Over its five seasons, the Orange Is the New Black writers have unleashed unholy hell on the women of Litchfield: mind-warping days in solitary, brutally bloody fight clubs, and utterly dehumanizing treatment from guards. But nothing compares to the absolutely harrowing ordeal Red (Kate Mulgrew) is forced to endure at the hands of corrections officer Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke) in “The Reverse Midas Touch,” the 10th episode of Season 5.
This altercation serves as the culmination of a storyline that began in Season 4 when Red and Piscatella first clashed: She took umbrage with his brutish, ironfisted approach to managing the prison’s guards; he didn’t like the way she lorded over the prison and sought to strip her of all her power. Their face-to-face battle is put on hold when the prisoners riot and take over Litchfield, but that time apart — Piscatella is locked outside during the melee — only amplifies their anger. Piscatella channels his frustration into trying (and failing) to take charge of the operation to reclaim Litchfield, while Red sees this as an opportunity to scour Litchfield’s records for irrefutable evidence of his nefarious ways. And when she discovers that proof, Red enacts a plan to lure Piscatella inside the prison. Unfortunately, Piscatella deciphers her strategy and enters the prison with a vicious plan of his own: to use her family to exact the ultimate revenge on Red.
So he sets out to capture the women she’s closest to: Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon, who directed the episode), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Boo (Lea DeLaria), and Blanca (Laura Gomez). One by one, Piscatella tracks them down and, effectively, holds them hostage. They’re bound and gagged, helpless witnesses for his final act of depravity: With Red tied up and surrounded by her "children," Piscatella takes a knife and begins to slice off pieces of her hair and her scalp in an attempt to strip the prison’s mother of her power.
“This was a way of reducing Red in front of her daughters that would be not only so visceral, so disturbing, but it would also be the only way he could bring her down,” Kate Mulgrew told BuzzFeed News. “He uses Red to drive the point home that he is invincible and the privatization of prisons is invincible and the system is invincible and that's what I believe he represents ... until we turn the tables on him. But even then it's too late; I have been scalped. I have been tortured. I have been threatened. And I have been severely and roundly debased.”
It’s a profoundly upsetting scene for a myriad of reasons: Prepon wisely makes viewers wait for the shocking reveal — but at its core, the reason Piscatella’s actions carry such sickening weight is because he’s not inflicting physical harm on Red, he’s cutting straight to her core as a powerful woman. “It was something we talked about for a very long time because it felt, obviously, very important to get right,” Lauren Morelli, a writer and co-executive producer on the show, told BuzzFeed News. “Coming back to something that's really character based but all about her pride and her ego and stripping her of that. He would be smart enough to know that's the way to go with her; he doesn't have to cut off her finger, he doesn't have to physically harm her more than he already has — he has to degrade her.”
As difficult as the scene is to watch, it was equally challenging to film. Mulgrew and Henke spent a long time working out the physicality of the scalping, but opted not to discuss the minutiae of their individual emotional journeys in hopes everything would feel more organic in the moment. “It was hard. It was hard,” Mulgrew said of the “disturbing” scenario. “I had to reflect on a lot of things, vanity being foremost among them. All of that had to be quickly thrown away, and I'm not one to dismiss my vanity out of hand. So I had to really take it off the table and allow this other thing to enter in, which is called evil.” Through that process, Mulgrew got a valuable, albeit painful, insight into Red’s world. “It led me to a more cogent understanding of … this horror,” she said. “[More] than any other single moment in the five years I've been on the show, because she was so perfectly helpless. Heretofore I've always had a card up my sleeve. He took my entire deck and stripped it bare.”
“The Reverse Midas Touch” also illuminates Piscatella’s backstory, showing him years earlier at an all-men’s prison, where he falls in love with and begins a relationship with Wes Driscoll (Charlie Barnett), an inmate who is later gang-raped by a group of prisoners because of the affair. For Henke, the backstory provided important clarity on how and why Piscatella has become so hardened. “I think that we all do and say things when we feel hurt or when we feel upset, and I feel like with Red, she constantly pressed my buttons and I constantly felt disrespected and unseen by her, which I think makes me think of my mom,” Henke told BuzzFeed News, referring to the gay conversion camp Piscatella’s mother sent him to as a child. “She triggered me. She triggered me and I went to a place where, in a month, I would think, Why did I fucking do that? But I feel like she triggered me and it was a place where I couldn't control my actions.”
Of course Piscatella won’t be given the opportunity to repent for his transgressions because, in the closing moments of Season 5, he’s accidentally killed by another guard. “Of course there's a really delicious irony to it,” Morelli said, touching upon fact that Piscatella was responsible for creating the circumstances that led to Poussey’s tragic death at the end of Season 4. “I apologize to Brad in advance, but I think there's a real delight in watching him go down — especially having it be in this accidental way circles back to all of these things that had been set up.” While Henke is sad to no longer be a part of the show, he agrees with Morelli that it was best Piscatella meet his demise in Season 5. “I feel like I had a transformation,” he said. “I'm a by-the-book, learn-your-shit-type guard, and then this fucking kid shoots me and kills me? I think that's great. I think that as an actor, the scene couldn't have been better. As an individual, I wish I could go back next season.”
And while Mulgrew has no idea what’s in store for Season 6, she knows Red’s experience with Piscatella will have long-lasting ripple effects. “The scar tissue that this trauma will have produced in Red must be evidenced going forward — otherwise she becomes a caricature of herself,” she said. “She's not someone who can just take these things willy-nilly. We have to see the price paid. Where does it resonate? Where did it go in her? What happened to her mettle? What happened to her soul? What happened to her heart?... Is she going to rise above this or, even though she vindicated herself, will she always feel slightly reduced and threatened by what happened? And if that's true, how will it affect every one of her relationships in the future? We shall see.”