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“Orange Is the New Black” Is the New “Brute Force”: Prison Melodrama and Network Aesthetics

Orange Is the New Black (2013- ) has generated a lot of discussion.  Its success through Netflix seems to cement the wide-ranging industrial changes in adapting to and supporting binge-watching.  Its ensemble of complex female characters has been celebrated as a corrective to male-dominated quality television.  But if Orange means something for contemporary television, it’s important to examine how the show’s formal features might compare with other media forms.  Such comparisons can offer  hints about how some of television’s pleasures are being figured today.  Spoilers follow.

I.  The Prison as Network

The comparison I have in mind is to Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison film, Brute Force.  The film concerns Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and his efforts to escape from a prison that operates under the thumb of Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn).  Beyond the superficial similarity of being set in a prison, Brute Force shares two key features with Orange.  The first is its narrative structure.  The second is the way our sympathies and pleasures are managed along that structure.

While Joe Collins is nominally the main character of Brute Force, he shares nearly equal screen time with a variety of characters – prisoners and prison authorities – who have relative independent storylines of their own.  Collins fits the mold of the goal-oriented protagonist typical of classical Hollywood at the time.  He needs to escape because his girl needs an operation and she will not go into surgery without him by her side.  But the film spends precious little time expanding on this.  Dassin’s real interest lies in the consequences that Collins’s plan has for the other characters and the structure of the prison.  Collins disappears from the story for long stretches while messages are carried out and intercepted, inmates privately struggle over whether they want to risk escape, and authorities struggle with each other over how to control the inmates.

Even Collins’s plan is catalyzed by factors beyond his control: when inmate privileges are revoked, prisoners are prompted to join in.  The privileges, in turn, are revoked when the warden receives political pressure to exert greater control, lest he be fired.  And the warden’s control is compromised in the first place because an inmate is killed in the machine shop for being an informer to Captain Munsey, in a precisely-timed sequence of organized chaos that requires coordination among dozens of inmates.

Orange is not structured by a single major event like a prison break, but we find a similarly deceptive use of its protagonist, Piper Chapman.  (Showrunner Jenji Kohan has called Chapman the show’s “gateway drug.”)  Like Collins, Chapman is the show’s de facto main character, but her actions quickly reveal a messy tangle of intertwining characters and storylines.  One of the show’s central events, Tricia’s overdose, is triggered by a number of developments.  Tricia is caught in the middle of the conflicting desires of Mendez, the drug-smuggling guard; “Red” Reznikov, the head prison cook who wants to keep the facility sober; and Nicky, the recovering junkie who briefly holds a  petty grudge against Red.  (There is also Tricia’s own compulsive need to balance her financial and moral ledger.)  The overdose sets off its own web of events, most of which only marginally concern Chapman.

In both cases, characters are differentiated within the space of the prison.  There is no “typical” inmate or authority; no two characters will react the same way to an event.  At the same time, stories interact in ways that no individual character can control.  This is especially important in portraying the authorities.  Even though guards, wardens, etc., sit on the side of power, they need to negotiate with inmates to maintain their powers.  Munsey needs to keep his informants, Mendez needs to keep his customers. [1]

This messiness and interdependence is characteristic of what Patrick Jagoda calls network aesthetics[2]  Broadly defined, networks are “organizational forms made up of nodes that are interconnected by links” (Jagoda, “Wired,” 190-191).  The concept is frequently used to describe the behavior of nonhierarchical, noncentralized structures.  A network is abstract and scalable enough to fit a number of different disciplines (the human brain and terrorist groups have both been studied as networks).  Network aesthetics visualize networks in narrative, human-scale terms.  They attempt to reveal the properties of networks by dramatizing the ways that social actors within networks (the “nodes”) are related (the “links”).  As such, they differ in some ways from the traditional story format.  Instead of a linear chain of cause-effect relations united by a single overarching goal, network aesthetics favor distributed causalities and unpredictable effects.

Network aesthetics generate pleasures of exploring the intricacies of these social webs: the details of the milieu, the rules that constrain and define possible actions.  The first major rule we learn in Brute Force is that you never snitch.  The first major rule we learn in Orange is that you never insult the food.  Paths of communication and transmission are often dramatized.  A network constitutes what Mark J.P. Wolf calls a “secondary world” (Building Imaginary Worlds).  Its pleasures of logistics and details resemble those of fantasy and science fiction.  The secondary world seems to exist beyond the confines of what we see.

II.  Networks of Victimhood

The network’s complicated causal structure also tends to block the kinds of agency and unity we typically attribute to characters in classical narrative.  Characters want things, and they make choices to get what they want.  But the network, by definition, swallows up these desires and actions into its own diffuse structure.  Character motivations and decisions are no longer our narrative guideposts.  Network aesthetics run a constant risk of losing their human scale. [3]

Brute Force and Orange both solve this problem in the same basic way: through melodrama.  They compensate for the loss of individual power by dramatizing powerlessness. Linda Williams argues (drawing on Christine Gledhill) that melodrama trades on pathos, which “involves us [the spectators] in assessing suffering in terms of our privileged knowledge of its nature and causes” (“Melodrama Revised,” 49).  We are invited to suffer with characters because we can see why they suffer in ways that the characters themselves cannot.

This is most easily visible in the use of flashbacks.  Orange flashes back to the crimes of inmates for inmates at key moments to contextualize otherwise bizarre actions as pathos.  The show’s second episode parallels Red’s refusal to feed Chapman (for insulting the food) with flashbacks to Red being scorned by the snooty wives of Russian mobsters.  Even as Red tries to victimize the show’s main character, she is exposed as another kind of victim. [4]  Brute Force has its central cluster of inmates stare at a calendar girl, who triggers flashbacks to each inmate’s crime.  As with Orange, every prisoner is nominally guilty but prompted by circumstances.

Melodrama provides a strategy for managing the complexities of networks with immediacy and sensation.  The pathos of melodrama is built on contingencies: unfair social conventions, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and other factors that depend on our ability to imagine that things could have turned out differently.  [5]  Networks, paradoxically, are both systematic and superlatively contingent.  Networks create localized contingencies, through “accidents” (which are different from coincidence or happenstance[6]).  More interestingly, the network itself is always changing (in network science this is called “emergence”[7]).  Thus, what appears to be the right action for a character at one moment may turn out to be wrong – not just because one doesn’t know the rules, but because the rules themselves are constantly in flux.

A central irony of Brute Force and Orange is that the legal system rests on the assumption that we are all individually responsible for our actions, but the prison system behaves in ways that make the whole notion of “responsibility” unclear.  Characters repeatedly suffer because they fail to anticipate the consequences of their own actions, but the network makes it impossible for anyone to anticipate the consequences of any action.

III.  Network Ethics

Here, it’s important to note that both of these works critique the networks they depict (though Orange is far more subtle about it).  Network aesthetics, from The Wire (2002-2008) to films like Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005) and Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011), often engage in these kinds of critiques.  If the network, as Jagoda argues, is the dominant way of visualizing power today, melodrama is especially well-suited to make the network visible as a form of power.  Melodrama acknowledges our inability to act meaningfully within impersonal systems by appealing to our ability to suffer under them.  Characters become victims of complexity.

There is a deeper irony in this appeal.  Williams further notes (following Peter Brooks) that melodrama is subtended by a “quest for a hidden moral legibility” (52) which makes social contradictions comprehensible.  When applied to networks, melodrama exploits the same contradictions that often allow power networks to thrive.  Jagoda identifies a confusion in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2003 blueprint for electronic warfare, the “Information Operations Roadmap.”  In laying out a strategy to combat terrorist groups, the document follows an “ahistorical conflation of a traditional ‘enemy’ language with an emerging ‘network’ discourse” (“Terror Networks,” 67-68).  The enemy – here, terrorist groups – is identified as a network.  But the network also provides the structural parameters for fighting the enemy.  The network is the opponent and the battleground.  Instead of acknowledging that a network undercuts the clean divisions and assignations of responsibility that make labels like “enemy” possible, the confusion enables a “perpetual struggle against an enemy construct too formless to differentiate, let alone defeat” (69).  Jagoda is referring specifically to the war on terror; but such logic can be said to animate the war on drugs, the war on crime, and anything else where official policy has a hand in producing the subjects it purports to eliminate.

By placing networks into melodramatic terms, popular network aesthetics make the network both the moral target and the structuring principle of their narratives.  They double down on the ambiguity of structure and individual, measuring network events against a fantasy of individual agency even as they acknowledge that fantasy as impossible.  They can take form in a variety of media, but they fit exceptionally well into the demands of binge television.  Their complexity generates thickly defined worlds to get lost in.  The cycles of victimhood within those words offer further pleasures of serialized sensation.  Most important, the two pleasures combine to yield a moral stance toward contemporary forces which lie beyond our comprehension and ethical assessment.  Networks are a logistics without an ethics (if they had an ethics, they would not be scalable).  Network aesthetics render the political landscape manageable, if not mutable.

***

Sources:

Jagoda, Patrick.  “Terror Networks and the Aesthetics of Interconnection.”  Social Text 28.4 (2010): 65-89.

Jagoda, Patrick.  “Wired.”  Critical Inquiry 38 (2011): 189-199.

Williams, Linda.  “Ethnographic Imaginary: The Genesis and Genius of The Wire.”  Critical Inquiry 38 (2011): 208-226.

Williams, Linda.  “Melodrama Revised.”  Nick Browne, ed., Refiguring American Film Genres.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Wolf, Mark J.P.  Building Imaginary Worlds.  New York: Routledge, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. Usually this involves threatening a prisoner.  But the need to show their power directly to an inmate speaks to the potential for inmates to compromise the authority’s position. []
  2. Labeling Brute Force in this way is somewhat anachronistic.  Network science does not start to gain ground until after World War II, and Jagoda characterizes network aesthetics as an effort to catch up with the science.  This, in itself makes the anomaly of Brute Force especially interesting.  It also naturally prompts the question of whether Dassin’s broader body of work, which tends to deal in webs of characters and complex processes (The Naked City (1948), Night and the City (1950), etc.) also fits a network aesthetic.  I leave that question open for now. []
  3. This is only a problem for popular narrative forms.  Some novels – Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Don DeLillo’s Underworld – explore networks in ways that undercut identification or alignment with individual characters. []
  4. By calling Red a “victim,” I’m not suggesting that the flashback simplifies her character.  What’s important here is that pathos forms the grounds for her complexity.  The show does this with a number of characters, with and without flashbacks.  Most unexpected is the revelation of the sadistic Mendez.  He is so starved for affection that he falls in love with inmate Dayanara Diaz after she has sex with him (in a failed attempt to frame him for rape).  The show makes Mendez more complex by making him pathetic. []
  5. Jagoda categorizes this pathos in his own examples as “tragedy” (“Wired,” 197-198, “Terror Networks and the Aesthetics of Interconnection,” 83).  He seems to be using the term as a catch-all for suffering due to causes outside an individual’s control.  Melodrama seems to me a more accurate term, because it captures the contingent nature of those causes.  Jagoda gives an example from The Wire wherein Bubbles attempts suicide after Kima Greggs has failed to keep her appointment to help him because she had been shot the day before.  This is a textbook example of melodrama’s “too late” contingency (Williams 69-72).  Williams herself calls The Wire a “serial melodrama” (“Ethnographic Imaginary: The Genesis and Genius of The Wire,“219). []
  6. Jagoda follows Paul Virilio in defining an “accident” as an event that is unforeseen but whose possibility is always in play because of a network’s arrangement.  Car accidents, for example, are a natural consequence of the systematic use of cars.  (“Terror Networks,” 70 []
  7. New patterns of interaction among nodes can “emerge” from existing arrangements in ways that cannot be reduced to the sum of those arrangements, a kind of Gestalt principle of change over time (“Terror Networks,” 74). []