I thought I was going to have to search really deep in order to find a central theme of a single Orange is the New Black episode, as episodes of the show often feature several plotlines that each try to advance a certain theme or narrative, something the show is able to do in its 55 minute format without seeming too scattered. In comes Episode 4 of Season 1, “Imaginary Enemies.” The episode, while still featuring multiple plotlines with only surface level overlap as far as characters go, relates these plotlines by using them to drive home an overarching theme.
This show does not want you to judge its characters before knowing their stories, their backgrounds, and their motivations first. Where this episode pushes this theme most blatantly is in this episode’s flashback storyline, which features Piper Chapman’s new roommate, Miss Claudette. Throughout previous episodes, Miss Claudette has been portrayed as mean without reason and overly controlling. The first two flashbacks explain why this is. We first see her as a young girl who, it can be assumed, is subject to indentured servitude as a way to pay off her parent’s debt. In the second flashback she is a grown woman whom we see has risen the ranks and now runs the cleaning service she worked for. She is shown in the second flashback being as stern with her young workers as her boss was to her in the first flashback. Her reason for asking discipline of others in prison is now understood; it is what she has known her whole life. Outside of flashbacks, the episode also shows that Miss Claudette is capable of sympathy, something that most in the prison thought impossible, after Piper stands up to her.
The episode also approaches this theme from another angle, dealing with some of the mental health issues that inmates deal with and how they often stay hidden. The lunchtime conversation that occurs between Piper and Nichols reveals that both of them are having a hard time coping with their conditions, and Piper even assume Nichols has found a way to deal with them, asking her when the depression ends, to which she responds “I’ll let you know.” Nichols also has a conversation with Alex, in which Alex breaks down and reveals that she too is experiencing depression.
This theme is tied in with the rest of show through the storyline involving the lost screwdriver, which shows that inmates are often dehumanized and thought of as nothing more than criminals. Caputo even explicitly emphasizes that the women in the prison are criminals during the search for the screwdriver as a way to ensure the guards do not show them sympathy. This is something the entire show combats: by following the lives of the women in this prison, we see how they are human and can be sympathized with.