How Pennsatuckey Went From Villain to Fan Favorite on ‘Orange Is The New Black’
Orange is the New Black gets a lot of praise for how unique and diverse its predominantly female cast is. You’d be hard-pressed to find such a talented array of women from all walks of life together on any other television show. What’s more, these actresses all get interesting, complicated, and compelling storylines. (OITNB passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors in every episode.) The inmates at Litchfield are all more than what initially meets the eye, with stories to tell that may change our feelings about them through the course of the series. And in Season 3, no character is a better example of that than Taryn Manning’s fanatical villain turned sympathetic favorite, Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett.
Pennsatucky’s haunting story arc produces a major leap in character development (and one of the season’s best episodes, the heartbreaking “A Tittin’ and a Hairin'”).
That’s not to say that she hasn’t been evolving since her early days as the manic, hyper-religious, violent, homophobic and dentally challenged inmate. In the first season, her behavior in prison was unhinged and abhorrent, and we learn that she is serving time for shooting a nurse at an abortion clinic–not for ethical reasons, but because Doggett felt the woman had insulted her. She was hypnotic to watch, but ultimately terrifying, manipulative and so entirely unlikable. And her villain status was secured in the season-ending cliffhanger during which she attempted to murder Piper (Taylor Schilling).
But Piper turning the tables and beating Pennsatucky to a pulp puts her on a new path in Season 2. At first she was still predominantly seen as a baddie, or at least a punch line. (That’s not to say she didn’t get in her own fair share of zingers on her fellow inmates, including “It’s a metaphor, you potato with eyes!”) The tide started to turn, however; despite a new set of teeth in her mouth, she lost her clique when Leanne and Angie abandoned her and struggled as her faith was challenged. Tiffany had to essentially start over, and as she bonds with Healy and becomes involved in his Safe Place group therapy efforts, we saw her softer side.
Season 3 certainly allowed Tiffany to venture in new directions—moving out of the laundry room and into the driver’s seat of the prison van, for one—but they were some pretty devastating ones. While knew about her impoverished and troubled background from previous flashbacks, Season 3 dug deeper into her past. Raised on a steady diet of Mountain Dew and neglect, Tiff was doomed from the start. But as we came to find out in the aforementioned “A Tittin’ and a Hairin’,” she almost had a chance. She meets her high school boyfriend Nathan (Ronen Rubinstein), a handsome, caring and selfless guy who introduces her to the radical idea that she is worthy of love, and shows her sex can be more than something traded for soda and attention. But when Nathan tragically moves away, she’s right back where she started, in a bleak, lonely world of predatory men made worse now that she knows better options exist.
At Litchfield, Tiffany and the inept new correctional officer Charlie Coates (James McMenamin) strike up a rapport during van runs. Their relationship starts as flirtatious (read: inappropriate to begin with) but quickly takes a dark turn when he begins to emotionally and physically abuse her. It was absolutely gut wrenching to watch someone already so broken be chipped away even more.
Tiffany experienced all the emotions a victim can go through in a situation like this, from guilt to self-blame to utter sadness. Not only did this season show Tiffany’s depth as a character, but Manning’s incredible range as an actress. In an interview with BuzzFeed discussing this season’s harrowing storyline, Manning explained:
“There are so many victims of this — men and women… If I’m gonna play someone, real or not real, I hope that I’m playing a storyline sincere. I felt that, after sort of lifelong sexual abuse, seeing sex and intimacy as literally nothing — you let them do what they’re gonna do and that’s just that. I think she’s checked out. It’s a very common mechanism for a lot of victims of rape and abuse. … I’m not a victim of rape, so in my research and studies, there’s different ways you can react, and that’s one of them. … She knows what’s happening and checking out, but, ‘Man, I actually really liked him. Like, really? Yeah, this feels like not a good thing happening to me, but I’m not gonna get too emotional. But this hurts.'”
But Tiffany’s storyline in Season 3 wasn’t completely defined by what Officer Charlie did to her. It was also her unlikely friendship with Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), which became one of the strongest, most emotionally satisfying relationships to come out of the show. Boo not only comforted and openly talked to Tiffany about her abortions during the Season 3 premiere, but also got her to realize that what Officer Charlie was putting her through was rape. Boo got her to see herself and the world around her in a new way.
The clearest signal of how far Pennsatuckey has come might be that she calls off the revenge plot devised with Boo to drug and sodomize Charlie. For someone we’ve seen seek far greater revenge for minor slights, the realization that the scheme would make her no better than her tormentor was groundbreaking.
Two seasons ago it would have seemed impossible to not only empathize with Tiffany/Pennsatucky, but to actively root for her wellbeing. And that’s because Manning and the OITNB writers allowed us to get beneath the shattered, scarred surface of this character and let us see why she was the was she was before, and more importantly, who she is now because of it.