Orange Is the New Black’s stunning second season manages to be ambitiously large and somehow intimate. It’s the equivalent of a pointillist painting: From up close each dash and dot has its own individual identity and meaning, but when viewed at a distance, they coalesce into something altogether different and dependent on its parts.
In its deeply complex and magnificent sophomore year, Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black offers a scathing indictment of a broken system, using Litchfield Penitentiary as a stand-in for the failings of society as a whole. As the season progresses and conditions at Litchfield become worse and worse — because of venal officials, embezzlement schemes, force majeure, and general lack of empathy or interest — it becomes clear that these inmates have permanently slipped through the cracks as the most basic requirements of the prison system (keeping these women “safe and clean”) are not even being met. (The bubbling up of sewage from the toilets becomes an emblem of the corruption and rot at work here.)
The freedom of choice within the non-Litchfield lives of the corrections officers — even Fig (Alysia Reiner), the mercenary assistant warden, gets some deeper shading this season as her life implodes — appears to be wholly at odds with that of the women the officers are sworn to protect. Healey (Michael J. Harney), who’s in a miserable marriage to a Russian mail-order bride, enters therapy to deal with his anger issues and creates a “Safe Place” for the inmates to open up as a way of compensating, perhaps, for his ineffectualness. Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), the masturbatory administrator, becomes a hero of sorts over the course of the season until he too is seduced by power, opting not to do the right thing or even listen to it, such as when Matt McGorry’s Bennett confesses that he got inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) pregnant. The truth becomes an inconvenience, something to be shrugged off and compartmentalized. It’s far easier, then, just to put a Band-Aid on matters, to drag out a nun (Beth Fowler’s Sister Jane Ingalls) to make a pre-scripted statement. Caputo sees himself as a savior of these women, but he chooses ultimately to perpetuate the broken system that surrounds them. The prison officials are, in actuality, also just as trapped — by red tape, by bureaucracy, by personal desire, by anger issues — as the inmates.
And in Season 2, viewers see just how dire things have become at Litchfield. Gone are the days of yoga and free doughnuts. Heroin floods the prison, thanks to the arrival of sociopath Vee (the great Lorraine Toussaint in a tour de force performance); bathrooms fester from raw sewage; a shot quota is initiated; the backup generators are missing fuel; rats circle out-of-date donations during a tropical storm; a hunger strike begins as an attempt to protest the savage use of SHU as a punishment; and Jimmy (Pat Squire), a senile and elderly inmate, is given “compassionate release,” dumped at a bus station when she becomes a problem that officials don’t feel like solving.
Whereas before there was some semblance of unity, fractures develop not only in Litchfield’s infrastructure, but in its interpersonal relationships: Factions form, dissolve, and reform. Best friends Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey (Samira Wiley) are at one another’s throats. Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) becomes violent under the tutelage of Vee, her brutal confrontation with Poussey revealing just how damaged Taystee and her friends have become since Vee arrived. The relationship between Piper (Taylor Schilling) and the devious Alex (Laura Prepon, who appears in four episodes this season) splinters yet again, as does Piper’s on-again-off-again romance with Larry (Jason Biggs). The “family” gathered around ex-prison cook Red (Kate Mulgrew) falls apart entirely without her as their anchor, with Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and the others turning their back on their former protector. Even Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) falls out with her fellow laundry room meth heads after she gets new, shiny white teeth.
Throughout it all, there’s the notion here that prison is a crucible that tests one’s character, revealing ultimately who each of the inmates truly is. Piper embodies this notion, telling an old couple, while on furlough to attend her grandmother’s funeral, that prison hasn’t diminished who she was, but has revealed who she truly is. That carries through the season as a whole; Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) is exposed as a lunatic stalker, but inside the prison, she is somehow thoughtful and kind, gracious and loyal. Prison strips away the artifice to display one’s true character at the core. Piper is tougher than she knew; her fight with Pennsatucky at the end of Season 1 reinforced this. Her gentility and naïveté have been somewhat (for Piper, anyway) stripped down. She sees the skull beneath the skin now; she sees life for what it is: a farce.
And like any farce, deceptively minor incidents balloon into larger significance. Take for example, a seemingly innocuous encounter between Vee and terminal cancer patient Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat). Rosa says that Vee is a “very rude woman” after Vee forces her to move tables in the cafeteria, and that rudeness is the thing that comes back to bite Vee in the end. After managing to escape Litchfield following her attack on Red, Vee tries to flag down a passing van — unaware that it’s driven by Rosa, who has also escaped prison, aided by Morello. Rosa, recognizing Vee (“always so rude, that one”), instead runs her over. There’s a fitting irony here: Rudeness, like karma, is a shadow that you cannot outrun. A chance encounter becomes one’s ultimate end; as Vee’s body hits the ground, her eyes, tellingly, are open. After an entire season of intense and almost Shakespearean plotting and scheming over control of the tunnel and black market operations, that this is Vee’s ultimate fate — run down by a woman whom she slighted and who had nothing to do with the contraband plot — is incredibly significant.
Prison is some metaphorical fire, burning away one’s civilized façade to reveal some essential truth beneath the surface, and Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black demonstrates this even further. With little control over their freedom of movement, the smallest act takes on larger meaning within Litchfield, such as the selection of a hairstyle. One of Vee’s first Svengali-like manipulations of Suzanne is to remove the tightly coiled Bantu hair knots so closely associated with her, requiring her to change a facet of herself. (In doing so, Suzanne becomes far more violent under Vee’s care than before.) Likewise, Taystee exchanges her curls for tight cornrows; it’s a signifier that she’s not the same Taystee as before. As Vee extends her control over Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) and Watson (Vicky Jeudy), her own hair changes, moving from the matted and tamped-down style she has upon her arrival at Litchfield to a lush mane once she secures a hold over Taystee and her friends. Offering more than just cake, she promises protection and a lioness’ hold.
But the hair metamorphoses extend beyond Vee’s crew. Pennsatucky, in looking for a new identity, opts to have her hair chopped off after falling in with Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) during the storm. Piper emerges from prison for her 48 hours of furlough with her hair blonder and shinier, thanks to Sophia (Laverne Cox). And Red, faded and gray after falling out of power in Season 1, opts for a visit to Sophia in order to restore her fiery mane. When she steps out of the chair, she has not only reclaimed her thirst for power, but also the redness of her roots.
Yet, it’s Red who realizes that the war between her and Vee does not define her, nor does her slip into vicious reprisal. Still, their battle — over who controls the flow of contraband into Litchfield — turns deadly. After Taslitz (Judith Roberts) mistakenly shanks an unnamed black prisoner (thinking she’s Vee), the tension between the two groups moves from a simmer to a full-on boil. Red attempts to strangle Vee with some plastic wrap on a deserted loading dock, picking her moment well, but she can’t bring herself to finish the job. (“This place is getting to me,” she says, ruefully.) Vee, however, has no such compunctions, slocking Red repeatedly in the greenhouse. Red retains her humanity but nearly loses an eye; Vee, however, knows that you can’t play at war — you have to go all in or not at all.
Season 2 can be seen as being structured around the war between Red and Vee, the two women acting as poles between which much of the action occurs. Characters fade in and out of focus in the second season, allowing for Miss Rosa, Sister Ingalls, Morello, Poussey, and others to get their own flashback episodes; likewise, the season begins with Schilling’s Piper transported to another prison altogether, forcing her to contend with new characters and situations. Inasmuch as Piper acts as the audience’s entry to the narrative — her naïveté is contrasted here with that of new inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), a self-absorbed political activist — the second season of Orange reminds us that this is a true ensemble; Episode 2, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red,” is entirely Piper-free, but doesn’t feel lacking as a result.
For all of the audience apathy that Piper (sometimes fairly) receives, Schilling delivers a tremendous performance this season. While glimpses of the old Piper emerge from time to time, Season 2 finds a stronger, deeper Piper who has been tempered by her experiences at Litchfield and elsewhere. The scene of Piper drinking a 40 and eating fast food on the bridge, alone, would indicate just how far this character has come. She has accepted her criminality and sees herself through a different lens. Her prison sentence isn’t a detour from her life; this is her life. That her pristinely ordered life outside of Litchfield falls into chaos this year — with her ex-fiancé Larry falling in love with her best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) — adds to the feeling that she too has become something else. (Though not entirely — note Piper’s sheer bliss when she discovers her favorite cashmere sweater in a box at the apartment she had shared with Larry.)
If Season 1 was about world-building for Orange Is the New Black, Season 2 is about disruption, with Vee throwing the makeshift structure of Litchfield into disarray. It’s seen most palpably in the way that the bond between Poussey and Taystee is broken by Vee’s interference. But in denouncing Vee for the villain that she is, Taystee is finally able to salvage her relationship with Poussey, though their dynamic remains strictly platonic, much to the latter’s dismay. All it takes is a waterlogged copy of Outlander, some Amanda-Mackenzie role-playing, and a meaningful hug to reposition these two best friends. Their enmity remains one of the most heartbreaking elements of the second season, but their reconciliation is truly a high point in Season 2’s denouement. In a show that deals this profoundly with female dynamics, this is a testament both to the writing of these characters and to the gifted performances of both Brooks and Wiley. In learning more about the backstories of both, we see some of the circumstances that led them to Litchfield, but in that scene in the library, which depicts the grace of friendship and compassion, we see that there is the possibility of redemption for almost anyone.
That Taystee chooses Poussey is noteworthy, because it affirms the tug of war between the small and the large; she chooses the intimacy of friendship over the large family that she previously dreamed of. (Vee turns this personal dream of Taystee’s into something rotten and misshapen.) And Vee is seemingly killed by Rosa — the very embodiment of a small moment transforming into huge consequence — rather than by the larger-than-life schemes swirling around her, which include a mistaken identity murder plot, poison (when Annie Golden’s Norma tries to harvest arsenic from apple seeds), and even voodoo, a subplot that pays off the tortured backstory of abused prison cook Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva). These are small brushstrokes that coalesce to form a larger portrait of these women’s lives in prison.
In Litchfield, something as small and trivial as a haircut can take on much bigger meaning. A family becomes something that is self-made, cobbled together from strangers craving a sense of belonging that goes beyond their individual needs. The cracked walls of the prison, containing a warren of bunks and cells, form an escape hatch of sorts from the world at large, a place that reveals individuals’ cruelty and kindness in equal measure, a place that both corrupts and saves. It is a place where the dots and dashes can be at war with one another or unified in purpose. Because of that, Orange Is the New Black is bigger than any single character, bigger than Piper or Vee or Taystee; it is their collective story but it also, thankfully, ours as well.