[This is a review of the Orange is the New Black season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Thanks to ER, I once dreamed of stitching up wounds and managing an onslaught of trauma in the emergency room. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had me gunning for a spot on a vampire-killing dream team and Dexter made me wish I could track down serial killers with Miami Metro. Now, I want to go to prison, too.
Season one of Orange is the New Black rocked winning performances, unforgettable characters and stellar writing from start to finish, but the quality that made it especially engaging and binge-watch-worthy was the success of the cast as an ensemble. Taylor Schilling served as a strong anchor until the show blew the doors to Litchfield wide open, letting you pick the character you identified with most. But, whether you stuck with Piper, were swayed by Red (Kate Mulgrew), fell for Alex (Laura Prepon) or preferred goofing around with Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey (Samira Wiley), being in anyone’s company made the place feel like home because they all came together to form one big, strange and very lovable family.
The writers never undermined the fact that Piper was essentially ripped away from her cozy life and thrown into some very uncomfortable and even dangerous conditions, but with the abundance of heart and humor at the forefront, it was effortless to strike a connection with the characters and genuinely enjoy seeing them through everything, regardless of the circumstances of the situation. Piper and Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) fight served as a powerful season-ending cliffhanger, but it was the withdrawal from the environment and the group as a whole that made the more devastating impression.
After almost a year of homesickness for Litchfield, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Morello (Yael Stone), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and more, the first episode of season 2 is an unnervingly sobering return. After Piper lost it and bashed Pennsatucky’s face in, there was no doubt that she’d be isolated from her fellow inmates for quite some time, but reuniting with her in the SHU only to watch her get whisked away and thrown onto a plane is a completely unexpected turn. Piper’s panic is palpable and as she begs for answers every step of the way, so do you. They can’t be transferring her from Litchfield, right? Will anyone wonder where she is? Is that the end of all of her new friends? Just like Piper, you want to go home - as in Litchfield home.
The idea of Piper starting from scratch and earning her place in a new prison is extremely unsettling, and even a bit upsetting, but it’s vital to ensuring we keep everything in perspective. Piper, and any inmate for that matter, can make moves to earn respect in prison, but ultimately, it amounts to nothing because she’s got zero control. The episode still has a strong sense of humor, but it has adapted to Piper and her new prison veteran status.
At the start of season one, she’s completely unknowing and the resulting misunderstandings are fittingly quirky and endlessly amusing. Here, however, it’s a darker form of comedy. Piper scrambling to catch a cigarette-carrying cockroach is funny, but this time, she isn’t trying to complete the task with an innocent eagerness. She knows she has to do it if she wants to live sensibly with her new cellmates, but rather than treat it as a be-all-end all, it’s simply a task that needs completing. The change suits the character’s growth as well as the pace and progression of the episode. The stakes are high throughout, but the writers know exactly where to place pee pad lectures, potential cockroach-racing contenders, oddball inmates and awkward encounters to ensure that the show grows, but also stays true to form.
The episode also boasts an exceptional build courtesy of Schilling’s accessibility and spot-on plot progression. You’re right in there with Piper the whole time. While she’s on the bus, there’s concern, but also hope that it’s one big joke and the bus will circle back to the Litchfield door. The airplane is a rather nauseating sight, but this can’t be happening, right? Then again, on second thought, specifically when Piper comes clean to her new plane buddy (Lori Petty), she must have killed Pennsatucky and now she’s being punished for it. Then, sure enough, the moment she enters the Chicago prison and is handed a new set of bedding and clothes, your stomach drops. She stuck here and that’s that.
It’s a sinking feeling, but just before her hope flatlines, we get the perfect surprise - Alex is there! Piper gets her confidence back and so do you. Trouble is, that confidence is what powers you through the rest of the episode and it powers you through with such force that when you’re hit with the reveal of what Alex has done, it hits remarkably hard. Further boosting the effect of that big reveal is how invested you’ve become in Piper’s decision-making process.
It’s a thrill getting a glimpse at the earlier years of a favorite character’s life, but those moments can’t be fleeting perks. For roughly three-quarters of this episode, there is concern that über honest little Piper would miss the mark and just add some backstory to the character, but then everything comes to a head. Choosing between abiding by the law and following a loved one’s advice would be tough for anyone, but by pairing the past and present, the episode makes that decision Piper’s specifically and lets you weigh the options right along with her. That added insight paired with the intense taste of non-Litchfield living conditions makes the end result especially impactful.
There is definitely a degree of disappointment that comes from the show’s big return being an episode that doesn’t give us the large majority of the characters we’ve come to know and love, but this is the more promising start. The tone and appeal are still firmly intact; episode one is just saying, don’t get too comfortable because things can break down at any moment. There’s absolutely a part of me that wouldn’t mind indulging in more chicken, Crazy Eyes and screwdriver-type hijinks time and time again, but the show needs to grow and this episode proves that it can.
Orange is the New Black season 2 is available in its entirety on Netflix. Screen Rant will have more reviews on the season soon.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.