Tidal Wave: “Orange is the New Black” Season 2 Continues

Orange is the New Black

I’m just about to hit the halfway point in my journey through the second season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Before I go any further, a quick clarification:

These instant reactions are not meant to take the place of a thoughtful, well-reasoned “take” on the show as a whole. Rather, I use them as a way of reacting to specific moments in each episode, so that I can savor the show’s micro pleasures and remember them when I’m considering the season as a whole. None of these judgments are definitive, but that doesn’t make them invalid. Orange is the New Black was created with this kind of binge-watching strategy in mind – I’m just intermittently taking stock of the experience.

Think of these post-episode reviews as a means of collecting my thoughts, gathering my emotions and dropping anchor after each hour of character maneuvers and poignant flashbacks. This show has a lot of layers and almost as many characters. Writing about each episode is a means of striving for clarity, not passing judgment.

With that, on with the show. (Check my previous blog post for my thoughts on each of the first six episodes of season two.)

Episode Seven: “Comic Sans”

“Everyone is vital to the operation,” a line which Piper utters towards the end of this episode, might as well be as this show’s mission statement. Even the most loathsome characters get moments of humanity. This empathetic approach is one of the show’s greatest strengths, but it occasionally becomes untenable. If everyone is special and good, where’s the conflict?

That’s an oversimplification, of course. There are many ways to be good, and the show hasn’t lacked for conflict this season despite the overarching sense of redemption and the ready availability of second and third and fourth chances. But it’s easy to imagine this show stumbling if it steers away from the darker sides of these characters. Yes, they’re likable and witty and they banter amusingly and spar thrillingly, but they’re also criminals, and some of them are right where they belong. Others are victims of circumstance, naturally, but the show can’t keep pretending that prison is made up of people who are there because of institutionalized injustice.

This complaint is a minor one, and I only thought about it during isolated moments of this episode, which was largely another stellar installment in this remarkable season. Adrienne C. Moore shined in her biggest showcase yet as Black Cindy. I’d watch an entire show about her wacky hijinx manning the TSA line, and the somber final flashback concludes the story on an ambiguous note that speaks volumes more than an exposition dump would have.

Meanwhile, back in the prison, drugs are flying and tensions are rising. The prison gets an unexpected dose of the fourth estate, though it might be the victim of that very institution if Piper succeeds in her muckraking expedition. Nearly every scene in this episode brought characters together in new combinations, and I was particularly interested to see the ongoing, potentially ominous companionship between Vee and Suzanne. (Side note: how marvelous is Lorraine Toussaint, this season’s most prominent cast addition? Threatening and silky smooth all at once.)

As I continue to find myself overwhelmed by the dozens of character stories orbiting each other, I’m inclined to think this is one of the most structurally ambitious television seasons ever. That I’m rarely lost in the prison shuffle is at least a minor miracle. With six episodes to go, I’m expecting to immerse myself in even more humanity. As long as the show keeps its sentimentality in check, the season is set for a stunning finish.

A few more notes:

  • When Polly slapped Larry, I swore I heard cheering. Maybe that was just in my head? Fine.
  • Laverne Cox has been outstanding every time she’s appeared onscreen this season, but given her elevated public profile, I’m surprised to see that her character hasn’t had more to do. Perhaps her screentime will rally in the season’s final stretch.
  • There’s been plenty of hand-wringing about the fact that Orange is the New Black has been submitted as a Comedy Series at the Emmys, but this episode was FUNNY. Labels are reductive, yo.
  • “Comic Sans”: Horrible font, great episode title.

Favorite Lines:

  • “I’ll just look that up on the handy inmate Internet they give us for when we get curious about stuff.”
  • “I mostly use my face for that.”
  • “Every day in this place I get more confused.”
  • “I appreciate your concern but I’m actually well-covered on the menstruation front.”
  • “I can’t let you on the plane with those guns!”
  • “It’s like the third best day of my entire life!”
  • “You ever been kissed by a six foot black transgender woman?”
  • “It’s full of Fleet Foxes and shit!”
  • “Take up poker, watch the Godfather ten times, whatever!”
  • “If you could care less, than you still care!”
  • “You ain’t the damn pink panther!”

Episode Eight: “Appropriately Sized Pots”

Until two or three weeks ago, I’m not sure I could have told you Rosa’s name. Now she’s the center of a poignant episode in which she faces the oncoming end of her life, right alongside the untimely passing of Piper’s ailing grandmother. It’s yet another example of Orange is the New Black plucking a character from cafeteria-line obscurity and mining a satisfying dramatic arc from the juxtaposition of her life in prison and her life before it. These flashbacks didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, but they showed us plenty: Rosa’s guileless romanticism, her insatiable thirst for adventure, her obtuse compassion for the men who routinely leave or betray her. Seeing the character looking healthy in the flashbacks gives Barbara Rosenblat’s touching performance additional heft. This rapidly deteriorating woman was once the life of the crime scene. For one brief moment in the doctor’s office, she reclaimed her former glory.

Piper, meanwhile, suffered defeat at the hands of the mortality industrial complex, narrowly missing out on the chance to bid farewell to her grandmother during her unlikely furlough. Instead, she was subjected to racially charged taunts and disapproval from her fellow inmates, who had tried and failed countless times to get furlough for equally honorable reasons. Piper is fascinating throughout this episode, consistently unaware of the extent of her privilege without being completely oblivious. And it goes without saying that Taylor Schilling was fantastic as always, and perhaps better than ever. The character’s childlike innocence and occasional outbursts of indefensible range consistently feel of a piece in Schilling’s hands. That the actress is sometimes overlooked because the character isn’t always pleasant to spend time with is a shame.

This episode offered much more: the ominous return of Pornstache, more wonderful moments in the low-key saga of Nicky’s sexual misadventures, the unceremonious ouster of Fischer at the hands of the pathetic Caputo. The grip of the institution continues to tighten, and the booming contraband industry appears to be on rocky terrain. There’s much more to explore with only five episodes to go.

Favorite Lines:

  • “Am I in a fucking M. Night Shamalama movie?”
  • “Broccoli is no pussy.”
  • “I love me some baby holding.”
  • “That girl’s as useless as balls on a dildo.”
  • “You got fired? Lame.”

Episode Nine: “40 OZ of Furlough”

A better title for this episode might be “Difficult Men.” Between the mad ravings of Pornstache, the unexpected ferocity of Bennet, the simmering resentment of Healy and the resigned coldheartedness of Larry, men are seriously depraved in “40 OZ of Furlough,” an episode that perhaps lands without the resonant emotional thump of the season’s best installments. Nonetheless, Vee’s violent confrontation with Red in the final flashback scene is a rare example of this show depicting overt violence, and doing so in a way that further complicates our opinion of the already multilayered Red. Kate Mulgrew, as always, plays both Red’s initial insecurities and later her confidence and rapidly dawning sense of obscurity with relish. Vee’s characterization, meanwhile, turns several more shades of diabolical. The season appears to be building toward a climactic confrontation, and everyone is in the mix now: Vee’s adoptive prison daughter Suzanne, her adoptive pre-prison daughter Taystee and her ongoing romantic turmoil with Poussey, everyone in the kitchen and garden; and even the guards, who are as inept as always but now at the expense of the inmates instead of to their benefit.

Pornstache’s return was every bit as horrifying and darkly comic as the terms of his exit in season one suggested, but Bennet’s newfound aggression was almost as disturbing. Prison doesn’t just change the people confined within it. The corrections officer position is its own kind of prison, a perpetual cycle of failed attempts to make a difference and establish a consistent identity that pleases the superiors and intimidates the inmates without compromising anyone’s loyalties. Few of the guards in the prison seem to be up to the challenge – Healy, with his anger management issues and hot-tempered utterances of the C-word, certainly isn’t – and the one who seemed capable of withstanding the pressure (Fischer) was canned last episode, a victim of both sexual harassment and company politics. This episode did a lot of work to convince me that the guards are worth depicting, particularly as a way of reflecting prison’s generalized effect regardless of one’s position within it.

As for the long-promised furlough, I appreciated that the trajectory of this story ended in the only logical way it could, with Larry admitting that he wasn’t invested anymore and everyone and their mother being very confused about the terms of Piper’s sentence and the severity of her transgressions. I could have done without Piper’s brother’s icky proposal at the funeral, which seemed like a transparent way of suggesting to Piper, and to us, that for all of its flaws, the prison at least protects from certain kinds of human awfulness, even as it exacerbates other kinds. Taylor Schilling continues to be remarkable in the role, and the show works best when she is supporting the ensemble rather than carrying the show’s mission statement on her shoulders.

So much more happened in this episode: Soso went on a hunger strike, Pennsatucky threw a punch, Red and Big Boo made amends of a kind, and Bennet dropped a hulking bombshell at the end of the episode. Something tells me it won’t be smooth sailing as we wind our way toward the conclusion of this season.

Favorite Lines:

  • “I sing it to the tune of ‘Poker Face’ in my head to remember.”
  • “Do not defend your boner to me right now.”
  • “D-list Burt Reynolds but more rapey.”
  • “Do you mean looking left instead of right, kinda thing?”
  • “I meant it in a Coach Taylor kind of way.”

Episode Ten: “Little Mustachioed Shit”

With the return of Alex Vause’s seduction, Pornstache’s anarchy and Nicky’s addiction, this episode felt like a throwback to season one, in the best way possible. The renewed focus on characters we grew to love during the series’ initial run of episodes shed light on the characters’ growth since we first met them. There can never be enough Laverne Cox in an episode of TV, but Sophia’s brief scenes with her son were among the most moving on the show, as they paid off a conflict that has been in the background since the fourth episode of the first season. One of this show’s strongest achievements can only be truly appreciated in the long term. As with Mad Men, this episode is powerful on its own but far more satisfying in light of what came before.

The Mad Men connection is timely, given that this episode is directed by Jennifer Getzinger, who’s directed some of the best episodes of AMC’s excellent 1960s period drama, including the seminal “The Suitcase.” She brings a similar tenderness and tension to this episode, particularly with scenes in which one character deceives another and the other might or might not be falling for it. Red appears to buy Piper’s fairly obvious lie about her family’s deli, and Piper later finds herself in a similar position when Polly tries to skate around the issue of her dalliance with Larry. Both scenes leave ambiguous the characters’ true motivations – Taylor Schilling’s fidgety p\erformance suggests that Piper is lying, but Kate Mulgrew is just calm enough that she might suspect, if only intellectually, that Piper didn’t make the trip. Meanwhile, Piper quickly realizes that Polly is the person Larry was talking about, a revelation that drives her to take after Alex’s ex-girlfriend and seek revenge for her significant other’s transgressions. Piper continues to be the kind of person who can be irritating one moment and self-aware the next. She’s the rare leading lady who is neither heroic nor antiheroic.

This episode’s true MVP, though, was Natasha Lyonne. Nicky has had plenty to do this season, but she’s carried much of the show’s comedic load up until this point. I was extremely happy to see how spectacularly Lyonne played Nicky’s reaction to Morello’s confession anfd her struggle to overcame the temptation of her former vices.(Her Alex Vause impression wasn’t half bad either.) It’s impressive that these developments didn’t feel rushed, given that we haven’t seen these characters as much in recent episodes. It just goes to show that the background drama on Orange is the New Black is as vibrant and vital as the foreground.

And in the foreground this week: Pornstache, baby. The character’s fall from grace is swift and harsh, as Bennet’s accusation leads to his arrest and a disturbing scene in which he tries to name Daya’s child before the police carry him off to his fate of certain incarceration. The irony of a man tasked with guarding prisoners himself being confined to a cell is only exacerbated by the fact that Pornstache didn’t commit this particular crime. If a criminal is punished for something he didn’t do as much as he would have been if he had been accused of the thing he actually did, has justice been served? We might not know the answer until future episodes, when Pornstache will either be a forgotten relic of the show’s past or a lingering presence. Regardless, Daya and Bennet have blood on their hands now, in addition to the stressors associated with giving birth in prison and raising a child away from prying eyes.

In other “prying eyes” news, the journalistic investigation of Litchfield is alive and well, despite Figueroa’s savvy attempts to throw the journalist off course. That he’s arrived at a time of a thriving contraband culture portends dark times ahead for the inmates. If the internal rifts don’t do them in, external threats might just finish the job.

Favorite Lines

  • “Hydration.”
  • “I’m fuckin’ Beyonce in a yacht!”
  • “So you’re strangling him at the beginning of the visit or the end?”
  • “How many stamps you need to send stamps?”

Episode Eleven: “Take a Break From Your Values”

Is activism possible without leadership and hierarchy? Are everyone’s opinions equally valid? Is it better to fight tooth and nail for what you believe in or to fight pragmatically for what seems likely to change with just a little push? These questions and more form the foundation of this episode, one of the most overt connections between the flashbacks and the Litchfield stories yet. Sister Jane’s rebellion in the convent mirrors Soso’s attempted revolution in the prison, with all of the complications that come from a pure-hearted desire to effect positive change.

Soso hasn’t been the most sympathetic character in this second season, but I found her charming upon initial appearance and frustrating by design subsequently. Whether you agree with her beliefs or not, she’s committed to them, and it’s off-putting only in the way that people are often thrown off balance by people who don’t conform to social conventions like they do. She’s the only prominent Asian character on the show, which means that she is unfairly responsible for representing that demographic onscreen. She can be cartoonish at times, but Soso seems like a character who will become enormously sympathetic next season. In typical OITNB fashion, first impressions aren’t always accurate.

The same goes for Healy, whose propensity for the social sciences has yielded an odd storyline in this second season, with the threatening guard and counselor realizing that he ought to work on his skills in the second job and leave the first to more capable authority figures. The revelation that his wife is a mail-order bride further complicates this sad, lonely man, who is using the “Safe Place” program as much to distract himself from his own insecurities as to quell those of others.

The “Safe Place” program also has the effect of complicating the increasingly untenable racial tensions, exacerbated by the disturbing charisma of Vee, who has Suzanne wrapped around her finger with Taystee not far behind. Poussey, on the other hand, is a holdout, and Samira Wiley’s tremendous performance in this episode reveals that being an outsider and struggling against the tide is an extremely painful process. These tensions will undoubtedly explode in the next episode, now that Vee is aware that someone from Red’s team made an attempt on her life.

The danger level is rising outside the confines of Litchfield as well. Alex is under threat from her former colleagues, and Piper finds out that she’s being transferred to an unfamiliar place. Although Orange is the New Black generally lacks the gut-wrenching violence of recent TV masterpieces like Breaking Bad, it seems that tranquility and bloodlessness can’t last forever.

Favorite Lines

  • “You come back to prison on accident or because outside you’re too weak for anyone to take serious?”
  • “I remember the Alama too, but that don’t keep me from eating Mexican food.”
  • “Thinking things so you don’t have to.”
  • “Hey Pennsabama…”
  • “I’m Edward Pizzahands.”
  • “It’s like Spy vs. Spy but sexual.”

Episode Twelve: “It Was the Change”

As I approach the end of this impossibly rich season of television, I’m struck by the sheer volume of stories that creator Jenji Kohan and her writing staff have managed to wrangle into a single season-ending arc. The confrontations between Vee and Red, and Taystee and Poussey mirror each other at first, only for the former to take a turn for the far worse in the episode’s final minutes. I confess to being dissatisfied with Red and Vee’s first brawl – while Mulgrew and Toussaint played the moment beautifully, it seemed almost too easy that the two characters had simply grown tired of fighting. Perhaps I’m naive, but it took me a few minutes to see the twist coming, right until the flashback confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vee is a genuine master manipulator. In context, these scenes reveal more about the cunning Vee has developed since her mid-life crisis at the age of 50 several years before.

Elsewhere in this episode, Piper is preparing for an ominous trip to Virginia, Pennsatucky is making alliances for an impending gay takeover that will obviously never come, and Rosa is on her last legs. Daya and Bennet are contemplating their future together and slowly realizing that their untenable situation will only grow more so once the baby enters the picture. The hurricane is perhaps too on-the-nose a symbol of the characters’ emotional state, but this episode is one of the darkest yet, with the characters coming to grips with the harshness of prison life as the few niceties they have to their name get ripped away from them.

I still can’t say that I’m terribly interested in Figueroa’s life outside of the prison, so the revelation that her husband is closeted and cheating on her was interesting on an intellectual level but inert on an emotional one. It still seems likely that the immense circle of contraband will somehow coincide with the federal investigation of the prison that’s likely on its way, if even a fraction of the corruption within Litchfield makes it into the roving journalist’s Piper-enhanced piece.

Regardless, I’m more concerned with the final episode leaving the characters in a place where they can grow and change even more next season, and for this season’s potent themes of class and racial distinctions reach satisfying and thought-provoking conclusions. I’m less concerned with the particulars of the plot, but I’d like to see some manner of resolution, particularly with regard to Red. I fear she might not be long for this world, and while the show can likely work without her, it will be missing one of its first and foremost standout characters. I can only hope that Vee is not quite ruthless to deal a fatal blow. That puddle of blood was not encouraging, though. Onward to the end.

Favorite Lines

  • “You want to assassinate someone? Vision is a basic requirement. It’s like ‘Step one: pick a person to kill.’ Step two: ‘kill that person.’
  • “Threesome?”
  • “How does this agenda work?” “I got a lot of those. Specify?”
  • “Tickles in a good way.”
  • “Do I hear light jazz?”
  • “As far as being deprived of your freedom and civil liberties goes…”
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