All comedy dramas face the difficult balancing act of attempting to make sure that their material is both adequately serious and amusing without the levity or the gravitas undermining each other. When this goes wrong, as it usually does, one has a drama-marred uncomfortable comic relief or a comedy that would have funny if not for its pretensions. However, when a series manages to strike a balance between the two without giving the viewer a case of mood whiplash, the two elements compliment and enhance one another.
One of many strengths of “Orange is the New Black” is the show’s ability to juxtapose a variety of weighty issues with almost sitcom levels of absurdity. This is possibly best displayed in the episode “The Chickening,” where Piper’s vision of a feral chicken throws the prison into chaos. On the one hand this is a classic comic plot, a small inciting incident is compounded by various misunderstandings and wacky shenanigans ensue. But of course in this case a chicken is not just a chicken, and to say that the episode is just about a bunch of women going after a chicken is a bit like saying Moby Dick is about some dudes chasing a whale.
At the heart of this episode is the question of symbols and their interpretation, which is why it begins with an argument about hanging a cross in the prison chapel. The local evangelical wants to hang her tacky woodshop creation in a space that is supposed to serve multiple denominations and by attempting to force her interpretation on the sacred space she destroys it. In another conversation a nun jokes about how communion wafers go well with dip. On the one hand all this is rather funny, to see people in an uproar over a couple pieces of wood, some crackers, and a chicken.
But of course this is not an accurate description of any of those. The crackers are the blood and body of Christ, the wood is a symbol of love and ultimate sacrifice, and the chicken is equally powerful, if localized. This is a chicken smart enough to escape its own destruction. Piper may not express a desire to eat it to gain its wisdom in the same way that Red does, but she continues to chase it until she realizes that to do so is futile, that she will never possess that knowledge.