After a few killer episodes in a row, “Low Self-Esteem City” is a bit of a dip in quality for this season of Orange is the New Black. It’s by no means bad but it doesn’t pack in as much fun or intensity as the other episodes, mostly because it puts a lot of focus on the rivalry between Vee Parker and the other groups at the prison. Vee is, in my opinion, the first character on this show to really feel like a TV character. The other characters feel like real people and, like real people, they’re nuanced, unique and most of all surprising. I never fully know what to expect from these characters. But anyone who is familiar with American TV and movies pretty much knows what to expect from a power-hungry drug dealer who’s out to make money and expand their territory. Both Healy and Pennsatucky, the main villains of Season 1, show in this very episode how complex they are and how they don’t see themselves as villains. Vee feels like she wandered in from a less complex show with the sole purpose to cause conflict. That note aside, “Low Self-Esteem City” does give us plenty to enjoy, so let’s get into this episode.
The episode starts in the showers that the Latina women use. Someone pinches a nipple hard and a minute later the shower starts filling with sewage. Orange Is the New Black: it goes there. Because their shower is filling with sewage, the Latina women try to use the bathroom that the black women are using.
In a flashback, we see what Mendoza’s crime was: while she was working at a convenience store, she would exchange people’s EBT cards for cash. We also see that her boyfriend used to hit her.
Back at the prison, Nicky and Big Boo hash out the terms of their contest with the help of Chang, who’s serving as referee and is surprisingly enthusiastic. Not in a sexual way, she just seems to enjoy rules and applying point values to things. She says that all of the girls they hook up with must want to have sex to which Big Boo, thankfully, replies, “We know. It’s not a rape contest.” Piper joins them and asks what they’re doing so they explain that they’re having a “bang off.” While they’re suggesting rules, Nicky says, “How about all girls must be human? Or will that be a problem for you, Boo?” Boo says, “That happened one time.” Piper asks if the girl has to come for it to count and it’s fun to see her getting involved. Big Boo says that with her they always come and then Nicky says, “Only once? That’s so sad.” This probably isn’t the time or the place for me to complain about people who care way too much about giving multiple orgasms, so I will just note that the only times I ever dislike Nicky are when she’s talking about sex. Chang shows that she’s gone to the trouble of creating a score sheet showing that different girls are worth different points. It has drawings and everything and this scene makes me suddenly love Chang. Has anyone from Orange is the New Black put this score sheet up on the Internet so we can see it? All I can tell from pausing is that Piper and Brook are both worth 3 points. Piper is horrified to find out that she’s in the game and also insists she’s more than a 3 because she’s not easy. Big Boo says, “Yeah, you’re not easy. You only fucked your worst enemy.” Piper says, “Alex was not my enemy. At the time. That I knew.” As someone who thinks Piper is adorable, my reaction to that was pretty much the opposite of Big Boo’s reaction.
While they’re working all this out, Pennsatucky walks up and enthusiastically asks what they’re doing. Her desperation to fit in is so sad and Taryn Manning really plays up her full cuteness. She asks what the game they’re playing is called and Nicky says, “Exclusion.” Big Boo giggles and Pennsatucky, completely innocently, says, “Cool! How do you play it?” Everyone just uncomfortably looks away at that reaction. I’m kind of disappointed that they cut away so we don’t actually get to see them have to deal with the awkwardness.
Healy asks Red if she thinks it would be a good idea for him to take his wife Katia to see a high school production of Our Town. I don’t know if it’s weirder that he’s asking Red for dating advice or that he thinks anyone who’s not a parent would ever be interested in seeing a high school play. He explains, “I thought a little culture would be nice.” Again: high school production of Our Town.
Piper’s brother Cal and her mother Carol visit her. Annual reminder: Piper’s mom is played by Deborah Rush, who also played Michelle’s mom in American Wedding. She’s always playing mothers of people who are engaged to Jason Biggs! Carol asks if Larry has visited her and Piper reminds her that they broke up. She replies, “Well, his earning potential was questionable.” I love it. Cal reveals that they have bad news that they don’t want Piper to know. She starts guessing bad things that could’ve happened. A lot of her guesses involve her father and she keeps calling him “daddy.” I feel I understand Piper the least when she’s calling her father “daddy.” In a fantastic piece of dark comedy, Piper keeps guessing until she eventually says, “Grandma’s dying?” and Cal says, “Yes!” They high-five over her correctly guessing before what she’s actually said sinks in.
In another flashback, Mendoza’s boyfriend tries to get her to talk to him again. He starts to beg and she seems won over.
Back in Litchfield, Big Boo is scoring with lots of low point value women, but Nicky has her sights set on a 10 point conquest — Susan Fischer. Nicky tells Susan she looks lovely and her charm works a bit, as Susan grins and says thank you. I hope Hollywood is getting on developing a Natasha Lyonne/Lauren Lapkus romcom.
Healy tries to get his wife to spend time with him but she only wants to spend time with a friend of hers. He tries to compromise and say that her friend can come with him. He tells her, “Your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends.” She tells him, “You don’t have any friends, Sam,” and walks away. This is the kind of unexpected complexity I expect from Orange is the New Black: it’s the most devastating scene of the episode and it’s focused on noted piece-of-shit Healy.
Piper goes into Healy’s office the next day to tell him that her grandma is ill. She says: “I know that you probably do not grant furlough for things like this and even if you did, you would not give it to me. But I could not live with myself if I didn’t at least ask. Could you please give me furlough to see my grandmother?” Taylor Schilling is fantastic in this scene as we see how determined but reluctant Piper is. He turns her away, of course, but as she’s almost out the door, she can’t help but ask why he just stood there while Pennsatucky attacked her. What’s great about Piper in this moment is that instead of being angry she’s confused. She genuinely can’t even comprehend why someone would just let her be in a situation where she could be killed.
The rivalry between the Latinas and the black women is still going and now the black women discover the Latinas have dumped gross amounts of salt in their food. As Poussey puts it: “They’re fucking with us in this way because they know our people’s pre-disposition for hypertension!” Janae is mad and confronts Daya. When Daya refuses to give her new food, Janae — who doesn’t know about her pregnancy — trips her. Bennett runs over, grabbing Janae and telling her that she can’t do that.
In the flashbacks, things have escalated and Mendoza’s boyfriend has hit one of her kids. She wants to run away using the money she’s made with her food stamp scam. Before they can run away, her boyfriend shows up and threatens her. So, at first they’re relieved when the cops show up. But then they find out they’re not there for her boyfriend. They have a warrant for her arrest. They take her away as her abusive boyfriend escapes out the back.
Healy walks into a bar and discovers that Caputo is in the band that’s playing. Seeing both of them in casual wear is weird and this might be the first time we see Caputo looking happy.
Healy talks to Caputo afterwards and way is too enthusiastic and eager for a little bit of friendship. They see an ad for Figueroa’s husband’s political campaign and start talking about what a monster she is. Of course Healy has to say, “I hate talking to a woman about women’s issues. It’s creepy.” Okay, buddy. Caputo politely ignores that Healy is kinda the weirdest dude in the world and talks about how he just wishes he reported to someone who gave a shit about the women they’re supposed to be taking care of. He says, “I mean, the last we should do is keep these women safe and clean. At least clean.” They both agree, “At least clean” and tap their beers together.
Vee talks to Mendoza about how she can take the bathroom the black women use if in return she can get a few of the black women transferred to custodial. She cries and seems desperate but when Mendoza leaves, she smirks.
Piper finds out that Healy is submitting her for furlough. He says “It’s only fair to give it a shot.” Of course this is actually deeply unfair. Who knows how many furlough requests he’s flat-out denied throughout his time working there but now he’s submitting a request, not based on the merit of the situation, but because he’s in kind of a personal slump and wants to feel like a nice guy — and Piper is a cute blonde girl and he still has whatever feelings he had there so of course she was the first person he thought of to be nice to. Caputo walks in to get a signature and Healy is way overenthusiastic about how he can’t wait to see his band play again. It is so uncomfortable.
Nicky discovers that Big Boo has 5 points in the game to her 0. She’s upset about falling behind because she wasted time pursuing Fischer. “Classic story of hubris. I’m like Icarus, whose wings melted before he could fuck the sun.”
In the final flashback, we see that Mendoza’s ex has returned to steal the money she had stowed away, but ends up trapped in a fire sparked by their Santeria candles.
Photo Courtesy of Netflix