[image-1]There is a running gag in the season five premiere of Orange is the New Black wherein several guards and inmates in the midst of a prison riot casually allude to the nation’s most high-profile mass shootings. With confusion swirling over whether a sadistic armed guard has set out on a rampage through Litchfield Penitentiary, various members of the cast reference the massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech. The episode is about 22 minutes in by the time they finally make it to Charleston.
Of course, the audience already knows that the rumors aren’t true. The prison uprising is set off when a guard (Humps) responsible for an inmate’s death is disarmed after sneaking a handgun into the prison. An inmate stops short of executing the guard, instead opting to fire a round into his leg.
From the safety of a secured office, a guard looks out at the chaos of the riot and radios his fellow guards to ask if the rumors of the shooter are true. Is one of their fellow guards “out there really doing a Charleston, South Carolina?”
Despite the clumsy nature of the phrasing, it’s difficult to not be struck by the line. While it’s easy to argue that the reference is in poor taste, it’s also clear to see what the writers of the show intended. Dropped into the middle of an active-shooter situation, the references to mass shootings pile up. Whether spoken by a guard or an inmate, each mention is intentionally informal. A guard says someone has “gone all Virginia Tech.” An inmate smears menstrual blood on her face in an effort to trick a guard into allowing her into a locked room.
“It’s Aurora, Colorado, out here, and we’re all in the movie theater,” she shouts in a fake panic.
Then there is the aforementioned line, which questions if the guard is “doing a Charleston, South Carolina.”
On the eve of the anniversary of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church that claimed the lives of nine parishioners, it’s difficult to dismiss the true effect the tragedy had on the Charleston community when watching this episode of Orange is the New Black. But with that in mind, it’s also important to consider what exactly the show’s writers are trying to say and how effective they are at communicating that point.
Clearly, the show is offering up some form of commentary on the prevalence of high-profile mass shootings in America and in some way asserting that we have become somewhat callous to these acts of violence. This can be seen by the fact that none of these lines of dialogue are given much weight, with the episode relying on the accumulation of references to tragedies to drive the point home.
This train of thought runs through an episode that focuses on the fallout of the death of a female inmate at the hands of the very same guard who is incorrectly suspected to be carrying out the mass shooting and spends most of the episode bleeding out from a gunshot wound. Orange is the New Black has always deftly maneuvered between comedy and drama, and this episode makes it clear that there are repercussions to death and violence.
While inmates comically scramble across the prison to round up supplies, drugs, and, in one case, carved soaps, one group focuses on getting some form of justice for their murdered friend, Poussey Washington. They want her name to be remembered, her story to be told. Meanwhile, another inmate rushes to save the life of the wounded guard — if only to prevent the addition of a murder charge for the young woman she’s chosen to protect. With that in mind, it’s difficult to say that Orange is the New Black fails to recognize the pain of losing a loved one or handles violence carelessly. What does become apparent over the course of this episode is that the heavy-handed commentary on mass shootings is left as merely a side note rather than permeating the story.
With many of the characters believing there is an active gunman on the loose, no one ever looks truly afraid for their life. What pleas for help we do hear serve as just further opportunities for the characters to namedrop the scene of another attack. By choosing not to show the fear associated with an active-shooter scenario, the episode undercuts the point that it tries so hard to make. It points out that there is something wrong with how the nation acknowledges mass shootings, but becomes guilty of this very crime. This becomes apparent in one short scene.
As a group of guards fight to round up a few escaped inmates, two women find themselves face to face on the ground after being seized. One woman, clearly belonging to a gang of skinheads, looks up at the other woman who was just pulled down to the ground by her long hair. She tells the woman that she probably wishes she would have shaved her head to show where her loyalties lie. The other woman snipes back, “I’m not a fucking Nazi skinhead. I’m a white nationalist.” With the prisoners subdued, two guards high-five overhead.
Played for comedic effect, this scene comes just seconds before a guard evokes the Charleston mass shooting where nine black parishioners were murdered by a white nationalist bent on starting a race war. Had these two scenes been set further apart, this off connection may have gone unnoticed, but occurring right next to each other, it’s hard to ignore. And with that, the episode loses whatever leverage it may have had in trying to expose the way people respond to mass shootings.
It’s easy to say that people often fail to really acknowledge the true roots of these shootings. But it’s even easier to make that point without having a white nationalist deliver punchlines in the same breath.