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REVIEW: The Dark Optimism of Orange Is the New Black Season Two

8 minute read

Note: Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black debuted June 6; I wrote a pre-air review based on six episodes then. As I wrote last year, it’s hard to gauge the best time to review a full Netflix season–some people binge it in a weekend, some take all summer, and in the meantime there’s plenty of other TV to cover. I worked my way through season 2 gradually, and now seemed as good a time as any. Spoilers for the full season follow:

The first season of Orange Is the New Black was about finding the good within the bad–giving depth and humanity to prisoners, who are usually portrayed as unambiguous threats or monsters. The second season–darker, deeper, more ambitious–is in many ways about how the bad coexists with the good: within an institution, within a population, and very often within the same person. The season 2 finale, “We Have Manners. We’re Polite,” built on this theme with a conclusion that was stark, sad–and yet oddly exhilarating and even hopeful, daring to ask whether, at least once in a while, the good in Litchfield and its residents could outweigh the bad.

This was a question that OITNB could really only ask after taking the first season to set it up. As I wrote in reviewing that season, the show’s first year introduced us to Litch through Piper Chapman’s new, terrified eyes, then spent much of the year refuting and complicating her first, frightened impressions. By the time we heard Larry on public radio, repeating the early, broad-strokes descriptions of the inmates he’d heard from Piper, we had come to see much more of the women. They weren’t innocents, but they had lives, codes, histories–and in many cases, runs of bad choices and rotten luck.

OITNB could have stayed in that mode and done well enough for itself. Instead, season 2 introduced more conflict and, well, criminality, through the person of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), hustler, queenpin and psychological puppeteer extraordinaire. Toussaint played Vee like a machine built to sense flaws and sniff out weakness: in the prison’s safeguards, in the various cliques and clans, and in the individual black women she used to build her power base. Vee was like a reverse Oz (the wizard, not the HBO prison drama) building her gang by appealing to what they lacked within: she saw that Suzanne wanted self-esteem, Black Cindy wanted to live large, Taystee still wanted Vee’s maternal approval and Poussey wanted Taystee’s friendship.

Jenji Kohan and her crew were smart to see that the Taystee-Poussey relationship was one of the greatest things they created in season 1, and putting it in jeopardy provided a greater dramatic drive to season 2 than any physical threat could. It hurt seeing Vee drive a wedge between them–any Celebrity team that good should never be torn asunder!–just as it hurt seeing her turn the lost, clearly smart Suzanne into an attack puppy who prided herself on being the “muscle” to Vee’s “brains.” (Speaking of which, kudos to Uzo Aduba for her quasi-Shakespearean performance in that finale: “Don’t! You! Dare! Speak ill of her!”)

Vee functioned as a catalyst to bring conflict into Litchfield, and yet season 2, admirably, didn’t shy away from the fact that its characters had real and serious flaws, and many of them were in prison with good reason. In the season 1 flashbacks, the women tended to be drawn as victims of circumstance and bad relationships. In season 2, we saw that they could be greedy, vicious and vain too. And yet, as the finale’s title underscored, there are limits, rules, boundaries even within this community. There are manners, and Vee’s downfall came out about essentially because, as Rosa put it, she was “rude, that one.” (It worked a bit too neatly, honestly; the resolution of the finale depended too much on Vee, portrayed as a mastermind through the entire season, suddenly becoming a hubristic idiot, quickly overreaching and alienating her entire small support crew all at once. But OITNB‘s strength has never been in the plotting.) And yet even Vee was enjoyable to have around in her own way, as when she justified selling out Crazy Eyes in a Stringer Bell-like business analogy: “Is it cold for Amazon to underprice books just to gain market share?”

This all became possible because the show had expanded its ensemble so far beyond Piper that it didn’t really feel like itself until it returned to Litchfield (without her) in the second episode. It was no longer a fish-out-of-water story but an examination of power and group dynamics and the way rules and economies spring up in the barest of circumstances. I actually liked Piper, and Taylor Schilling, better in season 2 as simply part of an ensemble–to the extent that I was if anything dubious of the way the finale seemed to be setting up to bring Alex back as a central character again.

At the same time, the season both expanded its critique of the prison and deepened its portrayals of the people working within it: Caputo, Healy, even the venal Figueroa were shown as being capable of caring and having ideals–even if, as Fig said, “This place’ll beat them out of you quick.” The finale quickly made clear that even if Caputo has better intentions, he’s not necessarily going to get better results. (And he is, after all, still the sleaze who will take desperate oral sex from Fig with no intention of letting her off the hook.)

It’s a complicated balancing act, made tougher by OITNB‘s tonal juggling. Whatever it submits as at the Emmys, OITNB is both comedy and drama at once, and often that means asking us to accept the same characters to behave broadly in some episodes and with nuance in others–and to puzzle out where the comedy and drama are in the same scene. (The Fig-Caputo oral sex scene, for instance, might have been played as a horrific violation or as a comeuppance; instead, OITNB set it down uneasily between the two–in a way that might have generated more controversy if another show had done it.) It’s not easy. But like many great ensemble shows before it–Deadwood, The Wire–the show is dedicated to the idea that just about any supporting character in one episode could be the lead another time.

Or almost any. If there was one universal criticism of the second season, it was that Larry–and by extension, every element of Piper’s life and family outside the prison–needs to go. At this point I have to agree, not because the characters and their stories can’t be interesting, but because for whatever reason OITNB is not interested in giving them the same depth of characterization it gives to the rest of its prisoners and even its prison guards. It’s as if Piper’s friends and her martini-chilly WASP family are the whipping boys (and girls) for the audience’s own First World Problems–if we can see the Chapman clan’s issues as being trivial in comparison to the sewage showers and shankings at Litchfield, we don’t have to feel trivial ourselves. In any case, if the show isn’t going to flesh out the characters in this storyline like the others, it might as well ditch them–it has enough other stories to keep it busy for years.

There was no better proof of that last point than the fact that “We Have Manners” ended up on the moving story of Rosa, a character who was barely a background figure when the show began. As she runs down Vee to the sound of Blue Öyster Cult and sirens, she’s freed, not rehabilitated. She is who she is: a bank robber, who did it because she liked it, she was good at it and it was a–literally–sexual charge. You can see that, and still be glad that she’s trying to die on her own terms, or not: OITNB leaves it to you. Either way, though, it’s a surprisingly hopeful ending, as much as a terminal cancer patient running down someone with a stolen van can be: it holds out the possibility, if not of redemption, at least that occasionally the best in Litchfield can overcome the worst in it.

It doesn’t look, in the end, like Rosa is going to be able to outrun the law, or the Reaper, for very long after that final cut to orange. But I suspect, and hope, that OITNB has got plenty left in its tank.

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