Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson has been one of the most outgoing inmates walking the halls of Litchfield Penitentiary on Netflix’s hit series Orange Is the New Black. But when her surrogate mom, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), joined her behind bars in Season 2, Taystee went through some major changes (and not just braiding her curls into cornrows). Taystee’s once boisterous demeanor was silenced and her closest relationships, particularly with Poussey (Samira Wiley), were destroyed.
The carefree character, who, in Season 1, would only get upset over a King Cone falling on the floor, was now quivering in fear and caving to the strong hand of a bully, acting selfishly, causing trouble, and sometimes behaving overly cocky. Taystee’s behavior changed drastically, almost instantaneously with the bite of some Funfetti cake, and viewers saw a side of her that didn’t seem to exist before.
Even the actress behind Taystee, 23-year-old Danielle Brooks, who landed the role on Orange Is the New Black straight out of Juilliard, couldn’t believe what became of the effervescent fan favorite. “Taystee goes on one of the biggest journeys from Season 1 to Season 2,” Brooks told BuzzFeed via phone, just days after the season was released on Netflix. “I think, for me, it starts with the last conversation she had with Poussey in Season 1 when they were in the library when Taystee returns [to Litchfield].”
“I think Taystee really took that to heart in Season 2 when you start out with the job fair,” the actress continued. “She’s working really hard to get out of prison and get a job and even in that moment where she’s starting to feel defeated with Fig [Alysia Reiner] telling her, You always want something, and she gives her a few dollars in commissary, she’s still positive… until she sees Vee.”
In the second episode of Season 2, titled “Looks Blue, Tastes Red,” Vee arrives at Litchfield after Taystee’s won a mock job fair competition and suddenly, her whole world changes. In a flashback, viewers meet Little Taystee (Teeka Duplessis) and soon see just how many years Vee has had a hold on the woman who was once one of the prison’s liveliest inmates. Throughout the timeline, details of Taystee’s rough upbringing emerge, from her time spent in group homes, to her first interaction with Vee (whom she identifies as a bad person and drug dealer right away), to her eventually moving in with Vee, swapping one toxic environment for another.
“There’s a lot of demons that were brought to the surface when dealing with this woman and a lot of pain as we see the journey with her and R.J. [Eric D. Hill Jr.] and her trying to figure out what actually happened,” Brooks said of Taystee’s surrogate brother, whom Vee set up to be murdered, still unbeknownst to Taystee. “There’s a lot of issues there that Taystee is forced to deal with; she cannot hide behind the joking and the laughter. She has to deal with it. I think the conversation with Poussey really sparked something, but now, all of a sudden, when Vee comes, her world is turned upside down … I can’t reveal how Taystee got in prison, but it can be teased that Vee might have had something to do with that.”
As soon as she comes face-to-face with Vee, the excited, focused, and confident Taystee viewers saw in Episode 2 vanishes in mere moments. “I think [Vee and Taystee’s] relationship is very tricky because Taystee hasn’t had anyone to really have her back and just be loyal to her and show her right from wrong and she gets desperate,” Brooks explained. “There’s a point in her life where she feels she needs Vee. Vee is her family. She puts money in her pocket, and it might not be the right way, but she does that and no one has done that for her. She has this really strong attachment to her because she becomes her mother.”
But, Brooks continued, “it’s tricky because Taystee is suspicious about Vee. She always has been since she was a girl. You see that flashback. But she’s hopeful for Vee to be a good person and when she returns, it really throws Taystee off where she can’t hide behind the laughter and making jokes. She has to deal with what’s really going on.”
And strangely, it’s a piece of cake that causes Taystee to forget all the suspicions she once had and all of the trials Vee has put her through. Though her surrogate mother may or may not be the reason Taystee was arrested in the first place, she is the reason Taystee broke her probation in Season 1. It is later revealed in Season 2 that when Taystee was released on parole in Orange’s first season, she went looking for Vee, hoping her mother figure would help her start over. But she was nowhere to be found. It may seem unlikely that some Funfetti would make Taystee overlook all of that, but Brooks sees the cake as a symbol of something larger.
“You have to remember, Taystee has probably never been given a birthday cake and that probably sparks a memory with Taystee that’s connected with Vee,” Brooks said of the scene in which Vee lures Taystee’s friends into her clutches with some contraband confection. “Maybe Vee was the first one to do things like that for Taystee. I think it’s more than just a cake. For me, there’s a connection there with a mother baking for her daughter. I feel like that cake stood for a memory in Taystee’s head of things that Vee would probably do for her when she knows Taystee’s not trusting her.”
It’s quite obvious to viewers, and some inmates (Taystee’s best friend Poussey most of all), how toxic Vee is from the beginning. But Taystee is unable to separate her past from her present. The woman that gave her the nickname she’s known for, that finally created a “forever family” for the abandoned child, that cooked for her and put a roof over her head, is a hard person to move on from.
“She’s known Vee for over 15 years and… as many times Vee has proven herself to not be the best, she’s also proven herself to be somewhat of a mother figure,” Brooks explained. “Taystee’s in need of that. She’s longing for a mother, a place, a home, a family. And she gave that to her for over 15 years. So, I think that’s what outweighs it with Poussey and it kind of got lost on Taystee once Poussey hit on her. I think that threw her off a little bit and Vee got in her head right at that moment when she was questioning where she wanted to go with the friendship with Poussey.”
After Poussey kisses Taystee, it alienates the best friends, leaving just the right amount of room for Vee to make her move and sabotage that relationship. “Taystee will never love you,” Vee tells Poussey slowly and menacingly. “She will never love you. Not the way you want.”
Though it takes the length of Orange’s second season for Taystee — and eventually Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) and Watson (Vicky Jeudy) — to see Vee for who she truly is, eventually that flip does switch. Ironically, it’s a blackout in Season 2’s penultimate episode, “It Was the Change,” that helps Taystee finally see the light during an altercation with Poussey that almost gets physical. “This is a moment where everyone has turned their back on Taystee: Black Cindy, Crazy Eyes [Uzo Aduba], Watson, Vee, everyone is turning their back on her. And Taystee is right in Poussey’s face, about to punch her and possibly kill her. But she has heart enough to not even fight her back and I feel like that’s the moment Taystee realized, I know where my loyalties are,” Brooks explained.
“Poussey, at the end of the day, will forgive Taystee for her misjudgment and her wrongdoings. I feel like that’s the moment where Poussey shows her loyalty to Taystee and that’s where Taystee realizes how ugly she’s been to her friend. In that moment, she’s debating on hitting her and looking in Poussey’s eyes and seeing how hurt she was, and seeing how good of a friend she’s been to her, and how loyal she’s been to her by not even trying to fight her back, and still being there and still willing to talk to her, even when she’s wrong.”
With Poussey once again on her side, and after months of Vee telling her what to do, how to act, who to be friends with, Taystee finally takes charge and tells Vee how things are going to work from then on. “I think that’s what Taystee comes to realize: This isn’t really my mom. She’s really not invested in me. She didn’t carry me for nine months and change my diapers. She didn’t do that,” Brooks said. “So, I think that’s when she comes to the realization that you’re not a mother unless you actually have a child, and you’re [Vee] fake, you’re phony, you haven’t proven yourself.”
And with Vee seemingly gone from Taystee’s life for good at the end of Season 2, Brooks thinks we’ll see a very different, more grown-up version of her character in Season 3.
“She’s having to get rid of excuses for herself for not having a mother or not having a place to go, but she’s learning that those are excuses. You can’t depend on that to keep you where you are,” Brooks said of the post-Vee Taystee. “So, I think now she’s understanding and realizing for herself that she does have the potential to do anything. We learn that Taystee is very intelligent, very smart, and Taystee has the potential to do anything she possibly could want. She realizes on her own she can do this and doesn’t need validation from Vee or anyone else.”