold our demands in their hands.”

But who are those folks? When Alison writes out the list of the inmates’ demands she addresses it “To whom it may concern”. Nita from Governor Hutchinson’s Office repeatedly insists to Taystee, “Please don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re the enemy.” Even the inmates themselves don’t really know who their enemy is. What happens when your villain has no face?

The latest season of Orange Is The New Black grapples with big, messy topics like structural oppressors, the industrialisation of prison labour, the politics of effective protest and the obstacles that face rebellion on mass. But as the inmates are increasingly discovering their enemy is harder to pin down than they’d hope, it also becomes more difficult to realistically and satisfactorily write episodes of television with defined character arcs, conflicts and pay-offs. Sometimes, you really feel the lack of someone to scream at.

There’s a scene in episode seven that explores this problem in micro. Janae is helping Brook (still reeling from Poussey’s death) with her grief through exercise, and is giving her a boxing lesson. “Now,” she says, holding up a pillow with a crude face drawn on it in black marker. “I want you to punch this face like it’s the person you’re most angry at.”

“Okay, that is so reductionist: I’m not, like, angry at one individual person,” Brook shoots back. “It’s bigger than people! I want to punch the prison-industrial complex!”

“Well, I can’t draw that shit,” Janae says. “So punch the pillow!”

As the villains of Orange Is The New Black become increasingly abstract, they become more difficult for the writers to draw. The guards themselves now look like pathetic pawns played with by a larger evil; familiar MCC faces (Caputo, Linda, Piscatella and even the return of Fig) feel smallfry; and new agents of oppression lack the terrible charisma of previous villains. Instead of easy emotions like FUCKING KILL THE BITCH WITH YOUR VAN, ROSA, this season invites us to explore more complex foes. It’s a commendable move: its distinctly less cathartic, and a little more like real life.

But I’m someone who likes to scream at the TV every now and then. If we still don’t get a villain before this season’s over, expect to see me with a Sharpie, a pillow and a whole lot of rage.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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