Confronting History in Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning

Techniques tracked:
-omniscient point of view using “we”
-use of thematic incest
-amping up tension with references to “later”
-objective correlative: describing one thing by describing another
-compare/contrast characterization

On the surface Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones) might seem a strange comparison. The latter is an action-based gore-filled fantasy saga [link], while the former is a slower paced more lyrical and literary historical family drama. But they overlap both in the influence of magic and incestuous sexual relationships on the plot.

Yanique’s plot model is basically family secrets coming back to bite characters in the ass.

Part 1, “Freedom” (chs. 1-28) begins in 1917, when the Virgin Islands are transferring from Danish to American rule. Owen Arthur Bradshaw finds himself among a gaggle of well-to-do men experimenting on a little girl with a new marvel on the island of St. Thomas–electricity. Owen Arthur is the only one to stand up to the men and defend the girl, risking his business as a ship captain defying the merchants whose cargo he’s paid to carry. In so doing he seems to reveal himself to be a man of integrity, until he goes home and we see his sexual relationship with his eleven-year-old daughter, Eeona, whose pubic hair is a strange enchanting silver. Meanwhile, Owen Arthur’s wife and Eeona’s mother Antoinette, who abandoned “a lobsterman in Anegada” to marry Owen, thereby choosing a life of security over love, is obsessed with being a proper lady and with getting to NYC; when she gets pregnant by Owen again she tries many different ways to abort the baby that fail, and their second daughter Anette is born.

Owen Arthur has also been carrying on an affair with Rebekah McKenzie, a woman who’s married into a family whose bloodline is coveted for producing sons exclusively. Rebekah’s husband Benjamin has long since disappeared in the Puerto Rican rainforest, and she has a baby boy by Owen Arthur named Jacob Esau at the same time Antoinette has Anette.

When Eeona is seventeen, Owen Arthur insists he and Eeona must stop their inappropriate relations and that Eeona must marry someone else; in response Eeona declares she wishes he would die. Owen Arthur then does die in a shipwreck, leaving the family nothing; Eeona’s engagement is broken off after Owen Arthur’s debts are revealed. Antoinette flees briefly to America only to find NYC in the throes of the Depression; she dies suddenly shortly after returning to St. Thomas. Eeona is forced to sell their family’s estate, the Villa by the Sea, and tries to raise Anette like a proper lady, forcing her to reject the advances of a young poor boy named Franky who tries to give her a dollhouse he made himself. Eeona and Anette run into Rebekah and Jacob briefly at a beach; Antoinette told Eeona before she died who Jacob was and warned her to keep him away from Anette. Eeona tries to pack Anette off to an orphanage in St. Croix but Anette pitches a fit and refuses.

In the second part, “Belonging” (chs. 29-60), Annette marries and gets pregnant by a nice boy named Ronald whom she doesn’t really love right before he’s shipped off to WWII, while Eeona works for a Hospitality Lounge where she refuses the advances of her boss (until she doesn’t) and has intermittent “episodes” like her mother’s. Jacob and Ronald ship in the same company to New Orleans, where they take revenge with their guns for being refused service at a restaurant. When Ronald isn’t on the ship he’s supposed to be coming back, Anette decides to divorce him (despite having his baby, Ronalda) and soon meets Jacob at a dance. Eeona plans to leave for NYC but decides to stay to prevent Anette’s divorce, then, refunding her ticket, ends up spontaneously boarding the novelty of a seaplane bound for St. Croix with the man who is actually Rebekah McKenzie’s long-ago vanished husband. She gives herself to the man now styling himself Kweku Prideux, who keeps her for months in his big house (where, with much time on her hands, she thinks about her father and how he had told her about her half-brother Esau; she also writes down some family stories but Kweku trashes them). Anette and Jacob consummate their relationship on a beach but wait to marry (Anette for Eeona to come back and Jacob to see if his mother comes around to the idea). Eeona returns after bearing Kweku’s stillborn baby (and after he tells her during her labor that he’s still married and won’t divorce) and tries to prevent Anette from seeing Jacob, but Anette’s already pregnant. After their baby Eve Youme is born, Jacob’s mother convinces him to go to America for medical school.   

In the third part “A Freedom” (chs. 61-75), Anette, a history teacher now, hears nothing from Jacob in the States, reunites with Franky of the childhood dollhouse at a dance much like that at which she met Jacob, and gets engaged to him after filming as extras on the set of the movie Girls Are for Loving; they become celebrities after being featured on the movie’s poster, and marry. When Jacob returns, he sends a note for Anette to pack herself and Eve for the States; Anette tells Franky she’s leaving him, but then when she’s packing and sees them together in the movie poster in their room, she changes her mind, and Jacob returns to the States alone. The movie, the first ever mainstream representation of the Virgin Islands, comes out and turns out to be a soft-core porn that humiliates the islanders.

In the fourth part, “A Belonging” (chs. 76-81), Anette and Franky have a son, Frank, and don’t speak of her almost leaving him or of the movie, though Youme does occasionally visit with Jacob after he returns to the island to practice medicine. The advent of television makes everyone more aware of racial tensions locally and abroad. Eeona starts her own inn on St. John, visiting often to whisper old family stories to Eve Youme in her sleep.

In the fifth part, “Drown” (chs. 82-85), Hurricane Mary hits the Islands after Ronalda’s left for college; when Franky, who works for the Coast Guard, is called off during the worst part of the storm, Anette finds herself wishing he would die, and realizes she’s still not free of Jacob. Eeona’s inn is not damaged.

In the sixth part, “The Bomb” (chs. 86-95), most of the Islands are left without electricity for months in the hurricane’s aftermath. Eeona sees Youme (Me) naked and sees that she also has silver pubic hair, then that her foot is backward (as in the tales of the Duene Antoinette used to tell). They get Jacob to look at the foot, and Eeona tells him and Anette that it’s their mistake on Eve’s body before she disappears again. Anette and her family go on a beach outing, where they happen on, unbeknownst to them, the grave of Eeona’s stillborn baby “Owen,” and where they’re told they have to leave because the beach is now private. Anette meets with Jacob at a restaurant the server reveals to be Villa by the Sea, Anette and Eeona’s childhood home, causing Anette to lament that if it had still been her home she would have been able to marry Jacob, whose mother would have approved, and her life could have been different. But then she runs into a man who used to work for her family who still works there, who tells her the story of her family, including that “He Own Her” (Eeona) turned out witchy because of improper relations with the father, and that, fighting his feelings for the daughter, Captain Bradshaw had an affair that produced a boy passing for McKenzie named Jacob Esau. Meanwhile, there are organized occupations of newly private beaches, and Youme inspires spirit at one when she accidentally exposes herself and is grabbed by a policeman and everyone starts yelling “Let Me go!”

In the seventh part, “Love” (chs. 96-101), Anette gets word that Eeona has been spotted on St. John and goes to visit the inn for the first time and sees that it’s identical to Villa by the Sea. The electricity comes back on at home. Finally Eeona returns to the inn and tells Anette that she went to visit Anegada, where their mother was from, and where she stayed with people who claimed to be relatives, including a lobsterman who looked just like Owen Arthur until Eeona eventually realizes that he actually really looks like her mother. The man takes her to see the wreckage of her father’s ship that killed him, The Homecoming; she tries to dive down to touch it but passes out. At the inn Anette says if Eeona “had just speak the truth back when we was young…maybe I would never had get knot up with Jacob and none of this bullshittiness would have happened” which Eeona acknowledges is true before declaring she’s taking Eve Youme to Anegada to live with her. We see a scene of a much older Jacob and Anette meeting each other before returning home to their respective spouses.

The novel is a curious mix of narrative perspectives; spliced among first-person accounts is an omniscient point of view that reveals itself to be more specifically “we old wives” (as in the ones who tell old wives’ tales), which comes to read as the collective voice of Virgin Islanders, and references to which provide a plot outline in miniature:

“Yes, she’d tried to kill him, but if you ask even we old wives, we’d say that was out of worry and love.” (77)

“It was easy. There was war. We had to prove something to the nation, it seemed. Prove we were worthy of the U.S. passports they’d allowed us. Every man in St. Thomas knew he was going to be drafted.” (96)

“You swam,” he said. “I swam,” she said. As if it were a magic he had given her.

Though we old wives know it was her mother’s magic. (173)

“As far as we could see, that’s all the Americans seemed to do–drink rum and buy up land.” (211)

That Girls Are for Loving movie was meant to make us us. To make us real. (243)

It wasn’t until then that all of us anchored to our televisions realized that it had been white men in uniform against dark-skinned people. (259)

Ronalda, of course, would be the one who left for America. Just one body on the boat of us who left, because things had not been passed down to her, things had not been passed her way. (265)

We’d underestimated her. (273)

It was declared that the island community was returning to its old-time roots. We’d come together. We loved each other again. We knew each other. Like we had before. (281)

So we all gathered, filling the channel between the big island of St. Thomas and the smaller Water Island. (316)

Eve Youme had not meant to expose herself. Perhaps she was coming into her gift. Perhaps she was out of her mind, having her own episode. We old wives can’t say for sure.

A more rudimentary breakdown of the structure is that the first half shit happening, while the second part is the character figuring out the extent and implications of the shit that’s happened.

A summary of the first part is provided in the form of island gossip:

Them poor Bradshaw sisters. You ain hear how the father dead and leave? Just look at how the family fallen since! The elder daughter used to be so pretty but then she disappear and return a old maid. And that Anette one–a divorcee! Gone and had a second child with piano-playing-war-hero Jacob McKenzie–so she say. He gone and left she and the child. Gone a whole year almost. Now look how she jump on the first green-eye man that come along! Them Bradshaw women. Is a curse they have. But they father and mother orphan them. So what you expect?

We get a plot summation of some of second half when Anette laments:

Look what happen. We just had a hurricane and I just discover that my daughter have a curse and we just get run off a beach.

And a summary of Anette’s trajectory via what it wasn’t shortly thereafter:

…it all mix up like I was meant to belong to this place and maybe if that was so, maybe I would never have almost get send to a orphanage and end up nearly dead and then marry Ronnie and Jacob mother would not have protest about he marrying a poor divorcee from Savan and Jacob would have married me and maybe I would know how to spit my wine back in a glass and make a proper toast and then nobody would ever tell me to get off a beach anywhere on this island and then maybe my life would have been something simple and sweet.

That’s what she thinks right before she finds out that her relationship with Jacob is not only incestuous, it’s caused by another incestuous relationship (for, as Mr. Lyte has it (and he has the clarity and omniscience of the servant’s perspective, after all), it’s Owen Arthur’s feelings for Eeona, more specifically his attempts to banish them, that led to his affair with Rebekah McKenzie.

The theme that the whole plot plays out via its interplay of incest and magic is: We have to know where we came from, even if it isn’t nice. This is, again, as Mr. Lyte puts it when he finally tells Anette who Jacob is: “Sorry, child. But that’s the story. We who from here need to know, even if it ain nice.” (309) The first half of the book sets up Anette’s conception of Eve Youme with Jacob (including Eeona’s culpability in it, including both what she did with Owen Arthur and her absence with Kweku Prideux during the critical period of Anette and Jacob’s courtship), and the second half is the characters coming to terms with the consequences of what they’ve done. If the characters had confronted the ugliness of their histories sooner, it could have prevented something even uglier. So now that even uglier thing that’s happened should be confronted before it causes something even uglier…

One element that characterizes Annette as vastly different from Eeona is the voices in their first-person sections, in which Eeona speaks with the cadence and formality of a proper lady, while Annette is more colloquial (her first line: “Don’t mind I ain born as yet.”). A classic exchange:

“For true, Eeona? All of invisible?”

“Please, Anette. Use proper English.”

Eeona, of course, is not the proper lady she seems, and it’s her obsession with pretenses and appearances that leads to her keeping the critical secret from her sister. Because of that secret, Anette winds up in love with the “wrong” man, in that he’s her brother, but she also ends up spending her life with the “wrong” man, in that Franky’s not the man she really loves. Anette can’t be right without being wrong. Because of the terrible position the secret has put her in, she declares herself the family’s historian in the very first paragraph of narration she gets, and her occupation as a history teacher is ironic and symbolic (she often mentions the things she doesn’t know about, even though she’s a history teacher).

Interestingly, Yanique included an Author’s Note in which she outlined part of her family history that served as inspiration–her great-grandfather was a ship captain as Owen Arthur was, who died, and whose wife died, leaving the elder sister to raise the younger, Yanique’s grandmother, who, like Anette, had three different children by three different men. Yanique locates her own mother as the second one and mentions her biological grandfather (the Jacob figure) was a well-known doctor in the Virgin Islands. Then her mother married the third man (the Franky figure).

yanique

(image courtesy of Franklin Park Reading Series)

Yanique filled the framework of this family tree with the fiction of the incestuous secret, making the lineage thus symbolic of the ugly history of the Virgin Islands themselves. Eve Youme (whose first name also evokes original sin, the sin of origin, and whose second name seems to evoke the all-inclusiveness of this sin) is a symbol of the islands being a product of a troubled oppressed history; when her beauty is exposed, the people demand her freedom. She is also cursed, twice–first with the silver public hair, the same thing Eeona was, and then with the club foot, which makes those who have it in the legends appear to be moving both backward and forward. Eeona initially flees when she’s confronted with these curses of Eve Youme’s, but then she’s able to confront the past by returning to the source, her mother’s origin point, Anegada, which could be construed as the source of her mother’s “wildness” that she passed to her daughter and hence everything else that happened. Antoinette’s attempt to tame that wildness by leaving Anegada for Owen Arthur, a man she didn’t truly love, is the origin point of this whole story.  

There are many layers of irony built into the incestuous relationships; what’s especially uncomfortable is not as much the nature of Owen Arthur’s love for Eeona, as it is hers for him (especially in light of Antoinette’s utter lack of it). Eeona is not a victim but a fully willing participant who pines for him until nearly the day she dies. There’s an especially great moment when Eeona gets to Anegada and sees the man she thinks looks like Owen Arthur:

Then the man stepped up the dock and out of the sun’s darkening.

It was Owen Arthur.

The way that’s written makes the reader recalibrate everything, thinking that the way the shipwreck was written early on in the book, yes, it’s possible that he has been alive and has been living in hiding on this island the whole time (Kweku Prideux was doing it, after all). It seems clear from the way the man’s interacting with her that he’s not Owen Arthur, that this was just Eeona’s delusional hope. A quick slip into his POV on the next page confirms it’s not Owen Arthur and that Eeona’s been coming on a lot stronger (i.e., hitting on him hard because of his resemblance to Owen Arthur) than she’d been letting on. But it seems to be her attempt and failure, perhaps especially the failure part, to touch the deck of The Homecoming that finally sets her straight, so straight she wants to move to the source of her past conflict rather than avoiding it like she’s more or less been doing her whole life (minus perhaps her whole interlude with Kweku, though that didn’t go very well). That failure to touch that still visible deck seems to viscerally demonstrate to her (and certainly symbolically does to the reader) that you can’t return to the past, no matter how omnipresent its influence over your life seems to be. Confronting her past seems to free her of her demons, and the novel in the end seems to belong as much to Eeona as it does to Anette, these two very different examples of how one might respond to colonial influence.

Another ironic element of the incest is that Yanique has you pretty much rooting for Anette and Jacob because the purity of their love is so well rendered (neither one of them has the faintest clue, after all, why it wouldn’t be pure). If the relationship hadn’t been incestuous then Jacob’s mother probably wouldn’t have been such an issue and they could have married before he went to the States, but another irony is that because of that unknown incest issue, Anette gets to find out what kind of man Jacob really is–essentially spineless–though this doesn’t keep her from loving him.

Yanique herself, then, would be the Ronalda figure, the one who goes off to college in America and “would never think lightly of things again. She would let the world eat her from the inside out.” One thing she can’t think of lightly again is saltfish,

brought from New England cheap to feed the Caribbean slaves. She would think of how Caribbean folks ignorantly sought out the slave food as a delicacy and thought nothing of eating it along with some dumplings and green banana.

It would seem one thing Ronalda can’t think lightly of is ignorance, the dangers of which will be the subject of the book she will one day write…

The saltfish is an objective correlative for oppression but now thanks to the above passage also ignorance. Anette, a few pages later, thinks

How could she cook saltfish without his pepper sauce?

Yanique proves herself particularly adept at the effective use of the objective correlative. The passage she chose for a reading was the episode in which Jacob and his fellow soldiers are discriminated against in a New Orleans restaurant; throughout the scene, Jacob’s toothache pulses with pain, and at the end of it when they finally leave the restaurant, he spits blood. The use of the toothache is effective because even if the reader is among those who have not experienced the pain of discrimination, we’re all vulnerable to the pain of toothaches (so if we’re incapable of sympathizing with discrimination, we’ll sympathize with the more relatable pain). It’s a visceral representation of the pain one would feel upon being discriminated in such a way.

Other instances of objective correlative (describing one thing by describing something else):

Hurricane Mary is referred to as a “wild-woman storm,” calling attention to the destructive influence of wild women on the plot (Jacob tells Anette before he meets Eeona that he heard she was “wild”) in the same way the storm has destructive influence over the islands…or is the destructive thing our likening of the destructive force to a woman? Is the force destructive because it’s a woman or a woman because it’s destructive? Either way, “We underestimated her.”

An objective correlative for Anette and her relationship with Franky in the wake of the hurricane’s destruction:

But their water pump had dislodged and blown away, and how could it pump without electricity anyway? The pump was the family’s one casualty. It now lay intact in a yard two miles away, where another family would sell it and then they would sell it and they they would sell it and then when, weeks later, Franky went to Market Square to buy a used pump he would pay full price for the same one that had been his own.

Remember how Franky won Anette over when they were kids with that dollhouse but then Eeona made him give it back? The pump being the family’s “one casualty” points to the fact that the family seems stable enough in general, like Anette and Franky have raised three fine children together, but this is not the idyllic family it seems.

Another is the beach protest movement known as the BOMB (Beach Occupation Movement and Bacchanal):

Later, during the protesting, young Frank would remember this very moment as the dusk of his own innocence. He would also remember this day as the day the BOMB really began. 

This literally refers to the beach protests, but comes right after Jacob tells Anette to meet him at Villa by the Sea to try to straighten everything out, so the bomb takes on a figurative meaning as Anette approaches the moment her life as she knows it is blown up.

Another is electricity, which Yanique also leans on structurally and thematically:

Anette would wait for electricity as had Antoinette and Owen Arthur. She would wait for it like it was magic.

Magic is all about perspective, as we especially see in the opening with the men who have never seen electricity before, emphasizing another theme, that perspective is generational. We begin when there is no electricity, and return to a state without it near the end of the book after the hurricane hits.

Even better is when an objective correlative has direct plot consequence, as Yanique does with Anette’s dress when she’s going to see Jacob for the first time in years. First it’s noted that when Anette is going to see Jacob for the first time in many years, she wears the white dress she was wearing when he left her for med school in America:

It was the dress she should have married him in. She still fit the dress. She fit into it too damn well.

The dress and how well she fits it is an obj corr for Jacob: Jacob still fits her; she still loves him, even though she doesn’t especially want to. We then see how her son sees the dress (and by extension her relationship with Jacob):

Frank felt an instant and sticking hate for the doctor. …. [B]ecause this man had caused his mother to stuff herself into that graying dress that was too tight for her. It shamed the son.

Then we see how the dress affects Jacob (that is, how the relationship affects him):

Oh, but if Anette had worn the red and yellow dress. Jacob had never actually seen her in that dress, though he had seen the movie poster. But Anette had not worn that dress because after the porn film she’d ripped the dress to shreds and thrown it out. Right now parts of it were disintegrating in the dump out in the Bovoni countryside. Other parts were being eaten by fish in the Caribbean Sea. But if Anette had worn that dress or any red dress, Jacob might have not made it back to his lovely wife that afternoon.

I.e., a dress that can be used to describe characters’ feelings via descriptions of itself (in this case that Jacob does still love her, in his own warped way of loving) could have led to a different turn of events entirely.

Yanique also uses the technique to characterize Jacob, who’s associated repeatedly with stewed cherries (both sour and sweet). Mentioning that her mother is sending them to him while he’s in med school is a way of showing that she’s still exercising her stranglehold of control over him, and Yanique uses it effectively at the very end to show us instead of telling us who Anette is waiting for.

Another narrative technique Yanique makes use of is revealing some of what might happen “later” to build tension–done effectively this builds rather than defusing it, as might intuitively seem the case. Yanique sprinkles these references to “later” out as finely as she does references to “we,” just a sentence here and there to remind us of the larger backdrop these events are playing out against:

“They would flare up later when he was an Army man and then again when he was pressed to choose between love and life. Now he ran toward the girl who was carrying the big shell.” (73)

“What Jacob Esau had was an incredible confidence that would later make him a leader in the Army and presumptuous with another man’s wife. He could play the piano. He loved stewed cherries for their taste (both sweet and tart) and their color (deep red). And more important, unlike any other McKenzie man, he would fall madly and obviously in love.” (77)

Eeona would not have been able to bring herself to so it. And it was nothing anyway. Should have been nothing. How could Eeona have known that it would boil everything? (153)

Eve Youme saw Jacob’s face first, before she saw her mother’s. This is why her mother couldn’t save her from what she became. The only one who might save her was her father. / He called her Eve, for she was the first female McKenzie anyone had ever known. And like the biblical Eve, she would lose her father. But Jacob wanted the baby when he saw her, even though he let her go. She really did look like the first thing ever created. Jacob was God. Annette was Earth. Eve was of them both. And Eve went wild, of course; what other choice did the first woman have? (202)

History even derailed Jacob and his Annette. (202)

For years he would slip his hands into other women and search for Annette. (204)

Jacob leaned over and kissed his daughter–his first child who later would be left out of the family photos. But now she was a baby who knew only that love, like food, was given to her when she cried for it. (207)

And one last narrative trick to take from Yanique’s sprawling saga of family and country is characterizing individuals by comparing them to each other. As noted, Jacob and Franky are both right and wrong for Anette in inverse ways. Near the climax where Anette wishes Franky would die, there’s a passage about his character that starkly contrasts him to Jacob and further underscores the tragic irony of Anette’s predicament:

When the call for emergency personnel came over the radio in the Joseph house, Franky looked over at Anette. “I have to go,” he said. Franky was in the Coast Guard, but he’d never dealt with a major emergency. When he’d joined the Guard, there hadn’t even been formal training for that sort of thing. Most of his work was keeping the lighthouse, for goodness’ sake. And despite that, he’d never even seen a ship wrecked. He wasn’t a surfman or even a coxswain. He’d once saved a drowning person on Coki beach when he was off duty. That was it. 

But he was going anyway.  

Franky is immediately willing to go, to be loyal, when it makes no rational sense, contrasted to Jacob, who’s lackadaisical and unwilling to commit, as shown by his silence during his med-school tenure and his half-hearted attempt to get Anette back.

Yanique’s story of a woman marrying three men (and with a hurricane no less) bears shades of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, but her family saga encompassing multiple points of view and two female leads is ultimately more ambitious. While the pacing of a story spanning several decades can lag, Yanique pulls us through with both the lushness of the language and the tension of the reader knowing more than one of the main characters (us knowing that Jacob is Anette’s half brother when Anette doesn’t), and the patient reader will likely find the conclusion a worthwhile payoff.

-SCR

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World War Zimmerman Continues

In light of the most recent shootings in Baton Rouge, the latest in a spate of back-and-forth shootings between civilians and police, it’s worth taking a look at the South Park episode “World War Zimmerman,” originally aired October 9, 2013, not quite four months after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin the previous July. The episode not only argues that there is a marked difference in the way both society and the government react to violence against different racial demographics (more specifically that white victims of violence receive justice while black victims of violence are ignored), but proves FDR’s old adage that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and even more specifically, that fear-based legislation like “stand-your-ground” laws end up causing more destruction than they prevent. The episode’s plot combines the Zimmerman acquittal with the Brad Pitt zombie movie World War Z (released June 21, 2013). While some have claimed that this reference is too dated, the narrative’s use of repeated plane crashes, the Patient-Zero concept, and Cartman’s emulation of Brad Pitt’s character are precisely what make it such an insightful commentary about how this cycle of fear and violence we’re currently stuck in might have started.

The episode begins with Cartman being uncharacteristically nice to Token Black, trying to get Token to “fist bump” him. Cartman then disrupts class when he screams in his sleep, accusing Token of eating his family. The school counselor Mr. Mackey tells Eric to write a poem to express his feelings to Token to resolve Eric’s apparent nightmares; Cartman’s poem implores Token not to blame him for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. We then see Eric’s nightmare: Eric is Brad Pitt, the hero of World War Z, being an upstanding loving family man when news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal is announced, at which point many “outraged” black people “go totally nanners,” attacking Eric’s family’s car in a zombie-like horde. Awake, Eric raps his poem at a school assembly. When Token expresses his frustration that everyone is listening to his racist nonsense, Eric flees, screaming that an outbreak is starting. He dresses himself as Brad Pitt and hijacks a plane, declaring to everyone aboard that Denver and all major cities have now been compromised. Eric’s panicked reaction to a black passenger aboard the plane causes everyone else to panic, which causes the plane to crash. Eric (and the random woman he’s enlisted to help him) buy a rifle to try to stop the outbreak’s spread, only to learn that the law will prevent them from shooting people unless they’re in a state with a stand-your-ground law. Believing Zimmerman is a version of “Patient Zero”–that all of this starts with him–Eric goes to Florida to kill Zimmerman (crashing another plan along the way) by disguising himself as a black kid and getting Zimmerman to shoot him just as government officials are enlisting Zimmerman to “do what he does best” and “shoot a young African American man,” the other Patient Zero, Token. The officials declare Zimmerman a hero when he shoots the “young African American man,” but when they see Cartman is white, Zimmerman is declared guilty and electrocuted by the state within two seconds. Cartman returns home, tricks Token into (almost) stepping inside the circle he’s spray-painted around himself by claiming he wants to “fist bump” to settle their differences, and shoots him. They then return to Mr. Mackey’s office, where, when Token expresses his frustration at what’s happened, Eric once again flees and crashes another plane.

The plane crashes, three of them, convincingly represent the cycle of fear and violence we as a society have gotten ourselves into. Eric crashes one every time he flees in panic in response to a reaction to Token that he has absurdly misinterpreted. He’s misinterpreted the whole situation. Everything begins in the episode with his nightmares–without them, the rest of the events in the episode would not have happened. The nightmares come from his fear. His fear is based on nothing–Token is represented here as harmless. When Cartman is telling Token not to blame him in his poem, he’s blaming Token for blaming him, so he’s doing the very thing he’s accusing Token of–preemptive blaming/judging of someone for something they didn’t actually do. Cartman’s fear is supposedly in response to violence, but instead Cartman’s fear is causing the violence–as represented here by the plane crashes. That the episode ends with the third of these plane crashes indicates that they will just continue; every time Token expresses his frustration at Cartman’s ignorant fear-based reaction, Cartman will react in fear and cause a plane crash, that Token will then complain about, causing Eric to flee in fear… This ending would seem to argue, perhaps bleakly, that there’s no end to this cycle of fear and violence once it’s started. And looking at where we are three years later, the writers would seem to have predicted this phenomenon accurately. In the wake of a police shooting, fear escalates on both sides, among police and in black communities, inciting reactions that then cause more violence that cause more fear…. Not only that, but the shooters in the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings, who killed eight policemen between them, were military veterans, trained to kill by their own government–something designed for protection subverted for destructive purposes.

Showing how things designed for protection can end up causing more destruction than the very things they were designed to protect against is a big part of what the plot shows through its use of the “Patient Zero” trope. Cartman initially thinks Token is Patient Zero, then thinks that Zimmerman is also a form of a Patient Zero, someone the whole thing starts with–someone whose eradication will thus eradicate the problem. We see at the end of the episode with the final (but not really final) plane crash that killing Zimmerman does not in fact solve the problem (though Cartman might be right that there’s more than one Patient Zero). Other events in the episode reveal what the problem really is.

token

Everything in the episode starts with Cartman’s groundless fear, which is the true contagion or outbreak, as we see it spread to the government, agents for whom pick up his “Patient Zero” sketch of Token and immediately, absurdly, take what’s obviously a child’s drawing (as seen above) for evidence of an outbreak. You could argue that Martin’s shooting starts with Zimmerman’s fear, but much can also be traced back to the stand-your-ground law, which is what the Zimmerman verdict ultimately depended on. If Martin was threatening Zimmerman’s personal space, Zimmerman legally had the right to kill him; if not, he’s guilty of murder. The episode’s plot presents the possibility of how the stand-your-ground law, designed, with good intentions, for protection, can easily be manipulated in such a way as to be used against those it was designed to protect (whether or not you believe that Zimmerman specifically manipulated this law or not). Eric tricked Token into entering his personal space; he was the malicious attacker, but it’s his word against the victim’s (and often in such stand-your-ground scenarios, the victim might not survive to give his word), and Cartman claims that Token is the malicious attacker. And even worse, Cartman legitimately does believe that it’s Token who’s the malicious threat to humanity, when he’s the one causing all the destruction (see the above plane crashes).

If the episode persuasively presents the stand-your-ground law as a possible origin, or Patient Zero, for our current seemingly inescapable cycle of fear and violence, Eric’s emulation of World War Z’s hero gives us another possible Patient Zero. The AV Club review feared that “the [World War Z] reference is on the line of feeling dated already,” but if the Trayvon Martin shooting is a landmark cultural-historical event that many might look back on as the start of this cycle of shootings inflamed by race-based politics, then what was going on in pop culture at that time might be more than mere coincidence–might be, in fact, extremely relevant. If the cycle of needless destruction in the episode all starts with Cartman’s fears, the fears start with his hero-complex, which the episode shows to be a product of hollow character types promoted by Hollywood action movies. The movie, as parodied in the episode, presents the Brad Pitt-Cartman character as a loving family man, and for this we are to believe him a “good” man. But it’s his attempts to save the world, in the South Park version at least, that cause far more destruction than the thing he’s saving it from, which turns out to be nothing. In World War Z the threat is “real,” but is the hero? Trey Parker and Matt Stone point out in their creator commentary on the episode that this loving family man is only willing to pitch in and help out with the rest of humanity when his family is directly threatened; the man the movie wants us to think “good” is, viewed from a more objective standpoint outside the film, selfish, unwilling to help others in need unless he has a personal reason to. Through Cartman’s emulation of the the hero of World War Z being the real Patient Zero, the episode presents the possibility that the emulation of heroes with what turn out to be questionable value systems that we see so often in the movies could be playing its own part in the cycle of fear and violence we’re experiencing. The desire to be a hero can be as dangerous as whatever force the hero is trying to save us from. As New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb puts it, “The Dallas shooting revealed the bankruptcy of the good-guy-with-a-gun theory.” We can’t have the hero save us, after all, without something terrible to combat. Gotham often seems more dangerous with Batman in it.

Parker and Stone’s predictions of the destruction that fear-based hero worship can cause, as played out in the episode’s plane crashes, Patient Zero references, and Cartman’s Brad-Pitt copying, aren’t overexaggerated predictions anymore. As another New Yorker writer, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, recently put it in an article exploring the topic,

Within the ongoing story about race and killings by police there has been, from the beginning, a second story, about fear. For the shooters themselves, fear has been essential to their legal defense; it has also been, in a more basic way, their explanation.

-SCR

Backstories and Braids in OITNB Season 4

Jenji Kohan’s Netflix original series Orange is the New Black has specialized in weaving in the backstories of its characters (incarcerated and free alike) with the present storylines at Litchfield Penitentiary. One of the fourth season’s main narrative pressure points is the infusion of new inmates and guards, so that some episodes this season (for the first time, I believe) do not have time to fit in any backstory at all. The ones that were included this season—1: none; 2: Maria’s, 3: Brook Soso’s, 4: Healy’s, 5: Maritza’s, 6: none (side story with Nicky at max), 7: Lolly’s, 8: none, 9: Blanca’s, 10: none, 11: Suzanne’s, 12: Baxter Bayley’s, 13: Poussey’s—are much more thematically relevant to that character’s present storyline in the episode than previous seasons’, which seemed more interested in revealing how exactly the character had ended up in prison (though usually the way they did was relevant to what they were doing in the present episode, presenting actions that often echoed). The backstories in season 4 also thematically resonate for the character’s arc throughout the whole season, not just that episode, and do as good a job as they ever did of presenting a compact and satisfying narrative arc worthy of a literary short story. Major plot threads this season involve the gruff new CO Piscatella and the dark antics of his former military guards and Caputo’s corporatized coping with such, the hit man sent after Alex at the end of last season that Lolly helps her kill and bury in the garden, Maria and the Dominican crew challenging Piper in the dirty underwear business, and escalating racial tensions all around. While it’s certainly a worth debating whether the fourth season turned into trauma porn for white people, it’s hard to deny that the narrative threads culminate in a raucous climax that is both unexpected and inevitable.

In episode 1, “Work That Body For Me,” we pick up where the last season left off, with the old inmates being rounded up from the lake (thanks to that hole in the fence), new inmates posing a serious overcrowding issue, new fierce guards brought in with military pasts (for the corporate tax cuts), and the arrival of celebrity inmate Judy King (a cross between Martha Stewart and Paula Deen). Suzanne’s new romance with Kakudio goes south when Kakudio turns out to be as crazy as Crazy Eyes used to be (and will be again). We meet the new big bad boy CO Piscatella. Lolly, whom Alex suspected of being the hit man her old boss had sent after her in season 3, saves her from being strangled by the real hit man, but doesn’t quite succeed in killing him, and Alex has to finish the job herself later. With Frieda’s help, they cut him up and bury him in the garden.

The first backstory we get is Maria’s, in episode 2, “Power Suit.” She is of Dominican descent, and her first backstory scene is of her father is leading a Dominican gang with fierce homeland pride when she’s a young girl. In future scenes she becomes disillusioned as she ages with her father, who hits on her friend and disapproves of her non-Dominican boyfriend (whom she met when she saw him toss drugs running down an alley and she returned the drugs to him, and who, in season 3, quit bringing their baby girl to visit, inciting Maria’s rising anger issues). Maria points out to her father that what he does is no different from any other gang, and that she does not care about being Dominican, prompting him to kick her out of the house. In the present, Maria is at first reticent to wield the Dominicans’ new power in numbers, but when her friend is shoved down the stairs by a couple of white girls, she bides her time and plans her violent revenge against them carefully.

Elsewhere, Piper, keen on cultivating the image of hardass she thinks is attendant with having sent her former paramour to max, tries and fails to bully her new bunkmate Hapakuka and ends up hiring her as muscle. The Jewish black Cindy clashes over property rights with her new Muslim bunkmate, Alison. Yoga Jones is chosen as Judy King’s roommate. Sophia’s wife Crystal starts pestering Caputo about where Sophia is. At an MCC meeting, he suggests incentives to hire vets as guards, inspiring the admiration of fellow MCC-er Linda, inspiring him to spring for an $1100 suit.

In episode 3, “(Don’t) Say Anything,” we get (more of) Brook Soso’s backstory; she’s working as an activist trying to get people to sign petitions to open a park instead of a Walmart, and a romance with one of her fellow activists has gone bad. She makes a bet with him she can get the notorious sex offender in the neighborhood to sign. She talks the offender, clearly reticent, into letting her into his house, at which point he reveals that his sex offense was getting caught having sex with his legally aged girlfriend on a public beach. At first he doesn’t want to sign because a new park would require his eviction since he wouldn’t legally be allowed near it, but he agrees to sign anyway, knowing they’ll never beat Walmart. When Brook relays how she got the signature to her ex, the guy guesses the true story of the guy’s nonthreatening nature, prompting Brooke to embellish and lie that the guy tried to make a move on her. In the present, she tries to do her new girlfriend Poussey a favor by getting her an audience with her idol Judy King, whom she tells that Poussey was raised by a crack whore, causing Poussey to realize Brook doesn’t know her at all and has depended in her assessment entirely on stereotypes. But Brook convinces Poussey to give her another chance by going John Cusack on her.

oitnb brook

Elsewhere, Morello becomes paranoid her new husband is cheating on her, prompting her to elaborately pantomime sex with him in the visiting room. Caputo hires Taystee as his assistant. Red blisters at Judy King’s special treatment and garden access. Caputo has a dinner date with MCC Linda, where he sees one of the former guards waiting tables; Linda convinces him to abandon his empathy. Lolly keeps freaking out about the guy she and Alex killed, and Frieda declares that they’ll have to kill her.

In episode 4, “Doctor Psycho,” we get Healy’s backstory, first seeing him as a young boy with his dad watching his mom get out of a hospital, looking, to Healy, noticeably different. His dad explains that hopefully she won’t hear things anymore. One night she makes Healy a midnight snack and suggests that she might stop her new therapy because she doesn’t like how it makes her feel. When she asks him if he wants her to be able to hear the angels again, he tells her no, he doesn’t like her that way, and not a minute later, she flees from the house. We then see Healy as a young social worker; just after he’s jilted by a client he’s questionably taken on a date, he sees a homeless-looking woman on a stoop he recognizes as his mother. He takes her to a diner and tells her all about his life before finding a hospital bracelet on the woman’s wrist with a different woman’s name. He pathetically tries to get the woman to stay with him anyway, but she flees. In the present, Lolly is having a psychotic break under the paranoia propagated by the guy she helped Alex chop up and bury, and Healy, recognizing his mother’s illness in her, tries to help. He seems to succeed in convincing Lolly that the murder never actually happened, mitigating the threat that Lolly will say too much about it and get Alex et al caught, so she doesn’t have to be killed.

Elsewhere, we get our first glimpse of Sophia in the SHU, who tries to get out first by flooding her toilet and then by starting a fire. Maria goes head-to-head with Piper in the undies business after Piper refused to accept her new inmate-friends as employees. Judy King runs a cooking class at Healy’s insistence until she requests he’s removed as her counselor. Doggett (aka Pennsatucky) asks Coates, the guard who raped her last season, if he’s raping Maritza, the new van driver, and he says he told her he loved her when they did it, and “that makes it different,” which she disputes.

In episode 5, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” the backstory of Maritza Ramos, the usually ditzy BFF of Flaca, reveals her to be much more clever than she’s let on, detailing her development as a con girl and car thief. When she tries a scam where she breaks a vodka bottle filled with water at the expensive club where she works and gets a party of guys to pay for it, one of the guys recruits her for a bigger scam stealing cars from expensive dealerships by pretending to be a salesgirl and getting a guy to give her his license to turn in to take a car for a test drive. But when a real sales guy hops in the car at the last second, Maritza has to improvise, faking sickness when she’s almost discovered and getting both the mark and the sales guy out of the car so she can hop back in and steal it. In the present, Maritza has the idea to use her van duty job as the vehicle to smuggle Maria’s crew’s dirty panties to the outside world. When she’s almost caught, she cleverly improvises, convincing the guards that the pickup guy they’ve spotted is the gardener.

Elsewhere, Caputo and Linda visit an absurd prison-industry convention (“CorrectiCon”), where the former director of Human Activity (and an MCC exec’s son) Danny Pearson protests; Caputo gets temporarily arrested with him when he tries to intervene, and Danny warns him about Linda, who has deemed tampons “inessential” to purchase for the inmates, and whom Caputo then promptly gets some from in a storage closet. Crazy Eyes and Morello look for the shower pooper. Taystee gets access to Caputo’s internet while he’s gone, giving her the idea to pursue a celebrity photo. As a move against Maria, Piper goes to Piscatella about starting an anti-gang task force, prompting him to start profiling the Latinas, and inducing Piper’s new white supremacist following.

In episode 6, “Piece of Sh*t,” we get no backstory, but more of a side story of what’s been going on with a character we’ve all missed: Nicky Nichols. Lucscheck is getting hate mail from Nicky in max, and after talking to his new friend Judy King about his guilt, visits her to clear his conscience. His apology is rejected by Nicky, who’s been struggling to stay sober in an environment where drugs are easy to get, and after Luschek’s visit reminding her how alone she is, and after seeing Sophia’s evacuated blood-stained cell on her janitorial duties in the SHU, she relapses, not knowing that Judy King has had strings pulled to get her sent back up the hill so Luschek doesn’t confess the drugs that got Nicky sent away were his and get fired, leaving Judy King friendless. In return for the favor, King extorts Luschek into pleasuring her—exactly what Nicky has to do to get drugs from her female guard (in the final scene). Luscheck is also having the inmates install illegal cable in a guard’s bungalow, and when one cuts her hand badly in the process, he tells her to wait until he’s done with his video game before he takes her to medical, prompting her to call him a “piece of shit” as well as inducing a surprising dressing down from Coates, the rapist who’s apparently reforming.

Elsewhere, Caputo gets his idea to have the guards teach classes, black Cindy and Alison move forward with the plan to get a pic of Judy King, and Piper’s white-power friends reveal to the guards that some of the Dominicans are sneaking panties out of the shop. Maria is called into Piscatella as the ringleader of the operation and told she’s getting 3-to-5 years added to her sentence, causing her to violently threaten Piper. She’s also decided their gang will go from undies to drugs.

In episode 7, “It Sounded Nicer in My Head,” we get Lolly’s backstory as a nice complement to Healy’s. Working as a journalist, she thought she’d uncovered a plot that the government was poisoning water; eventually she’s let go from the paper and a former coworker tries to get a room in a home for her. But after Lolly talks to another resident who tells her the place is wired, she flees. She squats in a shack on some land, making coffee for neighborhood residents and shaking a stick full of bells to banish the voices in her head, but then the land is commandeered for condos and the neighborhood gentrifies, prompting a run-in with some cops one day (she’s still pushing her cart but one of the wheels breaks as the cops come up to her, and she can’t push it any farther). he voices in her head start up again at the sight of the cops; when she takes out her bell stick, the cops take it for a weapon and arrest her. In the present, she’s been scrounging garbage around Litchfield for what turns out to be a time machine; Healy tells her everyone would like to go back in time to some point but can’t.

Elsewhere, Cindy and the gang are trying to snap a celeb pic of Judy King, leading her to think they’re after her because of the scandal that’s broken about her old racist puppet show. Linda brings home Caputo’s education-program proposal full of “vocational” classes with a focus on hard labor. Nicky cops drugs from the meth-head Angie, the shower pooper (because she’s been swallowing contraband). During Nicky’s welcome-back party Piper is nabbed by the Dominicans, and branded with a swastika.

In episode 8, “Friends in Low Places,” we get no backstory. Piper, realizing she got what she deserved, struggles through the new construction 101 class the inmates now have (the ones who used to work at the panty shop Whispers, specifically), and while smoking crack with Alex and Nicky in the garden, shows them the swastika; Alex in turn confesses about killing her hit man. Piper is surprisingly more concerned about Alex’s pain than her own, and, Red rebrands her swastika into a window (in some of the best symbolism ever, since the dramatic consequence Piper suffered has actually caused her to reexamine herself and her surroundings). Elsewhere, Nicky tries and fails to get back with Morello. Lolly’s time machine prompts conversation that prompts Coates to apologize to Doggett for raping her. Judy King finds out the black inmates want a pic of her, not to jump her, and takes a pic of her kissing black Cindy they sell to the tabloids. After some close calls, Maritza wants to stop smuggling drugs in the van, but Maria won’t let her. Sophia’s wife visits Caputo at home, where Linda pulls a gun on her for trespassing (which Caputo finds sexy rather than appalling).

In episode 9, “Turn Table Turn,” the backstory is the unibrowed Dominican Blanca’s. She is a live-in caretaker to a horrible domineering old lady who yells at her for microwaving her coffee, dangles the promise of leaving her house to her, and calls her “Bianca.” When Blanca strikes up a romance with the old lady’s gardener, the old lady fires him. Blanca protests, initially with words, but when it’s clear that’s useless, she wakes the old lady up in the night by having sex with the gardener on a couch in the old lady’s bedroom. The next morning she serves the old lady breakfast almost as though nothing had happened—except Blanca microwaved her coffee. The old lady, clearly cowed, does not protest anything now, apparently realizing she is completely at Blanca’s mercy.

In the present, the guards have been frisking Latinas almost exclusively since Piper indicated to the administration that they might be a threat, and Blanca has gotten tired of it. She stops showering, happy when the guards won’t frisk her because she stinks. (Some inmates argue over whether it’s less dignified to stink or get groped.) One of the guards orders her to shower but she continues to make herself stink, rubbing oyster juice behind her ears. Humphrey, the guard who ordered her to shower, orders her to stand on a table until she submits to his will, which one of the other guards calls “only a little Abu-Ghraiby.” At the end of the episode, that guard tells Humphrey he might have made a mistake, as Blanca glares defiantly at him (as she did at the old lady while she was fucking the gardener in front of her).

Elsewhere, Boo threatens to retract her friendship if Doggett gives Coates the time of day. Nicky, after being caught drugged out several times, vows to Red to get clean. Sister Ingalls punches Luisa to get thrown in the SHU and check on Sophia. Maritza gives away the pickup guy so she doesn’t have to smuggle anymore, but then Humphrey makes her come in the guard shack with him and forces her at gunpoint to play for real the hypothetical game he overheard her playing with Flaca earlier—would you rather eat ten dead flies, or a live baby mouse?

In episode 10, “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull,” Aleida Diaz gets out of prison and Maria takes the opportunity to recruit Daya for her crew. Sister Ingalls tries to get a picture of Sophia in the SHU, but when she gets caught, Caputo takes one anyway and gives it to Danny. Nicky tries and fails to stay off drugs. Maritza complains to Flaca about eating the mouse but doesn’t want to tell anyone else. Piper joins Blanca on the table. Suzanne tries to revisit the broom closet with Kakudio, who blue balls her in revenge for Suzanne leaving her in the woods in the first episode. A screening of The Wiz causes more racial tension between the groups. The construction project needs to reroute through the garden, and the backhoe digs up a hand.

In episode 11, “People Persons,” we get Suzanne’s backstory, the one that most directly addresses how she came to be in prison (and is the most brutal). Working as a greeter at a Walmart-like chain, Suzanne enthusiastically visits with a family, and when it seems like her boss might reprimand her for being a little too enthusiastic, he instead awards her Employee of the Month. She then goes home to the news that her roommate/adopted sister and boyfriend are leaving her alone for the weekend; when Suzanne balks at the idea of making her own friends, the boyfriend reminds her that the award she just won proves she’s a people person. So on her own, Suzanne goes to the park, where she runs into a little boy whose family she greeted at the store. She invites him home to play video games, but when he wants to leave she insists he has to come back in the morning, as she’s envisioned the whole weekend together. She gets angry at the kid when he freaks on her when she won’t let him leave, saying her feelings are hurt and you don’t run from your friends. When the boy continues to run she gives chase, and the kid climbs out a window then winds up falling off her fire escape.

Elsewhere, the prison’s on lockdown after the discovery of the body. Judy King offers Luschek molly and has a threesome with him and Yoga Jones (to their apparent regret, but not hers). Red warns Piper and Alex not to crack under questioning, but then she’s the one who’s called in to Piscatella, who’s interrogating inmates against Caputo’s explicit orders, and though she doesn’t give up anything, the guard’s keys are discovered in her things. Pennsatucky helps Nicky through detox. Two of the guards (Humphrey of the baby mouse and Stratman) try to instigate a fight among the inmates waiting to be interrogated, and Kakudio volunteers to take on Suzanne, verbally baiting her until Suzanne goes nuts and beats the living shit out of her. Healy flees at the news of the body’s discovery but eventually returns (after calling his ex mail-order bride and leaving a message that he thinks he’s not very good at his job) and turns her in (just in time to prevent Alex from turning herself in), escorting her to the psych ward.

In episode 12, “The Animals,” we get the backstory of boy-guard Baxter Bayley–first him getting caught at a water tower with some friends and messed with by the cops for the brief period he’s in jail, then getting fired from an ice-cream stand for giving away free cones, then egging some Litchfield inmates in a drive-by; when Frieda yells at him that she’s a human being, he stops laughing. In the present, Bayley’s the one who tells Caputo what the guards did to Suzanne and Kakudio. When Caputo tries to suspend Humphrey, Piscatella says if he tries to reprimand his men they’ll all walk, leaving Caputo in the same position he was last season. (Caputo was impressed with Piscatella’s power plays in the first episode, when they involved keeping inmates away from him; not so much anymore.) Caputo tells Bayley he’s not cut out for the job and should get out while he can.

Elsewhere: Healy checks himself into a psych ward. Sophia gets out of the SHU finally and Gloria helps her with her wig. The race groups are banding together now to call for Piscatella’s removal. Soso and Poussey have a tiff over whether inmate efforts will make any difference. When Piscatella, who hasn’t been letting Red sleep, shoves her to the ground in the cafeteria, everyone stands on the tables in a peaceful protest (during which Poussey mouths to Soso that she’s sorry and Soso appears to accept).

oitnb tableThings quickly turn violent when Piscatella calls his guards in to get them down. Suzanne goes crazy, and Piscatella yells at Bayley to restrain her. Poussey tries to help, but Bayley puts her in a full nelson with a knee on her back, holding her there, distracted while Suzanne continues to attack him. Everything is in chaos, and when Coates finally drags Bayley off Poussey, she’s suffocated.

In the final episode, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again,” Poussey is resurrected in her backstory, in which she visits NYC with a couple of friends to see The Roots play (it turns out to be a bad cover band). When her phone is stolen and she gives chase, she winds up lost on the streets asking for a phone; some drag queens invite her into a club where she has a great time. On her way back to her friends she’s stopped by a bicycling pack of apparent monks who offer to give her a lift to her destination; while smoking with one she learns they’re not monks but an improv troupe, and she marvels at the wonders of NYC and her night, which seems more thematically than directly relevant to the episode–these memories seem to constitute Poussey’s personal heaven. In the present, her body is still lying on the Litchfield cafeteria floor while the guards and MCC try to get their story straight. After concluding it will be impossible to make Poussey a villain, they decide Bayley will be their villain and scapegoat, despite Caputo’s protests that he’ll go to jail. During the televised press conference, Caputo goes off script saying he condones Bayley’s actions. Taystee, hiding by her desk, is enraged when she overhears this, and storms off down the hall yelling that there’s no justice. Everyone pours into the halls following her. They run into Humphrey (the psychotic mouse guard) and McCullough (the female guard) releasing Judy King, who’s just refused Yoga Jones’ requests to tell people on the outside what happened to Poussey. Humphrey reaches for the gun he talked another guard into letting him bring in that morning, but is shoved by another inmate, and the gun slides across the floor. Daya picks it up. Maria asks her if she wants to give it to somebody else, but Daya confidently commands Humphrey to the ground, while all the camera pans around all the surrounding inmates, roaring for her to shoot him.

Elsewhere, Suzanne pulls a bookcase down on herself to try to feel what Poussey did, and Brook, though drunk on Poussey’s hooch, manages to save her (an inverse of the scene in the library last season when Poussey had to save Brook from overdosing). Angie and Leanne find the hooch, get drunk, and destroy Lolly’s time machine, the thematically relevant prop that’s been used throughout the season that’s made the backstories, their own versions of time machines, even more salient.

Backstories from previous seasons did not always show why a character specifically got arrested; one that didn’t was notably Poussey’s, in which she pulls a gun on her girlfriend’s father and her own father defuses the situation before any arrestable offenses are committed. On first seeing season 4’s version of Poussey’s backstory of her whimsical NYC night, I didn’t think it was showing what she got arrested for either, and I was somewhat surprised that the writers would rely so heavily in the finale on a thread that was purely thematic and didn’t tie in directly (i.e., narratively) to the plot. But on closer inspection there are clues that this thread does indeed have narrative significance–is, in fact, the explanation of exactly why Poussey is where she is now–in prison, and now, because of that, dead.

When MCC is trying and failing to make Poussey look like a villain, they mention she was arrested for nonviolent crimes–picked up in Brooklyn for trespassing and marijuana. This seems to be a reference to the scene we saw in her backstory–she climbed a fence with the fake monks, so might well have been trespassing, and was smoking weed with them; she also mentions early on that she’s in possession of a stash she’s trying to get rid of. If Poussey is about to get arrested just after she breaks the fourth wall, smiling at the camera at the the end of season 4’s finale, all of the seemingly random things that happened to her throughout that backstory thread–chasing the guy who jacked her phone, going into the club with the drag queens, accepting the ride from the monks–or rather, all the choices she made in response to the little random things that happened to her, led directly to her death. The camera in this backstory thread was focused on a very particular chain of events.

The New Yorker‘s TV critic Emily Nussbaum does an excellent analysis of the show and season 4’s treatment of empathy, and in particular of how Poussey’s death is narratively earned:

She died when the show became clearer about something that had always been buried within it: the irresolvable tension between that utopian subway car and the tilted, biased world surrounding it.

Nussbaum also points out how Bayley’s backstory thread (the very first scene of it in fact) shows him doing the very same things that Poussey seems to have been arrested for–trespassing and marijuana.

-SCR