Girl Scout’s honor, I promise I will try to make this review of the second season of “Orange is the New Black” as spoiler-free as humanly possible. That said, you really should have cancelled all plans for your weekend and watched thirteen hours of television like I did, commitments and responsibilities be damned!
If you’re a ginormous fan (or even a regular-sized fan) of the first season of OITNB, which follows pretty, blonde, privileged Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she spends fifteen months in Litchfield, an upstate New York minimum-security prison for women, serving time for a crime she committed in her youth, playing drug mule for her high-ranked drug-smuggling girlfriend Alex Vaus (Lauren Prepon).
The first season focused on Piper’s radical transformation from sheltered princess to hardened woman able to survive anything prison threw at her (and it throws A LOT at her). Along the way, we grow to know and love so many of Piper’s fellow inmates, as was always the show’s intent. As show runner Jenji Kohan told NPR during the show’s first season:
“In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”
If the first season was about Piper, a fish out of water, learning to survive on land, then this second season is about what happens to all the other prisoners when the power dynamics of prison are shaken up. Watching these women rise high and fall hard makes for grade-A binge watching.
The “Game of Thrones”-like turn of events for the series is set into motion by Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a Litchfield alum who’s come back for another tour of duty and has a complicated past with a few of our favorite regulars including Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Red (Kate Mulgrew). Vee, a drug queen pin who, on the outside, took in orphans and turned them into her runners and mules, is exactly the kick in the pants this second season needed.
At one point, a guard, listening to the recordings of inmate phone calls, compares their lives to the novels of Charles Dickens, a completely valid observation, but a point slightly more applicable to the first season. This season, the heart of the show beats like a Shakespearean tragedy. Thrones will be stolen, wars will be waged, lives will be lost.
OITNB boasts an enormous cast and struggles valiantly to fully explore the lives of these inmates, as well as the staff of the prison. The sprawling ambition of the show is its greatest strength and, weirdly enough, its one real weakness. I was thrilled to get to better know some of the more peripheral characters of season one, including Morello (Yael Stone, who kills it in her flashback sequence), Poussey (Samira Wiley), Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), Blanca Flores (Laura Gomez), and Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat, who has hardly anything to do in Season 1 and is now a heavy contender for Season 2’s MVP). The show also introduces a new character, Brook, who replaces Piper as the resident wide-eyed newbie.
That said, there were characters I felt were robbed of their due screen time. Sophia Bursett (Laverne Cox, who recently graced the cover of Time magazine) has little to do this season and it’s a straight up crime (pun absolutely intended). Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) have a comedic storyline that takes up a few episodes but doesn’t have a ton of substance. They get a slice of drama as the season wraps up, but I just can’t help wanting more time with these characters. And I still have no idea why Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diana Guerrero) are in prison and I really want to know!
I like getting to know the guards and tracking Piper’s family and friends on the outside provides sly commentary on her former privilege, but would I trade these story-lines for more time with the prisoners? In a heartbeat. This season features an unbelievable amount of biographical back-story. But I’m the greediest of audience members, I can’t help but want more. 22 episodes for Season 3, please oh please Entertainment Gods? This is my television prayer.
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