‘Orange is the New Black’ Season Two Breakdown: Episodes 1-6

Netflix has changed the television landscape, best evidenced by their hit series Orange is the New Black. Sure there’s the obvious change — binge watching — but OITNB also highlights that the company is on the frontlines of original and progressive storytelling. Like its other hit series House of Cards, OITNB is addictive, darkly funny, and thought-provoking.

When OITNB’s first season dropped last summer, it quickly became the talk of the Internet from Tweets to Facebook posts to articles examining it from nearly every angle. It was often called “groundbreaking,” a lofty description that gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but the description actually applies here. Regardless, OITNB is strikingly different from nearly everything on TV — and that’s mostly due to gender.

OITNB has a nearly all-female cast, and the issues these women face rarely have anything to do with the men in, or not in, their lives (meaning the show passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors). Sure, it’s set in prison, so that puts some limitations on the gender and subject matter issue, but it still makes for refreshing storytelling. After all, there haven’t been a lot of female prison shows.

Season two dropped on June 6th, and fans are consuming it as fast as they can — many are already done and craving more. But let’s take a moment and reflect on just the first half of the new season. If you’ve watched the first six episodes, please proceed. If not, spoilers are coming.

When we last saw Piper, she was beating the shit out of Pennsatucky after the Christmas pageant. Season two picks up just a few weeks later. Piper’s been in solitary and is taken out; though she isn’t told where she’s going, she ends up on a plane to Chicago with other inmates. We spend the whole first episode following her journey and trying to figure out what’s happening to her. This is a great moment to let Taylor Schilling (Piper) shine.

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Schilling has one of the hardest roles on the show. She’s the embodiment of white middle-class privilege, and while it is her story, we aren’t necessarily meant to always like or agree with her. She is flawed and often the butt of the joke, but she pulls it off, and this first episode is a great example.

Once she’s inside a Chicago prison, she’s forced by her cellmates to capture roaches, which they use to transport cigarettes around the prison. The leader of her new bunkmates is a woman who takes loud shits multiple times a day. Life in Chicago is clearly much worse.

Then by chance she spots Alex (her former-lover and the reason she’s in prison). Alex tells her to calm down and that they are just there to testify in a trial against Alex’s former boss. Piper has been afraid this whole time that she killed Pennsatucky and has been resentenced and permanently moved to Chicago. Alex tells her she needs to lie when she takes the stand, that she should deny knowing the guy because he’s powerful and will get revenge. But Piper wants to do the right thing.

The first episode is smartly spliced with examples of Piper as a kid being afraid to break the rules and then seeing her own parents living out a lie (her father was cheating, which her mother ignored). But when she’s put on the stand, the power Alex has over her kicks in and she lies. Piper is, however, about to get a punch in the gut. As she’s in the holding cell after testifying, Alex comes by in street clothes and tells her she told the truth and cut a deal. She’s free and Piper is fucked.

The central focus of the first episode made for a compelling transition for Piper, which has been carried out in the rest of the episodes up to this point. I missed the rest of the cast in the opening, but this was a great kick off for the new, maybe wiser, Piper.

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To make up for the Piper-focused episode, episode two gave us the rest of the ladies and introduced our new character Vee (played perfectly by Lorraine Toussaint). Vee is fan favorite Taystee’s “street mother.” This episode provided some more backstory on Taystee and started to show the many sides of Vee, who quickly began manipulating the women around her (Red also knows Vee from the last time she was in prison).

As the episodes have progressed, Vee has gained control of the black girls, made Crazy Eyes (Susanne) her right-hand gal, and attempted to put a wedge between Taystee and her buddy Washington (who is clearly in love with Taystee). Vee keeps referring to how things used to be and how the black girls ruled the prison and not the Latinos. She also gets most of the black girls moved to custodial duty and (in episode six) reveals to them her plan: She’s smuggling in tobacco, which they will roll and sell.

Red has found herself flying solo after losing the kitchen, her power, and her friends last season. She’s now forced to make buddies with the “Golden Girls” (including a lady with Alzheimer’s who keeps looking for her husband Jimmy), but her idle hands quickly find a new project: the greenhouse, which she turns into a new smuggling ring through the drainage line. We didn’t get many specifics on how this actually works, but perhaps we will later. Red wants to be back on top or at least good with her old girls.

Episode six (“You Also Have a Pizza”) finished the complete setup for the rest of the season. It revealed both Red’s and Vee’s plans and put Piper on the path of figuring out where all the money is going at the prison. (There’s clearly some major fraud happening.) This is partly thanks to Larry, who wanted her to be his prison mole so he could write another piece about prison life. Piper was rightly put off by his idea, but she decides to go about it in her own way, starting a prison newsletter as a cover for investigating issues at the prison.

Her first story involves going around asking the inmates how they define love, which is fitting since the whole episode takes place on Valentine’s Day. The characters’ answers are scattered throughout the episode and provide for some humorous and sad moments.

What’s great about OITNB is that they balance present time with backstory so well. So far this season has given us some really compelling backstories for Crazy Eyes, Gloria, Washington, and — most surprisingly — Morello, which made episode four (“A Whole Other Hole”) the standout episode of the first half of the season.

As for the men, Healy is still irritating as he tries to make friends with Caputo (who’s in a bar band called Side Boob) and make the girls like him again. Bennett is doing his best to help pregnant Diaz, but it also being blackmailed by all the Latino women who keep requesting that he smuggle in items for them. And Jason Biggs’ Larry has been playing daddy for Polly, which led him to awkwardly kissing her on Valentine’s Day. This is the only storyline that feels unnecessary and creatively lacking.

After six episodes, it is safe to say season two is off to a strong — and perhaps darker — start. Check back next week for a review of the second half of the season. Get watching inmates!

Best Moments So Far:

Pretty much every scene with Soso. Particularly when Piper tries to sell her for blanket.

Morello’s backstory and side trip to her “fiancé’s” house was heartbreaking.

Red and Piper becoming friends. I like the relationship between them.

Sophia teaching all the women about their anatomy.

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