The next installment of Killer Serials, in which Tony Jones and I discuss episodes 7-9 of the third season of Orange is the New Black.
TJ: Okay, this is getting interesting, especially for those of us into faith/religion/spirituality. Those topics have been part of OITNB since the beginning, and the chapel has served as a pivotal location in a number of scenes (for both sex and religion). Now that Pennsatuckey has forsaken her faith-healing fundamentalism, Leanne has taken up her mantle.
We discover that Leanne was Amish, got into drugs during her Rumspringa, and struggled to fit back into her community when she returned from her sojourn in the “English” world. It’s interesting that Leanne’s fascination with the Cult of Norma has little to do with belief or spirit, but more with the organization and structure of it. Meanwhile, for the rest of Norma’s followers — including Poussey, who’s using it to get sober — it’s all about the spirit.
What did you think of Gina’s speech in the chapel, and of the counselor’s accusation that Norma’s followers are atheists?
JRP: I have to admit, I did not see LeAnn’s Amish connection coming, but it explains so much. I think it starts to get at the heart of the series’ take on spirituality and religion, broadly speaking. It’s indefinable, and the moment you start trying to define it, you alienate the very people you hope to “help.” But at the heart of LeAnn’s fundamentalism is still a need to belong, which so many of the other inmates identify with. She just makes it about rules as opposed to radical inclusion
I’m intrigued by the conversation about fetishes and what makes “freaks.” I want to come back to that later, but in terms of Norma’s “cult,” there’s still more to discuss. She’s emerging as a spiritual guru in Litchfield and developing quite a following of inmates who fancy her a miracle worker. But we know that she’s only effective in her ability to listen to their problems without responding. Norma’s backstory reveals that she is the exact opposite of her spiritual mentor and love interest, who talked incessantly and never really seemed to listen. As Soso says, Norma lets them take their armor off. I wonder how many people can say the same things about their ministers? Norma’s power is the power of touch: giving a hug, squeezing a shoulder, or a kind pat on the back. In an environment where the powers that be consistently yell, “No touching,” this is a prophetic act.
Norma’s power of touch is even more interesting when contrasted with the conversations that the Whispers crew has about fetishes and, even funnier, Suzanne’s rise to fame as an author of intergalactic erotica.
What do you make of this?
TJ: You hit on something important about religion in Litchfield. It’s always ambivalent, and highly complex. Think of the vast array of relationships we’ve seen to religion just in the first half of this season:
- Pennsatucky is a true believer who loses her faith, but she’s still got residual income from an anti-abortion group;
- Big Boo tries to pull off a fake conversion so that she can get some extra commissary money, too, but she instead explodes at her visiting pastor and tells him that Jesus was gay;
- Poussey misses her mom and struggles with alcoholism; she joins Norma’s Cult, but quickly backs away when things get tense;
- Soso also joins the group following Norma, but she’s excommunicated by Leanne, the group’s de facto leader;
- Leanne tries to make this new religion just as legalistic as the one in which she was reared;
- The clique of African-American prisoners pretends to be Jewish so they can eat kosher meals, then they’re investigated by a “rent-a-rabbi”;
- And the Latina prisoners use a melange of religion that includes some Catholicism to cast spells on people and protect themselves from evil.
And that’s just one half of one season! It really shows how much religiosity fascinates Jenji Kohan.
What you say about touch is intriguing too, especially now that we see the frightening, dangerous relationship brewing between Pennsatucky and the new guard, Donuts. Touch is something they all long for — that we all long for — and yet, like religion, it is always ambivalent in prison.
JRP: Or, in prison (at least in Lichfield), violent or highly eroticized. Which comes to the forefront in Suzanne’s latest undertaking. Juxtaposed to Norma’s spiritual touching and the fetish conversations in the Whispers sweatshop is Suzanne’s intergalactic erotica, which features a character named Admiral Rodcocker. The inmates can’t get enough of it’s hyper-sexual characters and grotesque exchanges of bodily fluids. Suzanne doesn’t seem to fully grasp from where the story come, but she consistently refers to her Muse, which could be her repressed sexuality, because we learn that she is a virgin. Of course, there are people in the prison (new counselor Bertie Rogers among them) who think Crazy Eyes is going too far. Taystee points out that this fear of sexuality is distinctly American: “Violence is all good, but sex? Oh Lord no!” I know people who have bailed on Orange for this very reason.
We’ll be back next week to wrap up the final four episodes of the series. Thanks for reading!