Orange Is the New Black Season 2 Review, Part 1 (Episodes 1-6): Conflict Over Community
Orange Is the New Black S02E01–S02E06
Note: I'll be reviewing Orange Is the New Black's second season in two big chunks, starting with the first six episodes, which Netflix released early to the press.
Note #2, The Revenge: There are spoilers for the first six episodes in the write-up below, so proceed at your own risk.
If the first season of Orange Is the New Black was so surprisingly good because it depicted women's prison as a community of strangers bonding instead of tearing each other part, then Season 2 is moving past the pleasantries and focusing on the more straightforward drama that arises from conflict between characters. That, and lots of butt-naked shower scenes.
Yes, Season 1 featured plenty of tension Season 1—especially between race cliques early on, and between Pennsatucky and Piper toward the end—but the residual image for me was the multi-colored parade of women on stage during the holiday showcase in the finale. Season 1 bamboozled us by shivving our expectations; with the exception of 'Tucky and Piper's brawl in the yard, we last left Orange Is the New Black with the feeling that no matter which side of the street you start out on, it's possible to find common ground when you're stuck in prison under the watchful eye of a guy with a disgustingly thick caterpillar mustache. Talk about a Kumbaya moment.
And with that foundation laid, Season 2 came at us with all the confidence of a triple-life-sentence inmate. The Litchfield Penitentiary is no longer a wonderland full of new faces and fresh rules, it's our daily routine. In the first six episodes of Season 2, Orange Is the New Black's emphasis changed from "We're all in this together!" feel of Season 1 to "Well, we're here—now what?"
Conflict was everywhere as the focus of the story shifted away from Piper being an upper-class white girl who was thrown into prison to a thriving landscape full of interpersonal relationships. And now that we're somewhat familiar Orange Is the New Black's wonderful characters, it was time to start bouncing them off each other.
That sort of pot-stirring needed a catalyst, and the introduction of Yvonne "Vee" Parker (Lorraine Toussaint) via Taystee's backstory in Episode 2 added the perfect complex menace. As Season 2's most meaningful new character so far, Vee is just what the show needed to evolve beyond prison hijinks and weekly character stories.
Vee was at the center of most of the first six episodes' most interesting schisms, drawing a line between the African-American inmates and the Hispanic inmates, brewing an old-fashioned race war behind bars, and pitting two old hens, Vee and Gloria, against each other. Her psychological control over Taystee created a rift in one of the show's best friendships, with questions of sexuality pushing Taystee and Poussey apart.
Vee also has a history with Red from somewhere back in the day, and her Machiavellian politics are ruffling Red's feathers as they battle for the ultimate control of contraband good. Plus, Vee is grooming Crazy Eyes into her little lieutenant, which is pulling her away from her free-agent status. In Season 1, I remember puzzling over how quickly the cafeteria scenes changed, as inmates eased up on choosing their table mates according to skin color and started to embrace a more mixed-race smorgasbord. But Vee's presence has brought back one of the most dangerous aspects of prison: racial divides.
Of course, Vee is a perfect fit for Orange Is the New Black's complicated morals. Yeah, she's stirring shit up, but Litchfield wasn't exactly in a state of harmony before she arrived. Red's ouster and the rise of Gloria's and the Hispanics represented a major shift in power—and Gloria is only doing what's right for herself and her friends. As newbie prisoner Brook said, "I thought women's prison would be more like a community or girl power," but things have changed in Litchfield and for Orange Is the New Black, and prison politics are as thick as anything that's happening in Game of Thrones' King's Landing.
Politics aren't the only thing getting amped up in Season 2. Sex! It was all over the place in the first six episodes! Lady-on-lady cunnilingus almost made a regular appearance, and Poussey and her German girlfriend even engaged in one of Mrs. Garrison's favorite sapphic activities. I point this out not as an outraged viewer calling for the eyes and ears of our impressionable children, but as a man who's surprised at the influx of boobs this season. I mean, we all expected boobs galore last year, but Season 1 was pretty restrained with regard to mammary maximization. But Season 2? There are boobs of all shapes and sizes, and they're in your face, in the background, kind of off to the side... it's the closest Orange Is the New Black has gotten to Chained Heat.
But only some of us watch Orange Is the New Black for the breasts. Some of us watch for the fascinating character development, and that's back and strong as ever. It's the not-so-secret ingredient that makes the series so delicious, and once again it's largely taking place in pre-prison flashbacks that shed light on the lives our inmates led outside Litchfield's walls. Most of what we've seen so far followed the Season 1 formula: Girl in prison ended up in prison because someone wronged her, therefore making us feel compassion for her even if she's really nasty behind bars. In Season 1, Janae's backstory was a great example of that; in the first six episodes of Season 2, we've seen Gloria in an abusive relationship, Poussey being slighted for her sexual preferences, and Piper bearing witness to her father being a cheating bastard and her mom being a spineless wife.
Emotionally, the backstories can be a bit manipulative—that's long been one of my chief complaints about the show. After all, these women are in prison, and it can't always be someone else's fault. That's why Morello's backstory was so refreshing. She's a frickin' psychopath stalker! As a danger to society (and especially Christopher), she belongs in prison—and she earned her trip there all by herself. It doesn't make me like her any less, either. It's just part of her character that I think we all knew was in there somewhere. This is the kind of backstory I wanted to see. If the show really wants to portray all these women from different backgrounds, some of them have to be people with problems they manufactured themselves.
And now let's take a quick look at each episode with mini-capsule reviews.
Episode 1: "Thirsty Bird" (Piper's flashback)
This unusual outing took Piper away from Litchfield and flew her to Chicago, where she was forced to take the witness in the trial of Piper and Alex's former employer, the leader of the drug cartel. As an episode on its own, it was a total mind-screw, because OITNB is most successful as an ensemble drama and "Thirsty Bird" made Piper the main focus. It brought Piper back to Alex, who would screw her over again (of course), and it hardened Piper into a sourpuss. The flashbacks to young Piper learning her family's ways of suffocating the truth worked well with the main story; in fact, they were some of the best tie-ins the series has ever done with a flashback. And thank God OITNB is binge-able, because I could not imagine sitting tight and watching just this episode since it blew up the series' structure without telling us what was going on.
Episode 2: "Looks Blue, Tastes Red" (Taystee's flashback)
Another structure-buster, as our heroine Piper was absent, and the weight of the hour fell on the rest of the characters. This episode introduced Vee through Taystee's flashback, and as I watched the first two episodes, I initially had the feeling that Season 2 was going to be weaker than Season 1. But instead, the first two hours served to set things up for later, and now that we know how important Vee is to the season, it's probably worth going back for another viewing. I guess Daya's constipation was some metaphor for not being to let go, which was a recurring theme in the episode.
"Looks Blue, Tastes Red," was also when I realized that OITNB's second season is going to be a lot more crude than Season 1. Or maybe it was when Piper's cell mate farted on the toilet in the premiere? Either way, this season has added a lot more humor that 8-year-olds will find hilarious.
Episode 3: "Hugs Can Be Deceiving" (Suzanne's flashback)
This episode was when things really started to pick up for me. We already knew that Suzanne had been adopted by a white family, but seeing how she was raised and the difficulties she experienced—especially as she was telling her white princess classmates that dragons burn little girls—punched me in the heart. Since OITNB tells so many stories simultaneously, many of them develop slower than they would on other shows, and "Hugs Can Be Deceiving" was the turning point for many of Season 2's early arcs. Vee started manipulating Suzanne and amassing her army; we got our first glimpse of Nicky's bang diary; the Latinas made their declaration of war against Vee and her peeps. And the biggest shock of all was the revelation that Suzanne ran outside while Piper and 'Tucky were fighting in the Season 1 finale and clocked Piper cold, I'm guessing because her deep-seated hatred for dandelion white girls, which can also manifest in love, was too strong.
Episode 4: "A Whole Other Hole" (Morello's flashback)
This episode was one of the series' best. Just flat-out brilliant. Morello's flashback was largely the reason for the hour's success; it was one of the first times a flashback on this show was truly surprising. There was no happy ending in it, there was no soul-searching lesson in failure. It simply revealed a side of a character that was dark and dangerous (did anyone else think she was considering dropping that clock radio into the bathtub with her?). "I've decided not to wear a veil, it's too traditional," Morello told Yoga while she continued to fantasize about Christopher, who she'd only gone on one date with. "And I want him to see my face." OMG. So delusional. Meanwhile, a rift formed between Poussey and Taystee, and Taystee naturally fell into the arms of her surrogate mother Vee. And that older bank-robber lady went to the hospital for chemo. "A Whole Other Hole" was all about seeing the end (or not seeing the end, in Morello's case), and I loved every minute of it. A-plus!
Episode 5: "Low Self Esteem City" (Gloria's flashback)
Tensions ramped up as Season 2 took shape around a series of broken relationships. The blacks and the Hispanics were at war, and things even got physical when Janae tripped Daya. Vee played like she wanted to cool things down, but manipulated Gloria into doing exactly what she wanted, paving the way for Taystee and her friend to join Vee in custodial. That turned the tide in their war, and Red was smart enough to see it and take advantage of it. This is when the season really became about controlling the smuggling operations, which leads to power. Gloria had it as the head of the kitchen, Vee was gaining it by assembling a team in custodial, but Red was in the best position because Vee and Gloria no longer saw her as a threat, allowing her to start her own operation out of the garden. It's a three-way competition now, even if two of the competitors don't realize it yet. I didn't care much for Gloria's flashback, but I was glad when that dude burned. Just one question: What kind of rooms have two doors that both lock from the outside? That just seems like poor planning to me.
Episode 6: "You Also Have a Pizza" (Poussey's flashback)
Now the show is really branching out with side stories that support the main plot of Vee vs. Red vs. Gloria. The idea of starting a newsletter and researching the financial shenanigans of the prison finally gave Piper—who's supposedly our main character, but isn't really feeling like it this season (which is okay)—something to do. She's always been on a collision course with prison management, and this is the perfect way to speed up the inevitable crash. Piper versus Fig would be an epic scene, wouldn't it?
Meanwhile, Healy—who remains one of OITNB's most interesting characters because I started off loving him and now I hate him but I also feel sorry for him—was looking for a friend in Caputo after his wife told him he had no friends. Their awkward hangout (well, it was awkward for Caputo; Healy seemed just fine) was hilarious. But the saddest I ever felt in these first six episodes was when Fisher brought Luschek to Caputo's show and Caputo was crushed. That. Was. Painful. He may have a habit of jerking it after meetings with prisoners, but he's still got a heart. As for Poussey's flashback, what the hell was she thinking when she tried to pull a gun on her girlfriend's dad?
– Where is PORNSTACHE?!?!?!? I miss him.
– Daya and John's relationship needs a kick in the booty. It's pretty stagnant right now.
– Whose backstory are you most excited to see next?
– What do you think of Larry and Polly's sorta-relationship? It feels a little bit weird and forced to me.
What did you think of the first six episodes of Season 2?
Check back soon for my review of the remainder of the season, and please, no spoilers for Episodes 7–13 in the comments!
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