Woooo!!! Just binge-watched the entire second season of Netflix’s Peabody Award-winning Orange Is The New Black. Well… I did so in 4 or 5 episode-blocks late Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights because of my own personal schedule, not because I got bored with the show. That’s far from it. Though it may have dipped a bit in dramatic momentum — Jenji Kohan and her writers were able to do far less with their lead character this year as compared to last — OITNB is still the best show on the streaming site and is one of the best series currently running period.
To kick off our recap of the new season, we’re going to take look at the first 3 episodes. Then, we’ll return again on Monday, June 16th with a recap of Episodes 4-6; on Monday, June 23 we’ll recap Episodes 7-9; on Monday, June 30th we’ll take a look at Episodes 10-12; and then we’ll finish things off with the finale on Monday, July 7th. This way, we’re not revealing too many spoilers to our readers, in case you don’t have the time to indulge in all 13 hours of OITNB in one massive chunk.
Okay, here we go…
Season 2, Episode 1: “Thirsty Bird”
Well, this is interesting. We have a full episode devoted to Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) in the aftermath of her beatdown of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) at the end of Season 1. And aside from an appearance by Alex (Lauren Prepon), we focus on no one else but Piper. None of the other major characters in the impressive ensemble cast make an appearance, and that’s okay. Not great — okay. Piper has an arc that is necessary for the show to complete: a spoiled, privileged WASP becomes a harden, world-weary prisoner. She is way in over her head and it’s no more evident than in “Thirsty Bird”, where we find Piper being transferred to a prison in Illinois to prepare to testify against Alex’s drugdealer boss Kubra Balik, after spending a month in solitary confinement.
What doesn’t work on paper (Piper’s one hurdle to jump in the entire hour — which is obviously a major one — is to decide whether or not to perjure herself so Balik won’t send someone to kill her) works pretty well on screen thanks to the direction of Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster. The opening sequence where Piper is pulled from solitary to the plane has the makings of a political thriller. It becomes more paranoid and claustrophobic as it moves along, with Piper not knowing where she’s going until she sees the Chicago city landscape when her plane lands.
And Manning is great — as she always has been — despite the little her character actually does. Though, she does have a great monologue (that was also beautifully shot) when she talks to a fellow prisoner and planemate played by Tank Girl herself, Lori Petty; and the look of relief on her face when she finds out from Alex that Pennsatucky survived her attack.
Ultimately, “Thirsty Bird” suffers a bit because we don’t get to check in with the other inmates, which was the major part of the success of the first season. Without them, there is no show so it was very much a happy occasion when I clicked ‘PLAY’ on the next episode…
Season 2, Episode 2: “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”
Now this is more like it! This is the welcome back to Litchfield we’ve been waiting a whole year for! And we also have a Taystee-centric episode to boot! (Thanks to the fact that Danielle Brooks has been upped to a series regular.)
No one has had her dreams not fully realized like Taystee. She has been high on herself since she’s been a young girl but no one takes her seriously — not the potential parents at ‘Black Adaption Day’ nor her fellow inmates — except for Vee (The Wire‘s Lorraine Toussaint), a Harlem drug dealer and mother figure who takes her in and raises her to be a pusher.
And Taystee is a natural salesperson. In another life, she could have had any job she wanted, from selling makeup at Macy’s to promoting cigarettes for Phillip Morris — which is the non-existent job she’s angling for during the prison’s mock job fair. Instead, her path only gave her two choices: either endure a prolonged stay at an orphanage/with various foster families or living with Vee; a minimum wage-paying fast food gig or selling drugs. What a terrible fate for a tremendous talent.
Taystee knows this but she wants to be better. Better than last season, when she was given parole only to throw it all away for another prison stint. This time, she may be able to become a model citizen, one who can kick ass during a professional job interview. (Without putting her hand on the interviewers knee in a seductive manner like Flaca.) But that all comes to a record scratch when present-day Vee ends up in Litchfield.
Now, with Vee: she is the genie who can grant you wishes but be careful what you wish for because she is about to become the season’s Big Bad.
In the meantime, Pennsatucky gets her teeth fixed, Daya (Dascha Polanco) has constipation, and Red (Kate Mulgrew) starts hanging out with a much older group of inmates. It’s a pretty event day at our favorite women’s prison, and all of it happens when Piper is off-screen for the entire episode, still away in Illinois. That is important because the show works with or without the character who was going to be our lead last season; our Walter White, if you will. But as we’ll see with Vee — and Red, et al — it’s sometimes cool to root for the complex bad guy.
Season 2, Episode 3: “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”
The power of Vee (the double entendre may be purposeful) takes hold in the third episode as Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes” steps to the center of our metaphorical stage. She too was a lost child but unlike Taystee, she had a loving adoptive (yet very WASP-y) mother and father who cared and rooted for her despite her mental illness. She was showered with love even though the other children and their parents treated her like an outcast. And it’s a role she continues to play in her adult prison life as she’s excluded from the other prisoners’ games; being only good enough to keep track of time during a round of charades.
This is a great character study — maybe the best the show has done — and it’s all thanks to a pretty tight script by Lauren Morelli, and Uzo Aduba’s fantastic performance. (Can someone hand this girl an Emmy, please?) We’re treated to two important revelations:
1.) Suzanne was attracted to Piper because she looked like her mother.
2.) The reason why Piper wasn’t punished more severely by the prison for her beatdown of Pennsatucky was because Suzanne, in a crazed hazed, punched Piper when thinking it was her mother, who kept pushing her into performing in public despite the crowds’ vicious responses. That action made the fight look more evenly matched.
But, as you’ve been warned in the recap of Episode 2, Vee is our Big Bad and she knows how to prey on the venerable. Soon, Suzanne finds a mother figure in her as well.
And, hey! Piper returns to Litchfield this episode and her integration is actually quite flawless. She’s a welcome presence to the ensemble, more Jimmy McNulty in Seasons 2-4 of The Wire than Don Draper, so her storyline (which is about her ex-fiancee Larry trying to get her to help with a newspaper expose) is happening in the backburner.
But wow, Suzanne…
So, it looks like the theme of the season is shaping up to be about shitty moms — or at least shitty people in power. That’s a major shift from the fish out of water theme last year. And the first three episodes are not just merely entertaining; they’re examples of how great and “So-So” (God, please grant me and everyone else the strength to endure her) Orange Is The New Black can be.
We’re return Monday, June 16th with a recap of Episodes 4-6: “A Whole New Hole”, “Low Self-Esteem City”, and “You Also Have A Pizza”; and the beginnings of Red Vs. Vee.