SPOILER ALERT: This review contains full spoilers for the first two seasons of Orange Is the New Black.
The second season of Orange Is the New Black is a season of change, yet at the same time it ends with somewhat of a restoration of the status quo. The first season of the show worked very hard to establish the characters both inside and outside of Litchfield. We were shown that none of the people in Piper’s world are one-dimensional characters or simple archetypes. It’s a bit of a meta jab at the character of Piper, who sees herself as the main character not just in her own life, but (as Nicki points out) in the lives of everyone around her. Her instinct is to view herself as the only well-rounded character, and everyone her as poorly developed supporting players. And in most TV shows, Piper’s egocentric view would be correct. But Jenji Kohan has deliberately subverted the audience’s expectations, giving dimension and pathos to a supporting cast of characters who would be reduced to crude racial stereotypes in the hands of a lesser talent (looking at you, Chuck Lorre). Kohan and her staff carefully crafted a rich, real world in Litchfield, and season 2 of Orange Is the New Black is their attempt to (at least, temporarily) tear it apart.
The big changes to the show mostly manifest in the relationships of the characters. Piper and Alex are separated, this time not just emotionally but geographically. Pennsatucky’s crew of Christian meth-heads turn on her, and perhaps worst of all for the viewers, Taystee and Poussey’s friendship is put on hiatus. The dramatic changes to the show are never more clear than in the season premiere, where a confused and disoriented Piper is whisked away from solitary confinement (where she had spent a few weeks after beating the holy hell out of Pennsatucky in the season 1 finale) and put on a series of bus and plane rides to an unknown destination. It’s a bit jarring to see Piper serving as the audience surrogate once again, drawing us in to her sense of alienation as she makes her way to a supermax penitentiary in Chicago. It’s a risky move on the part of the show’s writers, after spending the entire first season showing us that the main character of OITNB is not actually Piper, but Litchfield itself and the colorful ensemble therein. By ostensibly following only the “main character” for an entire episode, the show is leaving the real stars behind. Of course, Piper is back in the mix at Litchfield by the third episode, and the status quo is restored. In that way, the first three episodes could be seen as a microcosm of the entire season; big changes occur, but by the end everything is more or less back to normal. The only lasting change is Alex getting out of prison after testifying in Chicago against her former drug kingpin.
The catalyst for change in Litchfield itself is Vee, a new character with past ties to both Taystee (on the outside) and Red (on the inside). Vee wants to rule Litchfield the way that she did during her previous stay, and will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. Early on, she sets about building a crew of other black inmates, specifically the only ones who have ever had speaking roles on the show. Poussey is the odd man (or rather, woman) out, after Vee recruits her old protégé Taystee. Taystee and Poussey’s friendship was one of the unexpected delights of the first season (Amanda and MacKenzie FTW!), but their split is set up by the reveal of Poussey’s previously unmentioned (to the audience) and unrequited romantic feelings toward Taystee. Vee drives a wedge between the two of them, warning Taystee that she doesn’t want people in her ‘hood thinking she’s a lesbian after she gets out. One expository hair change (corn rows) later, Taystee is part of Vee’s prison crew. Suzanne also goes through the change hair/join Vee process, becoming the easily manipulated enforcer of the group. Janae and Black Cindy join up as well, apparently in exchange for cake (to be fair, it was funfetti). Vee’s racket is cigarettes, and she has an outside vendor sneaking tobacco in with the cleaning supplies. This sets up a direct conflict with Litchfield’s former queen of contraband, Red.
Red begins the season trying to get her own crew back together so that she can retake the kitchen. After some fruitless attempts, her discovery of a sewer drain in the campus greenhouse inspires her to restart her contraband pipeline (literally!) with the help of the Golden Girls, Litchfield’s crew of, um, “mature” women. Vee sees Red’s new enterprise as a threat, and the two women spend most of the season trying to take each other down. A flashback episode for Red toward the end of the season shows us that she and Vee became friends (as far as Red knew) shortly after Red got locked up, and it was actually Vee who suggested that Red use her Russian mob connections to smuggle in contraband. After Vee became the leader of the black inmates, she shook Red down for control of the operation. Red refused, and Vee’s crew gave her a vicious beating. So it’s safe to say that there’s some history between the two of them. Their war for contraband supremacy dominates the season, with supposed main character Piper not ever really becoming a part of that story.
In terms of side stories, noted homophobe Healy and noted toothpastephobe Pennsatucky strike up a bit of a friendship after both decide that they want something better out of life. Nothing much really comes of it other than the two of them conspiring to fix Pennsatucky’s teeth, but it gives them something to do while Vee takes over the role of the show’s villain. Piper and Caputo both work to take down assistant warden Fig, though neither is aware of their shared goal until the season finale. Piper’s investigations into embezzlement at Litchfield give her something to do on her own for once, and she manages to form a bit of a prison identity for herself. Her relationship with Larry is officially ended after he reveals that he slept with Piper’s married best friend (and new mom) Polly, and Larry continues to be on the show for some reason. Miss Rosa (the bald, cancer-stricken inmate we met back in the pilot) finds out that she has only weeks to live, and is going to die in prison. Bennett gets Pornstache sent to prison for raping Daya, which Daya says is a frame job even though Pornstache did exactly that (from a legal perspective. Daya’s consent is irrelevant since she was an inmate and Pornstache was a guard).
Vee’s crew abandons her by the end of the season, after Vee expands her operation to include heroin, kicks Taystee out of the crew because of something Poussey did, frames Suzanne for her own slocking (lock in a sock…slock…I just got that!) of Red, and tries to go Broomy McStabStab on Black Cindy. Desperate, Vee flees Litchfield through Red’s sewer pipe (which had been revealed to Vee by Big Boo), and is struck dead by a van driven by the escaping Rosa. Taystee and Poussey are friends again, Vee is gone, Red has a newly-slocked face but a working contraband operation, and Alex is headed back to Litchfield after her parole officer discovers that she has a gun (due to an “anonymous” tip from a certain angry blonde ex). Status quo (mostly) restored.
On a lesser show, this kind of impermanence regarding changes could be seen as a warning sign, but on Orange Is the New Black it’s meant to make a point. The worst part of prison for these women isn’t the food or the lack of privacy or the occasional garden shed slocking. It’s the sameness. It’s the day-to-day tedium of going about the same routine in the same building, until they let you out. It’s knowing that the outside world is changing, and people you know are living dynamic lives while your life is stuck in a static loop. Orange Is the New Black has spawned thousands of blogs, Buzzfeed quizzes and Facebook posts about how much fun it must be to live in Litchfield, but Jenji Kohan is trying to make it clear that her point is exactly the opposite. These characters are not dropping in at their convenience to binge-watch the events inside the prison while eating pizza and texting their friends. They are stuck there, all day, every day, with limited connections to the outside world. Their lives are no longer their own, and their free will is extremely limited. Kohan, the other writers, and the cast want to make it clear: Litchfield may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Some other thoughts:
- Larry and Polly seem like they’re characters from a much worse show, who have been transplanted into this one. Their affair was telegraphed from a mile away, and the whole story reeked of a mid-‘90s sitcom.
- Morello is totes crazypants, you guys! Another excellent swerve by the writers. After last season, I think we all assumed that Christopher broke up with Lorna after she went to prison, and her delusion was limited to thinking he would still marry her. But it’s so much worse than that.
- Speaking of crazypants, the show has a running theme of showing women (Morello, Crazy Eyes and Pennsatucky) who really should be getting mental health care, but were just thrown into prison instead because it’s easier for “the system”.
- This season really up the quotient of, as Boo would put it, “You know…lesbian content.” The scene with Brook and Nicki in the chapel stood out in particular, since Kimiko Glenn was fully nude whereas similar scenes with Nicki and Lorna in season 1 had Yael Stone’s breasts covered. I hope the increase in sexy times and nudity isn’t meant to be pandering. My eyes already roll hard enough at Game of Thrones. That being said, I may or may not be working on a fanfic involving Brook and Poussey’s German girlfriend.
- I hope Piper and Black Cindy become best friends next season.
What do you all think? Was everything tied up too neatly at the end? Is the show’s depiction of lesbianism becoming exploitative, or is it all fun and nip-nips? Should Laura Prepon keep the dark hair and glasses look forever? Leave a comment below.