In the real world, it's summer — but in the universe of Orange is the New Black, this was undeniably the season of Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow). Following the tumultuous five-day prison riot in season 5, Caputo, Litchfield's "director of human activities," is placed on a leave of absence. Once he wakes from his porn and junk food-induced catatonic state, the once apathetic warden assumes a new role: that of a saviour. Or, at the very least, Caputo becomes a guy who actively tries to do the right thing. And compared to the other MCC employees, whose attitudes are limited to a spectrum ranging from apathetic to abusive, witnessing an MCC employee “try” to do the right thing seems downright heroic.
Given the sheer amount of time the show devotes to his character development, season 6 of Orange is the New Black could easily be nicknamed the Joe Caputo Redemption Tour. The first, and arguably the most crucial, step in Caputo's Redemption Tour is a wardrobe and lifestyle overhaul that would make Antoni of Queer Eye shed a single tear in approval. After what seemed like five seasons of basking in his own fluids, Caputo shaves his scruff, cuts his hair, and cleans his apartment. He cooks complicated meals. He pursues grand romantic gestures, like singing Bruce Springsteen's “I’m on Fire” onstage at a bar.
Essentially, Caputo becomes a genuinely appealing presence for the first time in his history on the show. His constantly bewildered expression no longer inspires a mixture of pity and disdain. He is, in a phrase, all right.
Feel that little tugging at the edges of your heart? That’s a soft spot forming for Caputo. Maybe it’s forming against your will, but it’s there nonetheless, insidious and invasive. As you, the viewer, sprouted feelings of tenderness for Caputo, so too did Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), the admirably steely she-viper acting as interim warden. In season 6, Caputo finally begins to woo Natalie in earnest; she finally admits that she possesses feelings within her stone heart. The Caputo-Figueroa romance is one of the highlights of this season. Each of their romantic progressions feels earned, because we’ve seen how their worst selves have capsized the relationship before.
Watching Caputo grow into a real boy is fun — but it’s also a distraction. His journey competes for air time against Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) trial, the most pressing storyline in season 6 of Orange Is the New Black. Taystee is being framed for inciting the prison riot and second-degree murder — neither of which she committed. Thanks to the ministrations of an unfair system, Taystee faces a potential life sentence.
Though Taystee is undeniably in the more dire position, Caputo receives more attention from Orange Is the New Black. Narratively, devoting some scenes to Caputo makes sense: He’s the sole component of the MCC monolith who actually acknowledges the prisoners’ humanity, who actively works to amplify the voices of the voiceless. Still: Why does Caputo, who’s only just waking up to the injustices, receive more screen time than Taystee, who’s been experiencing them for years? Why does Caputo spend the season actively changing, and Taystee spend the season mostly silent, save for a few rousing speeches largely meant to convince white people in power — like Caputo — to empathise with her struggle? This becomes Caputo's season to shine, instead of Taystee's to rage, to stew, to sob.
Just as Taystee takes a backseat for Caputo's journey in OITNB, Sam (Marc Maron), overshadows the women of GLOW in a similar way. In the (admittedly wonderful) past season of Netflix's GLOW, Sam, the visionary but tyrannical director of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, gets his own mini redemption tour. Aside from moustaches and the fact that they're surrounded by women all day, Sam and Caputo have nothing in common. Where Caputo is initially passive, Sam is too aggressive, throwing expletives and insults towards the wrestlers like a gym teacher during dodgeball.
Still, both Sam and Caputo are inspired to change after witnessing suffering befall their "favourite" women. In Orange is the New Black, Caputo is flooded with guilt when he sees Taystee trampled by the same system that employed him for years. Sam’s reckoning is spurred after Ruth (Alison Brie) is sexually harassed and subsequently punished by a TV executive. Following that incident, Sam transforms into someone willing to help, not just hurl insults. Acting like a slightly gritty white knight, Sam destroys the car of the executive. He warms up to his role as a father to his teenage daughter, with whom he’s recently been reunited. He even saves GLOW.
Essentially, the difficulties that befall Ruth and Taystee act as the vehicles for Sam and Caputo’s awakenings. By seeing Ruth and Taystee suffer, the men become reacquainted with their soft interiors. They're flexing their empathy muscles for the first time.
Certainly, Caputo and Sam should be congratulated for listening — actually listening — to the women around them. But what Caputo and Sam shouldn’t be is promoted to protagonist status – and that they certainly are. In the ultimate irony, Sam and Caputo emerge as the unlikely heroes on the most recent seasons of GLOW and Orange Is the New Black. These Jenji Kohan-produced shows are both billed as inclusive, character-driven celebrations of women, but it's the men who received dynamic character arcs. Taystee and Ruth, who had taken prominent positions in prior seasons, are reduced to embodying societal problems (the injustices of the prison system, sexual harassment) that these heroic men try to solve — and those aren't the shows we fell in love with. When GLOW and Orange is the New Black are at their best, they are shows about women saving themselves.