Recently I’ve been watching “Orange is the New Black“, and something clicked into place after episode 4 of series 3. As normal in this episode the storyline is developed through a number of characters grouped around a theme, in this case focusing on Boo, Piper, Taystee, and Suzanne as they all come to terms with a fundamental truth about themselves and their lives. For Boo this is the loss of her mother, for Piper her relationship with Alex, and for Taystee and Suzanne it is the death of Vee. By the end of the episode, each one has come to terms with the truth. For Boo this means dressing ‘straight’, something she had always refused to do for her mother, to the point of refusing to see her on her deathbed. This brings into focus for her that she cannot pretend to be someone she is not, for anyone. For Piper it means unexpectedly declaring to her parents that Alex is her girlfriend. Meanwhile Taystee and Suzanne end the episode by acknowledging that Vee is dead.
What clicked into place for me is the basic contradiction that runs throughout the show, and essentially it is a dialectic. The women are not free. They are marking time until their release, and the plots often reference how events outside the prison bypass them. And yet their lives continue to move on, they are not standing still. The very fact of being held in stasis forces progress in their lives. Boo is brought face to face with her past through her experience in prison. She tries to dress ‘straight’ as part of an elaborate scam but finds she cannot maintain the illusion – just as she could not change her dress to keep her mother happy. She loses her temper, and hence the chance of making money, to restate who she is. We are left with the sense that in the process she begins coming to terms with her mother’s feelings towards her and the grief of not seeing her before her death, something which could only have happened from the situation Boo encounters in prison. Her life progresses because she is in prison.
The lyrics to Regina Spektor’s theme song ‘You’ve Got Time’ make the same point – “Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard”. Motion is natural and being forced to stop and reevaluate is challenging, but can actually be the only path to true progress.