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Analysis: When Did ‘Orange is the New Black’ Get So Small?

Analysis: When Did 'Orange is the New Black' Get So Small?

[Spoilers for all of Season 2 of “Orange is the New Black” follow.]

The second season of “Orange is the New Black” was always going to feel smaller than the first, but did it have to shrink this much? Last year, we watched as provincial New York yuppie Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) dropped into a diverse, factional, somewhat dangerous prison ecosystem. By the time of the Season 2 premiere, she’s been in Litchfield for a couple months. We’ve followed many of her companions through their pre-prison lives via flashbacks, and we’ve been privy to conversations among the staff running the institution. Over those first 13 episodes, we’ve developed a pretty solid understanding of the various groups, their members, and what’s driving most of those members. 

So for Season 2, the big draw isn’t discovering this strange new world. It’s getting reacquainted with all our favorites: Sophia (Laverne Cox) the transgender hairdresser, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) the junkie philosopher, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) the irrepressible recidivist. Going into Season 2, “Orange” can’t help but feel like a known quantity.

At least that’s what you’d expect. The premiere cleverly throws us off balance by taking Piper through a methodical system of transfers and transports until she winds up in some Chicago prison for reasons unbeknownst to her. She has a new ally from the plane. She has new cellmates. She meets a new gang of intimidating women. If the opening credits hadn’t revealed familiar names like Lyonne and Brooks, you could believe “Orange” had found a smart new way to keep expanding the show. The suspense is thrilling. Are we really going to go a whole episode without seeing anyone we know except Piper? A whole season? I’d never been so happy to see Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) in my life. 

Alas, the Chicago detour turns out to be temporary, and soon enough we’re back at Litchfield, which is a small world after all. But this goes way past simple familiarity. After a humongous first season that gradually developed dozens of captivating characters, Season 2 feels small. And not tight and focused but narrow and simplistic. The first scene back home, so to speak, is the usual bunch of characters from different tribes joking around together. That became more common as the first season went on, but it’s notable that nobody new joins the mix. There are plenty of black women and Latinas at Litchfield, but only the six or seven of each race that we already know get anything to do this season. Taystee and Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), the two women most commonly seen by the side of Poussey (Samira Wiley), are among the inmates goofing off as they prepare for a mock job fair. When it’s time for them to go on stage, Poussey sits in the audience cracking jokes with black convicts she’ll never see again. How unlike “Orange” to keep these people in the background.

Season 2 takes all the complicated relationships of Season 1 and cleanly slots everyone into functioning cliques. Now Watson (Vicky Jeudy), the aggressively antisocial athlete, spends all her time with Taystee, Poussey, and Black Cindy. So does Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), the bipolar, bug-eyed loner. The Latinas follow suit. In Season 1, we’re introduced to them through Daya (Dascha Polanco), who’s incarcerated alongside Piper. Daya’s mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and middle-aged Gloria (Selenis Leyva) both seem to be the den mothers for their tribe. If anything Aleida seems to give the orders. Meanwhile Daya deals with sniping from favorite daughters Maritza (Diane Guerrero) and Flaca (Jackie Cruz). Elsewhere there’s a loner à la Suzanne named Flores (Laura Gomez) who’s known mostly for violent outbursts. In Season 2 however, Gloria’s the clear leader of the group, Daya and her rivals get along beautifully, and Flores works right alongside them. Suddenly the speaking characters in each tribe are practically a family unit, their individual psychologies and interpersonal tensions flattened for the good of the story.

That story is primarily about returning black inmate Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) and her sociopathic quest to consolidate power. Introducing Vee and Brooke So-So (Kumiko Glenn) is a smart way to replenish the losses to this point, the former an opportunity to address recidivism (beyond young Taystee’s relapse in Season 1) and the latter a rare Asian-American inmate. Meanwhile the Golden Girls, the elderly inmate bloc introduced in Season 1, get some light characterization as they bond with Russian Red (Kate Mulgrew) in her struggle with Vee. 

READ MORE: Your Spoiler-Light ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 2 FAQ: John Green, Disney, Sex and Emmys

The effort to expand is appreciated, but Vee is the only new character who reaches the prominence of Season 1’s two dozen stars. And Sophia, the one black character left who might not lie down for Vee right off the bat, the one who has her own little business and who associates with people from every tribe, never shares meaningful screen-time with Vee. When characters aren’t smushed into the story, they’re all but ignored. 

Most of the halls and dormitories at Litchfield are no more explored than they were when the season began. And the work shifts are as easily regimented as the cliques themselves, especially now that Alex is out of laundry. We see exactly how Gloria gets her girls on kitchen duty and how Vee trades Gloria to get her gang on custodial…. But how did she get Watson out of electrical? And how come every work shift except electrical is performed entirely by main characters? What are all the extras doing all day?

Another reason why Vee is a smart introduction is that Season 1 can feel downright cuddly. Maybe that’s why Brooke thought prison would be a communal paradise for women. Vee introduces constant menace and genuine danger. She has Poussey beaten, she has Red beaten, and eventually she beats Red herself. As Lorna (Yael Stone) puts it, “She’s the one that made things hardcore.” Prison isn’t much of a summer camp after all. 

The flipside is that so many of the little tensions that make up Season 1 are mashed into this one simple struggle: Either you’re with Vee, or you’re against her.  What was one of the liveliest shows of last year has become a notably narrower emotional experience. The flashbacks for Suzanne tell the riveting story of a predictably awkward childhood culminating in a public breakdown meant to explain a line from the Season 1 finale, the “Orange” equivalent of taking an episode of “Lost” to explain how Jack got his tattoos.

And how do you solve a problem like Vee? As in Season 1, the final five episodes are a freight train. By the finale Vee’s put Red in the hospital, prepared to frame Suzanne for the crime, and lost both her stash of heroin and right-hand woman Taystee. That’s our first taste of how “Orange” might finally take out Vee: It might simply take away her power in both her resources and subordinates. As the episode builds, Red, Gloria, and Nicky each mount individual plans to take revenge on Vee, but their plots are cut short. 

The episode is a stunning 90-minute cry for compassion that deftly weaves together most of the flashbacks and subplots from the season. A hunger strike reaches a merciful end, a prison transfer that would separate a family gets canceled, and all kinds of disparate characters connect and share resounding acts of compassion. Season 1 villain Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) preaches the value of discussing negative feelings in lieu of physical violence. The episode even finds sympathy for steely administrator Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), as good an avatar of the screwed up penal system as the series has. It makes perfect sense that the series would find some other way to deal with Vee than a prison hit. 

Or so I thought until a runaway van mows down a runaway Vee and she dies right there on the asphalt. It’s not an accident. The van’s driver is another escaped inmate who spots Vee down the road, aims at her, and puts the pedal to the metal. After draining Vee’s power, after saving her from various revenge killings, after preparing to punish her legally for her assault on Red… In an episode all about compassion, “Orange is the New Black” solves the central struggle of the season by just killing her off. 

The scene plays as an exhilarating stop on one inmate’s journey through life, an act that’s funny-edgy in that “Weeds” way. Just one of those hilarious cosmic quirks. It’s certainly chaotic, the way the Rube Goldberg plot sets up that meeting on the road. But that doesn’t disguise the laziness. The myth of redemptive violence is so antithetical to this generous, big-hearted series that the season begins with Piper breaking down in fear that she beat Pennsatucky to death after Season 1 faded to orange. Schilling has never been better than when she mournfully confesses to her neighbor on the airplane that she just couldn’t stop punching, but the season begins with regret about a murder and ends with relief about a murder, the perfect encapsulation of Season 2’s narrowness. 

Season 1 is an open hand, fingers aflutter and palm outstretched. Season 2 is a fist squeezing the life out of everything, up to and including its own ideals. 

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