Everyone’s favorite inmates are back for another round in Litchfield. Orange is the New Black hit Netflix on Friday, with all 13 episodes released at once (standard Netflix practice). Since doing a recap for each episode doesn’t work, I’ll be splitting the season into 3 episode chucks all week. SPOILERS will be included, so be careful if you haven’t gotten your binge in yet and let me know what other shows you’d like State of Mined to cover.
Orange is the New Black opened with Piper in isolation, we don’t know how long it’s been, but from her “artwork” on the wall, we can tell it’s been a while. We soon find out that she didn’t even know the result of her beatdown on Pennsatucky, and that she is being retrieved in the dead of night by the guards.
Most of the season opener operates in that capacity; Piper asking questions to which she doesn’t get an answer. She is afraid, confused, and anxious. She is us. Piper isn’t so much a narrator, but we see life in prison mostly through her eyes, so when she is left in the dark so are we. Good move by the writers to create tension that way. In all of the dark comedy and “fun” of the first season, it was easy to forget that prison is a life of routine, and Piper had gotten used to one, both in Litchfield and in life.
The first episode flashes back to Pipers childhood, and how she’d played it safe for most of it, afraid to upset the balance, and how in the moments where she did, she was met with resistance. The scene where she tells her mothe r about her father’s infidelity played into this the most, with her mom bottling her real emotions and punishing her daughter for seeing an R-rated movie instead.
What’s more is that the episode focuses solely on Piper and her “transfer”. We have no idea where she is going and for that matter we don’t see any of the characters from season one. We are all left in a state of unnerve as she is moved from her cell, to a bus, to a plane that eventually lands in Chicago. There is a slight sigh of relief when we see Alex across the way, and find out that both she and Piper have been moved just for the purposes of a trial. Their testimony is needed against Alex’s drug dealing boss.
This turns into yet another example of Piper’s routine of making terrible decisions when it comes to Alex.After Alex tried to convince Piper to lie about what she knew, and Piper giving this long speech about right and wrong, the tables turned, and Piper lied while Alex sung like a bird leading to her release and Piper left to rot. The next episode, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red” didn’t even have Piper in it, and we were reminded of one of the reasons we all loved season one so much; the other inmates. We already knew a bit of Taystee’s tragic story from last year, when she was released for a short time. This episode we got to see what led her to Litchfield, for the most part. A Phillip Morris rep came to Litchfield during a mock Job Fair, and OITNB jabs at how bad a company has to be to actually consider hiring felons, also noting that “evil” companies within Big Pharma don’t even waste their energy on “small-timers”.
OITNB has dipped into the socio-economic and systemic failures, but Taystee’s story hurts on so many levels that it would come off as melodramatic if it wasn’t so heartbreakingly true. A life-long orphan just looking for the love of a family, she is constantly pointed in the wrong direction just enough for it to end badly. Her character has always been wide-eyed and childlike with glimmers of high intelligence, but this episode hammered that home. Taystee has always been a child that never got the positive focus she needed, instead people would concentrate on the bad. In many cases not seeing a good kid with a temper, but a bad kid who happened to be smart.
Even during the job fair, where she was hip to the game at large, and modeled her outfit after previous winning outfits, she still lost out, showing that even when she played by the rules, she couldn’t win. The clothing rep didn’t help matters, giving a tired “dress for the job you want” speech to a group of women who will undoubtedly be ostracized and otherwise ignored for reasons far greater than what they are wearing. They’ll be lucky to get the jobs they may have had before being locked up, let alone something in an office. We got to see more of Taystee’s routine, and her relationship with surrogate mother, Vee. There was clearly a respect in the early going between Vee and Taystee, but Vee was just as much a predator as she was a protector. Taystee knew she was someone she could run to in times of need, but Vee only took her in once she realized Taystee was useful to the “family business”. That stuff. Street meds. Drugs, I’m talking about drugs.
Around Litchfield, we saw that Pennsatucky was just fine, and had even talked her way into some new teeth. Red was seen sulking around, sad, broken and broke as we found out that her husband hadn’t put any money into her account. Once, a figurehead in the prison, Red was now stripped of her power and her fall from grace is interesting to watch. Then there’s Larry. I get that Piper is supposed to be unlikeable, and that he was her dopey other half, but without the anchor of their relationship he’s just annoying. I don’t even route for him to get over Piper. I want all women to be done with him.
Episode three “Hugs Can Be Deceiving” saw pieces being lined up a bit. While we did learn that Vee and Red had a seemingly positive history as two Alpha Females, we also saw Vee bringing something of a disturbance to the force. It had been addressed by a few characters and evident to us that things, by and large were pretty good within the prison walls(relatively speaking). Gone were the days of racial dividing that cause all sorts of hell in any prison. Yes, Gloria and the Hispanics had run over the kitchen, but with no contraband being sold, it was really just a changing of the guard and looking out for friends. Vee, winning Taystee back and taking Suzanne (Crazy Eyes) under her wing could stir up some more racial tensions as these are clearly the power plays of a master manipulator.
Suzanne also provided a key component to the puzzle of why Piper wasn’t in more trouble for almost beating Pennsatucky to death. Turns out, it looked like a fight because Suzanne walked out into the middle of it and clocked Piper, making the fight look even. Seeing Suzannes backstory was another blow to the emotions. A lot has been written and talked about in regards to the socio-economic restrictions that lead to prison, but the story of mental health is just as prevalent. We’d already known that Crazy Eyes was adopted by a well-off White family, but here we learned how her issues were compounded by several factors. Yes her family meant well, especially her mother, but ignoring her daughters clear mental deficiencies did far more damage than what she assumed were the world’s reaction to her race. When she lashed out at her friend over the apprehension to having Suzanne over for a sleepover/birthday party asking “Are you treating her like this because she’s Black?” to which she responded “Suzanne is ten and this is a party for six year olds”. Suzanne was carrying her mother’s burden her entire life and it came to a head watching another blonde, White woman “getting away” with whatever they wanted. Clever OITNB, very clever.
So in the early goings, we’re getting reacquainted with everyone, learning their routines and patterns as well as seeing what could potentially shake things up. While the writing is still sharp and poignant, it would be nice to see a flashback story that isn’t just “wronged woman”. I get the sentiment, and understand that we have to like the characters, but there is a way to create vulnerability without making everyone an unwitting victim. Orange is the New Black is at its best when it is turning tropes on their head, and it may be a lofty request, but we need more of it. Still, it’s some of the best TV not on TV three episodes in.
What do you think; were these first 3 episodes everything you wanted in a return, or did it leave something to be desired? Let me know. @TheArnold_SoM