Thursday, August 28, 2014

Orange is the New Black Season 2 Review

When it first premiered, "Orange is the New Black" produced in me a strong emotional response. Watching Piper find herself in such lose-lose situations (i.e. be nearly starved to death just for accidentally insulting the food while no one cared) made me want to research prison abuse and take a stand against it. In other words, the show made me angry in exactly the way it was intended to.

In echoing the realities of the harshness known as prison, the show thrived on a tone of claustrophobic uncertainty as it was told through the eyes of a decidedly WASPY outsider in Piper Kerman.

This season marked a noticeable change in that Litchfield felt like a more comfortable place. Instead of a fish-out-of-water scenario, we now have a protagonist who has more fully accepted her fate and subsequently has a better handle on navigating her environment. As a result, the view of prison is one we see with a more hopeful tone. There's a greater focus on friendships (Poussay and Taystee; Morello and Nicky; Rosa and her young hospital friend; and strangely enough Healy and Pennsatucky) and Piper is no longer at the bottom of the food chain.

That role goes to chatterbox Brooke Soso who, although a relatively minor character, is perhaps the biggest target of injustice from an audience surrogate point of view: She's largely disliked and shunned for being naive and having a little too much hope. Like Season 1 Piper, Brooke makes the mistake of trying to navigate prison based on her past experiences unwilling to acknowledge that the rules of conduct in prison are completely alien to anything outside of it. One wonders whether Piper is doing Brooke a favor by chewing her out early in the season and stooping so low as to pimp her out for Miss Claudette's blanket (I can't imagine Claudette saying upon her departure "Piper, be a doll and get me my blanket back and don't worry about tricking someone into getting prison raped").

The rather sudden twist here is that "Orange is the New Black" managed to sneak in a happy ending: By all accounts, the season closes out with everyone worth rooting for enjoying a slightly better peace of mind and every big villain defeated.

The emotional roller coaster of good guys verse the big bad was a rather loopy and especially satisfying one this season. Counselor Healy, Pornstache, Morello's boyfriend, Alex, Fig, and Vee have all taken turns as my most hated character and often found themselves in my good graces a couple episodes later. In some cases, a character like Pornstache elicited empathy when it was apparent that they were genuinely lovesick and, more importantly, completely duped. In others, it was a clearly flawed character taking action to do the right thing. This connects with the the larger theme that the penal system as a whole is seen as largely a quick-fix solution to solving a problem: Demonize the culprit, justify locking them away and keep empathy to a minimum, If one had told me that I'd feel any empathy for Pornstache and Healy, I would have doubted it but getting the viewer to suddenly reverse loyalty has been one of the great strengths of this show.

It's also worth noting that the ensemble is such a strong and well-rounded one that the narrative can zoom in on or out on a large tapestry of characters without losing the bigger picture (or more importantly, our interest).

Of course, there's one character to whom the entire season hinged on the anticipation of her demise. Vee's Shakespearean rise and fall from power came off a little bit melodramatic, but it led to the earned happy ending where every inmate and officer banded together to do the right thing and lock Vee away. The reason this had any meaning at all is because the first two seasons established that prison is a world where right and wrong are abstract terms with no relevance to the only thing that matters: survival.

Meanwhile, Fig's warning to Caputo (the closest we get to a hero in the administration though the last episode left him on shakier grounds) on her way out hinted at the possibility that the dark side can be difficult in a closed-off bureaucracy like this. "Orange is the New Black" closes on a happy note with a hint that the good times are extremely fragile. One can definitely expect this detente to unravel in 2015 but the cathartic ending of Season 2 is worth enjoying.

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