Transcending Prison: Real-Time Reactions to “Orange is the New Black” Season 2

Orange is the New Black

Initial Post

When 2013 began, House of Cards was widely predicted to be the show that would make or break Netflix as a potential long-term player in the increasingly diverse business of producing television. The show debuted to much fanfare and knee-jerk critical praise, though some viewers soured on the show after realizing that it is arguably an unremarkable show dressed up in the trappings of a remarkable one.

At the peak of the House of Cards backlash, a new Netflix show quietly entered the ring. I’m not going to mince words: Orange is the New Black (one of my ten favorites shows of 2013) is superior to House of Cards, and to most of what’s on television.

(My feelings about House of Cards are well documented. I don’t hate it, but I refuse to accept the argument that it’s as revolutionary or provocative as it purports to be.)

Even better, Orange is the New Black prioritizes the kinds of stories that the rest of television wouldn’t dare tell – women of all shapes and sizes, races and ethnicities, sexualities and gender identities get their turn in the spotlight. During the first season, creator Jenji Kohan established a perplexing and pleasurable mixture of dark comedy and wrenching drama; developed a diverse and fascinating array of characters, relationships and interlocking backstories; and even wryly commented upon the injustices of the American justice system. The show’s success launched supporting player Laverne Cox to “household name” status – the recent Time cover star is perhaps America’s first transgender superstar – and confirmed that Netflix’s binge-watching model is ideally suited to the kinds of sprawling stories that can seem exhausting in a weekly format.

In short, Orange is the New Black is a runaway success in every culturally relevant sense of the term. Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, so we might never know how the show’s audience stacks up against shows on “traditional” television. But for our purposes, business doesn’t matter. The show exists, and it’s back, and that’s a very good thing.

Here’s the plan: Time permitting, I’m going to update this blog post with my reactions to each episode in the second season, all of which arrived on Netflix sometime this morning. I haven’t decided how long my reactions will be or when they’ll appear. I’ll write as much or as little is necessary to convey my feelings about each episode, keeping in mind that it can be reductive to review episodes of a television season before the entire thing has unfolded. I’m very excited to watch the show and to write about it here. Now it’s time to go back to Litchfield.

Episode One: “Thirsty Bird”

“Everything else was just this…background.”

That’s Piper explaining that she only cared about Alex during her brief foray into crime, but it might as well be this episode describing the presence of regular characters who aren’t Piper or Alex. The most notable aspect of the season premiere is its laser focus on the show’s default central character. The “diverse and fascinating array of supporting characters” I described above, the one I’ve been eagerly anticipating since the end of the first season, is nowhere to be found in “Thirsty Bird,” which traces Piper’s post-brawl ordeal in Chicago and closes with a damning betrayal from her former lover Alex (Laura Prepon). But just as Piper was lying under oath about what she really cared about in 2003, this episode is the show pushing almost everything we care about to the side, if only to reinforce the importance of the Litchfield inmates. By remaining on the margins of this episode, the Litchfield inmates are a reminder that Piper’s prison experiences are inescapable.

“Thirsty Bird” isn’t a bad episode, and it may be a necessary one. Early reviews indicate that future episodes will be tackling the minor characters more heavily than ever before. Perhaps this episode is an attempt to check in on Piper before the focus shifts entirely to the other characters. A season premiere like this would never appear on TV, though. The Netflix model allows the show to reintroduce the world of the show slowly and deliberately, rather than breathlessly jamming every story into a single hour.

Despite the departure from expectations, the show’s ability to craft distinct, interesting characters out of a few lines of dialogue hasn’t dissipated. I already felt connected to several of the Chicago inmates, particularly the one who sings Aretha Franklin on the toilet.)

Though Piper is a polarizing character and often a frustrating one, Taylor Schilling’s performance continues to impress. Her commitment to “ugly cry face” on the plane was rather extraordinary (and supported by episode director Jodie Foster, who pulled the camera from one side of Piper’s face to the other as if to convey the character’s dawning despair). Piper continues to walk the fine line between amusingly oblivious and gratingly obnoxious. And the episode leaves her once again without the comfort of the woman she (kinda) loves. Though she’s momentarily removed from the horrors she faced in Litchfield, her ordeal is just beginning.

Will Piper’s story continue to dominate Season 2, or will she recede to the background now that her support system has abandoned her? What’s going on with Suzanne, Sophia, Red, Nicky, Morello, Daya and the rest of the Litchfield inmates? How thick is Pornstache’s pornstache? I’m looking forward to answering all of these questions soon.

Episode Two: “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”

After the an unexpected detour in the first episode, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red” is full of moments that recall the peak pleasures of Season One and suggest myriad possibilities for the show going forward. Midway through the episode, there’s a montage of the Litchfield inmates getting interview tips from a visiting “expert.” The sequence is unassuming and largely irrelevant to the plot, but it’s utterly winning nonetheless, chock full of hilarious one-liners. (“I would also like to work with round objects. Round things are very pleasing to me.” “Poetic inclinations.” “You’re aware that you just told a prison inmate she should be a corrections officer, right?”) Later, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey (Samira Wiley) share a look of pure companionship after Poussey gives her “sister from another mister” a tip on preparing for her upcoming interview with Philip Morris. Both actresses underplay the moment, but their rapport is undeniable.

Moments like these, easily overlooked in rote retellings of the episode’s key plot developments, differentiate Orange is the New Black from its television counterparts. On no other show would a character’s defecation be anything other than petty slapstick, but Daya’s triumphant release was a genuinely moving emotional climax. On no other show would a character with exposed breasts or yellow teeth or no teeth at all be regarded as anything other than an outlier, a freak or a deviant. On no other show would a bilingual character oscillating between English and Spanish be an organic piece of her character, not a plot device.

This episode represents Orange is the New Black in top form. The plot serves as a solid enough foundation for a reintroduction of the Litchfield inmates, many of whom I was surprised to find I remembered vividly despite their limited appearances last season. The Taystee flashbacks are revealing in the narrative sense, but they also satisfy as a stand-alone story in isolation from the last-minute revelation that Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, superb) has followed in Taystee’s footsteps. Even the return of Larry (Jason Biggs, whose performance is strong even though the character is insufferable) is welcome, particularly his trademark cluelessness and self-centered vapidity (“Lesbian…or bi? I don’t know anymore”).

(Lest I gush too much, I should mention one element of the show that still don’t entirely work for me. Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) continues to feel two-dimensional, especially given that nearly every scene she’s in is some variation of her hiking up her skirt to silence someone who’s asking her probing questions. The performance isn’t bad, but the characterization is decidedly less detailed than the dozens of other characters.)

It seems likely that Piper and the rest of the Litchfield inmates will be reconvening shortly. Until then, this episode affirmed that the show can survive and thrive without its ostensible lead. One of my favorite things about Orange is the New Black is that the show creates the illusion that the characters exist even when the camera is looking elsewhere. Thankfully, for eleven more episodes, the camera’s right where I want it to be.

Favorite Lines:

  • “I know we vibe.” – Taystee, in reference to Judge Judy.
  • “You got that ass-crack thing goin’ on.”
  • “Take this child before I drown him in my tears and sweat.”
  • “I thought ‘special guest’ meant Mo’Nique or Wesley Snipes.”

Episode Three: Hugs Can Be Deceiving

When Orange is the New Black began, the show got a lot of mileage out of the fish-out-of-water scenario at its core. Piper Chapman was plucked from her privilege bourgeois bubble into an unfamiliar environment that required stronger survival instincts and fewer sentences that begin with, “I was listening to NPR…” But by this point, several months into her tenure at Litchfield and a brief detour to Chcago, Piper has been integrated into the prison community, for better or worse. When Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) and Vee arrive in the latest batch of inmates, Piper finds herself in the position of being a Litchfield veteran in the eyes of a newcomer. She spends this episode coming to terms with the realization that she’s become a Litchfield inmate, complete with an outburst of violence and a low tolerance for frivolity like best friends named Meadow.

Meanwhile, Suzanne (Uzo Aduba, utterly tremendous and equally adept at comedy and drama) continues to struggle with her identity and self-confidence. The flashbacks reveal that her insecurities are a product of her environment, one that was far more hospitable to someone like Piper, who had the privilege of looking like everyone else and growing up as an insider in that world. Suzanne’s obsessive need to feel accomplished is simply her way of compensating for her perceived failure to be a “normal” human being. She punched Piper towards the end of her confrontation with Pennsatucky not because of “anger issues” or “insanity,” but because she had just been confronted with her past and failed to live up to the challenge it presented. Suzanne’s complex mental state is difficult to pin down, a reminder that issues of mental health are too complex to be boiled down to labels or dismissed as outright failures of biology.

Just as this show points to the characters’ past as a way of illuminating their present, this episode finds many of the characters reconciling former relationships with the harsher environment of Litchfield. Taystee and Red (Kate Mulgrew, whose haunted eyes and weary demeanor have been as captivating as the bigger emotional moments from other characters) don’t know how to deal with the re-emergence of Vee into their lives, and the episode leaves that process incomplete. In a remarkable scene, Morello (Yael Stone) finds out that her wedding fantasy had been snatched out from under. And Larry (oh, Larry) finds himself in the awkward position of serving as a source for a plucky journalist’s impending expose of the corruption at work behind the gates of Litchfield. No one can run from their past forever, even within the confines of prison. Sooner or later, the flashbacks catch up to the present day.

Favorite lines:

  • “Crazy dude who believes in aliens.” “Tom Cruise?” “Yes!”
  • “The white Michelle Williams.”
  • “You caught the whole ‘used to be a man’ thing, right?”
  • “You’re one Cheerio in the bulk box of life, but you fuckin’ tickle me, so I think it would matter.”
  • “Somebody who doesn’t get excited by the wedding industrial complex and society’s need to infantilize young women.”

Episode Four: “A Whole Other Hole”

I’ve always liked Lorna Morello (Yael Stone). Her accent is comically over-the-top, and she was perhaps less interesting than many of her fellow inmates during the first season, but she always projected a sense of stability that made her a natural fit for the role of prison chauffeur. Her on-again/off-again relationship with Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) was one of the stronger emotional through-lines last year.

With “A Whole Other Hole,” the show is consciously pushing against my casual acceptance of Morello and her insistence that Christopher, the love of her life, would be waiting for her when she’s finally released. When Morello got the phone call in the previous episode, I marveled at Stone’s performance and lamented the cruelty of Morello’s plight.

Now I’m not so sure, and that’s exactly the point. Morello’s relationship with Christopher is almost entirely imaginary, and Christopher turns out to be the victim of stalking and attempted murder by explosive device at the hands of the conniving Morello. Juxtaposed against the scenes of Morello tearfully clutching the photo of Christopher and his wife Angela while lounging in his bathtub, the final flashback scene of this episode is perhaps the most shocking one on the show so far.

Shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos are categorized as antihero shows because their leads are white men who earn our sympathy while doing extremely bad things. In a way, Orange is the New Black is a more interesting extension of what has now become a television drama trope, and even a crutch. Because we’re exposed to these women in prison before we see their crimes, our sympathies are inevitably altered by their backstories. But by the time we get to see those backstories, we’ve come to see these women as people, even while knowing in the back of our minds that they all committed a crime. Though some of the women are in prison for reasons beyond their control, Morello is a dangerous criminal and hardly someone we would sympathize with under ordinary circumstances. This episode forces us to examine our own morals and dares us to want a happy ending for someone who probably deserves
the exact opposite.

That this storyline ended with such a shocking revelation and yet left plenty of room for several other effective stories is once again a testament to this show’s power of multi-tasking. Now, in bullet point form, I’ll check in with some of the other characters:

  • Red is adrift this season, having been ousted from her role as Head Chef after perpetrating a retaliatory fire at the end of last season. Kate Mulgrew’s performance has been outstanding as the character struggles to find purpose and begins to realize that she’s growing older with no end in sight and no hope of staying youthful or engendering sympathy with the younger inmates. Confronting mortality is difficult for anyone, but it must be considerably more difficult for someone who’s been robbed of the small amount of agency she had left.
  • Taystee and Poussey are quickly becoming my two favorite characters. In this episode, Poussey takes her affection for her best friend one step too far. I teared up at Taystee’s tender request for a minute of cuddling. These two characters, who started out as reliable sources of comedy now represent the empathetic soul of this show: two people seeking connection but just missing each other’s signals.
  • Larry and Polly totally going to hook up, right? Remind me why I’m supposed to care again? I’m beginning to think that Larry is morphing into the Betty Draper of this show, and that’s not a compliment.
  • This show’s portrayal of sex is frank and touching. Nicky and Big Boo’s quest for sexual superiority is going somewhere interesting, I have no doubt. And Brook Soso’s rapidly dwindling innocence is both heartbreaking and uplifting – she’s adjusting to her environment even as she’s losing the qualities that likely made her a kind, warm-hearted human being pre-prison.
  • Vee’s scheming has put Suzanne in interesting new dramatic territory. She’s no longer the “Crazy Eyes” of the Dandelion era, but a woman on a mission.
  • Piper was pretty awful in this episode. It’s encouraging that Kohan decided to place her spotlight episode in the premiere. Now we’re digging into the characters who really matter to us, even though Piper continues to be the lead. She’s much less of an audience surrogate than she was at the start, to be certain.
  • No Pennsatucky this time around. She’s not one of my favorite characters, and I don’t find Taryn Manning’s performance entirely convincing, so I didn’t miss her.
  • It goes without saying, considering I’ve written several thousand words today alone, but still: this show is fantastic. I’m so glad it’s back and even more glad it will be back again next year. There’s nothing else like it.

Favorite lines:

  • “Once you know you got a curse on you, you can work around it.”
  • “I don’t want to presume – she could be Malay.”
  • “You know how people are.”
  • “I think it was at Bonnaroo.”

Episode Five: “Low Self Esteem City”

Race is relative. Privilege in one community might be disenfranchisement in another. The women on Orange is the New Black are acutely aware of how their skin color affects their position in the community. The rigid segregation between communities crumbles when dirty pipes displace the black women from their shower block, and the burgeoning showdown between Vee and Mendoza (Selenis Levya) comes to a head. The results aren’t pretty, but they’re a reminder that the Litchfield prison community is inherently and irreversibly divided. “Separate but equal” would be ideal at this point.

Elsewhere in this episode, another fine one tough perhaps not quite at the level of the second and fourth, Healy (Michael J. Harney) has a little too much fun at the bar, but his character gets a layer of humanity that he rarely had in the first season, when he was a more conventional stern authority figure. As he drifts away from his wife, who continues to reluctantly switch to English only when Healy loses his temper, he needs something to cling to. The women of the prison community, for now, will benefit from his quest for companionship. He’s not so different from the inmates, really – he just wants to feel like he’s doing good in a bad situation.

Big Boo and Nicky continue to jockey for the position of Litchfield’s Sex Queen, but Nicky runs into some difficulties when Fisher turns out to be less susceptible to temptation than she expected. Both of these women are using sex as fodder for competition but also because they, like Healy, want to feel valid and useful.

Mendoza’s flashbacks were not as game-changing as Nicky’s or as thematically challenging as Suzanne’s, but they offered an intriguing glimpse into a character who, like most characters on this show, would be a one-dimensional stereotype on any other show. I never expected to learn this much about Mendoza. It’s nice to know that the show won’t let anyone be a stereotype for long.

That’s it for today. I’ll be watching at least one more episode tomorrow. It seems almost wasteful to blow through the entire season in one weekend, though. Right now, I’m savoring the knowledge that I have eight more episodes in which to discover new facets for familiar characters.

Favorite Lines:

  • “I’m the sexual Steve Jobs.”
    “The water pressure’s so much better in the ghetto.”
    “Fuck Clive Owen.”
    “I once started crying reading a Garfield comic.”
    “They know our people’s predisposition for hypertension!”
    “We are Sideboob.”
    “Sock a nut, bitch!”
    “Behind every strong man is a strong, cunt-faced witch monster.”

Episode Six: “You Also Have a Pizza”

Season 2 continues to chug on in fine form, with yet another episode that adds intriguing tension to a character who has already made a step up from the first season. This time, it’s Poussey, in the best showcase yet for Samira Wiley, who gets to play the character’s sexual frustration in two different settings. Poussey’s relationship with Taystee has grown far more complex in recent episodes, and this one did little to resolve the dissonance between them. Particularly with Taystee’s cigarette fakeout, Poussey is getting all kinds of mixed signals, colored by her previous experience with falling in and out of love. These flashbacks didn’t completely alter our impressions of Poussey as Morello’s did, but they offered an extra note of tragic irony to a character who is already proving to be a standout this season.

Elsewhere, the romantic testimonials provided an unusual structural device for the episode, and while some might argue that these explanations of love are cloying, I found them all rather moving, particularly Suzanne’s. (“They chose to take all that on,” she said, summing up the contradictions of romantic sacrifice in a single, simple sentence.) Piper’s foray into journalism should be interesting going forward, and Healy’s quest for redemption in the eyes of his inmates has taken some unexpected turns.

As I watched the show continue to explore Caputo’s alter ego (superficially reminiscent of Ron Swanson’s Duke Silver on Parks and Recreation), I realized that the least compelling parts of this season take place outside the prison. With the possible exception of Healy’s fraught interactions with his wife, I generally spend the scenes outside the prison wondering when we’re going back. It’s not that the guards aren’t interesting or well-acted, but the show has such a strong array of stories to tell in the prison that going outside robs the show of some of its claustrophobic power. I’ve accepted that the show is going to give some time to the guards, but I don’t think I’ll ever be as invested in them as I am in the inmates.

I love that this episode featured several powerful moments in which two people’s brief physical contact conveyed a world of emotions in a single instant: Nicky and Big Boo burying the hatchet; Healy and Pennsatucky clinging to each other on the bench after chowing down on a broken heart-shaped cookie; Suzanne and Morello embracing after finding common ground in their romantic histories; Daya grabbing Bennet’s…well, you know, in the kitchen. At its core, Orange is the New Black is about people coming to terms with loneliness even while they’re surrounded by other people. There’s solitude in the silence, and the most powerful moments are the ones in which no one says anything at all.

Favorite Lines:

    “It’s like Dickens.”
    “I told you scissoring wasn’t a thing.”
    “I just wanted to lick the length of his arms.”

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