Spoiler Alert. Okay? My wife and I are finishing up Orange is the New Black. So I’m here to talk about it. Which means if you’re the kind of person who gets uptight about shows getting spoiled for you, you may want to stop yourself right there. The bridge is out. KNOWLEDGE AHEAD.
Orange is the New Black is doing a lot of interesting things and has a lot of people talking about it. One of those things in particular is the introduction of a new character this season, Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, it’s out of my system.) She’s a sort-of-spunky, sort-of-aloof androgynous type with a Bieber haircut and enough ink on her to keep HP in business for a few years, at least. And there’s a lot of buzz about this character, particularly by way of the actor portraying said character, one Ruby Rose.
What’s got people talking about her is the fact that, apparently (and I heard this only secondhand from my wife… research is not really my thing around here, and I trust her sources because she’s a lot smarter than me) miss Rose identifies as female some days and male on others. And yeah, okay, it’s the new hotness to identify as this or that. (Personally, I’m a thirty-something white dude who identifies as that piece of gum you stepped in and tracked all over the floorboards of your car. That’s just how I feel.) But the show has always been pretty stern about its characters being who they are regardless of what you or anybody thinks about it (and especially if you happen to be a dude). The show works because of the personalities represented in it; they’re off-the-wall but somehow believable within the literal four walls the characters are stuck in. So, you know, kudos to the show for including an actor who plays, in real life, by the rules that the show plays by in our heads.
But I’m not here to talk about her identity or her sexuality or her gender-bending or any of that. I’ll leave that to Buzzfeed. (Seriously, they have something like a dozen “articles” about her in the past week.)
What’s bugging me about her is her character’s narrative drift.
See, if OITNB teaches us anything, it’s that you don’t have to like characters in order to care about them. Hell, some of the show’s most memorable, quotable characters are the least likable. A mother who emotionally blackmails another woman over the adoption of her own grandchild? A former socialite who takes to bilking the system and profiting off the perversion of the underbelly of the internet? A prison social worker who’s sometimes got a heart of gold and is sometimes a racist, sexist, insecure piece of sharknado? They all do terrible things, but we care about them because, as twisted as the things they do may be, we understand on some level why they’re doing those things. Daya’s mother knows how hard mothering can be OUTSIDE of prison so she conspires to get her daughter to give up her baby, and hey, why not make a little scratch in the mix? Piper feels betrayed by the world she thought she knew; her values are shattered, so why not embrace her criminal side and profit at the expense of people who are worse off than her? Healey, for all the good he tries to do, is married to a loveless transplant from Russia who emasculates him every chance she gets, so to remind himself he’s a man, sometimes he has to swing his man-parts around and show everybody what a big jerk he can be.
We don’t like them. But we understand them, and that makes us care, even if we’re not necessarily rooting for them. (On that note, does the show even have a protagonist at this point? Maybe it’s Caputo, but it’s hard to tell. Not that that’s stopping anybody from watching.) All these characters, for better or worse, want things, and because we care about the characters, we either want them to get those things in sympathy, or we want them not to get those things out of schadenfreude.
Which brings me to Stella. (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Okay, last time.) I don’t care about her. At all. She’s been on the show for half a season, and I don’t give one randy sharknado about her. Why?
Because she’s a husk.
A pretty husk. A wrench-in-the-works husk. A will-she-or-won’t-she distraction and world-turner-upside-downer hurricane kind of husk. But she’s like a tree that’s rotted from the inside out, or a wax figure dressed in a thousand-dollar suit. Looks nice on the outside, but looks kinda disgusting or even creepy up close.
As far as I can tell, Stella was drawn up to provide a fork-in-the-road for Piper. She was designed to be pretty and devil-may-care to show the polar (and scornful) opposite of Alex, who has grown haggard and consumed with worry and fear. Where Alex is driven slowly mad by the confines of the prison and the perceived inevitability of her situation (she’s stuck exactly where a man who will in all likelihood kill her knows exactly where she is), Stella is so indifferent to her situation that she’s almost literally untouched and unfazed by it (see the scene where she dries naked in the communal bathroom because the prison’s “harsh towels” are too much for her “sensitive skin”, for example). Stella is a bird on the wind, whereas Alex feels like a sinking stone.
And that’s fine. That’s even great. A nicely-turned dichotomy, a troubling love triangle for Piper, stuck between Alex, with whom she has history and allegiance and yeah, they do it a lot in the showers and stuff; and Stella (STELLAAAAAAAAAA. Sorry), who is mysterious and intriguing and probably does the weird stuff. In bed. That conflict works, and it’s even making people mad. (Which, again, just shows that we care.)
Here’s where it breaks down for me. Alex is a little old and busted this season, but we know why. Piper ratted her out. Got her sent back to prison after she thought she was out. Alex fears that her former boss will have her killed for implicating him when she got sent in. She’s tired. She’s hurt. She’s afraid for her life. Again, we don’t have to like her, but we understand.
But what’s Stella’s story? What makes her so light and carefree? The show doesn’t tell us. Why is she interested in Piper? We don’t know, outside of perhaps a raw physical want-to-bone feeling (which doesn’t necessarily come across, I humbly offer). What is she even in prison for in the first place? These are things the show doesn’t bother to share with us.
All we know about her is that Piper wants to do her, and that’s making problems for her relationship with Alex.
We don’t know what she wants. We don’t know why she does the things she does. So we (or, at least, I) don’t care.
It’s not a deal breaker for the show. It doesn’t make me not want to watch. But for a show that does so many things right with its characters, it feels like a pretty glaring misstep.
Maybe my feelings will change when I see the last episode tonight. But I maintain that, if you’re going to have a character appear for half of season, and that character is going to play a major role in the show, I should at least care about that character a little bit by the end.
Am I overthinking this? Am I wrong? Let me hear it.