Orange is the New Black Season 2 Review: A Second Take

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The ladies of Litchfield are back and better than ever! Season 2 of Jenji Kohan’s prison dramedy is beautifully uncaged. WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

Prison is a terrible place to be, where true friends and basic human rights are rare luxuries in a system riddled with faults. Still, it’s often when you reach your lowest point that you discover who you really are, which is part of the beauty of a show with such a bleak setting. Orange is the New Black is well-aware of this, and once again makes a point to give us a slew of multifaceted characters to root for, all while subversively tackling issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and mental illness. Season 2 was not without its faults, but it’s hard to really hate on a show that can so easily find light in a place of darkness.

Much of the show’s first season was spent dissecting each of the inmates; finding out what makes them tick, and how they got to be put behind bars. Season 2 follows the same format, giving us insight into even more of Litchfield’s compelling characters, but the central theme of the episodes seemed to be about the prison itself. It’s rotting from the inside out, and there’s so much bureaucratic hypocrisy that nothing ever gets fixed. The correctional officers get a lot more screen time this season, to show the problems happening on every level. While the inmates have their power struggles and love affairs, the world around them is slowly crumbling.

Before I get further into that, however, I want to take a moment to talk about Piper. She started out as being our way into this disturbingly fascinating new universe, but once we were in, it became easy to see that she wasn’t the only one with a story to tell. While I’m aware that, in a series that has the most impressive female ensemble ever assembled in the history of TV, she’s far from the most interesting character, I hardly understand the animosity toward her. The premiere episode took us into a much more sinister version of prison life, as she awaited the trial of Alex’s former drug lord in Chicago. With Piper as our eyes and ears, we were again able to see just how trapped one can truly feel in the American penal system.

Soon Piper was shipped back to Litchfield to rejoin the rest of her rambunctious inmates, and it was a pleasant feeling to see the gang all back together again. Still, individually she never stopped being an interesting character to me. Perhaps it’s the fact that she’s consistently narcissistic and compassionate at the same time, or the fact that Taylor Schilling gives an incredibly no-holds-barred performance. She’s totally uncaring about whether or not her character is perceived as sympathetic, which makes her all the more engaging.

There’s certainly way more to this show than just a privileged white girl trying to make her way through prison life, but I’m glad she’s still an integral part of the overall plot. There’s a moment in the episode “40 OZ of Furlow,” where Piper’s been temporarily allowed back into the real-world to go to her grandmother’s funeral. She gets a taste of her old life back, but instead opts to drink a bottle of Colt 45 out of a paper bag while sitting on a bridge. This is her version of freedom now, and it speaks volumes about what prison has made her realize about herself.

There’s also the matter of Alex who, without Piper, wouldn’t have been one third of the series’ epic love triangle. The news that Laura Prepon would only be reprising her character for four episodes this season had me nervous, but the show did a remarkable job in not making her exit feel forced, and using her minimal screen time wisely. Also, the recent news that Prepon is returning for season 3 means she’s far from down for the count.

Besides, with Alex mostly out of the picture this season, there was plenty of time to get even more acquainted with some of season 1’s standout characters. This time around, we were taken into the backstories of people like Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Morello (Yael Stone), Poussay (Samira Wiley), and, of course, fan-favorite Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba). In his review, my colleague Matt compared this show to Game of Thrones, and he wasn’t wrong. At times, the world of Litchfield felt just as diverse and sprawling as Westeros. Large casts like this one can often be hard to sustain, but Orange managed to pay service just about everyone in equal measure, while still finding the time to introduce some compelling new faces.

The chief of these newbies was Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee Parker, a wildly dangerous, former drug dealer, with ties to both Taystee and Red (the always wonderful Kate Mulgrew). Toussaint played Vee with an eerie amount of composure, so that you were never really sure where her schemes were leading. This made it extremely engrossing to watch as she took hold over the prison, tearing through Taystee and Poussay’s friendship and butting heads with Red along the way. After all the damage she causes, her death in the finale—by way of prison van collision—is a bit of sweetly cruel irony. In a show full of lighthearted moments like pie-throwing and inmate sex contests, it’s Vee’s evil that continually grounds things in reality. The show may offer plenty of fodder for comical BuzzFeed lists and Tumblr posts, but it’s not here to tell you that prison is a fun place to be.

Of course, not every character can be this captivating with only 13 episodes in a season, so there were a few casualties along the way. I’m glad the show was able to give Piper and Larry (Jason Biggs) some closure, but I don’t really know, or care, why we had to see him start up a new relationship with Polly (Maria Dizzia). His character has always sort of been a connection to the outside world, but now that he and Piper are through, I don’t see any further use for him.

Additionally, Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), who was one of season 1’s biggest antagonists, seem to drift aimlessly throughout each episode. At first I thought something had mentally gone wrong with her after her beat-down last season, but then it seemed like she was just trying to do her time in peace. This would’ve been fine, had she not randomly started picking fights with her friends and joined Mr. Healy’s (Michael Harney) support group. I was very confused by her purpose, and disappointed to see the ramifications of the season 1 finale dealt with so quickly.

Still, these are small stains on an otherwise spotless season. With everything going on, the prison itself continued to fall to pieces in the hands of the corrupt Mrs. Figueroa (Alysia Reiner). It was a nice touch for her downfall to be brought upon by a combination of Piper’s snooping, Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) determination, and forces of nature—the rainstorm—that no one could really control.

After a season of watching people with nothing to lose fight for everything they want, I’ve come away with this: looking out for only yourself will get you nowhere. There’s strength in numbers, even amongst people who have lost their freedom. Prison is no place to be, but after spending another terrific season with these ladies, the wait to rejoin them in season 3 will be a difficult one. Grade: A

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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