If Orange is the New Black were primarily plot-driven, the second season finale “We Have Manners, We’re Polite” might have been unsatisfying. Instead of culminating in a massive prison-spanning battle or a bloody showdown between Kate and Vee, the season ends with an unexpectedly macabre and darkly funny exclamation point, as the ailing Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) takes out the villainous Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) with her car on her way towards a few final weeks of freedom. After an entire season of swirling contraband and shifting loyalties, the season’s principal villain is dispatched in a matter of seconds, learning none of the lessons she probably ought to have learned before she passed on.
But Orange is the New Black is not primarily a plot-driven show. It’s well established that Orange is the New Black has one of the most diverse casts of any “television show” ever. There’s no use making like a broken record and praising the show yet again for opening a space filled by a diverse array of voices and perspectives. The show’s true genius, and the key to its success, is the way in which it takes full advantage of its diverse cast to tell stories about complicated people who have made irredeemable mistakes and yet still retain shreds of humanity.
The ostensible lead, Piper Chapman, isn’t just a whiny, self-absorbed abuser of white privilege. She’s also sexually confused, morally troubled and socially insecure. Even as she’s walking around in an ignorant haze, the show (and Taylor Schilling’s remarkable performance) never lets you forget that there’s a person behind this wall of unpleasant character traits. The supporting cast, meanwhle, represents the show’s ever-expanding repertoire of people with interesting stories to tell. If there was any doubt that the show’s second season would be able to replicate the exploratory excellence of the first, in which flashbacks ranged from light and silly to dark and devastating, creator Jenji Kohan and the rest of the crew assuaged those concerns almost immediately. Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Rosa, Sister Jane Ingalls (Beth Fowler) and Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Levya) were among the unlikelier beneficiaries of the show’s flashback structure, and Morello’s spotlight was perhaps the show’s most effective yet, showing the astonishing depths of Morello’s depravity and yet urging us to forgive or at least sympathize with her because she’s a person just like the rest of us (and because Yael Stone is a remarkable actress with a tremendous range).
The first episode of the season narratively and stylistically departed from the rest, with Jodie Foster’s claustrophobic direction and Kohan’s deft script zeroing in with laser focus on Piper as she gets oh-so-close to escaping the life viewers had grown to love in the first season, only to be wrenched away again by Alex’s unfortunate assumptions about her ability to follow instructions. The second episode dispensed with Piper entirely, as if to reassure curious viewers that the show can exist, if only temporarily, without the character most prominently featured in the show’s marketing materials. From there, Piper’s position within the ensemble evolved so that the show could deal with her character in great detail without privileging her above the dozens of inmates equally worthy of screentime.
Not everything about this season works. Pennsatucky continues to lag behind the other characters in terms of her ability to convince me that a real person like her would actually exist and act like she does. The recurring presence of Piper’s now ex-fiance Larry (Jason Biggs) becomes increasingly grating, as the character drifts further from the show’s center of gravity and the show stops tempering his insufferable qualities with his importance to the narrative. (Caveat: the episode “40 OZ of Furlough,” in which Piper almost hooks up with and then dumps Larry at her grandmother’s memorial, justifies some of the Larry-related stalling. But several scenes between him and Polly feel like sluggish distractions from the fascinating goings-on in the prison.) And Vee, as compelling as Lorraine Toussaint is in the role, sometimes feels like the show’s most overt attempt to graft an overarching plot on top of the more satisfying character beats.
But almost everything else works. The unforced dynamite chemistry between Piper and Alex (Laura Prepon, who actually worked better as a recurring guest than a constant presence), which does the work of explaining why this arguably toxic relationship continues. The sexual frankness, from Nicky and Big Boo’s competition to Sophia’s matter-of-fact articulation of facts about vaginas. The stolen moments of tenderness between unlikely pairs, as with the Morello-Suzanne hug and the Red-Sister Ingalls discussions of sex and sandwiches in the finale’s best sequence. The ongoing and largely successful attempts to position the guards as comic relief who occasionally rise to the level of dramatic foils and Greek choruses. Perhaps most important, though, is the persistent sense that the world of Litchfield exists outside the frame of the camera lens. These episodes are constructed sequences of just some of the many fascinating interactions that take place in this busy, confined universe.
Special mention must go to the turbulent relationship between longtime inmate buddies Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey (Samira Wiley), which is this season’s strongest emotional core. Every interaction between these two had the familiarity of old friends and the tentativeness of reluctant lovers, in many senses of the word. The tragedy of Taystee falling into her old patterns and Poussey lashing out in response was heartbreaking and performed with wrenching specificity. In fact, I’d argue Wiley was the show’s MVP this season, a truly outstanding force in her small moments and a cosmopolitan wonder in Poussey’s moving flashback story.
These small pleasures, and countless more like them, add up to the kind of fulfilling feast that only television at its best can accomplish. The show is motivated by a deep well of empathy that informs every character, from the beleaguered inmates to the cruel guards and even the neglectful warden Figueroa (Alysia Reiner). But everything comes back to the inmates, whose physical imprisonment opens them up, for better or worse, to emotional release. Orange is the New Black sticks up for the inmates not because they’re women and it’s morally right to do so or because they belong to minority groups and it’s morally right to do so or even because some of these people have been falsely accused and it’s morally right to do so, but because they’re human beings who deserve the basic right to drive stories as much as anyone else. The show isn’t righting a moral wrong – it’s writing a moral imperative. These are stories that need to be told. Orange is the New Black provides the pen and paper. The result is poetry.
*The structure of my binge-watching: one episode on the Friday the show debuted, five more episodes over the ensuing weekend, and then a smattering of episodes from there until the finale. Why did I pump the brakes? Other life obligations on the way. Writing about each episode got exhausting. Most important, though, I wanted to savor the show’s rich buffet of pleasures. The true genius of the Netflix model is that I had the ability to choose how fast I wanted my Orange is the New Black experience to be. My personal preference is to spread the love. I respect that others like the “instant gratification” approach, and that sometimes works for me, but in this case it just didn’t. We live in a world with an infinite number of options for viewing schedules. We should take advantage of them as we see fit.
*More noteworthy performances this season: Natasha Lyonne as the complex, compassionate Nicky; Danielle Brooks, whose Taystee went from sheer comic relief to the show’s tragicomic beating heart this season; Uzo Aduba, who had a more narrow range of beats to play this season but still managed to wow with the character’s finale breakdown; Nick Sandow, who deepened Caputo beyond the archetypal he might easily have filled with less attention to character detail.
*I’m fully expecting flashbacks for Soso and Big Boo next season. Mary Steenburgen is apparently joining the cast as well. And we can look forward to even more screentime for Caputo, Black Cindy, Alex Vause and Gloria next time around.
*Speaking of Soso, I liked the character more than most it seems, even as I recognize that it’s unfortunate that the show’s sole prominent Asian character is a bit of a mess. At the same time, the show gave enough nuance to her specific neuroses that I found the representation less grating than the character, which seems to be intentional. I have little doubt that a chunk of next season will be devoted to peeling back Soso’s layers, and I’m eager to see what Kimiko Glenn can do with a beefier presence.
*No more Larry next season, right? Please? And Piper’s hippie brother needs to go too. That wedding was a cringe too far.