Friday, July 10, 2015

Who is Piper Chapman?

Throughout the course of books, TV shows and movies, characters that audiences fall in love with, or love to hate, often evolve.  In a strange series of events on my part, I’ve been clearing my DVR of Fortitude (I’ve still got a ways to go) and I’ve been reading The Hunger Games and Philosophy.  On the same night, I viewed the Fortitude episode in which one character (POSSIBLE SPOILER if you’re planning on watching or if you haven’t seen/read Hunger Games or plan on watching Orange is the New Black or Fortitude) states that she’s not the same person she was seven years ago because over the course of seven years, all the cells in your body are replaced.  In her definition, she is focusing on her physical presence, not her spiritual or emotional one, which one could argue isn’t just housed through the cells in your body.  Later that night, I read the essay Who is Peeta Mellark in the aforementioned Hunger Games book and it discussed the transformation of Peeta from the sweet boy who is in love with Katniss into the disillusioned one at the end of the book.  The focus of the essay was on both the emotional Peeta as well as physical.  Peeta was tortured by the Capital to forget the positive things he knew about Katniss and believe she meant him harm.  The boy that is rescued from the Capital bears little resemblance to the boy we first met, yet it is the same person.  This had my mind rolling in a few directions and as I thought about it, it lent me to the character evolution of Piper, and Alex, in Orange is the New Black and the relationship between the two.

In the beginning of Orange is the New Black, the audience is introduced to the affluent Piper Chapman who is incarcerated for the part she played in carrying drug money through customs for her then-girlfriend Alex Vause.  The timing of the offense occurred ten years prior and the audience witnesses Piper’s transition into being a free person as being someone who can work within the system of the jail.  The contrast from seasons one to three are quite stark, the tipping point being the end result to fellow inmate Stella.  Is the Piper the audience first meets the real Piper, or is the Piper at the end of season three the real Piper?

The sense of self is a long-argued point amongst philosophers.  There are many branches to this argument and the one that makes the most sense for the aforementioned characters to me is the idea promoted by David Hume.  In his writings, Hume asserts that there is a bundle theory of self.  The idea being that a person today and a person a few years prior may be drastically different, but is the same base person.  In a way, or the way it helps me to understand this concept, is like a painting, you have a base layer and you may add or subtract, but at the end of the day, even if the painting isn’t complete, your idea of the painting is still the same, the product is still the same product you had when you started, even if elements of it have changed and may yet change again and be weathered and worn over time.  Hume (from A Treatise of Human Nature) phrases it as follows:

We are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement

The sense of self is a combination of many varying elements and despite what Alex says to Piper in season one (while they’re playing cards), she probably isn’t nearly as consistent as she believes herself to be.  The Piper and Alex that the audience meets before the series started (through flashbacks) are not the same pair we meet in season one nor the pair that ends up in two very different places at the end of season three.  Each action and interaction affects them both in different ways.

When Piper first arrives in prison, she has a very naïve outlook on life, wary of everyone at prison, but still not smart enough to be silent when she needs to be.  Some of her first interactions with the other prisoners are cringe-worthy, like her foot-in-mouth insult of Red, the prison chef.  And while Alex tries to help her (and is punished for offering said help), Piper quickly learns and adjusts.  Even after one day, the Piper the audience meets is vastly different than the Piper from the second day.  Which Piper is the real one?

Hume asserts that both are Piper.  A person grows each day, adding something to their outlook on life, their behaviour.  Even if Piper, when she rekindles her romance with Alex, states that she “feels like 23 and no time has passed.  I’ve changed so much.”  Alex counters that she hasn’t changed at all, which the audience also learns is false as Alex dabbles in drug use and learns from it.  Change is inevitable, but does that change make you a completely different person?

Another great philosophical reference is the Ship of Theseus analogy.  In the story, a group of Athenians were keeping a boat from breaking down by replacing the boat piece by piece as it needed to be repaired.  Each piece was replaced with an identical piece, yet one could argue the boat that set out was not the same boat when it returned as all the pieces had, at some point, been replaced.  

When we are introduced to Alex, through the lenses of Piper’s prejudice, she is untrustworthy and unscrupulous.  By the end of season three, Alex is a lot more honest with Piper, at least, despite the ending of their relationship.  Through flashbacks, we see Alex as being somewhat naïve, even if she was knowingly working for a drug cartel.  The fear and paranoia she exhibits are wildly drastic from the untroubled Alex viewers met in season one.  In a way, Alex and Piper move in two opposing directions, the control between them shifting between them like a wave.  If the characters are meant to be together, I expect the waves to settle in the upcoming seasons, which would be a nice contrast to the contrivances we’ve endured over this last season.

A different way to view this would be an eye-test of sorts.  Would Piper from season one even speak to Piper from season three?  The two may share the same history and backstory, but once Piper enters prison, she ceases to be the never-incarcerated Piper.  To some degree, I believe that when your worldview begins to change based upon your surroundings, the chance is so profound that you truly are a different person, a person the previous you might not be able to identify with on any level.

In essence, the Piper from season one to season three is a completely different person.  The same can be said about Alex, though for slightly different reasons.  The character development for Piper, as the central character, was far greater than any other character.  As the show has progressed, each of the characters have been fleshed out, and the strong, sarcastic Alex has been boiled down from her high, looking very much human.  It does say something about both characters that neither are pleased with the change in the other, stating that neither is pleased with the new “version” of the other.  The recognition of the versions belies itself to my theory.  They recognise the change and realise they are two different people.  I’d like to believe, at the core of their relationship, they still do care about each other, as Alex states in season one “When you have a connection with someone, it never really goes away…you snap back to being important to each other because you still are.”  Despite the changes the two characters evolve into, maybe they are the same and we’re the ones who’ve changed our views.

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