OITNB Character Masterclass #1 – Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett

Countdown! Only 10 days until season 4! Who’s excited?

I’ve been putting off writing about Orange is the New Black for a while now, purely because it’s so intimidating to write about. This show has so many characters, and each episode adds layers and layers of depth to the main cast. The characters evolve so much so that you actually go from sympathising with the ‘main’ character, Piper, to being completely pissed off at her by the end of the second season.  Conversely, characters that are seen as antagonistic in the first season become sympathetic, and even likable, further down the line. The writers achieve this in a number of ways, the most obvious being allocating all the flashbacks in one episode to a particular character’s back story.

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I’m going to work on the assumption that most of the people reading this have already watched OITNB, perhaps more than once, so I’m not going to go into depth explaining who all of the characters are. Instead, as we eagerly await season four, the next few blogs will focus on some of the best examples of character development and female-oriented storytelling across the first three seasons.

Okay, so Trigger Warning here… we’re going to start with Tiffany Doggett, AKA Pennsatucky.

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Doggett goes through some of the biggest transformations in the entire run so far. She first appears in the fifth episode of season one and quickly becomes a major antagonist. She’s an evangelical Christian and uses her religion as an excuse to treat other people with contempt. She’s transphobic toward Sophia, homophobic toward multiple other women and generally pretty damn ignorant. She starts a feud with Piper, the embodiment of the perpetual victim complex, and by the end of the first season becomes fucking terrifying as she and her cronies resort to attempted murder.

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Season two, however, sees Doggett abandoned by her friends. They used to follow her around and do her bidding, like Crabbe and Goyle to her Malfoy, but when she went to SHU for a while they realised that life was a lot easier without her telling them what to do and getting them into trouble all the time. This is the catalyst for Doggett’s shift from murderous to ‘just trying her best’, and when we began to realise that not everything is as simple as protagonist versus antagonist.

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Doggett has some serious anger issues which get worked out in season two. She was sent to prison in the first place for shooting up an abortion clinic, but it’s revealed that she did it because the nurse working the front counter disrespected her. A local evangelical church got in her corner and paid for her legal proceedings because of her actions, not because of her beliefs, so it’s fair to say that her extreme beliefs are shaky at best. Her friends abandoning her also leads her to start questioning her faith.

She seeks solace with councillor Healey (don’t get me started on that arsehole’s issues). She also gets to know Big Boo, particularly in episode 12 It Was the Change. Healey warns her to stay away from Boo because he thinks there is a “Lesbian Agenda” to make men obsolete, because heaven forbid that some women just aren’t into guys – there must be some kind of conspiracy behind it. Doggett points out that men being in charge hasn’t really done her any good, then goes on to have this fantastic conversation with Boo.

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Doggett:  Hey… how does this whole ‘agenda’ thing work?

Boo:  I got a lotta those. Specify.

Doggett:  The gay agenda, to take over the world.

Boo looks at her for a moment, deciding how to react.

Boo:  (whispering) Okay, first of all, keep your voice down because this shit is top secret.

Doggett: (whispering) are you gonna let all the men die out?

Boo: Oh, fuck no. We need slaves, you know, for bookkeeping, janitorial, fetch and carry, that kinda shit.

Doggett: Yeah, what about for sex? ‘Cause I know I like how they smell kind of funky, and they’re big, and they have dicks and all that.

Boo:  Well, maybe… but when you’re done you gotta toss ’em away like trash. I mean the whole point of this is chicks digging each other and being in charge.

Doggett:  Let’s say I wanna join, right…

Boo:  Okay, let’s say that.

Doggett:  Would I have to do anything disgusting against the word of God?

Boo looks perplexed.

Doggett:  You know? … I’m talking about eating pussy if you catch my drift.

Boo:  Yeah, I hear you. And that is a big part of it, I’m not gonna lie. But since you have these religious convictions, eh, we can probably give you an exemption. I mean, we’re not unreasonable.

Doggett:  Really? That’d be great.

Boo: Mmm. Of course, you’re still gonna have to go through the initiation.

Doggett:  Yeah, I figured.

Boo:  Yeah.

Boo then looks up at Doggett, struggling to keep a straight face.

 

By the first episode of season three Boo has, like us, softened toward Doggett, even going as far as to making her feel better about getting several abortions when she was younger.

 

 

This is the moment that cements their friendship, so that later when serious shit goes down they have each other’s back. Doggett gets given van duty with a new guard, Officer Coates, and I’m sure you remember how that turned out. Doggett doesn’t realise right away that she was raped, which would have seemed surprising if we hadn’t already been given a piece of her back story as context in the same episode. We learn that she was taught to just ‘give men what they want’ from an early age, and that if a guy does something nice for her she’s obliged to repay him with sex, so when she’s assaulted by this guard whom she considered a friend she figured she did something to provoke it. We also learn that she’s been raped before, even if she won’t acknowledge it. It’s not until Boo goes to pains to explain that what happened was actually rape that Doggett realises just how messed up the situation, and her life, really is.

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While Doggett comes to terms with her situation, justice isn’t served on the perpetrator. She and Boo come close to exacting revenge – they had planned to drug Coates’ coffee and then rape him with a broom handle in his backside. When it comes down to it, though, the two of them can’t bring themselves to violate someone like that. When Boo tells Doggett that it will help her work out her rage and anger, Dogget replies “I don’t have rage. I’m just sad.” They never tell the authorities because Doggett might get in trouble, so instead she fakes an epileptic seizure while driving the van so they’ll change her work duty and she won’t have to be around him anymore. She’s replaced by the cute little Ramos as the van’s driver, and it’s assumed that Coates will probably repeat the process over again.

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This story line drew some criticism for the way it was resolved, mainly because justice wasn’t served and that Doggett simply quit her job to get away from him. These criticisms make me wonder if the reviewers have been watching the show at all – the whole point of this series is that justice is rarely served and that life isn’t fair. Her changing her own routine is not seen as a positive step, overall. The fact of the matter is that a huge number of rapes go unreported, and the ones that do rarely make it to trial. Many victims would rather re-arrange their whole lives so as to not see their rapist again, rather than go through the ordeal of prosecution.

Rape is an important subject and I absolutely think that we need to talk about it. But as I have said before, it’s a subject that needs to be handled very, very carefully. In this story, rape hasn’t been used to re-affirm how evil the perpetrator is, or to make the show seem darker and edgier, or to make a male protagonist want to get revenge. It’s not flippant. Instead, the plot follows the victim all the way through, and it focuses on her rather than pushing her to the background or killing her off so we don’t have to deal with her. During the incidences, the camera focuses on her face. The two rape scenes advance the characters involved, not the plot. The emotional consequences are explored in detail – the writing is far from lazy.

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Kudos should also be given to Taryn Manning for being able to successfully bring this character to life and to make us really believe in her story. Serious Kudos. Emmy Award Kudos.

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On the Excellence that is Miss Fisher

 

If you are not at all familiar with the Honourable Phryne Fisher, then prepare for a crash course in fabulousness. This week we discuss Australia’s most beloved lady detective, including her books and the three-season TV show, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

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Phryne Fisher emerged from the incredible brain of Melbourne’s own Kerry Greenwood. She’s a 1920’s heiress, independently wealthy thanks to an inherited title. She was born into a poor family in Richmond, but as the war wiped out most of her wealthy British relations she and her father were both elevated in status pretty much by default. This combination of wealth and an impoverished background leads her to fighting for the underdog, as she has the means and social conscience to do so. It also means she has an absolutely killer wardrobe.

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In the first book of the series, Cocaine Blues, Phryne is living in London when she is asked by her friend, Colonel Andrews, to head to Australia to check up on his daughter, who he suspects is being poisoned by her husband.  Phryne is happy to oblige, returning to Melbourne so that she could put off settling down for a few months. At the end of the book she decides that she’d much rather stay in Melbourne than go back to the boring London social scene, and so sets herself up as a ‘Lady Detective.’

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The TV series differs slightly from the books because they wanted to give season one a continuing narrative to tie the episodes together. In the show, Phryne comes to Melbourne to delve into her own past and investigate the death of her sister when they were children. Within the first few episodes of the show, she acquires a housemaid and social secretary named Dorothy (Dot) Williams, as well as a ward named Jane, a Butler named Mr. Butler and two red-ragger hangers on named Burt and Cec. She also meets with her old friend, Dr Elizabeth McMillan (or Dr. Mac) who works as a surgeon at the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women.

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The TV series does follow the books in a lot of respects, with one or two notable exceptions, mainly the character of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. Working out of City South police station, Jack and Constable Hugh Collins lend Phryne some legal legitimacy. After their first few adventures together they get used to Phryne showing up on cases, and they work together very well once Jack finally acknowledges that Phryne is actually a damn good detective.

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The huge difference between Book-Jack and TV-Jack is  that Book-Jack is happily married while TV-Jack is divorced, which leads to an agonising will-they-won’t-they situation that spans the course of three seasons. This doesn’t really alter Phryne’s character, though. Her bohemian lifestyle is inspired by her time as an ambulance nurse in the war, and like many young people who lived through ‘the war to end all wars’ her personal mantra is to seize the day and party like there is no tomorrow. She dresses fabulously, drinks elaborate cocktails and will invite to her bed any man who takes her fancy (and, as with everything else, she has impeccable taste in men); she’s not just going to wait around for Jack (which, incidentally, ruffled a few feathers when it was first released on Netflix in the USA).

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She also carries a gun, drives a Hispano Suiza and can handle herself in a fight. Really, she’s a 1970’s woman who accidentally wandered into the 1920’s and stayed for the cocktails and frocks.

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Like all great detective duo’s, Jack and Phryne work best as a team. What I adore about these two are that Phryne isn’t the damsel in distress – sure, sometimes she needs Jack’s help, other times he needs hers. They take turns rescuing each other, which is a subtle but welcome departure from the norm. No judgment is passed -by anyone, really – about Phryne’s views regarding sex and her willingness to engage in sex with anyone she chooses. Her attitude regarding social mores is pretty well summed up in the first episode in a conversation with Dr. Mac –

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Each book, and subsequently most episodes of the TV series, focus on some pretty big issues. Right off the bat Cocaine Blues tackles both drug addiction and abortion, set in a time when cocaine was legal with a doctor’s prescription but abortion was performed in back alleys. Scores of women died while trying to be rid of unwanted pregnancies, going to opportunistic fiends who had barely a clue what they were doing but were happy to take money from a desperate woman. Phryne, Burt and Cec go after one such fiend, as well as trying to bring down the head of a crime syndicate who are smuggling drugs into Melbourne via the local bathhouse.

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1928 was a time when women were being more accepted in the professions, which is how we have Dr. Mac, who happens to be a lesbian (or, as they referred to them at the time, a Sapphic). There are a stories based around women working in factories and fashion, as well as women in professional sport and car racing. There’s also issues regarding gay rights, slut-shaming and the treatment of women for ‘hysteria’ when really they’re just mad about being oppressed.

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The “percussor” was often used to treat women for ‘uncontrollable urges’ outside of the marriage bed.

 

Phryne comes to us as a fully realised and self-assured character, but with a couple of stories that delve into her past we are able to learn how she came to be the woman she is – her experiences during the war, within an abusive relationship and with her wayward father all inform her character. She does, however, act as a catalyst for the development of the other characters in her circle. The main one is Dot, who’s origin story is different between book and TV, in this case to help streamline the story. Dot begins as a scared little mouse afraid to use electric appliances, and by the end of the first episode is already learning new things about being an independent woman. By the start of the third season she’s relaxed a hell of a lot, including coming to the realisation that she doesn’t want to quit working after she gets married.

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I’ll admit, some of the acting is a bit patchy. However, it’s interesting to watch some of the less-experienced actors learning at the feet of some of the greats, including the sensational Essie Davis as Phryne and BAFTA award-winning Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Prudence. These minor details are easily overlooked when you get engrossed by the story, aided by the on-point production details, witty one-liners and, of course, the urge to figure out whodunnit before Phryne does.

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Marion Boyce, who I mentioned last week, is the show’s costume designer. She manages to make Phryne look enviably stylish in every single scene, as well as dressing the other characters in ways that perfectly suit the era and their personality. The show is filmed around Melbourne at sites which were actually standing in 1928, including Ripponlee estate. Some backgrounds had to be altered digitally to remove more modern additions such as skyscrapers, but all up the attention to detail is impeccable.

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All of this is informed by Kerry Greenwood’s superb writing. According to interviews, Greenwood does enough research to fill three books for every one she actually publishes. She makes sure that every detail, be it integral or incidental, are absolutely correct for the time the book is set. Greenwood was also heavily involved in the TV production process.

Once you’re sufficiently hooked on the show, you should also take  a look at Text’s From Phryne Fisher for gems like this one –

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If I haven’t convinced you to give the books or the show a go, maybe Kerry Greenwood can. Seasons 1&2 can be streamed on Netflix, while all three seasons are out on DVD her in Australia.

 

Next week I’m going to do an in-depth view at Orange is the New Black in the lead up to the launch of season 4. In the meantime, stay fabulous and always prepared!

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