Starting a season of Orange is the New Black a week after it drops on Netflix is like traveling back in time to an indeterminate date in March 1912 and boarding the Titanic. You know bad things are going to happen — it’s just a matter of where and when.
I haven’t been spoiled on any major developments yet, but I’ve seen enough references to plot developments and general story directions to have a clue about a few very unfortunate events to come. I also know which characters will play a prominent or notable role in the season, at least to the degree that they’re worth tweeting about.
A little bit of foresight helps with an episode like “Work That Body for Me,” which bounces in manic fashion around the Litchfield women’s prison, in an effort to pick up as many of last season’s dangling plot threads as possible. For the first time in the show’s history, the new season picks up in media res, immediately after the events of last season’s closing scene, in which most of the prisoners escape through a hole in the fence and revel in a nearby lake. They didn’t say it, for fear of spoiling the moment, but even the prisoners knew the ecstasy of their brief escape couldn’t last long.
In its place: a massive horde of new inmates, including a TV personality (Blair Brown) who seems likely to bring scrutiny from the press and the other inmates; a corresponding array of new guards, many of them bearded, none of them immediately compassionate; and a dead body, courtesy of a tag-team strangling effort from Alex (Laura Prepon) and Lolly in the garden shed. That last one produces one of the show’s more gruesome images yet, set to the ferocious riffs of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” as well as one of Prepon’s strongest and most sympathetic acting moments on the show to date. Alex’s typical confidence has been in dire need of puncturing, story-wise, and this tentative partnership with the loopy Lolly (Lori Petty) has far more potential for surprise than yet another pouty dalliance with Piper (Taylor Schilling).
Speaking of the show’s ostensible lead: Would a viewer tuning into this episode without watching the rest of the series be able to tell that Piper was once an integral POV character and the show’s undisputed protagonist? That’s not a knock on the show. In fact, it’s a testament to creator Jenji Kohan’s patient evolution of the character and the world around her that Piper no longer shoulders the burden of introducing the audience to the world of Litchfield. She works better as one piece of a larger ensemble, and Schilling excels at finding troubling shades of self-absorption and desperation for attention. For the purposes of Emmy consideration, Schilling remains the lead. But the show is better for incorporating her into the ensemble proceedings.
And what an ensemble it is. This episode only hints at its depth, as most of the major characters who earned standout flashback episode return, if only briefly. Petty already appears to have an expanded and more nuanced role this season, and it remains to be seen who else will get the bump that Barbara Rosenblat, Lori Tan Chinn, Leanne Taylor and others have gotten more than a season into their initial appearances in the cast. One of the great joys of an Orange is the New Black season, and one of the central factors in the show’s long-term resilience, is its ability to tell fresh stories about any of its myriad fascinating side characters, transforming characters who primarily serve as jokey interludes into full-blown human beings. The show’s season premieres rarely tip their hand about what’s to come in that department, but the juicy hints in “Work That Body For Me” are enticing indeed.
What of Nicky (Natasha Leggero), last seen hauled out of the prison on a heroin bust, and Sophia (Laverne Cox), sent to solitary confinement after letting her rage get the best of her towards the end of last season? How will the onslaught of new arrivals affect day-to-day operations at Litchfield? Will Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) make good on her promise of starting a race war because it sounds fun? Are Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and Maureen (Emily Althaus) on the outs for good? Are Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Soso (Kimiko Glenn) on the ins for good? (That’s not a real expression. It should be.)
I might be moving at a slower pace than many of the TV fans on my social media feed. But I’m just as eager to answer these questions as everyone else, even as I know the ship —some ship — is going to sink soon enough.