SPOILER ALERT: This review will discuss events that occur throughout Season 2 of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.
The second season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, like the first, ends with an act of violence–and this one is (seemingly) more fatal than the first–and yet the tone couldn’t be more different. Season 1 seemed to be sending the show’s putative heroine Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and the series itself down a rabbit hole of ugliness, as Piper didn’t just defend herself from an attack by racist, crazy Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), but outdid her in viciousness and brutality, all the bloodshed occurring with the tacit approval of guard Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) who had once been Piper’s supporter, but who had formed a bitter grudge against Piper’s bisexuality and entitlement. The climax of Season 2, by comparison, is such a crowd-pleaser that it could just as well have been scored with “Ding, Dong The Witch Is Dead” as the actually-used “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” what with Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) pausing her breakneck escape from Litchfield Federal Prison to mow down the awful Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) in the midst of her own escape, complete with a Schwarzenegger-ish quip for Miss Rosa (“Always rude, that one”) as she drove away afterward. It was the cherry on top of the surprisingly happy ending that series creator Jenji Kohan gave viewers this season. (It was also a reminder that Kohan comes from Weeds, which indulged much more frequently in such randomly convenient plotting.)
Until the season’s final episode, it certainly didn’t seem as though Orange was going to have such a sunny conclusion. The theme of the season could have been expressed as the eternal struggle between those who are willing to work together and support one another communally, however imperfectly (a hunger strike that fell apart, and Healy’s botched “Safe Place” therapy sessions, were examples of that), and those who only care about their own glory. In Vee, Orange had not just the personification of utter selfishness, but something new for the show: a genuine villain. Even such generally loathsome characters as the assistant warden Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) and guard “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) were treated by Orange with a certain amount of compassion, mostly because they ruined their lives out of misguided love–Pornstache’s for Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco), who framed him for her pregnancy, a plan that ultimately sent him to prison; and Fig’s for the closeted gay husband for whose political campaign she became an embezzler.
Vee, though, was unadorned evil, summed up beautifully by Poussey (Samira Wiley) as a pedophile without the sex. She was terrifyingly, bloodlessly expert at exploiting the fears, dreams and insecurities of just about everyone around her, a monstrously brilliant and ruthless tactician (and brilliantly played by Toussaint every step of the way). Watching her manipulate poor, unstable Suzanne aka Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), and her desperate need for approval, into being an unquestioning tool for violent enforcement, was chilling. Even Vee’s flashback episode, which in almost every other case has been used by the show to explain a character’s sad background and provide an understanding of her actions, was for Vee just an addition to her list of atrocious crimes (sleeping with her surrogate son just before sending him out to be murdered). Yet the season ended not just with Vee (apparently) dead, but with Fig ousted from her job in favor of the… well, at least better-intentioned Caputo (Nick Sandow)–although he’s hardly a shining example of heroism, having fired kindly guard Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) because she had no romantic interest in him, and left Pornstache in jail even when he learned that Bennett (Matt McGorry) was actually the guard who’d gotten Daya pregnant. Still, at least he acts more from a desire to be left alone than to actively hurt anyone. In fact, you could call the finale a trifecta of victories over the duplicitous when Piper finally got the better of her ever-untrustworthy sorta semi-ex Alex (Laura Prepon), scheming to send her back to prison, although wasn’t clear (probably even to Piper herself) whether she was doing it for revenge or because she longed to have Alex with her again at Litchfield.
The shock and thrill of discovering Orange Is the New Black for the first time was inevitably a bit diminished this year, because we already knew going in that the pretty blonde convict was only going to be slightly featured over the darker, gayer, older, bulkier, less educated and more desperate women around her, confounding decades of Hollywood wisdom. Sure, Piper had a more or less solo episode (the season premiere, which saw her temporarily transferred to a jail in Chicago), and another that followed her on her 48-hour furlough from Litchfield, and ex-fiancee Larry (Jason Biggs) and ex-best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia)–now a couple themselves–are the only prominent characters on the show with only a tenuous connection to Litchfield (a fact that’s getting increasingly hard to justify). But Orange is simply loaded with marvelously drawn characters that are different from any to be found in pop culture.
Apart from everyone who’s already been mentioned, it was a great season for Red (Kate Mulgrew), brought down low from her position as head of the kitchen but out the other side, able to make peace again with Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and the rest of her once-loyal crew, with the elderly inmates who were now her peers, and even with Piper; for Poussey, the brave voice of principle and loyalty even as Vee was systematically taking away her platonic love Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and the rest of her friends; for Boo (Lea DeLaria), who deepened from her comic relief role when she betrayed Red and was left isolated as a result; for Lorna (Yael Stone), whose flashback revealed her to be far more disturbed than her cheery facade had ever suggested; for Taystee herself, raised by Vee since she was a child and unable to admit what a dreadful woman she was. Even much-maligned Piper (and Schilling, who doesn’t get the credit she deserves for the modulations of her performance) has changed before our eyes–not into a “worse” person or a “better” one, but into a one who’s more complex and self-knowing.
Other fine TV series succeed by populating a limited setting with an engaging few characters and telling entertaining stories; Orange creates an entire world, one as likely to be hilarious as heart-stopping. Even where a given plotline is subpar (Daya spending much of the season wanting Bennett to admit his paternity and go to jail himself never made much sense, and no one needed the Larry/Polly romance), the overall scale of Kohan’s creation is remarkable. Orange is a show that changes the way you feel about the people around you in the real world, a tribute to Kohan and her staff of writers (Tara Herrmann, Lauren Morelli, Sian Heder, Nick Jones, Stephen Falk, Sara Hess, Alex Regnery, Hartley Voss) and directors (Jodie Foster, Andrew McCarthy, Michael Trim, Constantine Makris, Allison Anders, Phil Abraham, Daisy von Scherler Mayer, S. J. Clarkson, Jennifer Getzinger), and of course the enormous cast.
Orange Is the New Black has been a phenomenon for Netflix, already renewed for a third batch of episodes (thanks to the Netflix business plan of releasing all episodes at once, the word “season” seems like a misnomer), and could go in any number of directions. At one point, it was mentioned in an episode that Piper had 8 months remaining in her 15-month sentence, and although an extension in her term could certainly be contrived, Orange could also continue without her, simply another prisoner who’s moved on. The series gives the impression that its vivid stories and characters have no limit.