Vee's operation formally launches as flashbacks delve into the life and times of Black Cindy

Credit: Jessica Miglio/Netflix

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

Another strike against grasshoppers? Poor, dumb Bennett, who’s discovering more and more every day that chasing momentary pleasure at the expense of safe sex was pretty much the worst decision possible. The Latina girls, who’ve got no plans to let up on their blackmail, have taken to calling him “Santa.” (Even though he’s not really bringing them exactly what they want; Blanca doesn’t get her phone, and Flaca is disappointed to find that the iPod he’s lending her is “full of Fleet Foxes and sh–.” If he stops doing their bidding, Flaca and Maritza threaten to turn him in to the highers-up for raping an inmate. (Which, again, he definitely should be punished for, no matter how cute and nice he seems. OITNB: It’s got layers!)

Except in Bennett’s case, it turns out that even poor planning may be overruled by something even more powerful: Privilege. Sure, the girls can talk a big game about ruining his career — but he’s got the power to place them in solitary any time, for any reason. (Or even no reason at all: When Maritza asks what justification he has for sending her to the SHU, he snarls, “I’ll figure it out later.”) The moral of this section of the story: It’s better to think ahead, but it’s best to also be a straight white dude.

Piper, Flaca, Daya, and Morello’s work on Litchfield’s brand-spanking-new newsletter — charmingly named The Big House Bugle — may not seem to fit with the rest of the episode’s theme. By establishing it, though, Piper’s managed to ingratiate herself further with both her fellow inmates and the guards — Caputo requests and gets a feature about how the C.O.s “are people too.” (There’s also a comic in there making fun of Healy, but it’s subtle enough that the man himself doesn’t get the joke.) This could go a long way toward helping her investigate the prison’s history of corruption. The unceremonious removal of poor, crazy Jimmy — she’s getting a “compassionate release,” which basically boils down to being left destitute on the street — seems like it’s going to invigorate Chapman to dig even deeper into Fig’s dirty doings, which is sure to have major consequences down the line.

We’re at the season’s halfway mark as of this episode, and it’s easy to see how this running thread could end up as season 2’s most important plotline. Could these 13 episodes end with Fig being removed — or even with Litchfield being shut down for good? It seems sort of silly to speculate when every episode is already available for viewing — but they’re interesting questions to ponder if you’re one of those people who’s got enough self control not to finish the whole damn thing by this weekend. (So a unicorn, in other words.)

The Commissary

– Predicting now that White Cindy gets her own flashback in Season 6.

– Today in Prison Ingenuity: You can make a lighter out of a battery and a foil gum wrapper.

– A deadpan Piper, when Journalist Andrew asks for more information about Fig’s fraud: “Okay, cool. I’ll just look that up on the handy inmate internet they give us for when we get curious about stuff.”

– Why can’t Suzanne be a saleswoman? Because, as she intones — in a voice implying that she’s carefully memorized this sentence from Vee — “I make people uncomfortable.”

– I’m suddenly imagining a whole other show that focuses solely on O’Neil and Bell’s tumultuous relationship. It’d be like Mike and Molly, but darker (and probably funnier.)

– Journalist Andrew calls prison “the single greatest stain on the American collective conscience since slavery”… but doesn’t OITNB make it seem just a little fun?

– Brook, doubling down on being The Worst: “I’m a vegetarian. Obviously.”

– Red’s still staying out of the dangerous contraband game — but you’ve got to wonder if she’ll manage to keep her distance as Vee gains more and more ground.

– Finding out that Flaca is a closet grammar stickler might mean she’s my new favorite.

– Some Golden Girls are not impressed with Ratatouille: “The health code is still the health code!”

– Unnecessary Info Alert: I’m from Pittsburgh. That is not what our airport looks like.

– Literal excerpt from my notes for this episode: “UGH LARRY WHO CARES.” Anyway, Boring Affair with Piper’s best friend (who, semi-interestingly, was actually friends with Larry before they each met their current significant others) is a go. Anyone else thinking they might be into Polly… if she were a supporting character on a different show?

– Fischer’s plan to listen to inmate’s calls has already yielded dividends: Now she knows that Daya is pregnant. Ruh-roh.

– Prison relationships in a nutshell: “That is my sister in here. I don’t even like the bitch, but she’s family.”

Episode Recaps

Orange Is the New Black

Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.

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  • Netflix