Orange Is the New Black Season 2 Review, Part 2 (Episodes 7-13): Fight the Power
Orange Is the New Black S02E07-S02E13
Well, after finishing Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black, I think I can say it was better than Season 1 in almost every way imaginable, with the second half of the season a seven-hour stretch of the best times I've ever had in prison. The series always excelled at establishing characters and that continued in Season 2 as we learned more about inmates we already knew and characters that milled around in the background in Season 1 stepped forward to have their lives unfolded before us. That was all to be expected.
What I found interesting was how Orange Is the New Black adapted in Season 2 to become a more sustainable show. Just as Piper learned to shrink back from her privileged white-girl upbringing in order to survive the first few months inside the clink, Orange Is the New Black transformed itself from a women's prison dramedy into a dramedy that took place inside a TV version of a women's prison.
Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black wasn't just the first time Piper went to prison, it was the first time many of us went to prison. As such, rules of the land needed to be laid out, and Piper was our window into this strange land. But Season 2 (and to some extent, the second half of Season 1) was about so much more than the prison and way of life on the inside, it was about the relationships between these strange inmates and prison workers. Making the joint a terrifying place day after day wouldn't help the stories flourish.
What happened was Litchfield became more of an adult summer camp than jail, and the harsh realities of prison were pushed aside for comedic high jinks. I've never been to prison (never been caught) but the day-to-day life inside of Litchfield during Season 2 reached cartoonish and sitcommy levels. A Washington City Paper article called "Where the Fuck Are All the Guards!? An Ex Con Reviews Orange Is the New Black" is better at pointing out all the discrepancies between a real prison stint and OITNB than I am (it's worth a read, check out how angry this woman is!), but one needed to look no further than the finale, when Crazy Eyes was being questioned by authorities about Red's beating and Taystee, Cindy, Poussey, and Janae all freely walked down a hall near offices and confronted the men about what really happened. Yep, four inmates cornered a man who was investigating their friend without a prison guard in sight.
This isn't awful for the series, in fact, it's probably for the best. We're in love with the characters, not the setting, so freeing up these characters to be characters makes for better dramedic stories then seeing them thrown in the SHU every other week (someone tell that to Janae). The human stories Orange Is the New Black wants to tell require some form of growth for its characters, and that's fostered by creating more freedom than a regular inmate might experience. As for prison purists, sorry! You'll just have to stick to NatGeo's Lockdown.
My concern here is trajectory. Creator Jenji Kohan sent Weeds pretty far off track around Season 3 as she felt the need to punch things up, and the series that was once so emotionally charged and somewhat honest became ridiculous very quickly. The prisoners of Litchfield are enjoying comforts at an exponential rate, and by Season 4, they could be running the prison if things stay this way. That means Kohan will have to put a cap on sex contests, prisoners dictating where they'll work, and the absurd amount of control that certain prison occupations have over others. We'll see if Johan shows restraint to keep Orange Is the New Black in territory that's open enough to facilitate stories but realistic enough to remind us that this is prison.
But for 13 fun episodes, especially these last seven, Orange Is the New Black took advantage of a new feel and found a middle ground that developed stories intriguing enough to overlook inaccuracies of incarceration. The tension created by the addition of Vee from the first half built to a spectacular (if somewhat predictable) crescendo, and the faceless injustices of the prison system, embodied by Fig, became an appropriate secondary threat when that crazy old lady was unleashed on the world without assistance and the DOC could not pay for Rosa's life-saving surgery. Stupid prison system not able to spend a lot of money on the needs of its overcrowded population! The reality of prison economics means corners will be cut, and sometimes those corners translate into people's lives. And because we saw the people whose lives are being affected, we easily jumped on board with the idea of burning the place to the ground and writing harshly worded letters to our Congressmen. It's really the only side of the debate Orange Is the New Black could take; a series about the personal lives of inmates wasn't going to take the prison system's side. We'd all veto a 20-percent increase in taxes for prison funding if we were handed a piece of paper with the choice on it, but show us a few reels of prisoners affected by the cash-strapping and we'd think twice.
But in this instance, it's even easier to side with the inmates because Fig was embezzling, and once again the powerful were terrible, corrupt people while the real humans were locked up like animals. (Though Season 2 even attempted to humanize Fig by showing her as a victim of her husband's pushiness.) Thus the rise of middle management also became a huge story in Season 2, most notably with Caputo. This was the character that made the biggest leap for me in the season. His desire to take down Fig coupled with his heartbreak over Fischer's stiff-arming him (and his sweet bass licks as part of psych-jammerz Sideboob) transformed him from pencil-pushing rule stickler to do-right. He wanted the bathrooms fixed, he wanted the inmates to have their right to cleanliness, and he wanted the voices of the prison to be heard with the newsletter. The same can't be said for the other prison managers. Healy remained a fascinating character wallowing in inconsistency, and of course Fig was a deliciously evil corporate symbol. But Caputo was the best as he straddled the line between right (his want for prisoners' rights) and wrong (his lashing out at Fischer for rebuffing his school-boy-crush advances), capturing the idealism of a man in a position of power who wants to do well but also has a personal life that can sour his efforts.
But as Season 2 ended, it appeared as though Caputo was learning the difficulties of the job the hard way. Of course his first days included two inmate escapes and protests outside the gate, setting up a third season of Caputo getting Obama'd by dealing with fallout from the previous regime and several unfortunate circumstances that were out of his control. That's going to force him to take on the role of asshole due to outside forces, a recurring theme in this show that loves the "don't blame me" method of influencing character actions.
Orange Is the New Black came into Season 2 with its greatest Season 1 asset—the element of surprise—obliterated. But it focused on what worked and enriched the lives of these characters we were still getting to know in Season 2, adapting the environment for a more satisfying second season. I'm still concerned for the future of the series and worried that Orange Is the New Black will become one big clown car of ridiculousness, but for 13 Season 2 episodes, the series got it right.
Quick capsule reviews of each of the last seven episodes:
Episode 7: "Comic Sans" (Cindy's flashback)
As I've said before, I've grown tired of blackstories putting the blame on an inmate ending up in jail because of someone else. This is prison. Surely not everyone can point fingers; someone has to be guilty because THEY are guilty, right? Morello's flashback earlier in the season was great because she came off as a psycho who was accountable for every reason she was in jail, and Cindy's hilarious backstory put her in the same boat. This girl, who heretofore was very underserved, was a terrible TSA agent and mother, a selfish woman who put herself ahead of everyone. I loved how the episode never tried to shade Cindy as anything different and used that to explain how she was. There's always some aspect of change to characters between their time inside and out, but free Cindy and jailed Cindy are virutally identical. And when Vee told Cindy that she gave up on herself, we all see that she gave up on herself a long time ago, and that's why she's is who she is. However, the rest of the episode wasn't much more than growing stories that were always planted.
Episode 8: "Appropriately Sized Pot" (Rosa's flashback)
This was when the second half of Season 2 really got cooking, and it was the real start of the raging against the prison system. Litchfield was going to release the crazy lady into the wild with no assistance, and Rosa was denied the treatment she needed for her battle with cancer. Rosa's backstory was appropriately insane, and the contrast of seeing a young woman so wild and reckless and her older self crippled with cancer instead getting taken out in a blaze of glory was one of Orange Is the New Black's best representations of the passage of time for some of these characters. And this was one flashback that really meant something to the series later, as Rosa's lust for life would play a huge part in the season finale. I'm still wondering why young Rosa bounced back and forth from guy to guy to guy, though. More prisoner's rights questions came to light when Brook was forced to shower in a scene that was way more sad than you'd think. And Piper was awarded furlough from Healy, for reasons I'm still trying to process, but it worked as a way to drive a wedge between her and the rest of the prison and returned the series back to its roots. But the highlight for me was the return of Pornstache, who made his entrance the only way he could: over-the-top and out of a shitty sports car.
Episode 9: "40 OZ of Furlough" (Red's flashback)
Red's flashback confirmed what we suspected about her relationship with Vee: it was not good. If you didn't already know what an awful, manipulative person Vee was yet, this was the episode you first wanted to punch her in the face. I'm not sure it was surprising given how Red acted before, but as Vee ordered a beatdown on Red, we got to see just how far Vee could go and has gone to get her way. The real draw here was Piper's furlough and watching her in New York, and the failures of enjoying her time away. It was almost as if Piper began to enjoy her time on the inside more, where time was constant for her, than outside, where time moved at a different pace. Larry was over her and moved on to Polly and New York had changed. She ended up eating a burger and drinking a 40 (the shot of her choosing between champagne, her old life, and a 40, her new life, was fantastic) while looking at the Empire State Building through bars on an overpass. When asked if she was anxious to return to her old self, Piper said, "I'm not actually," signifying just how much she's changed and how much of an impact prison had on her. Her time outside ending up being way more fascinating than I anticipated, and was one of the highlights of the season for me. And, in the next episode, her decision not to tell Red that her store hadn't closed down to protect her from the feeling what she just experienced on the outside was a real show of compassion. Red didn't need another bit of bad news, and it's best that those inside hang on to their idea of the outside than wallow in how much it's changed.
Episode 10: "Little Mustachioed Shit" (Piper's flashback)
VEE! Holy shitsnacks. No matter how much of a monster you suspected Vee to be, nothing could've prepared you for her encounter with Poussey in the bathroom. Drunk on hooch, Poussey challenged Vee and her brainwashed gang, and got the snot beat out of her by Crazy Eyes, Vee's personal attack dog. This season just got real. Vee is one of the best TV villains in recent memory, and seeing the stages of her progression from old dog back in prison to mastermind at all costs was incredible. Her manipulation of Crazy Eyes was disgusting, but no one can deny that Vee knew what she was doing and was a formidable enemy to the prison's status quo. And let's give it up for Lorraine Toussaint for her perfect portrayal of Vee. I'm calling her name when it's time to talk Emmys next year. With this episode, Vee's story became the most interesting part of the season and the backbone that allowed everything else to stand up. And of course, Pornstache getting arrested for impregnating Daya (which he didn't do) started the arc that finally added some interest to Daya and John's story.
Episode 11: "Take a Break From Your Values" (Sister Ingalls' flashback)
Season 2 ended with three very strong episodes, the first being this excellent hour that was all about sticking to your guns. This was when everyone decided they weren't budging. Sister Ingalls' flashbacks showed that she was always more of a woman of morals than of the cloth, except maybe with her memoir/steamy romance novel Nun Shall Pass, and her die-hard devotion to a cause—the hunger strike—in present day was a fun and surprisingly emotional renewal of whatever she passed off as faith. The final scene of Ingalls being forcefed in the hospital? Heartbreaking and powerful, and one of the images that will stay with me from the season. Poussey also showed strength in standing up to Vee, even after she was beaten down in the bathroom, the first time someone didn't bend to Vee's will and the beginning of her downfall. Even the old ladies got into the act, ready to show they ain't to be ignored with one trying to shank Vee (but mistaking another innocent woman for her, oops!). This was also when Boo went all the way to the dark side and pledged herself to Vee, continuing a questionable arc for Boo. I mean, did she really think she'd find safety under Vee's wing. Also, Piper and Nicky played the worst game of foosball ever. I should also mention that Cindy delivered my favorite line from the season in this episode: "I remember the Alamo too, but that don't stop me from eating Mexican food."
Episode 12: "It Was the Change" (Vee's flashback)
The storm's a'comin'! I'm a sucker for weather patterns dictating atmosphere and mood (see also: Fargo), so the storm that came down on Litchfield made me giddy. And the timing couldn't have been better. Following the assassination attempt on Vee, tension was thicker than one of Boo's thighs, so obviously the best thing that could have happened in the episode was smashing everyone together in a confined space. It forced things to happen, and when characters are forced into action when they're not ready for it, things go in motion and drama crashes through the wall. Red's decision to strike first was made purely out of survival, but she couldn't go through with it and agreed to a truce with Vee. Yeah right, bad move Red! Vee would later beat the tar out of Red with a "slock" because that's what Vee does. And in her flashbacks, what was obvious ever since early in the season was confirmed: Vee was responsible for RJ's death. Vee was a total monster at this point and deserved everything coming to her. Perhaps the most shocking thing in this episode was that everyone remembered the all the lyrics to Lisa Loeb's "Stay."
Let's talk about Piper and Alex quickly, and how Piper was acting like a mafia boss from inside prison pulling strings on the outside. She got Larry and Polly (whose story was pretty ridiculous this season) to rat on Alex skipping town to her parole officer, a move that seemed more as a way to set up Season 3 than it did as something necessary for Piper to do. But I do know that Piper is obsessed with Alex in both love and anger, so any move she makes involving Alex doesn't surprise me (she cray-cray when it comes to Alex). The protesting nuns outside the prison gates only added to Caputo's pressures on his first days as boss, and by the end of the episode, TWO inmates had escaped under his watch. Not a good start for Caputo, which is exactly how it should be, and another set up for Season 3, this one more interesting than Alex and Piper, in my opinion. I'm more invested in Caputo consumed by the challenge of balancing prison needs with his bosses' needs than I am Alex and Piper's bickering relationship (you two are no good for each other, girlz!). All this was fine, but the finale was really about Vee. The way she took advantage of Crazy Eyes' mental deficiencies was arguably the most awful thing she did in prison, and that only added to our hatred of the character which was built specifically to create a better pay off for her death. As Vee slipped out of the other end of Red's tunnel, Rosa plowed over her in a stolen prison van, killing her instantly. It was a car-mic death for Vee, who learned a lesson way too late: don't mess with the food of someone who just doesn't give a fuck. "Always so rude that one," Rosa said without a whiff of compassion, and she retreated to her younger days of carefree and reckless behavior. It's a big death that's incredibly goofy, but it also was strangely satisfying. Vee's villainous arc had run its course, and bringing her back for Season 3 wasn't necessary. Flattening her on the side of a road then became a better option, and though I would have preferred Crazy Eyes to be the one to end her (and at one point I was sure that was going to happen), the set up was also there for Rosa to kill her. I had already come to terms that Orange Is the New Black was getting somewhat ridiculous (which I liked) so I really enjoyed the finale. Plus, I'm a softie for TV scenes that play out to "Don't Fear the Reaper."
– There were a couple very disappointing character arcs this season. Nicky still hasn't had any interesting stories even though I think she's poised to get some worthy material at any given moment. Her heroin addiction hasn't been treated well, and it isn't likely to be anything we haven't seen before. But there's a hidden heroin stash that Nicky knows about, so buckle up for some of that in Season 3. Pennsatucky was also shorted this season after evolving into one of Season 1's most fascinating characters. She helped Healy set up the therapy sessions and then tried to join the lesbian movement without being a lesbian? Ehhh, I was hoping for a lot more with her. She's not really a threat anymore.
– The second half of Season 2 really cut down on the raunchiness and nudity! Way to show some restraint, Orange Is the New Black. But after all the R-rated stuff in the first half, there was no way to go but down unless the series wanted to be a porn.
– O'Neill! That guy became the funniest character this season between his banjulele playing and his step counting.
– This was in my notes: "John and Daya... this story is old and boring." It's pretty surprising that for two seasons, their story hasn't really progressed. However, John's admission of getting Daya pregnant is obviously going to be big for Season 3. Do you think he will he go to prison?
What did you think of Season 2 overall? Did you like it better than Season 1?
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