Any series organized around flashbacks necessarily must be concerned with cause and effect, actions and consequences — you know, the seemingly insignificant decisions that eventually lead to, say, getting locked up in a minimum security women’s prison for long enough that you don’t even know what the internet is. (What did the Golden Girls do, anyway — rob a covered wagon? Make bootleg liquor? Sell secrets to the British during the War of 1812?)
In season 2’s seventh episode, OITNB decides to make that subtext into, well, text, explicitly focusing a whole hour (er, 52 minutes) on the two types of people who populate Litchfield: The forward-focused planners, who set their sights on the future, and the happy-go-lucky “carpe diem” types, who really take Rent‘s message to heart. (No, not “AIDS is bad.”) Caputo’s an ant, carefully laying the groundwork for an upcoming promotion by urging his guards to be stricter: “The people upstairs, they like plans. They like initiative,” he explains to Fischer. Fig, on the other hand, pretends to be an ant but is really a grasshopper, one who’s letting her prison rot without considering how it might affect her husband’s state senate campaign.
While folks from either camp can still end up in the same place — in this case, a greige cell block — it seems pretty clear that Orange advocates being an ant over being a grasshopper. For evidence, look no further than tonight’s focal point: Black Cindy, the living embodiment of seizing the day. Shortly after Present Day Cindy is harshly and unnecessarily reprimanded by C.O. Donaldson, an excellently placed flashback scene informs us that not long ago, Cindy was the one wearing a uniform and abusing her power. Once upon a time, she worked for the TSA at the Pittsburgh Airport — where she gleefully accused big-gulp carriers of being terrorists, drove a motorized cart with abandon, sexually harassed particularly comely travelers, blatantly slept beside the moving walkways, and, oh yeah, openly and unapologetically stole stuff from passengers’ bags. Including their vibrators. She’s practically begging to be caught; the whole sequence seems lifted from a movie called Bad Gate Agent, which I would 100 percent watch.
Of course, Cindy’s life isn’t all airport frolics and sex toy theft. Like basically everyone in Litchfield — strike that; basically everyone ever — she’s also got a complicated home life: Her long-suffering mother is raising Cindy’s 9-year-old daughter, Monica, as her own child. Cindy shows her love for the kid the only way she knows how — spoiling her with treats, including a stolen iPad — but has no real desire to be a mother. Perhaps her attitude is connected to some deep, dark family secret that’s alluded to but never laid bare in the episode itself, a “truth” about Cindy, Monica, and Cindy’s mom. I’m absolutely burning with curiosity about what it could be; my totally baseless theory is that Monica’s the result of some sort of sexual assault, possibly perpetrated by someone close to Cindy’s mother. (We’ll call this the Caged Bird hypothesis.)
In any case, it’s fascinating to watch Cindy’s interactions with Litchfield’s guards knowing that she, too, was once a shady government employee. She may understand their point of view better than any other inmate, intellectuals like Piper included — but shared experience hardly makes Cindy more sympathetic to her jailers. That said, she can hardly be bothered to stay upset for long. Up until this point, Cindy’s been nothing more than Poussey and Taystee’s jokey pal, a carefree quipster with few other defining qualities. That characterization is still true in “Comic Sans,” though the episode also establishes that there’s some hurt beneath her comic facade — and that if she can’t learn how to take things seriously, including her own future, she may come to a sticky end.
Cindy discovers this firsthand when Vee formally sets her cigarette business in motion. The operation runs much like the drug runner’s old heroin ring did; Vee keeps her hands clean while her girls push the product, ingeniously concealing hand-rolled cigs in old tampon applicators. (Ones, it turns out, that have been used. Disgusting, but cost efficient.) Naturally, the whole thing is going gangbusters; Vee clearly knows how to set up a contraband operation. And she also knows how to discipline those who aren’t prepared to step in line. When Cindy fails to collect the ersatz currency she’s been charged with getting — here, stamps equal money — Vee cooly demotes her from salesperson to tampon-handler and throws Cindy’s old cigarette supply to Poussey. Poussey’s clearly ambivalent about joining the Vee Team — but after realizing the wisdom of keeping friends close and enemies closer, she eventually acquiesces.
Cindy seems to have no similar foresight. She appears to be genuinely unfazed by the thought of Vee’s wrath — that is, until Vee perches on her bed at night and voices her underling’s worst insecurities. She chastises Cindy for fiddling all through the summer, having no responsibilities, no plans, no ambition. The end result of all that day-seizing? “You’ve given up on yourself,” Vee says, cooly and calmly like it’s an irrefutable fact. “You’re a loser.” And with that, she stalks away, leaving Cindy to mull over her mistakes.
The manipulation works, of course; the next day, Cindy’s telling the kingpin that she’s decided to “take [her] medicine.” Score one for the planners.
NEXT: Crime and punishment, but mostly punishment