Monday, June 16, 2014

Season 2 of Orange is the New Black gets bigger and goes deeper

Season one of Netflix's Orange is the New Black ended on one heck of a cliffhanger, with Piper beating Pennsatucky to a bloody pulp, which left viewers wondering how far she'd gone and what the consequences would be.  "Thirsty Bird," the terrific second season premiere, teases out those answers over the course of an hour, as we pick up on Piper being escorted out of solitary confinement, put on a plane without any answers, and shipped off to a high security prison in Chicago.  Though we later learn that she's only there temporarily to testify in a trial, the episode does a good job of not only letting the suspense play out, but also fleshing out the Chicago prison, building it up as a parallel world to Litchfield.

Though the premiere is completely Piper-centric, she doesn't appear in the second episode at all, and recedes into being another part of the ensemble once she returns to Litchfield in the third.  Season two puts heavy focus on the black women in Litchfield, led by Vee, the season's primary villain.  As we learn from Taystee's first flashback, Vee plucked Taystee out of an adoption fair and became something of a mother figure, bringing Taystee into the fold of her drug-running business.  Once Vee returns to Litchfield, she tries to apply some of her illegal habits from the outside, preying on Suzanne's need for acceptance, Black Cindy's need for respect, and Taystee's inability to escape her past to recruit them into a cigarette smuggling business.  Much of the larger conflict of the season comes from the building race war that Vee and her crew incite in their efforts to resume the power that Vee had during her first stint in Litchfield.

But it's not just Piper or Vee and Taystee who get time in the spotlight, the season gives story time to dozens upon dozens of members of the show's deep bench of characters.  In many ways, Orange is the New Black reminds me of the great HBO drama, Deadwood.  I'm not the first to make that connection -- there were a few critics who pointed out this connection as early as the middle of the first season -- but it's hard not to bring up the comparison when talking about the worldview and use of ensemble in season two.  It takes a bunch of disparate characters and turns them into fully-realized human beings, and though you may not like all of them, you're certainly going to understand them.  Did you watch season one and think Rosa was an extremely minor character, or forgot who she was altogether?  Well Jenji Kohan doesn't think she's unimportant -- nobody is, in Orange is the New Black's opinion -- and Rosa's storyline in the season will be one of the most compelling.  Did you find Pennsatucky to be a cartoonish, one-dimensional character in the first season?  Well get ready for season two to make her one of the most endearing characters, while also not hand-waving away the fact that she still has some awful values.

Deadwood was one of the biggest and messiest shows of the last 15 years, but it didn't shy away from its messiness.  Instead, the show rolled around in it, and picked out little nuggets of beauty among the muck.  Likewise, season two of Orange is the New Black is far from perfect.  But it's so gargantuan and ambitious that you can't begrudge its messiness when it's riffing on so many different themes and exploring the stories of a countless amount of characters.

One of the season's major imperfections is its use of flashbacks.  In the first season, the flashbacks were a little more novel, and they effectively illuminated who the characters are now by showing their lives before they ended up in prison.  This season, they lost a bit of their novelty, even though the writers smartly avoid repeating characters who got flashbacks in the first season, aside from Piper and Red.  The problem is that too many of the flashbacks hit the theme of the episode a little too hard on the head (Rosa) or just aren't very interesting (Black Cindy).  Even still, some of the flashbacks work exceedingly well.  Morello's flashbacks in "A Whole Other Hole," which reveal that her engagement with Christopher is all a delusion and she merely stalked him after a first date went wrong, are as heartbreaking as any that the show has ever done.

A more welcome element of this season is its emphasis on the infrastructure of Litchfield.  It does this in ways both heavy -- the misallocation of the prison's budget leading to one of the dorm's showers backing up, which then leads to more tension between the different factions -- and light (Piper starting up a prison newsletter).  It's reminiscent of another mid-2000s HBO great, The Wire, in the way it examines the unfortunate ways systems fail people again and again.  The Wire was about the infrastructure's cold indifference to the people trapped inside of it, but Orange is the New Black is more about how ill-equipped the system is to properly deal with the people in it.  We see this in many different ways, from the prison deciding to just release the mentally ill old woman who manages to accidentally escape, to them not allowing Rosa to get a surgery that's important to extending her lifespan.

Season one was about the way communities slowly form, showing the small connections that can be made in a women's prison.  On the other hand, the second season, which had a recurring theme of rejection, found almost every corner of Litchfield at odds.  Eventually, everyone realizes that Vee is the outsider that has destroyed the harmony that they worked to create.  "We've Got Manners.  We're Polite," the season finale, is all about correcting that balance.  I love how everybody comes up with plots to bring her down -- Nicky and Boo setting her up with the heroin; Taystee, Cindy, and Watson confessing that they lied about their statements that incriminated Suzanne; Norma and Mendoza creating some concoction to slowly kill her; Healy fudging paperwork -- but in the end, it's Rosa who kills her as she escapes from Litchfield in a van.  She didn't even have that much of a vested interest in Vee, at least not directly.  But that's why her act is so important.  If the finale was about all of these disparate forces banding together for the good of the community, then it's fitting for Rosa to kill Vee because she was rude, and a poison to the prison.

"We've Got Manners.  We're Polite," is an over-sized episode, both in length and in breadth, and not everything works.  For instance, I'm not sure how I feel about how Figueroa was ultimately dispensed of (it's ugly in a one-sided way that the show rarely ever is), or Alex coming back, or the prospect of any more Larry and Polly material.  But the finale is representative of the season as a whole: it's a massive endeavor that works far more than it doesn't.  Shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones achieve their scope through the miles of distance between their characters.  Orange is the New Black is so impressive because it gives off that sense of scope and mostly contains it to one place.  Ambition is one thing, but season two is one of the most astounding things to air this year because it manages pull almost all of it off.


  1. There are so many things in my notes that I just couldn't manage to fit in the review, so here are some additional thoughts:

    -Theme That I Didn't Mention #1: Men feeling powerless and lashing out on women as a result of that powerlessness. Healy's entire arc in season 1 is this, but it comes up again in season two with the way Caputo fires Fisher, Bennett taking out his frustrations by overreacting on the women when he finds a cigarette butt on the floor, and Healy initially not wanting to prove Suzanne's innocence because he was upset about nobody coming to Safe Place.

    -Theme That I Didn't Mention #2: Actually I did mention this in passing, but seriously, acceptance and rejection come up constantly. Taystee rejecting Poussey, Suzanne being rejected her entire life for being different (which colors why she's so happy to be accepted by Vee), Piper rejecting the idea of being Soso's mentor, the rednecks exiling Pennsatucky, Healy overhearing that everybody hates him, Red desperately trying to bring her "family" back together. I could go on forever.

    -Theme That I Didn't Mention #3: The past repeating itself and old habits rearing their ugly head. I complained about the flashbacks in the review, but I think they were playing the long game with them, and many were about this theme. It pops up with Taystee falling back under Vee's sway, Nicky's heroin addiction becoming a threat, Red being played by Vee. Alot of the finale was about breaking those cycles.

    -Theme That I Didn't Mention #4: Consequences not lining up with actions. This is the theme of Piper's flashbacks in the first episode (flashbacks that apparently nobody liked but me), and it comes up again in ways that I didn't write down in my notes, so I don't remember the specifics. Good job, Antonio!

    -Theme That I Didn't Mention #5: Failed movements and the message being muddied by the messenger. The saddest example of this is Healy's Safe Place. He truly is trying to do good, but he doesn't understand the consequences that might come with people sharing their feelings (which reads as "snitching" to others). But it also appears in Soso's storyline -- more on this in a second.

    -Theme That I Didn't Mention #6: The inmates and the people who work at the prison are similar in many ways. They do this mainly by paralleling the ways that leaders treat subordinates. On both sides, the subordinates are at the mercy of their boses, who make moves that aren't always clear or beneficial for everyone (see: Vee and her crew, Figueroa/Caputo and the prison guards).

    1. -People seemed to really hate Soso, but they're wrong! The idea that she's a mirror of Piper when she first arrived at Litchfield is obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain, but how far they go with it is brilliant. In the same way that viewers of season one could only see Piper's white privilege by the show really playing it up when she first went to prison, the only way Piper could fianlly see how people felt about her at first is by making Soso even more insufferable. Also Soso's the greatest example of the message being muddied by the message. She's is correct about the main thing she stands up for: inmate rights in the prison. But they put that stance in the mouth of the show's most annoying character, so nobody takes her seriously at first.

      -I've seen some say that season two is not as good as season one. Those people could not be more wrong.

      -One of the complaints from those people is that Vee is a one-dimensional villain. However, I liked the subtle indications that alot of what drives her is a fear of aging. It becomes clearer in her flashback episode, when she explicitly worries about being too old, but it's also there earlier in her desire to prove that she can attain the level of power in prison that she used to have.

      -I love the little pockets of warmth this show can find: the Morello and Suzanne scene that's depicted in the picture up top, Healy and Pennsatucky embracing in "You Also Have a Pizza," etc.

      -Top 5 characters: Poussey, Morello, Pennsatucky, Nicky, Suzanne (don't you dare call her Crazy Eyes). With the exception of Pennsatucky, this was basically my list in season one. And honorable mention to Piper, who is fascintating, no matter what anyone says.

      -Favorite storyline: Morello's is truly incredible, but I already talked about that in the review. Poussey's is great, but gets a little repetitive after the 90th time she sulks about losing Taystee. So let's go with Healy and Pennsatucky bonding, because who would've guessed that would be so lovely?

      -Biggest wish for season 3: More about the Hispanic women. They're the least fleshed out of the three main ethnicities, which is a shame because Flaca and Maritza are the new Poussey and Taystee when it comes to being the most entertaining duo on the show.

      -The show is always at its best when it finds ways to bring everybody together. It did that in season one with the Christmas pageant, and it does it even better in season two with the Valentine's Day dance in episode 5 and the storm in episode 12.

      -In the review, I briefly complained about Figueroa's comeuppance, but the way they handle her character in general kind of bums me out. They try to make you feel a little sympathy for her when she finds out her husband is gay, but she doesn't get nearly as much nuance as the show's other villains.

      -I know that people love to rag on Larry's storylines, but the one storyline that truly needs to go is Daya and Bennett. No more, please!

      -If we're speaking in Deadwood terms, then Vee is certainly the Hearst of this season. I mean, the way the idea of people at odds banding together over a common enemy feels like it's cribbed directly from the final season of Deadwood.

      -You should really watch Deadwood if you haven't seen it.

      -It's hard to tell just how much I liked this season in the review, but I'll make it clear and say there's no possible way this won't be in my top 5 at the end of the year. (Teaser: it's currently at #2.)

    2. I try not to read reviews of something before I write my own, so I only just now read the AV Club review of the entire season and it ALSO mentions both Deadwood and The Wire and now I feel like such a hack.