NOTE! Okay, so I’m sure at this point most viewers have fully binge-watched the entire season. I’m going to take a slower approach so I can give as best an examination of each episode after watching.
So, we last left Piper unleashing a side of her that could, arguably, have been repressed all this time. We watched her uncover what could be considered her true nature, as she discovered this other side of herself being stuck in prison with her ex. What makes “Thirsty Bird” a fitting re-introduction to Piper and her universe is that we experience the disorienting of her transfer to Chicago, and we see her revisit this self examination of whether she untapped something inside of her all along. In other words, has she been lying to herself, and what good does lying vs. telling the truth do in her life? Naturally, the flashbacks, just like the series premiere, focus on Piper, but instead we travel through pivotal moments of Piper’s childhood and coming of age where she’s faced with the decision to do the right thing.
Opening with Piper being led out of SHU is an amazing introduction, where she tries to establish she gets the system – she has a list of who’s on shift on what day (so she’s been keeping track), and she waxes poetic about her egg-y artwork on the wall. When Piper first got to Litchfield, she spent the entire season trying to establish herself. It’s taken a lot of getting used to for her, but now she “gets” how it works. But what happens instead? They just lead her on and on into the unknown, and her badass confident prisoner persona breaks down immediately. She’s checked out, thrown onto a bus, then onto another bus, and onto a plane that makes one extra stop before hitting its final destination. Now, I do think her distressed monologue maybe hits the nail too squarely on the head, when Piper expresses her fears about facing her own aggression and having possibly killed Pennsatucky. The idea I just mentioned before – was she just simply tapping into something inside her all this time – literally spouts out of her mouth. It was a bit of an awkward crying moment (not sure about Taylor Schilling’s cry face) but you do feel the utter vulnerability with her. We don’t know where she’s going at this point, we don’t know why she’s taken away – it’s a great way to sweep up the audience into wondering if she’s going to an even worse prison because of how badly she beat up Pennsatucky.
And of course, they do go to a “worse” prison. Piper shares a cell with 4 or 5 other women, and they’re not allowed out except for meals and outside time for once a week. We kind of revisit the idea of the privileged white woman being suddenly thrown into this darker world when Piper gets oriented in her cell – she immediately creates tension and possible enemies by stepping on their cockroach/cigarette mule. Piper does try to barter with reason – are they serious about training a cockroach to shuttle commissary treats around the prison? – but at least this time, she figures out more quickly how to play the “game” in this prison in Chicago. But not without a tear-filled, desperate call to Larry to enlist his father’s legal help to figure out why she’s there.
Now, let’s take a breather from the actual storyline to dive into the Piper flashbacks. We see that, underneath it all, Piper was sort of square – she was definitely a law-abiding citizen as a youngster. It was tradition on the last day of school for the kids to jump the back of the bus. Piper, afraid to break the rules (but also certain of herself that she didn’t think it’d make her any cooler to do it), holds back and sits on the bus, watching all the kids hop off. What happens when she does the right thing? Well, even the bus driver expected everyone to just disobey. It’s truly a comedic moment when the bus driver matter of factly goes, “I was driving 5 mph.” Piper was given probably the most cushy opportunity to break a rule – do wrong – with very few consequences.
We next have Piper trying to sneak into Dazed and Confused. Again, young Piper is a nervous nelly about getting caught having asked someone else to buy their ticket. Instead, she finds herself in a more troublesome situation, having just caught her father cheating on her mom. When Piper does the right thing here – reveal to her mother what happened – we kind of see where Piper must have learned her inner denial. You can see the information process in Piper’s mother’s eyes (Deborah Rush is so great in this nugget of a moment) and she chooses to gloss over it and instead punish Piper for sneaking into an R rated movie (one hell of a projection of punishment, eh). Young Piper confides this confusing reaction to her grandmother, who sets the tone of the many shades of gray that is life – sometimes people lie to protect other people, or what have you.
The last flashback into Piper’s past shows us Piper taking this advice to heart – she is with Alex and Cubra, the drug ringleader on trial who she must testify against. Piper decides to call home to check in and greet her father happy birthday, lying the whole time. The crazy thing about this particular flashback is now we’re left to wonder – what would the truth have done for her at this moment? If she were truthful, would she be in the position she is at presently? What would the immediate pain at that time be in comparison to the anguish her family must feel about her present situation? Could they have helped?
Back in the prison, Piper eventually figures out the reason she is in Chicago, and comforts herself with the knowledge that she did not, in fact, kill Pennsatucky. Alex, of course, is at the prison as well, and reveals this to Piper. Surely, Alex was fully aware of circumstances behind the transfer (having not been in SHU), and prods Piper to lie about their association with Cubra. Thus, we are presented with Piper’s current conflict of right vs. wrong: does she listen to Alex, or does she tell the truth? Meeting with Larry’s dad, she’s settled into telling the truth, recognizing that she should protect herself. In the van on the way to the court, Piper relays as much as well. But of course, faced with Alex, who claims she wants to protect Piper, Piper’s game plan changes. It’s of course unlucky circumstances that Piper is questioned first. She carefully replies, “I don’t recall” to all questions and claims of having met and been associated with Cubra, and knowing what Alex’s drug running activities were all about. Again, the better nature of Piper kicks in – while she’s not necessarily doing the “right” thing, she expects that her lie will protect someone she still loves. She waits in a solitary cell for Alex to finish, and sees her leaving in plain clothes. Now, of course, having known the rumors about Laura Prepon leaving the show, this is a fairly convenient way to write her off. The one thing we figured out about Alex is that she definitely knows how to fend for herself, and is more self-interested than selfless. Even when we watched the flashbacks of their relationship last season, we were able to tell that Alex was more worried about herself than Piper. Which is what destroyed the relationship then. And it’s great that this fact is thrown in our face once again as we’re re-introduced to this world and Piper’s situation. Piper’s underlying love for Alex is distracting her again from seeing the true way Alex operates. Piper will likely ebb and flow between hatred and forgiveness of Alex this season again, now that her fate definitely remains unknown and probably worse. It was Alex who got her into prison in the first place, and it is Alex again who will make her life worse.
Overall, the episode was definitely gripping, because we as an audience were trying to figure out what was going on to Piper WITH her. The style of flashing back to Piper’s childhood – which we haven’t seen – was interesting, especially since we see Piper being a total square right from the get-go, thus emphasizing that meeting Alex was where things started going wrong. The additional details of the travel to the Chicago prison and her temporary inmates definitely brought the episode to another level – from the male prisoner referring to Piper as “First Class” and demanding her panties for a favor, to the crazy inmate obsessed with astronomically understanding Piper, to the bullying cockroach-mule trainers (I mean, singing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” while on the can is so wonderfully crude). It was fun – and definitely far more creative – to open up the prison universe and show the transferring process, as disorienting as it was.
Having stopped at episode 1, I am left with a ton of questions for what’s to come, mainly when does Piper get to go back to Litchfield, and when will we face Alex again? If Laura Prepon continued to appear in Season 2 and is signed onto Season 3, I wonder in what capacity – as a civilian, or will she be brought back into Litchfield. The stakes have changed, and I can’t wait for Piper to be back in Litchfield to see what else happened over the course of a month or so to her fellow inmates.