The anticipation for the second season of Netflix’s break out (pun intended?) hit, Orange is the New Black was palpable. The burgeoning online distributor debuted several series last year (including fellow hit House of Cards), but Orange’s success was the loudest. It heralded in a new way that we watch television—couch potatoes grew in hungry numbers across the country as we all devoured the female prison drama episode by episode. The threat of a sophomore slump was feared by many, myself included, but Orange’s second season far exceeded my expectations.
When we last left Litchfield, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) was beating the holy hell out of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) after the religious zealot tried to make an example of the new inmate. Even though Pennsatucky viewed Piper as a heathen, she could have wanted to beat the doe-eyed, optimistic qualities out of her as well, because those were the characteristics that most viewers seemed to dislike about Piper.
The season 2 opener of Orange pulls Piper away from the colorful characters of Litchfield from the very beginning. After spending time in solitary (the SHU) Piper is taken in the middle of the night to a bus then a plane. She continually demands to know where she is going, but no one will answer her pleas. On the plane, she sits down to an inmate named Lolly (played by a criminally underused Lori Petty), and when she asks Piper what she did, Schilling delivers a sad monologue about not knowing if that anger was always lurking inside her. The plane eventually lands in Chicago, and Piper is inserted into a larger prison with more dangerous inmates.
It’s pretty ballsy to start off with just Piper in the season opener. Fans would devour the episodes, yes, but to completely focus on Piper is something that not a lot of shows would do. Kudos. Piper is transferred to Chicago in order to testify against her ex-girlfriend Alex’s drug lord boss, Kubra. Alex advises Piper to lie and say that she never met him in order for both of them to stay safe when they are eventually released from prison. Piper has a battle with her conscious (shocking), but she commits perjury and claims she never met Kubra. What she didn’t anticipate what Alex to double cross her, tell the truth, and get released. Piper’s screaming as Alex gets escorted out of the Chicago prison definitely fuels your desire to watch more episodes.
Since Piper is the focus of the first episode, we get to play catch up with the ladies of Litchfield in the second one. The women prepare for a mock interview workshop, and it’s very comforting to see all these women again. The biggest shakeup is the introduction to two incredibly different new inmates. We meet Brooke Soso, an adorable hippie who really doesn’t know how to slow down her motor mouth. Throughout the season, she annoys almost everyone (and becomes the object of lust of Big Boo), and this “passive protestor” is a welcome dose of sunshine in a fog of grumpy khaki – even though you sometimes just want to slap the smile off her face.
Soso’s polar opposite comes in the foreboding presence of Vee Parker, played by the magnificent Lorraine Toussaint. Episode 2 opens with Vee meeting a young Taystee on the outside as Taystee is trying to find an adoptive home. This is the first major introduction to season 2’s ongoing theme of family and family systems. Vee tells a young Taystee, “You might want to think about making your own forever family, Taystee. Wait for one to come along, and you might die waiting.” In flashbacks, when Taystee is older, we learn about how Vee takes her under her wing. Vee’s makeshift family is comprised of the members who sell drugs for her. There’s an oddly touching scene where Vee’s group sits down for Thanksgiving dinner, and Taystee smiles—no doubt the first time she very felt like she was part of a family unit.
Family themes run rampant throughout this season, and they are displayed in the beautiful flashbacks detailing the former lives of these women. They compliment the family structures within Litchfield nicely. Vee becomes the self-appointed leader of “the ghetto,” and she begins selling contraband tobacco to the other prisoners. As her control takes hold, other relationships become strained. A flashback near the end of the season detailing her relationship with her “son” is really unsettling.
The flashbacks really show how much of a true ensemble this show has become. We no longer are focusing on Piper Chapman’s story, and the other women get to step forward to reveal themselves. It’s rather breathtaking.
We learn about Poussey was an Army brat living in Europe, and she fell in love with a German blonde who also happened to be the daughter of a higher ranking official (it reminded me briefly of last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color, and I have no idea why). He walks in on their lovemaking and sends Poussey’s family back to the States. You understand Poussey’s slight longing for Taystee. Audience favorite Suzanne (it seems mean to call her Crazy Eyes now) had a very supportive adoptive mother who had to fight other bitchy mothers who seemed to sneer that Suzanne was black and was being raised by a white family. Cindy’s mother was raising Cindy’s daughter as her own, and the confrontation between them over how she will be raised will make you look at vivacious Cindy in a new light. Even characters on the outside are dealing with family issues. Piper’s best friend Polly is raising her new baby almost on her own since her husband ran off to find himself in Alaska. Larry, Piper’s former fiancé, steps in, and you can probably guess how that turns out.
The crumbling state of Litchfield is another running motif. Assistant warden Natalie Figueroa’s embezzling gets further scrutiny, and rules become stricter to make it look like Litchfield actually cares about the inmates. Assistant to the warden Joe Caputo says that they at least need to keep “these women safe and clean,” and the prison can barely do that. Litchfield’s crumbling structure is doing these women no favors.
The performances are solid across the board. Schilling’s Piper seems to realize that her situation could be a lot worse, and she finally embraces the fact that her prison sentence will change who she will become when she is released. Her self-declared “lone wolf” status is a welcome change to her sunny disposition from the first season. Toussaint’s Vee is one of the most terrifying characters in recent memory. Pleasant and still, Vee’s most dangerous when she is listening to other inmates threaten or boast. I’m sure it was intentional that we didn’t get to see a flashback detailing why Vee became the way she is. It’s much more disturbing to now know. Her stand offs with Kate Mulgrew’s Red (my personal favorite character) are master classes in acting. Yael Stone’s Lana Morello broke my heart this season. Lana’s always been a sweet character, but her back story is devastating. If you would hear the events from a different perspective, you would judge her as a nutjob, but you only want to reach out and give her the biggest hug you can muster. Miss Rosa’s storyline is also heartbreaking.
Where else can you see a show like this? Orange is the New Black’s second season might be better than its first, because now we can see what it’s capable of. The first season felt scrappier since we had never been shown anything like this before, but season 2 seems ferocious. Creator Jenji Kohan has created a female-driven, smartly written tapestry that can only get better with each sentencing. Lock me up. Bring on season three.