There seems to be a sadness present in Orange is the New Black’s second season that was not present, or was at least below the surface, in the first, freshman season and was allowed to come to the surface on its sophomore go-around and grow into a stock. Perhaps in the third season, that stock will be allowed to bloom into a cynical flower.
The first season of the show had a certain naivety, a charm that was both alarming and fresh, but always entertaining and funny, that has grown more hardened this year. Maybe the show’s creative team, lead by creator Jenji Kohan are, like Piper Chapman, growing, as she must, in order to survive the prison system.
While still a fresh, vastly entertaining show, and the tonal shift not jarring or a betrayal of what had preceded it, it has definitely moved into some darker territory.
Piper, who was released from solitary confinement at the beginning of the first episode of this season, has gone through much tumult. Since we were first introduced to her, her peaceful existence in Upper Middle Class America has been stripped from her, her comfortable relationship with Larry is no more and she is now, in this season, without Alex and has spent a period of time in a maximum security prison where she had to find cockroaches who would be ideal to smuggle cigarettes to other cells (the good ones, the fat and slow ones, come back so you can make trades back and forth).
And so, when Piper first emerges from the single cell in solitary, she emerges not unlike a caterpillar from a cocoon, but instead of stepping out as a beautiful butterfly, or an ugly moth, she is instead just someone who’s less willing to put up with shit as she was when she first arrived at Litchfield.
There are new characters, such as the terrifying Vee, a predator of children who will use them as a source of slave labor to push drugs and an old-time professional prisoner who knows the tricks of the trade that the other girls were not previously preoccupied with. Hers is a game of power and she will stop at nothing to achieve what she wants so dearly: To be top dog, even if it means bloodshed, murder and breaking truces that had been agreed upon for so many years.
Also new to Litchfield is Brook Soso, a source of much annoyance to Piper. What Piper sees in Soso is herself when she herself had first arrived, and she hates it. The mirror image reflects everything that Piper hates about herself.
Brook, in a way, also seems like something of an apology for having provided nothing in the way of positive characterizations for Asian characters in the first season. While annoying, Inmate Soso a strongly written and acted character.
There are plenty of opportunities for previously neglected characters in this season to have great moments. Black Cindy and Miss Rosa in particular have been given the most advanced screentime compared to what they had seen last year. Unfortunately, I was saddened to see less of Sophia, which is a shame given how interesting and strange it is than in a world of transgendered people, Laverne Cox is among only a few transgendered actors to actually be given a role in a film or a television show.
Also missed, oddly enough, was Pornstache. While Vee was a great villain this season, I missed Pornstache’s obnoxiousness, his idiocy and his downright… villainy. He was such a piece of shit last season, but he was a great-to-watch piece of shit. He did show up for a bit and I was surprised and a little disgusted with myself for how happy I was to see him.
There are also plenty of new, very funny scenes including a discussion on Inspector Gadget not really being a great detective at all (followed by an appropriate “Shut the fuck up!”) and an epiphany of sorts that the vagina and urethra are, in fact, two completely different anatomical holes.
Piper is wisely put into more of a supporting role. While I find her story to be more interesting than many other viewers do, there are so many stories to tell and it was a smart choice to focus on the macrocosm that is Litchfield instead of just focusing on the one fish-out-of-water. A story’s setting is as important as the lead role itself. Northern Exposure would not have been nearly as endearing if it weren’t for those episodes that had nothing to do with Doctor Fleischmann. The Simpsons charm level would only be about at 1/3 of its power if we didn’t get to know every shopkeeper, store owner and bartender in Springfield. I doubt The Wire would have been as powerful had it not been for the relentless investigation into the many wheels which make the City of Baltimore spin.
Piper is, however, crucial to the story. I’ve read many opinions that she is the show’s weakest character, but I don’t see that at all. She is a complicated character who is selfish and petty but caring and sweet. She is us. She is the audience’s surrogate. What she sees and how she feels about the hell that surrounds her is similar to how most of us would feel and react if placed in the same situation. While, at times, she can be unreasonable and unlikable, she is nonetheless an important element to the story being told. If the shows I listed above succeeded because of the strength of their setting, consider what happened to Northern Exposure when Rob Morrow left. Can you imagine The Wire without McNulty? A show’s ensemble relies on the strength of its bewildered, wide-eyed lead to share in our disbelief. That is, unless you’re Game of Thrones and then you can do whatever the hell you want.
She also, in a sense, personifies the idea of “institutionalization” as opposed to “rehabilitation.” She is not learning from her mistakes in prison. Rather, she is changing into a much more deeply pessimistic person with a stronger sense of vengeance. She is pettier, meaner and more willing to do what she needs in order to survive Litchfield.
The ending to this season did a phenomenal job of wrapping up all the loose ends. While there is certainly going to be a third season, if something were to happen, season 2’s ending would suffice is a finale to the entire season if it had to. The final minutes, even the final seconds of the season were a work of art, taking a nicely structured series of conflicts and resolved them in a way which was as gratifying as it was horrifying, but hilarious in a twisted, sick way.
This season had a lot to live up to and Orange is the New Black delivered. The sadness that I mentioned, the sadness that I felt was more pronounced this year than last, seems like a necessary metamorphosis. Change is important, and if you’re unwilling to adapt, you’ll find yourself a target in somewhere like Litchfield.
With so many characters, there are many plots and characters that I’m missing, but I don’t want to dig too deep and spoil any of the fun for anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to dig in. I only wish to encourage you to begin watching if you haven’t already, for whatever reason. I want to talk about how happy I am to see more of Taystee of Poussey, of Crazy Eyes, hell even of Daya and her doomed romance.
A show like Orange is the New Black benefits from Netflix’s ability to drop all 13 episodes all at once. Some shows benefit from being able to absorb small chunks of the story one week at a time and allowing it to digest until the next episode comes 7 days later. Orange benefits from being able to be experienced all at once, consumed greedily, to view it as one long movie and revisited again and again until its next season comes out.
The wait until this next season, I think, is going to be rough. But at least now I have 26 episodes instead of 13 to immerse myself in before the third season premieres.