Orange is the New Black, the latest original TV show from Netflix, is something of a revelation. It had great timing by launching during a time of the year when the only dramatic television are either reruns or cancelled shows having their remaining episodes thrown out to fill time. It also helps that it’s really, really, really good. As a look at the life in a womens’ prison as well as those on the outside dealing with loved ones being incarcerated and the concept of the whole thing is brilliant. Piper Chapman, the fictionalized version of the writer whose memoir the show is based upon, is a thin, blonde middle class yuppie who shops at Whole Foods, creates homemade soaps and lotions with her best friend, and just got sentenced to 15 months in prison. 10 years previously as a young wide-eyed post-college girl she got involved with a woman who was part of a drug smuggling ring and who convinced Piper to take a case full of drug money from one country to another. Though we first see the prison through her eyes this is not just about Piper Chapman by any means and the show is all the stronger for it. Other inmates include a black transgender woman, a Russian cook, a former rich brat turned junky, and numerous other interesting characters in what is a suitably diverse cast. Some characters get flashbacks showing their lives before prison, others receive smaller and more tantalizing glimpses into their psyche, but us OITNB devotees all have a favorite. I want to tell you about my favorite and speaking of great timing, she came along at a time in my life when I really needed to see someone like her portrayed on screen and given the space to develop, challenge your expectations, and have you laugh and maybe cry along with her. Major spoilers ahead.
My favorite character is Sue. Which is short for Suzie. Which is short for Suzanne. Crazy Eyes is one of Piper’s early encounters with prison culture, falling into an unwritten rule where accepting help from a prisoner might make said prisoner claim you as their wife. Crazy Eyes begins as a familiar trope, an aggressive, eccentric and seemingly gay prisoner who takes advantage of the new meat’s lack of experience in the Big House. What we learn right away is that Crazy Eyes’ nickname is no coincidence and it appears right away that she’s not playing with a full deck. As her courting of Piper begins she decides to call her “Dandylion” because of her blonde hair and she even wrote her a poem:
“Before I met you, the sun was like a yellow grape.
But now? It look like fire in the sky. Why?
Because you light a fire inside me.”
Beautiful right? Crazy Eyes shows other signs of affection like threatening Piper’s ex-girlfriend, even sacrificing her pie to throw it at the woman. However Piper is not interested and is put off by Crazy Eyes and her unpredictable behavior. Finally standing up for herself and telling Crazy Eyes that their relationship isn’t going to happen, Piper is repaid by her scorned admirer peeing in the entrance to her room. By and large Crazy Eyes is an easy checkmark for the “crazy person in prison” box on the checklist of prison fiction cliche. Many other TV shows or movies would probably have left Crazy Eyes as just that, the crazy one, a hurdle that the new prisoner must get past as they learn about life in prison. Crazy Eyes might have popped up now and then to be wacky and funny because, you know, that’s what crazy people do right?! Luckily for us all however, OITNB is not content with leaving characters as stereotypes and cliches and forces the viewer to rethink their first impressions, that these are living, breathing people trying to survive prison just like anybody else.
Show creator Kenji Kohan talked about the character on NPR’s Fresh Air, describing how sitting in on casting for the character of Taystee was when she met Uzo Aduba. Aduba did not fit the role but Kohan was so taken with her that she decided that there was going to be a place for her on the show and that she was going to develop a character that would properly utilize her talent. Suzanne was the resulting character that Kohan felt really fit the wonderful facial performances and talents of Aduba that had mainly been seen on the stage prior to OITNB.
Crazy Eyes goes on to be a regular character and though we have not yet seen a flashback for her yet she is always a bright spot whenever she appears on screen. Even though she is frequently a comedic figure it’s never in any doubt that she has mental health issues and the writers and Ms. Aduba herself are clearly sensitive to this. We get to see depth added to her character as we see her visit with her Mommy and Daddy only to discover they’re two older white people, once again the show throwing us a curve ball. Then in one of my favorite scenes of the whole series she volunteers to be part of a “scared straight” program because she wants a chance to act. Despite the fact she is meant to be intimidating a girl into staying out of prison Crazy Eyes delivers a monologue from Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus with such zeal that it is both compelling and hilarious given the circumstances.
Her relationship with Piper is far more passive though it must be noted that Piper, perhaps still acquainting herself with the way prisons work, calls her Suzanne rather than Crazy Eyes. What is clear is that many give her a wide berth because Suzanne is genuinely mentally ill, has anger management issues and is prone to unpredictable behavior. Kenji Kohan isn’t just exploiting Suzanne’s eccentricities for laughs, she’s painting a picture of a person who committed a crime which was most likely exacerbated or catalyzed by her mental health. Unfortunately like many in her position, her guilt resulted in her being sent to a regular prison. Mental health is not a black and white subject and while it may frequently be difficult for us to understand the behavior of some people and their capacity to commit crime. This is still a society that as a whole does not look sympathetically upon those who are driven to anti-social acts not because they’re bad people but because they have untreated mental illness. It is considered an excuse or a failure of the person in question. How many mentally ill people realize they are mentally ill without treatment? There’s no way of knowing because we do not truly know how many untreated mental health issues exist in our society, what family members, friends and colleagues might be going through. Fewer still are the people who are suffering but brave enough to admit their problem, afraid of the stigma attached to mental illness so they keep it quiet perhaps to the point of never seeking treatment.
Episode 11 of OITNB called “Tall Men with Feelings” hit me very hard as Suzanne gets a couple of very serious scenes and for the first time we see her illness from something approaching her perspective. After helping Piper back to her room following a fall on a slick floor that Suzanne was cleaning, they talk about “Psych”, a separated wing of the prison where they send offenders who act erratically and violently. We actually see Psych first as the character affectionately known as Pennsatucky is currently residing there. Piper was part of a conspiracy to gaslight Pennsatucky, making her think she has divine powers of healing sent to her by God. We see Pennsatucky treated terribly, first kept in a cage like an animal and then heavily sedated and strapped to her bed. Her very protests are shown as reason why she needs to be restrained and kept there. Piper asks Suzanne about Psych and is told that it’s even worse than solitary confinement, “I wouldn’t wish it on the worst person.” Suzanne has been to Psych multiple times, being allowed back into the regular prison population thanks to an agreement her parents and lawyer made with the warden. This was the moment in the show that utterly broke my heart completely as Suzanne, feeling comfortable enough around Piper to open up to her asks “why does everybody call me Crazy Eyes?”
We don’t hear Piper’s response, but we know what the answer is. It’s the snap judgement made by people who do not understand mental illness and so instead slap a dehumanizing nickname on that person. Crazy Eyes has been labelled as just that, crazy, and she herself is so used to these feelings she has that she does not see them abnormal and does not understand the nickname. As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression most of my life, to be so used to it you treat it as norm, that question broke me. Then to add to Suzanne’s humiliation in that same episode Piper’s husband Larry is on an NPR radio show where he tells his “favorite story” of the insane girl in the prison who stalked Piper and wanted her to be her wife. Lary goes on to say many nice things about other prisoners, but the hurt Uzo Aduba conveys as Suzanne is palpable. One of the only people she felt comfortable with betrayed her, and she is one of the first of several important characters to turn her back on Piper, eventually leads to the shocking climax of the season.
I give all of the credit in the world to Jenji Kohan for creating the character of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren and casting the wonderful Uzo Aduba who absolutely blew me away with her tremendous and nuanced performance. It is wonderful to see this show has such an incredible depth of talent, diversity of characters, and keeps the audience on their toes as we are forced to challenge our initial perceptions of the characters. I have dealt with mental health issues most of my life and a year ago I had to leave a job due to a lack of understanding of what was happening to me, so Suzanne truly touched me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Through both amazing writing and a beautiful performance from Uzo Aduba I felt that perfect connection with this show. I also know that many other people probably had similar experiences with Suzanne or other members of the OITNB cast and that’s a credit to what an excellent show it is. Season 2 can’t come soon enough, and I’m pulling for Suzanne to get the vindication she truly deserves.