Loosely based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name, Jenji Kohan's Orange Is the New Black begins with an upper-class WASP being sentenced to 15 months in federal prison and the new world she has to adapt to once inside. This is hardly the first story to use a prison setting to expound on society and human nature, but it's somewhat unique for being from the perspective of female characters. The incarceration of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is the way the show introduces the audience to the stories of women of different races and different ages and different socioeconomic backgrounds, while also commenting on the real inequities of the prison system in the United States.
Netflix began streaming season two of the show over the weekend. Overall, I don't think the new season works quite as well as the first. But the story does go in some interesting directions, and the overall theme that weaves through all thirteen episodes is a fascinating one.
Because of Netflix's release model of putting an entire season of shows up all at once, I'm going to split up this review. The first half of it is going to be of the non-spoiler variety, and the second half will get into details.
So if you're worried about spoilers, just don't read beyond the spoiler warning.
"Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god." —Aristotle, PoliticsOn some level, the appeal of most prison dramas is a fantasy of "my god, what would I do if faced with that situation?" Could I handle being around convicted felons? Could I deal with being a locked in a cage most of the day?
The first season of Orange Is the New Black was largely about subverting expectations. By the end of the season, the initial impression of each character had flipped to something different, with even the audience's view of Piper changing to something much darker and at times very unlikable. When the series began, it largely functioned as a somewhat lighter, female version of HBO's Oz, with Piper's experience mirroring Tobias Beecher's (Lee Tergesen). Except instead of being raped by a Neo-Nazi, Piper is starved by a Russian and is eventually pushed to a very dark place where she severely beats another prisoner. And just like Oz, there are Lost-style flashbacks which explain how each character ended up in prison.
Going into this season, Kohan had said the show would take a darker turn. And it does go there, but I thought the overarching theme this season was really interesting. For every character, their situation is dominated by the need to be loved or noticed. They can either find that in friendships, mothering mentors or fucking someone in the bathroom. And in every episode, the power dynamics of each relationship, whether in the past or present, is between those that will do anything not be alone in this world, and those that will manipulate and use people because of it. The latter is at the core of the nature of the new character Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), who has designs on building her own empire at Litchfield.
Overall, this is a show about broken characters, who want someone to care about and to care about them, within a corrupt system. In many ways, the system itself is the main villain of the show. It is either unfair and the system's inequities compound the injustices that occur, or the system enables the people that prey on others. And going back to use of Sartre in the intro, this is a show populated by those who define themselves by how they think other people see them. The problem shared by all of the characters, and which is usually the source of all their troubles, is they have no self-worth and surrender their agency at the worst possible moment to terrible people they want to believe are their "family."
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours."From this point forward I'm going to get a little spoiler-y.
—John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII
- Where are we going?: I thought the first episode, which was directed by Jodie Foster, was great at bringing Piper back to a place where prison is disorienting and nightmarish. Piper doesn't know where she's being taken, why she's being taken or if Pennsatucky is alive or dead. And every attempt to find out answers to those questions is only met with silence. The scene on the plane, where Piper breaks down and confesses what happened to one of the other inmates (Lori Petty) really sells the character went somewhere in her psyche that she didn't know existed and is scared of that part of her. But we also know that she wouldn't have gone there if circumstances beyond her control hadn't put her in the situation.
- Cockroaches and cigarettes: Apparently, it is possible to train cockroaches to smuggle cigarettes. The more you know ... Or is it learning is half the battle?
- Male full frontal: The scene of Larry and his father in the sauna at a gay bathhouse is notable for having something rarely seen on this show or others: male genitalia visible. Given the female prison setting, most of the nudity is female. So I'm guessing the scene was thrown in to give a degree of balance.
- Screwed over by friends and lovers: I found that Piper's decision to listen to Alex and lie at the trial, only for it to backfire, is open to a lot of interpretation. In some ways, the series still teases a degree of hope that Alex and Piper's relationship will work in the long run. But I didn't believe Alex at all when she claimed that she didn't intend to screw over Piper. Both characters are incredibly selfish, and I totally buy Alex would sell Piper out for her own self-interest since she's done it over and over again before. The same thing is true for Piper at the end of the season. Did she get the parole officer to go over to Alex's apartment out of a concern for her safety? Or did Piper do it so Alex would be sent back to Litchfield and to her? Something about the way Piper stares at the stack of Alex's letters makes me think it was the latter.
- Larry is an asshole: I know a lot of people who watch the show can't stand the character. But I have not been on the "I hate Larry" bus, since Piper gave him every reason to leave her and tell her to fuck off through her actions. But there's one particular scene this season that sold me on what an asshole Larry is, and why Piper should be happy that she's rid of him. Not only does he sleep with a married woman, but a married woman that has a newborn and is the best friend of his ex-girlfriend. At this point in the story, I don't think Larry owes Piper much. But it is most certainly the worst possible time to tell your ex-girlfriend that you slept with a friend of hers when she has your penis in her mouth at her grandmother's wake. And in that scene, I kind of felt that Larry only told her in that moment just to hurt her.
- Head for math: In life, either through family or friends, there are people you know that for one reason or another things just didn't work out. But you look at them and see the tragedy of it all, and that if circumstances had been just a little different their lives could have been so much better. That's basically the story of Taystee in this show. With the way she crunches numbers, she could of been working on Wall Street instead of being the quasi-accountant for a drug dealer. But trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps while in shitty foster homes is not as easy as most conservatives might lead you to believe. The relationship between Taystee and Vee is a twisted mother-daughter relationship. And in many ways, by failing young girls like Taystee the system itself enables people like Vee to take advantage of the situation.
- The man of your dreams: One of the biggest shocks (for me at least) was the reveal that Lorna (Yael Stone) is not operating with a full deck. In the first season, Lorna is always planning her wedding to a fiancé named Christopher. We come to find out that Christopher is a man that Lorna went on one date with, and the rest of her "relationship" has been a case of her criminally stalking him. But I must say that when Christopher comes to the prison to confront her, I found myself feeling sympathetic toward Lorna, even though she was totally in the wrong for everything she's done.
- The end of men and the gay agenda to take over the world: I expected Healy and Pennsatucky to be antagonists Piper would have to deal with this season. And I was somewhat surprised they didn't go that way. Instead, both Healy and Pennsatucky went down somewhat redemptive paths. Healy is once again to be an extremely lonely man. Every attempt to win over his Russian mail order bride goes nowhere, he has no friends and all of his attempts to start new social relationships don't really work. But he did create a connection with Pennsatucky, and she eventually found some footing on which to start over with a new teeth and a haircut. However, Healy is still a raging homophobe, and cites Hanna Rosin's book The End of Men as proof of the lesbian plan to take over the world.
- Crazy Eyes is just a little too crazy: The thing I was most surprised and disappointed about is how Crazy Eyes is used. I didn't like what they did with the character at all this season. I understand what they were going for in her relationship with Vee. But I felt like it undercut the arc they built for Crazy Eyes in the first season. When she cries and tells Piper that she's not a good person at the end of season one, it has meaning because our impression of Crazy Eyes is totally changed by the end. Making her a mentally off lackey for most of this season changed what worked in season one. However, I still thought Uduba was great in the final scene where she's left having no one. Vee's relationship with her was poisonous, but it was all she really had in her life.
- The red garden: Over the course of the season, Red slowly rebuilds her position within the prison using her new senior citizen friends and a tunnel that runs underneath the prison's greenhouse. That tunnel becomes the focal point of her battles with Vee, and ultimately leads to both attempting to kill the other. One problem I had with the end of this season was the idea that Vee would let Red live. If she's going to go through the trouble of attacking her with a padlock, she's going to finish the job. Especially since the episode explicitly draws parallels between how Vee killed RJ and how she's dealing with Red. It just seemed like a situation where they didn't want to lose Kate Mulgrew and decided not to take the situation out to where it would logically go.
- Unequal sexual relationships: The relationship between Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Bennett (Matt McGorry) and the resulting pregnancy is still a source of problems for all involved since it leads to more lies and blackmail. But I thought the contrast between Bennett and Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) was an interesting one. When Pornstache finds out about the pregnancy and is led to believe the baby is his, he wants to do right by Daya and takes responsibility openly in front of everyone. Pornstache is a horrible human being. So what does it say about Bennett that Pornstache declares his love while he hides and conspired to send someone to prison to cover up something he's responsible for?
- Nicky and Big Boo: Both Nicky and Boo (Lea DeLaria) compete to fuck as many people as possible. I thought it played into the larger theme of trying to find a meaning in other people. And Nicky's attempt to seduce Officer Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) ultimately ends with her telling Fischer that she should leave and never look back. The best thing Fischer can do is build a life for herself instead of looking for a life inside the prison.
- A narcissistic nun: More about Sister Ingalls' (Beth Fowler) activist past is revealed, but she is shown to be publicity hound who cared more about being seen and known than actually fulfill any sort of mission. In the beginning, she went to anti-war rallies and wanted to change the world. But at some point, Sister Ingalls started selling books and was excommunicated from the church. Again, you have a case where a character defines their existence based on how others see her.
- Sympathy for the devil: The living situation at the prison becomes more dire after the plumbing fails. Since Mrs. Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) has been embezzling funds as well as using her position to funnel donor money to her husband's state Senate campaign, repairing the pipes takes a backseat and actually inflames tensions between Vee's girls and Red's faction. What I found most interesting is that Reiner always plays Figueroa from the position of feeling like she's a victim. When she's talking with her husband, Figueroa laments why the press doesn't blame the inequities of the system for the ills instead of investigating her. And to some degree, Figueroa's relationship with her husband is just another example in the show where someone is manipulated to do terrible things by someone else that's only looking out for their own self-interests. Figueroa's husband is having an affair with his chief of staff, and seems to only placate her ideas of having a baby or having a political career of her own.
- A new day: Whether or not Caputo (Nick Sandow) will really change things at the prison as assistant warden or quickly lose all of his idealism is an open question. Getting Figueroa to blow him in a failed attempt to keep her job wasn't exactly a good sign. Nor was the fact that Caputo tells Bennett to shut up when he attempts to confess that he's the real father of Daya's baby.
- Dying on your own terms: Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) gets to go out in a blaze of glory, and ultimately murders Vee by running her over. To me, it felt anticlimactic and kind of surreal to just have the coincidence of the stolen van come by at just the moment Vee exits out of the forest. But a lot of the ending is predicated on coincidence and character turns that seem to come out of nowhere. Healy bribes the other guard to make up a work order, and the other women in Vee's group decide to finally turn against her. In both cases, I wasn't particularly sold on the changes of heart given the despicable shit all of those characters had taken part in prior.