“I can’t believe it. I fell in with the bad nuns.” – Season 2, Episode 11
The first season of Orange is the New Black was didactic and revelatory – the most entertaining sociology lesson ever, featuring a large and diverse cast of mostly women. I loved it.
The series (available only on Netflix streaming) originates from Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Wealthy socialite Piper Chapman was named as a conspirator in a drug ring (she transported drugs one time) and pleaded to serve fifteen months in federal prison. Season 1 stuck with the bare bones of Kerman’s book for its through-line, and expanded the stories of other inmates in fascinating ways. Flashbacks were used to contrast lives before prison, also to highlight the daily grind of incarceration. Every episode packed an empathic wallop and felt entirely fresh.
Season 1 finished Piper’s arc in shocking (apocryphal) fashion, leaving the audience wondering where the show could go next. We needn’t have worried. Season 2 picks up shortly after the events of the previous episode, and plays a novel variation on the first season’s “fish out of water” theme. For starters, the fish is now blind. Jodie Foster directs the first episode, which centers almost entirely on Piper. It’s a 60-minute masterpiece of tension and dark humor, a new series high. It also examines the only major plot element from Kerman’s book that wasn’t covered in the first season – from here on out, it’s showrunner Jenji Kohan’s canvas, a very good thing indeed.
Episode 2 is an inevitable comedown, and it’s one of several scattershot episodes in the season. The framework is still in place, but it’s more loosely constructed. Whereas the first season tended to feature a single character in a given week’s flashback, and those stories tended to be self contained, in Season 2 they don’t always conclude and some expand across episodes. Episode 2 doesn’t show Piper at all, which is disconcerting at first – without her through-line, we aren’t sure where the narrative is going. The cast is even larger this season, and at times it all feels like a variety show on the theme of makeshift families.
Episode 3 also lacks a confident tone (both 2 and 3 were directed by Michael Trim, his only outings this season.) It features a really awkward flashback, recalling certain events of Season 1. Although narratively significant, it breaks the “rules” the show has established for itself. I wish they’d found a different reveal for the necessary information.
Episode 4 marks a return to greatness. Titled A Whole Other Hole, it begins to establish the arc of Season 2. It features the best set-piece comedy the show has yet accomplished, no mean feat (this is where the title comes from.) We also get Lorna Morello’s story. Morello is one of the show’s sweeter characters and I missed seeing her featured in a Season 1 flashback. The logic of this becomes apparent as the episode plays out; director Phil Abraham nails the reveal near the end; we might have suspected as much but it’s a heartbreaker. Australian actress Yael Stone (playing Italian-American with a voice described by Vulture’s Denise Martin as “equal parts Boston, Brooklyn, and Miss Adelaide…”) is wonderful and devastating. She gets several more spotlight moments throughout the season, including a warped summary of Pixar’s Toy Story in Episode 13.
Episodes 5 and 7 are both directed by Andrew McCarthy, of Pretty in Pink fame. While both move things along, they feel scattered and unfocused. It’s unfortunate that the weakest episodes of the second season were directed by McCarthy and Trim, the show’s most prolific directors. Trim directed five episodes in the first season and McCarthy handled three – all of those were stronger than these four; then again, the structure was more conventional back then.
As I watched through this point I made a note, “The Wire wannabe.” With its large cast and interest in social justice, Orange is the New Black sometimes feels like a cousin to The Wire. Some have criticized it for not going far enough in that direction – The NY Times’ Mike Hale writes that it “…treats prison like a bad day in high school, the kind that includes both a scary walk to the principal’s office and an embarrassing visit to the school nurse.” It’s a valid criticism, and I have no doubt that Jenji Kohan could have made a show which satisfied Hale’s vision. That show, however, would not be this show. (It might have been The Wire, Season 6.)
Episode 6 is another standout. It happens around Valentine’s Day, and relies on a pretty standard gimmick that feels perfectly calibrated here. Individuals and couples are asked by an unseen/unheard interviewer to describe “what is love.” Their reactions are wonderful capsules of character. For anyone wondering what the fuss about all these actors is, start here. We get the surprising backstory of Poussey, which never unfolds like you expect (another thing this show does well.)
Episodes 8-13 are a steamroller. Like Homeland’s first season, which had an uneven beginning, once you hit a certain point you might as well call in to work. These are dominated by Lorraine Toussaint’s astonishing, terrifying portrayal of Vee Parker (who should win every award possible for this role.)
Random notes: “Episode 9 (40 OZ of Furlough) – Great title; gut punch of an episode.” “Episode 10 (Little Mustachioed Shit) – Delightful. Narrative momentum. Fabulous punchline.” Actress Maria Dizzia (Polly) earns every paycheck she’s received so far on the basis of a single line, exquisitely delivered.
Episode 13 reminded me of Roger Ebert’s great line about Dead Poet’s Society: “I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.” What Ebert meant is that he knew he was being manipulated, he felt it anyway, and the aftermath was imperfect. (Undoubtedly, that’s what made the film a big hit. I expect a similar feeling when I watch The Fault in Our Stars.) Jenji Kohan wrote this episode, and we know by now that Kohan is going to make sure the t’s are crossed, the i’s dotted, and the lessons are hammered home. We know that less would be more, but damn if it all doesn’t coalesce into something wonderful by the end. Director Constantine Makris’ grace note for actress Barbara Rosenblat’s and Stephanie Andujar’s Rosa/Young Rosa is almost perfect, and brings tears to my eyes as I write.
It would take considerable effort to honor every performance in this series as it deserves. I don’t remember a deeper bench of talent, a more abundant display of acting chops. I haven’t mentioned Kate Mulgrew (much better than Season 1, amazing); Laverne Cox (so touching and underused this year); Beth Fowler (so much more than we thought – complex as life); Uzo Aduba (mentally ill pawn Crazy Eyes – particularly affecting). There are few weak performances; most are extraordinary. Taylor Schilling probably fares the worst here, because she has to play “mood of the week” once the show departs from Kerman’s storyline. She is alternately aliented, empathic, troubled, loving, desperate, etc. as the week’s story and director require. Because Schilling so effectively dominated the first season, this isn’t as bothersome as it might otherwise be. And she’s got that first episode tour de force.
If I have any reservations about Orange is the New Black Season 2, they are the same as a year ago: where can they go from here? The finale essentially hits the reset button – can the show remain more than a sitcom? But what an impressive run so far. Fifty one weeks to wait…