The good news is that Orange is the New Black has a brand new season for us all to binge-watch. The other good news is that the show is back in fine form, judging by the first three episodes. The bad news is that there is a finite number of episodes to this season and very shortly we will once again be wailing “I have to wait a WHOLE YEAR?!?” At least we hope that’s the bad news.
Let’s dive in!
Season 2, Episode 1: “Thirsty Bird”
“You live on the slippery slope kid, and for some reason, you can’t stop doing rain dances.”
The creators made the surprising choice of spending the entire first episode with Piper, leaving all the Litchfield cast, except Alex, out of the picture. We found this a strange choice at first, since it was clear by the fan and critical reaction to the first season that Piper was always largely considered a story-hog and someone the writers spent too much time on, when there was such a beautifully colorful cast of characters to delve into. And while we still felt frustrated by the lack of other cast members by the end of the episode, we couldn’t deny that we enjoyed the entire hour. That’s in no small part due to Taylor Schilling, who always was good in the role of Piper Chapman, but who now seems to live and breathe the character the way an actor does when they really slip into a role all the way. There’s a comfortable confidence to her performance and we can see why the decision was made to highlight that by giving her the spotlight (again).
In a way, this episode felt like a twisted version of the series opener, as we watched Piper become less and less of a person as she got pushed further and further into a new prison system, get introduced to an entirely new set of prisoners, try to navigate the “culture” of this new group, and then find out that Alex is inside with her. There was something a little depressing about the implication that all prisons are the same prison, with the same characters, power struggles and agendas being reenacted over and over again. Except this time, we can see that Piper knows her way around prison culture and even as she immediately (and literally) steps into it (R.I.P. Yoda) with her new cell mates, she shows a smooth facility in handling angry people getting up in her face. This isn’t the same Piper who surrendered herself to Litchfield. Far from it, in fact. This is a Piper who spends most of the episode thinking she’s a murderer. This has the dual effect of eating her up inside while at the same time giving her a sort of shield against all the women around her.
Having said that, we still quite a bit of the old Piper, with her constant mouthing off and lecturing to people. She can go on all she wants about yellow warblers drinking out of daffodils, or the downy underbelly of emperor penguins, or the statistical likelihood of dying in a plane crash, but everyone around her recognizes a stuck-up bitch who thinks she’s the smartest in the room. Every room. That’s always been her problem. Or one of them, anyway. Honesty is apparently another one and we get an underlining of this point with the return of the flashback. This time, we’re watching little WASPy good girl Piper learn that you should never jump off a moving bus and you should keep uncomfortable truths to yourself. It was something of a clumsy flashback, we have to say; kinda low on the poignancy scale.
But it served a purpose, as we saw Piper once again faced with the kind if intense moral dilemmas she notes only seem to pop up in her life when Alex is around. These two have lost none of their chemistry with each other. Their ride to the courthouse felt like a greatest hits of all their best scenes with each other, their dialogue ping-ponging back and forth, each volley landing harder and harder. Of course things would end as they did, because these two have NEVER been on the same page at the same time, which is why they’ve always been something of a red hot mess.
So Alex is out and Piper keeps finding new and interesting ways to fuck up her life further. We’re off and running for the season.
Episode 2: “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”
“Pinterest. I hear that’s a thing.”
The second episode of the season was the one that really got us excited. Like we said, we enjoyed the first one for reiterating some of the major themes and concepts of the show (the loss of power and dignity, the constant clash of agendas and power struggles, the complete fucking disaster that is the Piper and Alex show) in an entertaining and brisk manner, but the minute we saw little Taystee at the Black Adoption Event, we sighed a sigh of relief. Now we’re getting somewhere. And with our favorite character, to boot.
But it wasn’t just the site of Baby Taystee that made us happy. This one really opened things up in the story, introduced a major new player, and established what looks to be two of the major themes for the season: motherhood and racial tension.
In flashback, we meet Vee, who’s a savvy and sarcastic heroin dealer who sees something worth looking into in the young Taystee and winds up becoming a foster mother to her, if unofficially. It’s not a coincidence that Vee is the one who names her Taystee, since that’s what mothers do. Meanwhile, Daya is caught between bio-mom Aleida and her own foster mom, Gloria, as they do something only a mother would do for someone else: obsess over her bowel movements. Red gets a visit from her son, Vasily, while Polly’s covered in the sweat and tears of an exhausted new mother who doesn’t care if her boobs are hanging out for the UPS man to see. “I’m not your mommy!” screams a stressed-out Figueroa to Taystee’s heartbreakingly reasonable question.
As for racial tension, we admit we could be reading too much into it, but there seems to be a lot of stating as to which groups receive which privileges and who should and shouldn’t have what, whether that’s winning the job fair or getting the best seats at movie night. There’s always resentment along racial lines in a place like Litchfield, but the writing seems to be making more of a point of it, starting with this episode.
But the center of the story this episode is Taystee and we get more confirmation of something that was sadly apparent by the end of last season: she’s probably the person with the most innate intelligence at Litchfield, but never got the chance to have that intelligence trained and nurtured. But it comes out every time she trains herself in something and the ways in which she makes rapid-fire connections and references. As we saw when she came home from the craft store for the first time, Taystee is someone who just eats up new experiences and new information. She is, in our minds, the most tragic character on the show by far.
The show has always had at its center, two somewhat heartbreaking concepts: The high price to pay for poor decisions, and the futility of having dreams when you have no hope or options. We saw them examine the “poor decisions” part of the story again with Piper last episode, but Taystee’s story is almost entirely about someone with dreams, getting them crushed over and over again. This was embodied most perfectly in the VERY aptly named “Mock Job Fair,” which everyone but Taystee realized was merely an exercise to try on clothes and nothing more. In yet another poignant sequence, several of the characters talk about their dream jobs. Poussey just wants a job where she can chill with beautiful people on the beach all day. Morello just wants to get married. Suzanne wants to work with mentally ill children. Big Boo wants to umpire woman’s softball. We know these things are unlikely to happen, but it’s not clear to us whether the characters know it, despite their attempts to be cynical.
In other news, Pennsatucky makes her triumphantly toothless return and Larry and his father go to a gay bathhouse because they had a Groupon.
Episode 3: Hugs Can Be Deceiving”
“You gotta put your head down and keep on buffing those floors.”
And we’re OFF. Piper’s back in Litchfield and suddenly there’s some major power play action going on; enough to upend a lot of the current Litchfield status quo. Even better, we get filled in on a lot of Suzanne’s back story, which is just as heartbreaking as anyone could have guessed.
Just as the first episode of the season slightly mimicked the first episode of last season, that mirror thing continues with the introduction of a brand new Piper Chapman in the form of the equally as irritating Brook Soso, just as the real deal saunters in behind her, looking like death warmed over. (“Oh, shit! She is risen!” says Black Cindy in awe, as she crosses herself.) Whatever part Piper played in this episode – and it was, thankfully, only a small part in a major “let’s check in on everyone” turn that was sorely welcome – it was mainly to show us how much she’s been changed by her time and experiences. We got some good and funny scenes out of it -especially her threat to rip Soso’s throat out – but we kinda felt like this was ground already covered.
As for Suzanne, one of the big surprises of last season was the reveal of her white parents. With this episode, there’s a subtle – 0r maybe not so subtle – rebuke of cross-racial adoption. The show doesn’t imply that her white parents are the source of Suzanne’s mental health issues, but it does seem to imply that their whiteness made it harder for them to understand her and what she was going through. That’s a fairly bold thing for the show to say and we’re not sure what to think of it. Another aspect of the story that made us squirm a little was the revelation that Suzanne, in a rage, mistook Piper for her own mother and started beating the crap out of her. It wasn’t until that exact moment that we realized the two actresses resembled each other a good deal and wondered just what they were trying to say about Suzanne’s aggressive come-ons to Piper last season. Maybe not quite as icky as the fate of Little Boo revealed last episode, but still. That’s a LOT of psychosexual drama, racial issues, and mommy stuff to packing into one character.
Thanks to a trip to Sophia, Red’s got her mojo back. We’re partially thrilled, because we found her weary resignation as to being accepted into the Golden Girls group a little depressing last week. But we’re also partially scared, because Vee’s coming in and upsetting the apple cart – and this is all playing out along racial lines. Vee and Red were a given, but once Gloria figured out she been played by someone who stashed those cigarettes 30 years before, the last time she was in Litchfield, it was ON. It looks to us like Vee, Red and Gloria will all be going to war over control of Litchfield this season. We feel bad rooting for anyone, although we suppose that’s the point. We’ll say this: Vee is a fantastic new character. We’re not so sure Taystee’s the smartest person at Litchfield anymore – and Vee’s scary, to boot.
In other news, Morello gets the news the entire rest of the universe knew already (that Christopher isn’t marrying her) and has a rather epic and frightening meltdown before pulling herself more or less together. Also, Nicky seems to be fucking her way through the inmate population, but takes enough time out to tell Piper she missed her, and Larry’s a gigantic asshole,
Not that that last point is shocking in anyway.
[Photo Credit: Netflix]
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