A few nights ago, I watched the second-season finale of Unité 9 on Netflix—and I thought Orange is the New Black was good. This piece of French-Canadian TV brilliance sheds a whole new light on women fighting an uphill battle to start their lives over.
Like OITNB, Unité 9 is set in a prison called Lietteville outside of Montreal. As the show opens, Marie Lamontagne is being hauled off to prison after pleading guilty to trying to kill her father. When she arrives, she’s surprised to find most of the women (except those few in either solitary confinement or the maximum security wing) living in groups of six in cozy little bungalows. Each woman has a small daily allowance for food, but in Unit 9 they pool their resources to have nicer meals, complemented by vegetables grown in a communal garden. Unit 9 is clean, organized, and run like a family by the maternal Elise, who’s approaching the end of her 24-year sentence.
But as Marie begins her seven-year term, a new prison director is taking charge at Lietteville. There have been problems at this new-concept prison and Corrections Canada has appointed stern-faced, tight-laced M. Despins to set the situation straight. Thus, the show starts out by playing into conservative, law-and-order stereotypes of convicts living the easy life on the taxpayer’s dime. Criminals who wear their own clothing, earn money at prison jobs to buy personal comforts like television sets and music players, and even take weekly piano lessons? What kind of system is this for punishing people who have committed crimes against society? And not just people, but women?
As the series unfolds, it becomes apparent this system was working quite well, thank you—or was, until Despins came along. Women whose root crimes were being poor, uneducated, and often lifelong victims of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were working through their problems and becoming equipped to rejoin society.
But as Despins implements his ideas of the way a prison should work, the thread holding the women of Unit 9 together begins to unravel . At the same time as we’re learning why each woman is really there, what demons many of them are fighting, Despins is busy throwing more of them into Solitary or Max, splitting supportive family groups apart, and tossing women who were beginning to heal in with sociopathic gang members.
Committed staff who have worked with female convicts for years become frustrated with the increasingly toxic environment and leave Lietteville. New wardens hired more for brawn than brains either brutalize their charges or become involved with them sexually. Smuggling and theft increase, internal intimidation and violence run rampant, and all of it gives Despins the excuse he needs to become even more controlling.
In this environment, women who have lived their lives by negotiating gendered double binds find themselves less and less able to do what is expected of them—take responsibility for their actions and prepare to start their lives over.
The script is, of course, laced with metaphors: The windows need no bars because the real prisons are in the women’s minds. The psychiatrist is legally blind but her insights are deep and true. Liette, the root of Lietteville, is both a short form of the romantic “Juliette” and a variant of the slang term “Le Tit,” which refers to a female girl with nice T&A.
Marie Lamontagne is a mountain of strength, having pleaded guilty to a crime she did not commit to protect her daughter, Léa Petite, from sexual abuse at the hands of the same father who molested Marie. Through all the verbal abuse and sermonizing Marie endures for failing to take responsibility for a crime she did not commit (while her father’s abuse of both herself and her daughter goes unpunished), she protects her child (who attacked her grandfather in self-defense) by keeping her secret.
The story itself is, of course, a metaphor. Just as the best speculative fiction takes the problems we find most intractable on Earth and places them in distant galaxies, where we might see them more objectively and find our way out of the double binds we’ve placed ourselves in, Unité 9 places a group of women in their own small, separate universe so that we might see the double binds that tie us all into a world of gendered rules more clearly.
While OITNB strives to do something similar (and succeeds, as Stacey May Fowles wrote a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail), it does so with a lighter touch, and it’s partly the humour with which the real-life protagonist, Piper Kerman, looks at responsibility in her own and other women’s lives that makes OITNB so good.
Unité 9 takes a different route, and a much harsher look at all the same themes, and reveals more in black and white than orange why it can sometimes be so hard for women who would like nothing better than to start their lives over, to actually do so.