“Oh my God, this is such a metaphor for their lives.”
It’s a good thing Orange is the New Black is a show that knows how to balance the dark with the light and the sad with the funny. Because with a different kind of show – practically any other show, in fact – an episode set on Mother’s Day in a woman’s prison would be a depressing, vein-opening slog of an hour, but what we got instead was a surprisingly light – and impressively efficient – check-in with all the characters, major and minor. Instead of hitting the ground running and throwing a lot of plot at us, the way season 2 opened, we got a leisurely stroll through the grounds, picking up bits and pieces of conversations and reminding us of the state of the landscape, both political and emotional.
It’s a new day at Litchfield. Sort of. While many of the characters are attempting to do the one thing in prison guaranteed to drive you crazy – look forward – it’s clear that, for the first few episodes of this season, at least, everyone’s still dealing with the fallout from events in the recent past. The ghost of Vee looms large over the cast, although tellingly, no one ever comes right out and confirms that she’s dead. Suzanne clearly wants to believe she’s still alive, but Red pretty much erected a tombstone for her. We suspect we’re not going to get a definitive answer on V’s state at all. Not that it matters, because there’s no wallowing over her situation. There’s far too much going on for anyone to care, really. If anything, the brief mentions of Vee and Rosa are merely memorials before moving on. “Vee. Rhymes with ‘Let it be,'” says Taystee, offering up something of a mission statement for her group in particular.
Alex is back in the Litch after having violated her parole and Piper is still an asshole, failing to let Alex know that she’s the reason her parole violation was discovered. This is par for the course both for the astoundingly self-centered Piper, and for their relationship as a whole, which has been defined by lies and exploitation. Honestly, we’re sometimes surprised by how much the fandom of the show ships these two, considering the mountain of evidence that they’re terrible for each other. Still, you can’t beat this pairing for pure drama. Laura Prepon is doing some of her best work right now, depicting an Alex weighed down with despair and regrets – and completely shocked as to where she wound up. And even though Piper gets a little more unlikeable with each season, it’s hard to deny the power of Taylor Schilling’s portrayal. As much as you want to say “Shut up, white lady” every time she says something self-absorbed and outrageously privileged, she still manages to find the humor and likeability in the character. Although she was pretty despicable when she was trying to get it on with Alex while she was pretty much in the middle of a crying jag.
On the other hand, her scenes with Red are a delight, as she refuses to feel bad for lying to her about the state of her family’s restaurant. These two have been up and down the frenemies scale almost as much as Piper and Alex have. In fact, we’re starting to see this as a pattern in Piper’s life. She veers back and forth in her relationships and she causes the people around her to do the same thing to her. Red has a right to be angry with her, but Piper’s got just as much right to assert that she was in an impossible situation and did what she did to prevent her friend from suffering. Of course she could say the same thing about what she did to Alex, but that relationship is bound up in too much history, dysfunction, and destructive attractions to compare to what she has with Red.
In other news, Daya and Bennett … Oh, God. We hate to say it, but we really don’t care. This is the downside to a slowed-down story, where you have to make Piper’s 18-month sentence last through several seasons. We’re in Year Two of Daya’s pregnancy now and it’s asking a lot of the audience to care much about the shitshow. It’s a mess and the only rightful outcome is to send Bennett to jail, but since the show isn’t going to do that any time soon (we’re assuming), there’s going to be all this convoluted Weeds-style plotting that’s going to cause us to lose interest completely. Enter Pornstache’s mom, apparently. We’re not dying to meet her.
Also: Healey thinks black people smell funny, Boo and Nicky are trying to move the heroin out of the prison, Red closed the pipeline, and Pennsatucky spends Mother’s Day talking to her abortions. Yep, it’s another day in the Litch. It took us a second view to really get into what they were trying to do here, because we expected more forward movement than this. And we were a bit thrown off by the way the flashback device was used, in which most of the main characters and a few of the minor ones got short, unexpected looks into their lives with their mothers or children. That actually sounds a little trite as a description of the episode, but it worked quite well; especially with Poussey’s and Healey’s flashbacks, which illuminated a little bit more of their psyches in just a few seconds of screen time.
As a season opener, it was a pure demonstration of a show that’s completely confident in what it’s doing; so much so that it can spend the entire hour just doing check-ins and clean-ups on last season’s dangling plotlines. Clearly the Alex and Piper thing is going to play out for a while, as is Chekhov’s Heroin Stash, but for now, there’s a feeling that the slates have been cleared and the story could go in any direction. A fresh start. Or as fresh a start as you can imagine in prison, which isn’t much, we admit.
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[Photo Credit: JoJo Whilden/Netflix]
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