Sunday, June 8, 2014

War In The Women’s Prison: Orange Is The New Black Season Two Increases The Conflict!

The Good: Some surprisingly good performances, Good plot and character development
The Bad: Some unfortunate plot/character twists, New characters are overbearing
The Basics: Orange Is The New Black returns with new characters that shift the balance of the story for most of the second season . . . effectively.

Netflix shows this year seem to be all about conflict. I know, all great stories have conflict. But the big Netflix shows seem to be going for strategy and a sense of warfare. Earlier this year, House Of Cards Season Two (reviewed here!) was essentially an extended chess match that felt like war was breaking out in the American political story the show portrayed. This weekend’s big television release is Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black Season Two and it is very much a story that feels like the build-up to an all out war, even as it is set within a women’s prison. The thirteen episode second season of Orange Is The New Black has a very similar plot format to the first season, but it has a reshuffling of characters that actually makes the second season superior to the first.

Orange Is The New Black Season Two continues the story of Piper Chapman and the inmates and administrative personnel of Litchfield Women’s Prison in New York State. The show continues the story that was begun in the first season (reviewed here!), but it is not driven by Piper Chapman in the way the first season was. Stripped of much of the character melodrama that dominated the first season, the second season has a very different dynamic and throughout the season, there is a growing sense of menace and politics that works well in the show’s favor. Some of the changes that come in the second season of Orange Is The New Black were necessary based on the show’s losses of Miss Claudette, Pornstache and Alex Vause (for most of the season). The new characters that replace them force the show away from a character-centered melodrama into a more political and warlike show.

A month after Piper was attacked by Doggett, Piper is taken out of solitary confinement. Abruptly put on a plane that takes her – and all sorts of other prisoners (including men) – to Chicago. Shocked at the shuffle, Piper faces a horrible new existence until she sees Alex in the Federal penitentiary. Called as a witness in the case against the drug dealer that she and Alex once worked for, Piper calls Larry’s father to act as her lawyer and is advised to tell the truth about all she knows. When Alex tugs on her heartstrings, she lies under oath for her.

Back at Litchfield, the prisoners participate in a Mock Job Fair. The Mock Job Fair pits the Black and Latina inmates against one another when Taystee and Flaca go head to head in the mock interview. When Taystee’s “mentor” Vee gets locked back up, the status quo is further disturbed. Piper’s return to Litchfield comes shortly after Doggett is returned and is given new teeth. Vee manipulates the black prisoners to join her and she begins a new contraband business. Pushing against Red and Gloria, the manipulative Vee meets resistance from Poussey. As the conflict between Vee and her enemies leads to heightened tensions in the penitentiary, Chapman takes control of her circumstances as best she can. When she is granted a furlough when her grandmother falls critically ill, she is ostracized by her peers and learns that Larry had sex with someone she knew. With the guards being given a shot (write-up) quota, tensions rise and lead the players in power to fight for control of Litchfield.

Peppered throughout the second season of Orange Is The New Black are subplots involving Larry, the ex-fiance of Piper, a reporter’s quest to expose wrongs at Litchfield (and using Piper to do so), and recurring drama from the first season involving Daya and her pregnancy. Given how many characters there are in the mix in Orange Is The New Black, none of the first season characters are featured in flashbacks, save Red and Alex. For those unfamiliar with the first season of Orange Is The New Black, the second season follows a similar plot format, which was very much a mirror of Lost (reviewed here!). Each episode features a serialized plotline that continues the plotline of the tensions and conflicts growing at Litchfield Correctional Facility while fleshing out a character per episode with flashbacks that illustrate either backstory that shows how the featured character ended up in prison or plays a theme in flashbacks that mirrors the current plotline.

Throughout the season, Vee is built up as the show’s primary antagonist and as the season moves towards its climax, there is the feeling that the season will end with at least one assassination. There is a wonderful sense as the season progresses that the third season would include the resolution to a mystery of “who killed Vee?” That tension and the fact that so many people have motive to move against Vee moves the latter half of the season along at a rocket pace. As a political protest within the prison walls goes awry, one of the least-recognizable characters from the first season steps up to try to make actual and real change for the inmates of Litchfield.

Orange Is The New Black keeps a strong character mix for its second season. The primary characters for the second season include:

Piper Chapman – After an abrupt move out of Solitary Confinement, she lies under oath in order to try to show loyalty to Alex. When that backfires on her, she is returned to Litchfield. There, she is cold to the new inmate, a political activist (Brooke Soso) who she recognizes as weak. Working to get her possessions back (no one thought she would be returning), she is told by Suzanne what actually happened the night she was attacked by Pennsatuckey. Her strength is not compromised by her return to Litchfield, though she is shaken to learn that her grandmother is ill. When she makes peace with Healy, he helps her get furlough and in the wake of learning that Larry slept with her best friend, she breaks down and gets in contact with Alex again. In retribution to her digging into irregularities at Litchfield, Figueroa threatens to have her transferred. When her digging draws Healy’s attention, she starts a prison newsletter,

Larry Bloom – Very much a background character this season, he adapts to the fallout between him and Piper by getting involved with Piper’s best friend’s family. After having an affair with her, he finds himself unable to see Piper romantically,

Red – Having lost all of her power, she joins the company of the senior citizen inmates. When she discovers a grate in the abandoned greenhouse at the prison, she devises a new plan to smuggle contraband into the prison. An old adversary of Vee, Vee’s return to Litchfield gives her the impetus to regain her strength. She sets about to organizing her old family and playing Gloria against Vee. Having lost her influence, she is forced to accept Piper as a new roommate. While she is terrified that Vee will kill her, she is fearless in trying to protect her prison family and her family on the outside,

Nicky Nichols – She gets into a contest with Boo for who can have sex with the most (and highest point) inmates. She is tempted by Vee’s minions when they start smuggling heroin into the prison. She manages to find strength and chooses her side late in the game,

Daya – As her pregnancy continues, her peers in the Latina community start extorting Bennett to get contraband. For her part, she uses her former lover for prenatal vitamins and sex when the hormones hit her,

Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” – Having inadvertently rescued Piper from her own worst elements (and killing Doggett in a blind rage), she quickly falls under the spell of Vee. She begins to act as Vee’s enforcer, especially when it comes to driving a wedge between Taystee and Poussey. This season she is more violent and virtually impossible to empathize with,

Leanne – Out from the influence of Doggett, she asserts herself. She joins Soso’s “revolution,” but for ridiculous reasons,

Poussey – Incredibly strong, she is enamored with Taystee, but understands her best friend does not lean the same way. She fights Vee’s influence from the moment she arrives and resists “the business” that Vee starts up,

Taystee – A former worker for Vee, she falls in with her former “mother” when Vee arrives in Litchfield. She becomes Vee’s saleswoman on the inside and pushes her best friend, Poussey, away,

Lorna Morello – One of the most grounded characters in season one, it turns out that she is an obsessive stalker of a like mind with Suzanne. She has a brief escape when she learns Christopher is getting married to someone else on “their” date,

Gloria Mendoza – Now in charge of the kitchen, she becomes a serious player in the conflict between Red and Vee. When she realizes Vee has played her, she helps Red out occasionally,

Doggett – A month after attacking Piper, she gets out of solitary confinement. With Healy’s help, she gets new teeth. Very much minimized this season, she becomes a “project” for Healy, though she finds herself without a flock,

Vee – Truly a viper, she is a drug smuggler who extorts, murders and manipulates. She takes Suzanne on as a lieutenant and is willing to sell her out when the need serves her. She knew Red back in the day and works to cut into her market share of prison contraband now and in the past. She smuggles in tobacco in order to create a new business. She goes head to head with Red and manages to manipulate Red and Taystee effectively,

Natalie Figueroa – The prison administrator, he husband is running for State Senate. She embezzles for him and soon her budget misappropriations come back to haunt her,

Joe Caputo – One of the good guys, he actually fights for the women at Litchfield. He is sympathetic to the imprisoned nun who joins the hunger strike even to her own health detriment. He plays bass in a band and his crush on one of the guards at Litchfield ends abruptly when he has to crack down on his staff. He becomes an unexpected ally to Piper,

John Bennett – Is extorted by the Latinas when they threaten to expose him for getting Daya pregnant. He smuggles some contraband in in his prosthetic leg until he stands up to his extorters,

and Sam Healy – To protect himself from his leaving Piper in the yard to be killed by Doggett, he gets Doggett new teeth. When he gets himself therapy for how his mail order bride treats him, he starts to channel his new piece of mind into the prison. He starts a Safe Place program with Doggett in order to try to get the women in the prison therapy.

Orange Is The New Black is better in its second season than in its first. Because the show is not as focused on Piper and her weird tug back and forth between Alex and Larry, the complexities of the prison life are more thoroughly explored. The show is generally smart, though some of the “surprising” conceits are anything but. While Orange Is The New Black seems clever with things like the wedding that occurs while Piper is on furlough, 30 Rock beat Orange Is The New Black to the punch with the exact same plot development in its final season (reviewed here!).

One of the other, perhaps more significant, detractions to the second season of Orange Is The New Black is way the characters are prioritized for focus in individual episodes. Outside of Red and Piper, none of the characters who received backstory treatment in the first season are given extended stories in the second. Unlike Lost, which had a similarly large character mix (and format for presenting backstories), the thirteen episode season is not as extensive as the twenty-two episodes of the usual season of Lost. As a result, several of the interesting characters from Season One - most notably Sophia - are neglected and relegated completely to background status in Season Two. While it is cool to get the backstory of characters neglected from the first season - like Gloria, Morello, and the nun - the fleshing out of those characters comes at the price of deepening further the already-established characters. In that way, the Lost analogy becomes quite compelling; the stories in the second season of Orange Is The New Black are analogous to only learning how Sun learned English or how Sawyer came to write the letter he carries in Lost (without, for example, further learning how Sawyer witlessly killed the shrimp shack owner or conned the widow or ended up in prison, etc.). For sure, there is plenty of fodder for future seasons, but the show neglects several of the promising established characters in favor of a short premium cable-style season (which is disappointing).

The second season of Orange Is The New Black is both more poignant and funnier than the first season. Fleshing out the characters – especially the peripheral ones – generates a number of laughs as well as some of the best dramatic moments. Most of the performances are familiar from the first season. Taylor Schilling is able to play Piper as a stronger individual than in the first season, which gives her the appearance of more range, though she is not given the opportunity to flex those acting muscles as much as one might expect.

The season’s two standout performances are from Kate Mulgrew and Michael Harney. Mulgrew is given more exposure in the second season of Orange Is The New Black as Red. As both the new roommate of the series’ protagonist and the adversary of the season’s primary villain, Mulgrew is given much more airtime than in the first season. Her role requires her to play Red as both contrite, alone and then as a scheming individual who wants her influence and family back. As Red becomes more of a leader again, Mulgrew is able to bring out a maternal quality that she seldom gets to tap into in her popular roles. She has the ability to express powerful emotions with only a twitch of her cheeks and the best directors in season two of Orange Is The New Black manage to capture that!

Michael Harney is brilliant as Healy. There is a great moment at the season’s midpoint when Harney proves himself as Healy has he preaches to Piper. That moment allows Harney to present a depth of compassion with his voice and eyes that is exceptional.

Even without seeing the first season, Orange Is The New Black holds up as (mostly) compelling television in its second season. The case that prison conditions are deplorable is somewhat overstated, but the characters are compelling enough to be watchable and the series is set up for an incredible third season!

For other works with Taylor Schilling, please visit my reviews of:
The Lucky One


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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