Vee’s arrival in Litchfield at the beginning of season two was a moment both familiar and new to Orange is the New Black: we’ve already seen how devastating it can be for someone when a person partially responsible for their incarceration ends up alongside them at Litchfield. What we hadn’t seen were the racial undercurrents of prison life; hinted at throughout season one, Vee’s arrival has brought an old-school, exclusionary mentality to the prison, as matriarchal powers within each racial division find themselves stepping up to procure what’s theirs – or at the very least, what they assume to be theirs.
Constructed around a series of laughably trope-filled Gloria flashbacks, “Low Self-Esteem City” takes its name from a conversation between Boo and Nicky, whose conquest competition is becoming a one-sided affair. However, it’s not clear who we should be cheering or sad for; as Nicky points out, all the women in prison find themselves acting out when faced with the failures of their own lives. Gloria’s self-esteem is beginning to build again – boy, she is frightening when she corners Vee, even if we know she’s being played – but other characters are still struggling to overcome their self-perceived shortcomings: none more than Healy, whose wife continues to want nothing to do with him.
Centering its stories around Gloria and Healy is an interesting, if somewhat dissonant, choice by episode writer Nick Jones (who also wrote season one’s “The Chickening”, one of my favorite episodes): Gloria’s back story is fairly predictable, with a “Catholic Plus” sister and abusive boyfriend who is just great with the kid (until he isn’t). Healy’s is a little more entertaining, but this is mostly because it integrates Caputo (one of the show’s most enigmatic male characters, despite his massive flaws) into the mix, adding to the division of position and race within the prison – although it is only to make Healy look more pathetic, assuming he has a new friend (who just wants to rock out with his band Sideboob, not hang out with lame co-workers).
But of the two, it’s oddly Healy’s that makes its thematic connection to the other events of the episode: whether in prison or out, those lacking in confidence and conviction are going to be swallowed by those who do (especially in prison). For some, this could actually be a healthy proposition – Piper’s newfound humility (talking to Red about not wanting to bore the world with her own problems) is keeping her out of trouble so far, and even comes with its own benefits when Healy’s new friendship spurns him to actually try and do something helpful for a prisoner (one he almost let get killed on his watch, no less).
The only problem is, there’s no resolution to any of these events: as a place-setting episode, the main focus of “Low Self Esteem City” is generating kinetic energy for plot lines to utilize in later episodes. There’s clearly a racial war brewing, with Red pointing out to Gloria that she got played like a harp by Vee in the bathroom (even though it’s to give Gloria what she wants; boy, the things a confident woman can do), not to mention the number of other interesting conflicts brewing (Poussey/Taystee, Fig’s attempts to keep her corruption quiet, the return of Pennsatucky), none of which involve the now-unavoidable Polly/Larry “slip up” (this week, they stood in line for bag-nuts for two hours… who gives a f***?!). Instead, “Low Self Esteem City” works best when its away from these machinations, enjoying small moments like Nicky and Morello sharing a conversation (and a butt slap) or Fischer trying to assert her authority over Nicky (who is trying to score a 10 on the conquest list) – when it’s killing off Arturo with a convenient hell fire or delaying the first real mix-up between Vee and Red, “Low Self Esteem City” feels like its holding back from the stories it really wants to tell. Thankfully, the stuff in between remains as entertaining as ever.
– Piper’s attempt to get furlough for her sick grandmother isn’t as interesting as it sounds – the story can only play out in two equally predictable ways. It gets denied and destroys the new goodwill between Healy and Piper, or it is granted, and we get an episode with Piper enjoying a brief respite from prison (“boy, do I miss sheets and hot water!” “what’s wrong with you, Larry?” etc, etc, etc).
– one of Red’s underlings suggests they start growing pot plants… I have a feeling Red has something illicit up her sleeve, if only to save her family’s life outside of prison. It’s clear she misses having power, her ferocity only contained to her hair at this point.
– of course Healy is uncomfortable “talking about women’s issues with a woman.” What a disgusting human being.
– “special privilege” is such a loaded phrase in Litchfield.
– Red, pointing out the prison is much like the internals of Piper’s grandmother: “It all goes at once.”