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.
The notion of alternately corrupting and shepherding the young and innocent shows up in a few other ways during the episode. There’s the matronly fight over Daya’s bowel movements (that’s two for two episodes where excrement makes up a substantial subplot; I hope this pattern doesn’t hold). There’s Polly, flashing her boobs in what’s obviously some narrative preparation for Larry to make a pass at her, talking about how she and her husband will inevitably screw up their kid. And there’s Maria in the visiting area, wondering how long it’ll be before her newborn daughter can start forming memories. She hopes she can be back in the kid’s life before then.
The message seems to be that the world will mess you up no matter what. But peoples’ essential essence—in Taystee’s case, the traits she lists onstage (positivity and good memory), plus a wicked sense of humor—remain. So don’t judge Vee too harshly. Yet.
Best banter: Black Cindy bringing some Naderism to Lichtfield when talking about Philip Morris: “Nah they aint so bad. The people can decide for themselves if they wanna smoke. The real evil is them companies killing us without our consent. Monsanto. Rio Tinto. Big Pharma. BP. Halliburton. I’ve been reading there’s some dark shit goin’ down. Not that those motherfuckers are ever gonna hire us! The real criminals? They don’t bother with small timers.”
Episode 3: “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”
The give-fans-what-they-want OITNB comeback tour continues: an episode for Crazy Eyes! A+ to the casting department for finding an adorable kid version of Uzo Aduba. And A+ to Uzo Aduba for continuing to play Suzanne Warren as a kooky but self-aware, broken but hopeful, utterly unique soul. Her character’s backstory answered a lot of questions about her, but raised a few more. Like, it’s still unclear if Crazy Eyes is indeed crazy, or just eccentric. Her breakdown on stage at graduation seems more or less to be purposeful rebellion; her one on stage at the Christmas recital is the echo of that trauma; her punching of Piper as if she’s Suzanne’s mom is, well, sorta psychotic.
Her storyline worked well enough, though, as a reintroduction of one of the show’s main themes: tribalism, and more specifically, race. Suzanne would have been treated differently as a kid, probably, if she was white or her family was black. But being black doesn’t mean she fits in with the other black girls at Litchfield—she’s too weird. But she’s weird in part because of her childhood.
The Caucasians have their issues too. Pennsatucky’s new mouth alienates her from her meth-head friends (who air a question we all wondered last season: “Why’re you talking like one of those puppets with a hand up its butt?”). Brook Soso gets invited to join the whites despite being part Asian (anyone else getting hipster grifter vibes from her, and not just because of ethnicity?). And Piper is trying to redefine herself as a lone wolf—a fact that only will worsen her “specialness” complex, which multiple characters pointed out.
But while race can be a tenuous bond, it’s still a significant one in a place like Lichtfield. Vee represents the elder leader that the black girls have been missing. In that final scene, we see white matriarch Red watch her new/old rival regain power, and then Latina matriarch Gloria find cause for a new grudge when she tastes those stale cigarettes. Coming up: a race war?
Best banter: The black girls’ celebrity guessing game, featuring Taystee and Poussey’s telepathic bond. “Crazy dude who believes in aliens?” “Tom Cruise!”
Episode 4: “A Whole Other Hole”
After Girls, Bridesmaids, and Sarah Silverman’s cultural reign, the idea that women can be just as raunchy as men probably shouldn’t come across as radical. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a work of entertainment drive at that idea as fearlessly—and filthily—as this episode just did.
It’s not just that the show is inverting the tropes of male-dominated comedy. It’s that it’s really smartly making them distinct. When Big Boo and Nicky strike up their own version of a frat-comedy sexual conquest competition, you quickly realize how much untilled territory there is in the realm of lesbian-lust trash talk—“I’m like a bean-flicking Mother Teresa,” goes one choice line. The extended “pee-hole” investigation might be a comment on how female anatomy remains too mysterious and taboo in the public imagination, but it’s definitely an awesome chance to reinforce just how unambiguous Sophia Burset’s sex is. And when Vee warns Taystee against going “gay for the stay,” it’s a reminder that homophobia exists in part to build power hierarchies—and that female friendships can be policed just as closely as male ones.
One gripe: The show has kept its tendency to go for the predictable punchline or plot development. I could have, for example, outlined how that chemo scene would go as soon as I saw the kid playing Fruit Ninja on his phone.
On the other hand, the Lorna stuff genuinely surprised me, and not just because it seems impossible an inmate would be left alone with van keys for three hours. It’s long been clear that Morello’s been trumping up her relationship with Christopher, but to have her turn out to be a disturbed, delusional, violent stalker—without really any sort of extenuating circumstance like the other inmates have for their crimes—is cruel to the character but possibly a courageous move on the show’s part. Not every quirkily entertaining person behind bars should be revealed as fundamentally pure and innocent.
After all, almost none of the characters outside bars are. Larry and Poppy’s flirtation at the bagel shop is executed well as TV but is just hard to watch because you’re meant to hate these two characters, especially Larry. That baby is judging them, and so are we.
Best banter: I already mentioned Nicky and Big Boo’s interactions, so instead I’ll go with Big Boo talking to Piper after she failed to pimp out Soso. “You know, she’s right, Chapman,” Boo says between laughs. “You’re a horrible person!”
Episode 5: “Low Self Esteem City”
“All problems are boring till they’re your own,” Red tells Chapman, but luckily Orange Is the New Black is proving her wrong. This episode was a discursive as they come, peeking into the lives of characters I’d forgotten have lives (Healy?!), and making them at the very least engaging. The density of jokes and ideas seems to be only rising; if I keep pausing to write down the good lines and interesting developments, I’ll never finish this thing.
The main arc of the season so far hasn’t really been about Piper but rather about the tensions between cliques in the prison, a fact that allows the show to connect with social issues more clearly. At the episode’s start, the Latinas’ showers flood with brown gunk—eerily reminiscent of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s description of the real women’s prison they film at. This sets off a chain of maneuverings, feints, and power grabs, none of which I will compare to Game of Thrones. Instead, I’ll note how the characters see themselves in a battle that’s bigger than Lichtfield. It’s funny to see both the Latinas and blacks invoke race—“They’re fucking with us this way cuz they knows our people’s predisposition for hypertension!” “It’s like they’re getting special privileges, and we’re black people!” But it also feels important when Janae mentions how African-Americans are incarcerated for longer. If one person Googles “stop and frisk” because of this show, it’ll have done a mitzvah.
Meanwhile, the whites are whiling away the days with their carnal competition (add “I am the sexual Steve Jobs” to the Nicky-quip hall of fame) while enforcing class divides within their own ranks. “What’re you playing?” Pennsatucky asks the non-hillbilly gals. The answer: “A game as old as time: exclusion.”
Gloria’s backstory probably won’t placate anyone bothered by the way this show can indulge in trope-y, seen-it-before characterizations. But she’s a character who’s always seemed sturdy yet sad—and now we know why. While I suppose we’re meant to pump our fists at the abusive husband burned alive, it might be worth wondering, given all the “Catholic Plus” mysticism we’ve seen, whether the image of someone perishing in captivity should be considered an omen.
Best Banter: Vee: “Those girls need to learn some manners.” Suzanne: “I know what you’re saying. Fork on the left, knife on the right. Little fork… on the outer left.”
Episode 6: “You Also Have a Pizza”
Sure, go ahead and gag at the inmate confessionals on the meaning of love. But save some annoyance for the fact that it’s the odious “Hey There Delilah” that sets a wistful tone for the first Poussey flashback.
Sorry for the grouchiness. The Valentine's spiels were actually funny, and any cloying quotient they had was nicely undercut when we learned that Chapman was using the fluff interviews as a front for investigations of the prison’s financial irregularities.
At this point, the show has presented few to no depictions of real, lasting, meaningful romantic love. As Piper reflects, her two relationships—one with someone sexy and screwed up, the other with someone sweet and loser-ish—have mostly evaporated, with Piper dissing Larry as “the moon.” Other than that, what do we have? Daya and Bennett, a relationship that has always struck me as stilted and morally icky, and that now has led to a contraband/blackmail scheme. Larry finally making that pass at Polly, at (thankfully) an inopportune time. The specter of Pornstache, mercifully still unseen this season, writing a letter to Daya. Poussey, pining futily for Taystee. And that old lady wandering about, looking for Jack who’ll never come
The real examples of love here are platonic. Red’s son welds his way through a manhole into camp, even as his mom chides him for mistreating his girlfriend. Flaca and Maritza kiss and then realize just how important their just-friends affection really is. And in closing montage, Healy and Pennsatucky reignite their friendship—the one that almost got Piper killed last season.
Best banter: The Latinas win the what-is-love competition, easily:
Flaca: It’s like getting into a bath but the water is like warm, chocolate pudding. And The Smiths are playing, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” There’s mood lighting all over, and there’s like five dudes massaging you.
Maritza: And you have a pizza.
Flaca: She’s right. You also have a pizza.
Episode 7: “Comic Sans”
The politics keep coming! Parts of this episode came across like direct responses to critics who argue that the Kohan & co. care more about entertainment than they do about social justice. The reporter who visits Piper even voiced what could be a word-for-word defense from the writer’s room: “Do I lay awake fantasizing about personally taking down an institution that is the single greatest stain on the American collective conscience since slavery, with the awesome power of my words? Sure. But in the daytime, I’ve accepted that’s not going to happen.”
As this hour showed, though, Orange Is the New Black can be surprisingly powerful—and still funny—when taking on the problems of the prison system. In fact, few plot lines have been as moving or as adeptly executed as the one about Jimmy. Pat Squire’s confused, elderly inmate initially seemed like a punch line, one more agent of zaniness wandering Litchfield’s halls. But as the seriousness of her dementia became clearer, she became a sadly sympathetic figure. Her incarceration seemed like one more example of the idea of prison as, in Piper Kerman’s words, “a place where the U.S. government puts not only the dangerous but the inconvenient—people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled.” And her not-so-compassionate “compassionate release” showed what happens to someone who, it turns out, is too inconvenient even for prison.
That release fittingly closed out an hour dedicated to showing what happens when officials disregard human decency under the guise of, as Caputo puts it, “just doing our jobs.” Caputo is, of course, wrong: Things like the shot quota aren’t motivated by necessity, but by baser concerns—in this case, romantic jealousy and professional ambition.
Piper suggests naming a newsletter column “Guards: They’re Just Like Us,” but Caputo doesn’t want to go so far as to equate COs with inmates. Instead, he suggests pointing out the mere fact that prison workers are people too. Which I suppose was the idea behind the scene where we met Figueroa’s politician husband. It was nice for the show to finally complicate her character a little bit, demonstrating she’s not as unthinking and uncaring as seems: Fixing the sentencing laws may, in the end, really be more important than fixing the showers (though that’s no excuse for not fixing the showers). Still, the scene played a little awkwardly to me, maybe because of the saccharine piano soundtrack—you’re supposed to feel things, get it?—and maybe because it’s hard not to groan at the cliché of the political power couple where the man is, it appears, closeted.
Even as Lichtfield’s administration ostensibly cracks down, new black markets thrive. The show, smartly, anticipates viewers’ skepticism about the cigarette scheme by having multiple characters talk about how risky it is, with Poussey predicting the outcome that seems inevitable: The younger girls get busted and Vee doesn’t. If everyone realizes the huge dangers of the tobacco-tampon cartel, why do they participate? Again, the show anticipates the question. “This is about more than a business,” Vee says. “This is about making something of yourselves.” But to me, the more compelling rationale, the line that really explains all the action in the episode, came from Daya. “You have a choice, you have the power,” she tells Bennett. “I’m an inmate. I have nothing.”
Best banter: I love all the hipster shaming that’s happening this season. Latest example: Gonzales’s disappointment upon receiving Bennett’s contraband iPod. “Ugh, it’s full of Fleet Foxes and shit!”
Episode 8: "Appropriately Sized Pots"
Pornstache’s return: Must we really? Mendez will undoubtedly bring back his clueless creepo routine, but hopefully he won’t also bring back the over-the-top drama and darkness that characterized the final few episodes of Orange Is the New Black’s first season. So far, Season Two has been the superior one to my eye, in large part because it hasn’t gotten bogged down in mortal conflicts and rape-framing schemes. That’s not to say it hasn’t been serious—just that its seriousness feels grounded in sense of heightened reality, rather than the need for frothy, age-of-antihero TV. Plus, the funny stuff on this show has never been funnier.
Take, for example, Miss Rosa’s chemotherapy. Healy tells her that the Department of Corrections won’t pay for her surgery: heavy stuff, another illumination of the injustice of the system. Glimpsing Rosa’s memories of bank-robbing accomplices/boyfriends dying on the job: Heavy, but also a fun twist on what’d otherwise have been a predictable backstory. Rosa collaborating with a sick teenager to case an alcoholic nurse in the chemo ward: a better blend of cancer and comedy than, say, The Fault in Our Stars (sorry: couldn't resist).
The focus on Rosa is part of a larger theme that has helped make Season Two so interesting: the prison’s elderly. With Red joining the grannies early on, we’ve gotten to see Jimmy’s heartbreaking saga, finally find out what the deal is with Rosa (remember, she was among Chapman’s first bunkmates), hear Vee and Red reflect on the notion of growing old behind bars, and witness enlightening exchanges about the ethics of Ratatouille and the paradox of the Internet (all the information’s held in wires now, but everyone’s still stupid). There’s also a political dimension to the multifaceted portrayal of a population that just doesn’t get its due in pop culture very often. As one of them says, “Nobody gives a shit about old ladies. We remind everyone they're going to die.”
Chapman protests that she in fact finds old ladies comforting, in yet another moment of self-aggrandizement disguised as enlightenment from our protagonist. But it was good to see her confront head-on her special status within the prison when she faced backlash over being granted furlough. It’s not a great look for someone to angrily acknowledge their white privilege—yes, the words "white privilege" were said out loud!—to a cafeteria of unprivileged people and then tell them to “shut the fuck up” about it. I mean, you can certainly understand her frustration, but you can also understand why Suzanne chucked some cake at her.
Best banter: Tiffany Doggett schools her mealy-mouthed frenemies on the art of #realtalk while also schooling Soso on the state of her hygiene: "You smell like a fucking turtle taint. Go take a fucking shower."
Episode 9: "40 OZ of Furlough"
A departure of an episode, in a few ways. For one thing, Piper literally departs prison for 48 hours. For another, the flashback plotline for once wasn’t about an inmates’ time before prison—it was about two inmates’ earlier stints in prison. Another departure: Never before and probably never again will we see Bennett as the menacing, out-of-control prison guard and Pornstache as the C.O. who pacifies him.
But the theme holding it all together was one that’s long been central to Orange Is the New Black. This was an hour about the slipperiness of relationships—between friends, between family members, between enemies. Taystee and Poussey are friends who became family, and yet now Taystee’s physically intimidating Poussey because of Vee. Vee, we learned, befriended Red back in the day, only to then shockingly brutalize Red because of business concerns. Red, we saw, regained the “family” of girls who’d she’d earlier let down—but one of those supposed family members, Big Boo, is now selling her out to Vee. Got all that? Again: Must… resist… lazy comparisons to Game of Thrones.
Outside of Lichtfield, Piper faced a turning point in her relationship with Larry. The scene of them in the bathroom was uproarious—“Do not defend your boner to me right now"—and touching, which is surprising given that this is a couple that no one is rooting for. But you can't deny they’ve been through a lot; even as they break up for what seems like the last time, they say “I love you” for what seems like the first time in a long time.
The furlough scenes also crystalized the long-hinted-at, deeper reasons for Piper’s travails. She like anyone else in prison has been somehow victimized by life, though the extent of that victimization merely entails the scrutiny of her rich and repressed parents and their associates. You’d think this yuppie's two days out of prison would be packed with friends and food tastings (I'd want to go to the Spotted Pig, too), but her growing disgust for the world she hailed from has given her a new vision of freedom: scarfing a bagel and swigging a Colt 45 on the street, alone. To bust out an HBO comparison that’s only slightly less played out than Thrones, I was reminded of Hannah Horvath’s early-morning snack in the Coney Island sand at the end of Girls’ first season. Liberation through solitary food consumption: a fun inversion of Soso’s hunger-strike proposal?
Best banter: Even as the confrontation between Poussey and Taystee hurt my heart, it reinforced why these are two of the show’s most entertaining characters. First there’s the discussion of the theoretical tiny life raft, and then an excellent simile: “Look Poussey, I love you, but I am done as a burnt burger talking about this shit.”
Episode 10: "Little Mustachioed Shit"
“There is something wrong with all of us,” Nicky tells Moreno after learning that Litchfield’s Long Island sweetheart moonlights as a jail-breaking, delusional stalker. “Otherwise, we wouldn't be in here.”
That line was a nice reminder that despite the lengths Orange Is the New Black goes to humanize each and every character, most of those characters have landed behind bars in part because of their own flaws. Black isn’t trying to exonerate every inmate; it’s showing what happens when toxic circumstances meet personal foibles. People in this episode constantly asserted their relative innocence—“I’m not the criminal here!” Christopher cries—which to someone unsympathetic might seem like Piper's horror at the prospect of stepping in human, not dog, shit. Shit’s shit; criminals are criminals; are there really gradations?
Yes, in fact. Take the Pornstache saga. Mendez probably belonged behind bars for the way he acted towards inmates, even if he was honeytrapped. Daya feels horrible for her duplicity, and Bennett feels horrible that she seems to seriously consider the idea of telling the truth about her pregnancy. Who’s right? Black and white, those concepts that Piper tried to insist existed back in the season premiere, have long been ditched by this show.
It’s easier to know how to feel about people in prison are actively making other peoples' lives worse, mostly for their own ultimately pointless profit. See: all of the cigarette ring vs. Poussey. See: all of the cigarette ring vs. cancer-stricken Miss Rosa. See: all of the cigarette ring vs. Red.
Vee’s crew now is at what’s surely the swaggering height of their powers. But that may end soon. Nicky’s choice not to do drugs seemed to give an affirmative answer to Red’s question of whether people can change. Which means the friendly-then-hostile-takeover technique Vee seems to be trying to use on Red may not work as well as it once did. Now, the Russian has backup. Until Vee’s downfall, though, I’m going to enjoy Lorraine Toussaint’s incredible performance—genuinely warm and affectionate in one moment, falsely so the next, and pure menace the next. It’s both awful and fascinating to see her manipulate the vulnerable, formerly friendless, emotionally mercurial Suzanne. It's worse to see what she's done to Taystee and Poussey's relationship.
Alex's return, in letter and in flashback, offers another lesson in moral relativity and personal transformation. We finally see how Piper’s cultivated naivety and Alex’s cultivated knowingness created a passionate, dangerous pairing early on. Now, though, Piper is the one leaving flaming crap bags on doorsteps. After Pennsatuckygate, after Larry’s betrayal, after furlough-induced disgust at her family, Piper thinks she's a different person. If she lets her grand same-sex love affair start back up, it’ll be with eyes open not only to Alex’s lack of innocence, but to her own.
Best Banter: “It's already 8 a.m. and I've been felt up 3 times,” Piper reports after returning to her bunk.
“How was it?” Red asks, referring to furlough generally.
“Not enough nipple play.”
Episode 11: "Take a Break From Your Values"
Here it is, finally: the end-of-season drama pileup that has me fiending to click “next episode” before pausing to write a recap. Which would be a shame, as this was an hour that deftly looked into one of the essential truths of prison life, and really all life: Good intentions don’t always go with good causes.
Incarceration, we’ve already seen, creates a culture of BS—cartels disguise themselves as gardening clubs, love affairs must be conducted furtively, etc. But it turns out the very desires that lead society to lock people up—rehabilitation, punishment, and justice—are often false fronts too. Take Healy’s “safe space” project: a supposedly altruistic activity that really serves to boost the counselor’s flagging sense of self worth, to diminish the shot count for inmates suffering under the C.O.s’ quota policy, and to manipulate some of the less powerful, more lonely folks in the prison.
Same story of self-aggrandizing ulterior motives with the talk of a “Rape ‘n’ Roll” rally, which’d just be PR for Fig. Same story with the crowd-control supplies that the play-fighting guards seem primed to use for a power trip (call it Chekhov’s riot gear—I bet those batons get used for real by season’s end). And same story, to an extent, with much of Sister Jane’s activism. “I’m not here to make you feel good about yourself,” Watson tells Yoga Jones, recognizing a trend.
Eminently skippable aside: Seemed like someone in the writers' room had been watching American Horror Story: Asylum while working on this episode, no? The impending storm, the mention of electroshock therapy, the sassy nuns, the '60s-ness ... it has me thinking about the similarities and difference between these two campy-fun-crazy TV depictions of incarceration. A think piece for another day: Is Pornstache worse than a secret nazi doctor who performs human experiments?
Back to the episode. What to say about Taslitz stabbing the wrong black woman, or Piper’s scheduled transfer to another prison, or Alex being stalked by the guy she’d ratted out? Well, they’re fascinating through the pure power of plot—suspenseful to watch, not that interesting to talk about. But that might change. Click!
Best banter: The writers have yet to undermine our initial impression of Soso as being an airheaded stereotype, but you’ve got to laugh at some of her lines and the commitment of actress Kimiko Glenn. On screen this is much funnier than on the page: “Thank you Chapman! History will remember you for this, though I still don’t trust you personally.”
Episode 12: "It Was the Change"
So, Vee is bad. Very bad. She had us, and Red, and everyone else, fooled for a bit there. In this episode, the show made its greatest rejection yet of the idea that everyone behind bars is equally flawed and equally victimized. What makes Vee the kind of person who has sex with a boy she raised from childhood and then murders him, or who calls a truce while pointing out the pettiness of jailhouse rivalry and then immediately tries to kill her rival? The show doesn’t say. All we know is that her conniving seems to go beyond necessary hustle into villainy.
It is not, however, entirely unique villainy. “Something's gonna fuck you, you know,” Watson tells Poussey. “The system, the man, Vee. Can't do nothing about it. At least Vee gives you back 10 percent.” The entire show has been about people dealing with the first two forces she names. Now, we’re focused on the third: predatory criminality incarnate. Poussey fights back, Taystee goes along, Red cowers and schemes. Those three characters, some of the most sympathetic of the ensemble cast, are now awake to this season’s big bad. The finale—whether or not Red survives—could be them taking revenge.
By the way, jailhouse flooding and power outages during storms are a real thing, a few seconds of Googling “prison” and “Hurricane Sandy” will tell you. It’s unclear, though, whether real-life storms necessitate toilet buckets, appearances of blockbuster nonfiction books by Atlantic editors, or amazing explanations of the gay agenda to a seriously misinformed person.
On that last one: It can be frustrating, sometimes, to see the show trade in caricature. Yes, the corrupt contractor is fat, talks crassly about benefiting from natural disasters, and slaps the corrupt female administrator’s ass! Yes, that administrator’s politically conniving husband is not-so-secretly sleeping with his campaign manager! But Pennsatucky this season, as played by Taryn Manning, has gone past the point of cartoonishness to a be a kind of zen, self-aware, confident, quick, hilarious figure who skewers the idea that ignorance is the same thing as dullness. “Would I have to do anything disgusting against the word of God?” she asks Boo with genuine curiosity. “I'm talking about eating pussy, if you catch my drift.”
Best banter: No choice to but to give it to Gina, visiting the commissary to parlay, making a joke out of very wittiness we watch for: “I don’t banter.”
Episode 13: “We Have Manners, We’re Polite”
An extra-long and action-packed finale, summed up in two words: wish fulfillment.
Almost every impending crisis, simmering conflict, and sad subplot has been resolved in near to the tidiest way possible, right? There’s the nefarious Vee getting van-smacked by runaway Miss Rosa, of course. But also: Fig’s out. Red’s alive. Suzanne’s spared. Bennett confesses with no ill effects. Taystee and Poussey reconcile for good. Maria and Piper get to stay at Litchfield. Piper switches out the tiresome Larry and Polly for Alex. Basically: The characters we like got what they wanted, and the ones we don’t didn’t.
Orange Is the New Black is, at its core, a humanistic, kindhearted, inclusive show, and a finale like this is of a piece with that fact. Note how the writers devised a way to work Gloria and Norma into the storyline about Vee’s downfall. The plot didn’t necessarily demand that she get sprayed with cursed kitchen dust for her to experience some fatal bad luck. But the plot also wasn’t hurt by the amusing involvement of two sympathetic characters of disparate backgrounds working together for the common good.
So on one level: Yay. I’ve said before that the first season took a little bit too sharp a turn towards the dark and dramatic, with Pornstache and Pennsatucky injecting over-the-top ugliness into this sweet show. The second season introduced its troublesome complications in a more convincing, watchable way, by having Vee subtly manipulate the prison environment so that it became a more dangerous place. I liked that.
Still, there’s something hollow about this ending. All season long, the true villain was less Vee and more the looming threat that our favorite characters could face radical changes in circumstance. In the premiere, Black conveyed that the truly frightening thing about being an inmate is how powerless you are, how an enormous and faceless system could at any moment to ship you across the country, away from your friends, to an even harsher environment. The rest of the season saw the characters risking that very fate—the possibility of a prolonged sentence in a maximum-security facility—so that they could assert a little bit of control over their lives, whether by selling cigarettes or sneaking out to Long Island or revealing their love affair with a jail guard.
The fact that every single one of those gambles more or less worked out not only seems a bit too convenient—it makes the show less serious. Which to an extent is fine; Orange Is the New Black is far more comedy than drama, and the most appealing thing about it is that it’s fun to watch. But as I’ve noted all season, and as Jenji Kohan and Piper Kerman have said, there’s a social agenda here, and rightly so: It'd be straight-up exploitative to make a comedy about something as messed up as the prison system without striving to comment on it. Yet it becomes harder to believe that the show cares about real-world problems when it’s so eager to wave away the problems of its characters. It’s like knowing the brave nun on hunger strike has been secretly sneaking muffins all along.
That said, there are some promising hints of conflict that could get fleshed out for next season. For one, Caputo’s reign over Litchfield isn’t likely to be benevolent. The pointless and humiliating blow job Fig gave him seemed like an uncharacteristically mean move from the show’s writers—degrading the woman in charge one last time—but it did helpfully remind of the fact that, deep down, the guy’s a creep.
Additionally, our protagonist Piper seems more and more like antihero. Even if Alex did Piper wrong, and even if Alex was in mortal peril in Queens, it’s still pretty screwed up to scheme to land your ex-girlfriend behind bars again. As Piper obsessively reads over Alex’s letters, we get the sense that we’re not seeing the latest twist in an epic and complicated romance—we’re seeing the crazed desperation of a woman who’s lost all connection with her former life. When Soso says that “it's not fucking okay” how prison can change a person, Piper’s two-word answer is chilling: “I know.”
Best banter: You could tell Vee had lost her swagger when she resorted to wildly mixed metaphors to justify framing Suzanne: "Is it cold for Amazon to underprice books just to capture market share? No it seems to me that as shareholders in this company, you are immune to the cold—just like polar bears."
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