We want to believe our most intimate friendships are inevitable. A bond so essential couldn’t be tethered to circumstance, could it? In a different context, surely our best friends would share with us the same vital companionship; in a different kind of muck, among different haters, we’d stumble onto common ground.
On Orange is the New Black, the characters Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) foster a devoted closeness on the hard-boiled ground of Litchfield Penitentiary. It’s the disheveled togetherness of prison life—a day-to-day strained by competing loyalties and quotidian cruelties—that exposes their affection, which is both profound and knotted by the two characters’ disparate histories. Litchfield storytelling often relies on contrast, the experiential gulf between life in prison and memories of life outside it. Taystee and Poussey’s friendship simultaneously illuminates and torches that aching gap.
As of the second season, OITNB hasn’t incorporated Poussey and Taystee’s first encounter into its narrative; perhaps it won’t. And while we might gradually piece together the reasons behind their respective incarcerations, the show sharply resists characterization through criminal sentence. So when we meet the women in the first season, they’re already habituated to Litchfield’s rhythms and to each other, a tag-teaming duo dispensing wisecracks (and, in Season One’s less inspired moments, peddling exposition).
Thankfully, the show’s second season tarries frequently in moments that explore Taystee and Poussey as both selves and friends. Taystee, equal parts brash and artless, has come of age in state institutions. She sings, she protests Toddlers and Tiaras on the sturdy grounds that it sexualizes little girls, and she ushers protagonist Piper Chapman out of the shower with a gleeful gawk at her perky “TV titties.” Her characterization winks at a fraught and drug-laced sexual history, but she retains a rough-edged innocence, albeit one belying protracted neglect. In Season Two she situates herself in a bathroom stall, Poussey and company in tow, after realizing her naive and erroneous conception of female genitalia and all the magic it wields.
Poussey’s background as a far-flung daughter of an Army major inheres in her French name (“accent à droite, bitch”) and, devastatingly, in the flashbacks chronicling her ill-fated, teenage romance with a German commander’s daughter. She’s revered among the inmates for her hooch recipe, an illicit treat only offered in bonhomie—never as barter. She chides Taystee and the rest of their circle when they dip beneath her ethics and respectability standard, sometimes stirring up privileged-based resentment in the process. And when Poussey loves someone—as she loves Taystee—she loves in a perilously wide open way that invites a punch to the gut.
Together and apart, Taystee and Poussey communicate through comic maximalism, and their intimacy thrives on mutually energizing performance. Adopting the alter egos Amanda (Taystee) and Mackenzie (Poussey), they glide into playful mimicries of upper class New York whiteness. The two delight in the game, but its thorny seeds are close to the surface. Amanda and Mackenzie make their first appearances as a rejoinder to fellow inmate Sophia’s plans for inmate-propelled prison reform. Dismissing their friend’s dreams of more robust health care access as “white people politics,” Taystee and Poussey ping-pong a conversation full of snobbish buffoonery—a mockery of the detached ignorance firmly embedding racism and classism within the criminal justice system.
In this scene, they’re laughing; closeness blooms through farce. But the sustaining energy is their fury and pain. They share a common mode of defiance, a refusal to grant dignity to those either willfully or obliviously unconcerned with theirs. “Amanda” and “Mackenzie” spring from a mutual recognition of Litchfield’s rottenness; they’re an embodiment of the desperate laugh provoked by an inhospitable world. It’s a laugh emotionally adjacent to outrage—the same outrage that erupts when pink-lipped debutante Piper is granted furlough, a glimmering myth for women of color like Poussey, previously denied a visit to her dying mother. Through their alter egos, they can inhabit the folly of privilege while also locating each other on the same terrain: they’re black women imprisoned by a system too eager to criminalize them, and to thrust them out of sight.
In OITNB’s second season, the narrative boundary separating Taystee and Poussey’s Litchfield-born intimacy from their selves pre-incarceration becomes more obviously porous. In the scope of the show, Poussey has always been queer-identified. But a flip reference to her sexuality sometimes startles Taystee. When Poussey remarks, self-satisfied, that her knowledge of genitalia derives from being “up close and personal with [her] share of pussy,” Taystee’s countenance fleetingly betrays distress. And when, in the midst of that impromptu anatomy lesson, Poussey offers her friend purely instructive aid, Taystee—still in the bathroom stall, and still disconcerted—hastily refuses.
Taystee doesn’t recoil due to homophobic impulse; on the contrary, this blip of agitation prompted by Poussey’s self-acknowledged queerness implies the wider sexual mystification that has sent Taystee to the toilet in the first place. Poussey’s sexuality only disturbs when it destabilizes the relationship’s emotional equilibrium. We see it in their embrace upon Taystee’s Season One reincarceration. Poussey’s fists press against Taystee’s back—a site of resistance compared to her face, which softens as she briefly nestles against Taystee’s cheek.
The long moment leaves Poussey husky-voiced and bashful; she summons a casual tone, as if to throw off the desire settling into her bones. But by OITNB’s second season, she has acknowledged, at least to some extent, her romantic affection for Taystee—and Taystee, in turn, understands the transformation in Poussey’s love. A gentle skirmish in Taystee’s bunk propels Poussey to kiss her friend full on the mouth. Taystee responds, but with tender apology.
“Sorry P. We’ve been through this.”
“I know,” Poussey replies.
The women curl up together—Taystee’s suggestion—in an attempt to meet one another halfway. But even the deepest platonic affection can’t breach the gap between romantic love and chaste friendship. Facing away from Taystee, and contemplating the breadth of that gap, Poussey’s expression registers tearful dejection. She must come to terms with the barbed love she feels now, and with the limits of what her relationship with Taystee can be. Without the common ground of mutual attraction, Poussey is tangled in the tragedy of loving her straight best friend; her only recourse is acceptance.
Unrequited love, agonizing though it may be, is not inherently poisonous to a friendship. Had Taystee and Poussey been left to navigate the curve brought round by the latter’s charged attachment, perhaps they would have never faced estrangement. But when Yvonne “Vee” Parker—Taystee’s villainously manipulative mother-figure—arrives in prison, she seeks to isolate her former protegé from Poussey by framing her queerness as irreconcilable with Taystee’s own reputation beyond Litchfield. Admonishing her that “gay for the stay is for punk ass bitches who aren’t strong enough to be true to themselves,” Vee condemns Poussey’s sexual identity as a mark of feeble character—one that will tarnish Taystee’s chances of belonging when she is eventually released.
So, the friendship that once made Taystee’s return to prison a homecoming becomes, through Vee’s contortions, a hazard that’s only acceptable if limited to imprisonment. In a self-serving and bitterly homophobic warning, Vee intones, “Do not let [Poussey] drag you into that shit. She is not your real friend; she is only your friend in here.”
Torn, Taystee balks under Vee’s influence, slowly migrating away from Poussey. But ultimately, it’s not Poussey’s queerness that triggers their moment of crisis, but instead the gap in socioeconomic privilege that Vee’s presence emphasizes. While Taystee and their other companions begin to deal heroin under Vee’s direction, Poussey refuses to degrade herself as “a hoodrat corner kid.” But outside Litchfield, Vee’s success as a heroin dealer yielded the only material comfort Taystee had ever known. Vee’s ruthlessness is catching, as is the new, gnawing determination that Poussey’s own history renders empathy out of reach.
“You don’t know where I come from,” Taystee snarls, stalking towards a silent Poussey, “I ain’t have no daddy in the Army, parents lookin’ out for me, or a fucking winter coat, you bougie bitch! So don’t pretend you know me or my people.” Bougie bitches don’t sell heroin in order to get by, is what she’s saying; even Poussey’s weed dealing seems like a recreational risk in comparison to Taystee’s precarious history.
Hanging heavy in the air at Litchfield are questions surrounding the afterlives of prison relationships. Will your girlfriend, released two years before you, abandon you for someone new? Will a friendship forged in prison prevail in the open air? Taystee and Poussey may once have regarded each other as inevitable, kindred—taking for granted, as so many of us do, the dubious idea that a fierce attachment can defy context. But as Season Two nears its conclusion, Taystee’s condemnation conveys a more brutal message: Had we met before Litchfield, we would not have been friends. We will not be friends when we’re free.
But if Vee purposefully alienates Taystee and Poussey via charismatic faux-maternity and the bigotry of “incompatibility,” she unwittingly reunites them, too. Blaming Taystee for Poussey’s efforts to thwart their heroin operation, Vee ultimately determines Taystee a business risk and forsakes her. And in the confrontation that solidifies their reconciliation, the sandy grounds for their severance gives way. Taystee blames Poussey for turning Vee against her, but she moreover accuses her of being sexually dissatisfied, “You gotta… you gotta turn it wrong,” she cries, “You gotta wanna take off my clothes.” But Poussey’s “dangerous” queerness is a decrepit argument. It seems preposterous without Vee’s persuasive charisma to inflate it. As Poussey sobs, they’re nonetheless regaining their intimacy; whatever seemed to force Taystee away was a mirage.
The next morning, in the final episode of Season Two, Taystee joins Poussey at mealtime. This is a familial ritual the pair have not lately shared. Poussey is beaming; after the previous night, their reunion is certain. Yet Taystee eschews the conversation that Poussey longs to have. She cannot rehash past events or parse the nuances of their mended friendship. “I never learned that,” she explains. Poussey largely accepts this boundary, but tests it—gently—by tentatively suggesting Mackenzie’s concern over the state of their friendship after Amanda’s opulent travels.
This is a routine Taystee knows, and its emotional stakes are soothingly light. Later that day, she regales Poussey with Amanda’s account of their rift—“it’s all because of the cycle of poverty”—but she trumps the garble with her own true assessment: “I was just being an asshole.” There are no promises in this renewed harmony: no assurances of Manhattan apartments, and house parties, and breakfast before their morning shifts. There’s only happy stasis. But Amanda and Mackenzie, so haughty and stupid, have always enabled Taystee and Poussey to articulate the pain inherent to doing time. And where there is a common language the ground, for now, is firm.
Rachel Vorona Cote is the creator of the Fake Friends series. She has also written essays for The Rumpus, The Hairpin, and The Billfold. Come hang out with her on Twitter here.
Image via Netflix