[This is a review of THE ENTIRE season 2 of Orange is the New Black. There will be SPOILERS]
Orange is the New Black is unstoppable. It established a rock solid foundation in season 1 and season 2 uses it to go bigger in a number of ways, most notably expanding the show’s tonal range and bolstering the arcs of almost every single major character.
There’s a lot going on and often it’s too much to cover with a proper script structure, but the ladies of Litchfield are so likable and dynamic that every single ounce of material has value. Whether it’s creating a more complex character, furthering along a key narrative or even just there for a laugh, the large majority of Orange is the New Black season 2 is comprised of scenes, storylines and relationships that you don’t want to see end.
The Big, Bad Vee
Though Piper (Taylor Schilling) had her issues with Red (Kate Mulgrew), lost her good standing with Healy (Michael Harney) and wound up fist fighting Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Orange is the New Black season 1 didn’t have a full-blown villain. It was much more about adjusting to life in prison and discovering the lay of the land; rivalries were a matter of circumstance. However, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) is pure evil and scheming 24/7.
The writers don’t just plop her down in Litchfield and reveal her intentions right at the start. Vee’s an insanely manipulative woman and just as she’s working Taystee, Poussey, Cindy. and Suzanne, she’s working you as well. It’s easy to be swayed by Vee’s seemingly good intentions. She’s got cake, gives young Taystee a home, professes her dedication to taking care of her family and makes Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) feel loved. Things get a little hairy when she first starts her cigarette biz, but it’s prison; what’s the harm in indulging in a little contraband?
It may feel as though she’s showering you in kindness, warmth and opportunity, but deep down, she’s laying the groundwork to take control. It’s heartbreaking to see some of the show’s most lovable characters become a band of nasty lackeys and even more so when you see other characters suffer for it. But even then, it’s tough to recognize how bad it’s gotten until Vee is at her absolute worst. At that point, there’s no reprimanding her, talking it through or compromising. They’ve got to get Vee out, and fast.
It’s always a thrill when a hero beats a villain, but having such a well-timed transformation lead up to the reveal of Vee’s psychotic nature and the need to get her out of Litchfield immediately makes seeing all of our favorite inmates doing their part to achieve that an especially satisfying season ending.
A Brand New Piper
Piper is no longer the Litchfield newbie, Larry’s (Jason Biggs) fiancée or Alex’s (Laura Prepon) on-and-off girlfriend, and she’s better off for it. Going to prison in season 1 completely turned her life upside down, but in season 2, she becomes a far more defined person and not because her circumstances incite change and growth, but rather because her own decisions do.
Alex’s betrayal in the first episode doesn’t just affect Piper’s sentence; it changes who she is. When Piper is shipped off to Chicago, she’s got a little more know-how, but it’s really just prison 101 all over again. She doesn’t want to start trouble, but she’s prone to it. If she’s got to track down a cockroach in order to sleep at night, so be it. It’s always been about appeasing others to make life easier for herself, but after Alex screws her over, that changes.
No more pity parties or cockroach hunts. Piper isn’t vying for approval nor is she about to let another inmate push her around. If she wants some of Red’s hooks, she’ll take them. Soso (Kimiko Glenn) won’t shut up? Piper has no problem putting her in her place. She’s got more confidence and tenacity than ever, and she’s accomplishing a lot more because of it.
The only major plot point that doesn’t keep up with Piper’s new drive is her decision to ask Healy to revoke her furlough. Sure, it’s no fun knowing that everyone’s talking about you, but you have the opportunity to see your dying grandmother one last time and get a couple of days out of prison. Unless someone is threatening to kill her for it, having Piper try to forfeit her furlough is just ridiculous and marks a regression for the character. But at least Healy gets a powerful speech out of it.
Minus that misstep, season 2 boasts some very promising changes for Piper. It was fun getting laughs at her expense while trying to find her way in season 1, but it’s no longer just about doing her time and getting out. Piper’s learned lessons and now it’s time to make something of herself with them. If she continues on this path, it’s bound to lead to big changes for her and for Litchfield in season 3.
The flashbacks were a double-edged sword throughout season 1, and the same is true here, too. Simply put, we need them. You can’t have a show about women in prison and not wonder what they’ve done to land themselves in there. Perhaps you could have characters just come right out and say it or have someone stumble upon a load of inmate files, but going back to experience that got them their prison sentences in the first place gives a far more robust sense of who they were and why they are the way they are now.
The better flashbacks are the ones that don’t just dish out character backstory, but also pertain to the matters at hand. For example, seeing a little Piper play by the rules right alongside an older Piper being asked to break a very big one gives us access to her decision-making process and lets us understand why she opts to take that risk. Similarly, Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) flashback in episode 2 serves as a necessary build for Vee’s big entrance and then also gives Taystee’s choices throughout the season context.
Gloria’s (Selenis Leyva) flashback, however, doesn’t do much for the present-day narrative. There’s nothing wrong with the storyline itself. It’s a very compelling representation of her desperation to maintain her business and keep her kids safe, but what she experiences in the past doesn’t help her deal with Vee in the present, and that makes the episode feel a little disjointed.
Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) finds herself in a similar situation. Her antics at the airport are amusing, but without having Cindy acknowledge what she’s done, what are we supposed to take from it? The moment we meet young Cindy in her flashback, she’s immature and irresponsible, and the same is true of her in the end. In the present, Cindy doesn’t even acknowledge that she’s got a kid. If the past doesn’t add any new layers to the character, maybe it doesn’t deserve flashback.
Season 3 will absolutely benefit from sticking to flashback sequences that directly pertain to what’s happening in the present, but there’s also no denying that even the most unnecessary flashback has appeal. Regardless of episode fluidity or whether the past enhances what we’re getting in the present, these segments are entertaining, so the show can get away with it. More on that in the final section.
There were some tough times in season 1, but generally, Poussey and Taystee’s friendship made for some of the most entertaining and heartwarming components of the show. Seeing that destroyed in the second season is just devastating.
Poussey is a good person and Samira Wiley makes you believe it, but everyone has a breaking point and we see hers in her flashback. She’s familiar with the frustration that comes with moving, but finding love and being forced to move again because someone doesn’t approve is another story. It isn’t fair and someone as loving and sensitive as Poussey doesn’t deserve it either. When she storms up to the German General to make her point, you’re behind her 100% – until the gun is revealed. One moment, you’re revved up, rooting for Poussey to prove her point, but the next, you’re hit with a shattering sense of dread that Poussey might be making the biggest mistake of her life. There’s so much tension that the instant her father steps in, there’s no processing it; it’s emotion overload.
Poussey is a strong person and is capable of going to extremes to stand up for what’s right and for the people she loves, but she can’t do it alone. She never could. She needed her dad to keep her in check on the Army base and Taystee serves that same purpose in prison. It isn’t easy watching their friendship crumble, but it gains a significant amount of depth in the process. Their relationship isn’t just about silly jokes and surface level support anymore. They really do bring out the best in each other.
Morello’s Bubble Bath
Morello’s (Yael Stone) break-in is the best sequence of the season, hands down. After hearing about Christopher almost every single episode throughout season 1 without meeting him, it became obvious that something wasn’t quite right. However, no amount of suspicion could have prepared us for the real details of their connection and especially not for the extent Morello goes to to tap back into it.
Episode 4, ‘A Whole Other Hole,’ rocks an impeccable build. We start with the bubbly van-driving Morello we’ve come to know and love, but then a flashback kicks in, slowly revealing what’s really been going on. Morello’s past and present make for a beautifully unnerving paradox. In the past, she’s totally delusional yet oozes poise and confidence, but in the present, she’s far more in touch with reality and totally unhinged for it.
The present material is just one WTF moment after another. You can’t believe Morello’s pulling out of the hospital, you can’t believe she’s going into Christopher’s house nor can you believe she’s touching all of his stuff. Just when you think it can’t go any further without her heading back or getting caught, she does something that’s so desperate and bizarre it’ll break your heart – she hops in the tub with Christopher’s wife’s veil on.
It’s a sequence that plays exceptionally well all on its own, but paired with the reality of what Morello’s done, it goes above and beyond shock value and gives you something to think about, too. On the one hand, Morello is one of the warmest, kindest inmates at Litchfield. On the other, it’s always been apparent that something’s a little off. What she did to Christopher is no joke, but you still sympathize with her. It’s like coming back to a demolished home with an adorable puppy sitting wide-eyed right in the middle of the mess. The dog is the culprit yet you can’t help but to let him/her off the hook. Clearly, there’s a big difference between tearing up a couch and planting a homemade bomb under someone’s car, but even then, Morello’s innocence and unawareness will have you coming up with every excuse imaginable because it’s too heartbreaking to see her suffer the consequences.
Morello’s material may not have a particularly powerful impact on the second season narrative as a whole, but it’s still one of the most memorable elements of the show. The suspense is through the roof, the revelations are impactful, and by the end, Morello’s no longer a one-note supporting player; she’s an especially touching multidimensional character.
OITNB Doesn’t Have to Play By the Rules
As mentioned in the premiere episode review, it’s come to a point where Orange is the New Black can practically do no wrong because of such successful world-building and the brigade of extremely likable characters. There’s a lot going on and often it’s far too much to maintain sound script structure, but it doesn’t matter. The attachment to these characters will trump narrative fluidity any day.
You’re desperate for more Orange Is the New Black the moment season 2 comes to a close, but not because of a dramatic cliffhanger – rather, because you’re genuinely going to miss the characters. Yes, story is important and the show will flounder if the calamities at Litchfield become less interesting and/or amusing, but if Orange is the New Black continues to maintain this attachment to the main players and emit such an overpowering sense of warmth, there’s just no stopping it. There will always be a draw.
Orange is the New Black season 3 is currently filming and will likely arrive around this time next year.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.