Hopefully you’re ready to go back to prison. Orange is the New Black has returned in all of its shower shoe glory (and in its entirety, of course). Since all 13 episodes of season 2 are on Netflix, let’s spend the entire day with Piper, Taystee, Nicky, Red, Alex, Crazy Eyes, Lorna and all the other guests of the Litchfield penal system.
When we last left that gigantic cast Red’s lost her power, the Supervisor Sam was a complete jackass and Piper was punching an angel.
I’ll be binge-watching and writing down some reactions as we go along, so let’s slide the bars into place and get not-going. Standing still is hard.
Ep. 1 – “Thirsty Bird”
After a cliffhanger ending and the natural wait between two seasons, all you want is closure. To know how the wound opened at the end gets sewn up. To know what direction the story is heading. Whether we fell off the cliff or climbed up to the next ledge. The first episode refuses to tell us, or Piper (Taylor Schilling), what’s happening.
It’s a beautiful, crazy-making exercise in tension building that puts her on a conveyor belt from solitary to a bus to a tarmac to a plane to a pick-up point for male prisoners to Chicago. We don’t get there until 20 minutes into the episode, and Piper is frantically asking why and where the entire way. Instead of answering the questions we have, it adds more questions and more mystery.
Fortunately we have a familiar face in Lori Petty to act as a security blanket. This show has always done an excellent job of conjuring ways to punish those who are already being punished while offering the audience a lifeline. And we definitely need Petty’s grounding sensibility (not to mention her talent) because we’ve got roach delivery systems, panty-swaps and some psycho astrology in our new environment: the Metropolitan Detention Center in Chicago.
Presumably there are new stakes — mainly men and a different threat of sexual assault, less freedom, less mobility. Few shows would have the gall to introduce this many brand new characters after spending only a single season building a strong ensemble, but Orange is the New Black is insulated by two things. One, our knowledge of casting news. Two, our ability to press play immediately after the credits roll.
Speaking of which, this episode was directed by Jodie Foster, and the work here is stunning. Shifting location was a serious gamble, but Foster’s eye and guidance makes the episode feel like new wine in old wineskins. Even with the shouting question marks, there’s always a sense of safety (and I’m genuinely thankful for a lack of claustrophobic close-ups for this ride).
Plus, it’s pretty cool that something directed by Foster includes someone in a Hannibal Lecter mask (see above).
Maybe most interesting is that this episode solves The Great Piper Problem. She’s a changed person after defending herself against Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), and the grit shines through. If she’s still a special snowflake, she’s a tarnished one, and the mental anguish she feels through to the 40-minute mark is brought on by a truly frustrating situation, not her sense of entitlement. The childhood backstory helps slightly, but it’s more that she’s hardened herself.
So we’re here only temporarily, and Piper didn’t actually kill Pennsatucky with her dainty, soap-making hands. But she did screw up royally by trusting Alex (Laura Prepon), who is now rocking civilian clothes following what’s probably a courtroom selling out of the big boss she worked for. Piper should have trusted her ethical gut instead, but that kind of decision-making process has gotten fuzzy.
Today’s Lesson: Being honest is only good if someone gives you something for it.
Ep. 2 – “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”
Wow. From the first second she’s on screen, it’s abundantly clear that Teeka Duplessis is playing Young Taystee. It’s uncanny. She’s got the mannerisms down to an art. Bonus points for holding steady alongside a veteran like Lorraine Toussaint, an actor whose resume will sprain your finger if you try to scroll through it.
In fact, the acting this season has been strong and naturalistic throughout. It’s also aided in part by writing that feels like your favorite pair of jeans. The dialogue is so good that it doesn’t seem like anyone wrote it. In other words, great work, writing staff.
Unfortunately, Pennsatucky’s teeth are a major distraction. A rare practical misstep for the show, particularly because of how obviously ADRed her speech is. The prop chompers and swelling look gross enough, but the vocals are way too clear and the sounds aren’t lining up with her motions. Seems like a best-we-could-do fix.
Hopefully they fix her teeth instead.
This whole episode toys with how power begets power. Pennsatucky versus Supervisor Sam Healey (Michael Harney) turned that dynamic on its head — proving it to be true while displaying that Sam isn’t strong enough to wield the power he has. He’s a blunt instrument who can’t even hit that hard. Not so with Vee — a woman who commands simply by walking down the street, and who draws Taystee into the fold because money and power magnetize (or eventually wear us down).
It also ties the concept of progression and motherhood together with a mock job fair that is rigged at every turn (and then doesn’t even come with a prize that Taystee assumed existed). It’s a reminder of potential, of the temporary nature of prison and what awaits her on the outside. The fact that she got out last season only to quickly return makes her hard work and prizeless achievement particularly moving. Not to mention that Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is a bright spot in the darkness on this show, bubbly despite a lifetime of pressure, and despite the pain which we get to see in a backstory where Vee (Toussaint) becomes her de facto mom.
Piper’s friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) has become a genuinely biological mom whose apathy allows her to flash nips in the apartment building hallway. Like a mirror image to Taystee’s story, Polly is literally holding a symbol of potential that has exhausted her. A little lump of pure possibility held up against the results of the former babies who now find themselves behind bars. And who sometimes find themselves as mothers (or at least mentors).
Speaking of Piper, she isn’t in this episode. She’s talked about (who hates deep dish pizza?), but never materializes. This show has truly spiraled out beyond the first woman we met.
Today’s Lesson: “I’m not your goddamned mommy. Grow up.” — Natalie Figueroa
Ep. 3 – “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”
Piper’s physical absence from the last episode makes her return to Litchfield completely badass. You can almost hear “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” jamming in the background as she meets everyone’s eyes. This is a transformed woman. A woman who did juice cleanses but now has a reputation for beating the shit out of another inmate. Should do wonders for her narcissism.
And then there’s Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), named after Brooke Shields but without the E, or a body of water depending on when you ask her parents. Either way you want to slice it, she’s annoying like a cartoon deer. It’s also brilliant that the show brought her in — not only to have younger blood, but because she enhances Piper’s evolution. Who knows — by the end of the season, Soso could be the one with battle scars and a rep.
It’s also strange, but Piper emerging from a brief exile felt a lot like her returning home. That’s what Litchfield has become. How much time did she originally have to serve? It feels like she’ll always be there now.
This was an especially difficult episode to watch because of Suzanne’s (Uzo Aduba) childhood story. A kind of Carrie tale that gives us a too-visceral look at the tormented, misunderstood woman who once peed on Piper’s cubical floor. The moment between Suzanne’s mother and the snooty (yet probably correct) birthday party-throwing mom felt either wholly disingenuous or like her adoptive mom’s neurosis was partially to blame for Suzanne’s steady transformation into Crazy Eyes. She raged out of nowhere, going full on “Not my daughter, you bitch!” when birthday mom had a pretty valid point. The window we get in these brief scenes suggests that Suzanne’s mother was aware of the difficulty she faced, but that it overwhelmed her. Trojan horsing her child into a party for second-graders was a clear act of desperation.
Although I liked little Suzanne’s story better. Dragons are cool.
I imagine there will be varying results, but it’s been interesting to focus on the early childhood of some of these characters in addition to or as opposed to the revelation of their crime. The first season held a kind of mystery element in uncovering what these women did to earn orange, this season looks to share more of who they beyond the color.
- It was a nice touch to show us Crazy Eyes’ POV when she was upside down. Metaphors abound.
- Larry’s conversation with the reporter sets up the potential for Piper to become the center of a detective story. Could she ultimately be a hero for exposing corruption?
- Suzanne is going to love Game of Thrones. Love it.
- Praise Mr. Christ, they got rid of those ridiculous Pennsatucky teeth.
- Vee is a firecracker thrown into the barrel, and Toussaint is a rock star.
- There’s no way a guy with a prosthetic leg would take that long to realize he could use it to smuggle things in.
Today’s Lesson: Relax, Omar.
Ep. 4 “A Whole Other Hole”
Orange is the New Black works blue. Really blue. Back of the throat blue. And it does it really well. The quotables on this show are excellent. Two that stand out this episode:
- “I can hear you, you old cunt.”
- “Giant, pubey, lady beard thing.”
Vulgar magic. Also, obviously anatomically educational.
There’s a trick that sitcoms use when things are getting stale where they pair up characters who usually don’t spend much time together — either the awkwardness or fresh chemistry helps things float on. It can also lead to Joey being in love with Rachel, but usually it’s a short term pivot. Orange doesn’t want to wait to push disparate personalities together, so we get Piper bunking with Red (Kate Mulgrew). An Odd Couple routine from them is promising.
Meanwhile, Brook is having the exact opposite experience that Piper had. Sure, she cried the first night, but she’s held on to her moronic sunshine like she’s not even locked up. Oblivious and impenetrable. The question is whether she’s worth a blanket. She is a 5-foot-three Jar Jar Binks.
Yael Stone has been a standout since episode one, so it’s good to see her character Lorna in civilian clothes in a backstory that achieves an amazing amount. It exposes her for a self-deception we’d only seen hints of, it defines the length of her insanity (a bomb?) and it serves up compounding emotional trauma. Her driving away from the hospital is the boldest move of the series so far, and her reward was punishing despair.
She’s a fraud in every aspect of her life. The woman who seemed sweet and wonderful, polite but lovelorn. Her crime is lying, her romance is fantasy, her delusion is deep in her veins. Naturally, Stone knocks it right out of the bathtub.
It’s also great that she gets away with it. Being inside that house was consequence enough.
Polly and Larry’s (Jason Biggs) interaction was sweet. Funny how the only people we get to know on the outside find themselves engaged in an invented life.
A stray thought: Vee is The Joker. A genius. Insidious. She’s going to blow up a Gotham hospital and laugh about it.
Today’s Lesson: “Better pussy than smack.” — Big Boo