Over the course of its six seasons, Orange is the New Black has featured an array of terrifying villains. Vee’s (Lorraine Toussant) treacly, sinister sweetness leaves a permanent mark on everyone she encounters, especially Taystee (Danielle Brooks). Piscatella (Brad William Hencke) damages Red (Kate Mulgrew) forever. Although those villains have been vanquished, there's no rest for the women of Litchfield. In season 6, our inmates have to contend with Carol (Henny Russell) and Barbara (Mackenzie Phillips) Denning, the big, bad rulers of maximum security prison.
There are a few things you should know about Carol and Barbara Denning, the tsars of C Block and D Block, respectively. They’re skillful social manipulators, able to persuade underlings to do their bidding. They both possess the ability to give rousing impromptu speeches. But the most important thing to know about Carol and Barbara Denning is that they hate each other. The Dennings' sole purpose is to build competing empires within their cell blocks. For Carol in C-Block, that means cordoning off the high-paying jobs for C-Block. For Barbara in D-Block, that means conquering the drug import business.
Carol and Barbara's rivalry is the impetus for max's toxic, gang-ruled environment. But why do they loathe each other with such vehemence? Psychologically, Carol and Barbara make for fascinating figures. Essentially, the sisters are locked in a perpetual state of arrested development. Though they’re middle-aged women, Carol and Barbara have been imprisoned since they were teenagers. Neither woman had the chance to live an independent life, which would have allowed their bad feelings for each other to dissipate amid adult concerns. Neither grew up in the conventional sense of the phrase. So, their petty sibling fights congealed into a state of permanence.
Through flashbacks, we learn why Barbara and Carol’s rivalry eventually boiled over into outright gang warfare. Even before their prison days, Barbara and Carol’s relationship was contentious. Young Barbara (Lauren Kelston) was the quintessential willowy popular girl. Young Carol (Ashley Jordyn), the bespectacled middle sister who raged and drew murder plans in her notebook. Still, for all their differences, Carol and Barbara had one important quality in common: They were both capable of teaming up to murder their 8-year-old sister, Debbie. While there’s no moral justification for a heinous crime like this, Carol and Barbara were compelled to murder Debbie because they were tired of moving whenever her budding career in color guard deemed it necessary.
Carol and Barbara were correct in something: Killing Debbie meant they didn't have to follow through with their move to Texas. The sisters were sent to maximum security prison instead.
For a while, Carol and Barbara — also known as the Little Debbie Killers — charmed the inmates of max with their bravado. But in episode 10, we witness the inciting incident that led to their fight, and their ultimate separation into C and D Block. Warning: It's pretty ridiculous. Sitting at the center of a circle of inmates, Carol tells a story about working as a waitress on a busy night when someone asks her for the classifieds. Carol goes outside, uses a quarter to purchase a newspaper, and brings back the classified section. The man is surprised. “’Miss, why did you bring me the classifieds? I asked for a glass of ice,’” he says. Barb, listening to Carol tell her tale, bristles. She attests that this story happened to her. A massive fight breaks out among prisoners.
Frieda (Dale Soules) was present for the inception of the Carol-Barbara rivalry. “It got so bad, they put them in separate blocks. From there, those two started turning us against one another. They expected us to buy into their fight, take sides,” Frieda explains to Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) in the present day. Frieda, even as a teenager, was skeptical of buying into Carol and Barbara’s “nonsense.” Seeking an escape from the unending gang war, she decides to turn on Carol. Frieda gives Carol’s drug stash to a CO. Carol, thinking Barbara is responsible for destroying her burgeoning import business, begins a massive war in the kickball field that ends up adding 30 years onto each of their 25-year sentences. As a result, there’s only one person the Denning sisters hate more than each other: Frieda. When Frieda is transferred back to max, Carol and Barbara see their chance to exact revenge on someone besides each other.
Incidentally, Frieda was totally correct to be skeptical of their fight. In season 6's final episode, we learn that neither Barbara nor Carol remembered the classifieds story correctly. This incident actually happened to their coworker at the restaurant. So, in summary: The decades-long ravaged prison landscape is the result of a manipulated and misremembered story.
Ultimately, the source of the sisters’ anger isn’t as important as the anger itself. Their hate has given them something to do for the past few decades. In max, the only activities offered to inmates are a library and a shoddy exercise class — even if Linda's (Beth Dover) PolyCon video says otherwise. There are no resources, no distractions, no chance for personal improvement. Carol and Barbara’s hate is the distraction that fills up their years. It’s their purpose. And ultimately, it’s their undoing.
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