Coinciding with the debut of Orange Is the New Black’s second season, the New York Civil Liberties Union has launched a campaign spotlighting what the organization calls “inhumane conditions” at Riverhead Correctional Facility, where the Netflix show is filmed. “Raw sewage bubbles from the floor, toilets explode, rodents and roaches infest the kitchens, black mold covers the walls, and drinking and bathing water runs brown and smells of sewage,” a rep says in the press release.
Horrible stuff, if true, But there’s a smidge of solace to be taken in Orange Is the New Black being used to draw attention to real-world prison problems. The first season of Jenji Kohan’s show about women behind bars earned wild acclaim and the biggest audience Netflix has yet seen for an original series, but a number of critics pointed out that its success had unsavory implications. Some said that while the show’s diversity should be praised, its stereotypes shouldn't be. Others pointed out that it sexed up the memoir it’s based off of, while neutering the book’s message about the injustice of the prison system.
Those critiques aren’t all wrong, at least from what I remember of gobbling up the first season last year. But I’m nevertheless sitting here feeling mostly guilt-free for having binged the first six episodes of the second season—and ready to dive into the next seven.
The fact is, the show is ridiculously fun, and given the subject matter, that's a radical virtue. Using the privileged white Piper as a “Trojan horse” into a world rarely depicted on TV, and pumping up the personalities of a supporting cast that’s by a huge factor more diverse that any rival show, Kohan has grabbed a lot of people’s attention. At the very least, that means prisoners, usually forgotten by pop culture, are now front of mind. At the very most—well, let’s see what Season 2 does. From what I can tell so far, it’s like the first one but more in almost every way: more fun, more crass, more ridiculous, and also, yes, more conscientious.
Below, I’ve jotted down quick reviews of each the first six episodes. I’ll be updating as I get through the rest of the season in the week to come (the plan is to take this slower than my last three-day House of Cards marathon). So, spoilers ahead, in chronological order—don’t read further than you’ve watched.
Episode 1: “Thirsty Bird”
So much for the ensemble. This was a gutsy move--returning with an hour where the various Gif-making secondary characters who’d turned your show into a cult success were nowhere to be found.
But I think it worked. Focusing in tightly on Piper, and then disorienting her with a plane flight and a new penitentiary, gave the audience a taste of the maddening effects of solitary confinement—while lengthen the tension from last season’s cliffhanger over Pennsatucky’s fate. Taylor Schilling’s lip-trembling fright as she moved from one mysterious, ferrying vessel to another felt genuine, even if I didn’t share it: It seemed a lot more likely that she’d be headed to freedom than to life in supermax without a trial, and the twist was that she was headed to neither. Everyone elses’ indifference to her panic made for a hilarious and moving juxtaposition. In prison as often in life, indifference is the default—whether it’s because people are too busy bantering about their romantic conquests (i.e. piggish guards who no longer say “bitch”) or fighting their own inner battles (the woman scared of flying). Schilling might submit for her Emmy reel that plane-seat breakdown over the memory of clobbering Doggett; I’ll more likely remember her neighbor’s blasé reaction.
The trappings of the new prison may be different from Litchfield—less freedom, more men, altogether scarier to Piper—but the show seemed to be saying that the experience is fundamentally the same. You still have your zany band of characters, many of whom are damaged, sorting into cliques. You still have your cabin-feverish rituals—roach training rather than chicken-spotting, this time. And you still have Piper’s identity separating her from the pack, both through the reactions of others—take the assassin-not-rapist who singles her out on the plane—and through Piper’s own behavior. She tries to play it cool with the roach gang at first, but also can’t help but hold herself apart.
That exceptionalism, we’ve seen before, gets her into trouble. Larry’s dad makes a pretty inarguable case for why she shouldn’t lie on the stands, but Piper’s so in her head, so obsessed with some abstract notions of rightness and loyalty despite learning time and again that she has to fend for herself and not trust Alex, that she convinces herself that the correct thing to do is perjure herself. This backfires in every way: morally, legally, and personally. She’s furious when she finds out Alex went back on her word at the last minute, but Alex was correct earlier in the episode when she diagnosed how inconsistent Piper’s worldview is: “Jesus, it is so hard to keep up with what is black and white for you.”
I expect this detour to Chicago will be over soon—though perhaps not for a few episodes, which might explain the news that Laura Prepon is only appearing a couple times this season—and we’ll be back with our friends at Lichtfield. I’m surprised how little I missed them this hour; Kohan delivered that old blend of humor and banality and potty jokes with all-new inmates. Regina Spektor might have to revise her lyrics—everything really isn’t all that different the second time around.
Best banter: “He’s a hitman? I thought he was a rapist. I’m so relieved!”
Episode 2: “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”
Ahh, repentance via an hour of fan service. No complaints here, really, other than the vague fear that the faithful formula—all the fun old friends comfortably bantering and undercutting, a hijinks-enabling jailhouse premise (the mock interview, complete with fashion show), a quip montage, a perfectly tear-jerking backstory—will get old eventually. Right?
Danielle Brooks may be the most delightful actress in the ensemble, so it was wonderful to see Taystee’s back-story fleshed out. “I’m a product of the system, I don’t know right from wrong,” she says at one point, but it’s obviously a joke: Even as a kid, she had a code, trying to avoid the drug trade for as long as possible. The only part of her that’s a product of the system is her prison jumpsuit. She really had no choice but to join the drug trade, which is depicted not as a foreboding criminal enterprise but rather as a source of warmth, comfort, family, and education for its practitioners.
If there’s anyone who’s compromised morally, it’s Vee, the mother figure who shows up as an inmate at the end. (A reveal that’s only a little less powerful for the show having done something similar last season). She coaxed a sweethearted little girl into a dangerous life of crime; typically, even the most complicated TV antiheroes try not to pass their habits onto their kids. But as we see, her adoption of Taystee is, in Vee’s eyes, an altruistic act—the only way to achieve money and respect in their world, she says, is through the hustle. Whether she’s right or wrong, it’s a point of view that deserves airing given that the vast majority of people filling America’s prisons today are there on drug-related charges.