Slight spoilers about Orange is the New Black season 2 below
It’s a good thing that Netflix picked up Orange is the New Black, because I’m not sure where it could air on TV properly. The show has a massive, primarily female cast of characters and it manages to give the majority of them a good amount of depth. It deals with adult issues and themes and doesn’t reek of studio notes and interference.
The strength of OITNB is that it portrays its mostly prison bound cast as people first. It shows their struggles and triumphs. You can feel bad for a creep like Pornstache. You get where Healy’s hair trigger temper and rage comes from. You can even understand some of the motivations behind season two’s big bad, Vee. OITNB hammers this home with its use of flashbacks. The Lost formula works as well as ever here, showing how these women ended up in prison. They’re different people on the outside. It’s a different world. The circumstances that led them to Litchfield are key to their identity and behavior.
The most effective look the show has given us regarding this contrast of outside versus inside was with Taystee in season one. Her struggle to adjust to her new settings and the difficulties of living as an ex-con was heart breaking. Danielle Brooks really brings it, playing someone who seems relatively care free on the outside, but has much larger issues and aspirations within. There’s a reason the character is front and center for season two.
Taystee’s struggle with her mother figure is the backbone of the show’s second chapter and elevates it above season one. Vee is an agent of chaos in the prison, a much needed one with Taryn Manning’s Pennsatucky toned down from her crazy level of 11. Unlike ‘tucky’s exploits in season one, Vee is much more sinister and conniving. An organized villain with a plan makes this a tighter season. Vee brings the issues of race and drugs with her, things the show has previously addressed, but without this level of malice and aggression.
The worst thing Vee does is use her status as a mother figure to manipulate the black inmates at Litchfield. She had Taystee in her clutches at a young age, but she also collects these other lost souls and uses them to grab power in the prison. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren is especially in need of someone to believe in her. Her backstory shows someone who grew up being forced into uncomfortable situations, often being mocked. Seeing someone seemingly accept her for who she is means everything to Suzanne. She’s the saddest figure in season two, being used by Vee and not remotely aware of it.
So much of it comes down to the concept of family, especially mothers. Daya receives the motherly care of Gloria and her actual mother Aleida (who only occasionally acts like it). Red has to fight for the trust of her prison family after nearly killing Gina in her misguided attempt to reclaim the kitchen. Piper’s mother treats her very coldly, but that role was really fulfilled by her grandmother, who passed away before her furlough can kick in.
The show goes a bit flat when they go outside of Litchfield’s walls, especially when the focus falls on Jason Biggs’ Larry. Maybe that’s intended. Maybe they want the audience feel as annoyed as Piper when she gets to hear about Larry’s average everyday problems. He might as well have a giant #whitepeopleproblems hashtag at the bottom of the screen whenever he pops up. Larry is a fairly average sitcom character, where most of the people in the prison and their problems are unique to this show.
The humor doesn’t always work to the intended effect either. Talkative hippie Brook Soso was a new addition this year and the character felt a little cartoony. Yes, we get it, she’s a hippie and prison isn’t a friendly place for people who like to eat organic and not shower. Her last name is Soso and that means meh! A small quibble, but still an element that didn’t work well.
Season two features less of our gateway character in Piper. She’s still in it plenty, but her struggle isn’t the primary focal point. Her problems are still important and entertaining, but they’re not the center of the universe this time around. Piper has adjusted to prison, and the show has made itself more of an ensemble piece. There are too many stories to tell for this to be a solo tale.
The ensemble and diversity make OITNB a different experience. Race, gender, poverty, parentage, crime, drugs, the prison system, and so much more have been addressed in 26 episodes. Here’s to many more from the awkwardly named pride of Netflix.
Blah blah blah (bigger spoilers here)
- Caputo’s band “Side Boob” was my favorite subplot of the season. “You look like the gay Edge.”
- Going a little more into the rounding out, they did a good job of showing that even seemingly good guys can be petty dicks.
- I like the move to take Alex Vause off of the table for the majority of the season, although it looks like she’ll be back in Litchfield next season.
- I’m sure that assload of hidden heroin will just quietly disappear and never be seen again. Maybe Annie’s Boobs from Community will find a good spot for it.
- Rosa had a strong arc this season, bonding with her fellow chemo patient and seeing just how much of a rush that she got from stealing money. Maybe she’ll run into Hannibal Lecter and they can discuss just how little they care for rude people.
- What does everyone want from season 3? Vee was a strong villain, but it looks like she’s run her course. The Warden is a possibility. Alex and Piper have things to sort out. Daya’s baby is still on the way.