After binging our way through season 2 of Netflix’s OItNB, we’re happy to report that the show doesn’t disappoint.
Orange Is the New Black doesn’t need Piper. Sure, the series is based on a book her real life counter-part wrote, but her storylines and scenes are arguably the weakest in the series. Sure, there are great moments like flaming bags of poop and fantastic chemistry with Laura Prepon’s Alex Vauss, but Taylor Schilling’s character doesn’t motivate the same emotional response viewers get from the other thirty or so characters. The writers seem to get this, because while Piper does have a couple season-long arcs, the dominating storylines revolve around the other inmates at Litchfield Women’s Prison.
One of Litchfield’s new inmates is Vee, a drug kingpin and maternal figure from Taystee’s past who sets to work immediately in the prison to recruit the black women into a new smuggling operation. She is smart, dangerous, and manipulative, and while it is apparent that she has malicious intentions, the revelations of how wicked she can be are slowly revealed throughout the season. She shows kindness to Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”), but this is only because she knows how loyal the mentally disturbed woman will be. Vee, determined to recruit Taystee into her operation, turns her against her best friend Poussey, who increasingly becomes isolated and scared. When she drunkenly confronts Vee she is beaten by Suzanne as Taystee watches in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the season.
Poussey is also likely the new fan-favorite. She respects that her romantic feelings for Taystee aren’t reciprocated, she’s committed to her beliefs, and of course her background is sad, as she was forced apart from the woman she loved due to homophobia. Vee intends to return the black population of the prison to their position of power. This is not her first stay at Litchfield, previously she had inspired Red to take over the kitchen to start her smuggling set-up and had Red severely beaten when she refused to give the operation to the black women. This pattern is consistent with Vee, who tried to get Poussey to sell her prison-made liquor and, before returning to Litchfield, had one of her “adoptive” sons and employee RJ killed for trying to move out to start his own drug dealing. Vee is vicious and if she wants something, she will do whatever it takes to get it. After starting with cigarettes, her crew begins selling hard drugs and a free sample is given to wild-haired Nicky after Vee hears her discuss how much she misses heroin at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Red, the former head of the kitchen and all smuggling at Litchfield, starts the season preparing to deal with Vee and creating a new smuggling operation in a greenhouse after finding a sewer tunnel. She starts with the Golden Girls, a group of older inmates that take her in when she has nothing early in the season. Before long, Red discovers a way to bring contraband into the prison and rebuilds her family, and Nicky comes to her to give her the free drugs she had rather than start using again. Big Boo, feeling slighted by Red and wanting in on Vee’s drug and cigarette business, tells Vee how Red is smuggling, but Vee won’t take her in because she doesn’t like snitches. When Big Boo is frozen out of Red’s circle, it’s a statement about the series. In Orange Is the New Black, loss doesn’t come from death or torture like in Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. The consequences in this show are not having access to companionship or maybe a chance at half a candy bar. At times the absurdness of what is important to these women is a joke, but it is also the statement of what is important in this world and what is at stake.
Vee tells Red she wants to use the sewer as well and threatens to have Red beaten again if she doesn’t comply. Both the Golden Girls – who are surprisingly scary – and Red make failed attempts to kill Vee. Finally realizing how ridiculous this all is, Red and Vee call a truce that last less than a day. Vee viciously beats Red in the greenhouse with a lock in a sock. In a final display of just how horrible Vee is, she gaslights Suzanne, who loves Vee as a mother, into believing she attacked Red, she just doesn’t remember. All the women from Vee’s gang realize how dangerous Vee is and, along with administrator Healy’s false paperwork, turn the investigation towards Vee, who escapes through Red’s tunnel.
While this storyline is the dominant one of the second season, Piper is still around. After waking up in solitary at the start of the first episode, she is flown to Chicago for unknown reasons. At a facility there, she finds her ex-partner Alex and learns that they are in Chicago to testify against Alex’s old boss, but more importantly that Piper did not kill Pennsatucky in the first season’s shocking end. The guilt of potentially killing Pennsatucky and the fear of the “dark” inside of her did a number of Piper, who breaks down explaining it to another inmate. Alex tells Piper to lie about knowing Kubra, Alex’s former employer and drug boss, and while Piper says she can’t lie on the stand, she does so. Alex, however, tells the truth and is immediately released while Piper may have to face a longer sentence for perjury.
Oddly, this fact is not actually revisited in the rest of the season, even though a big deal is made about Piper lying. Alex writes to Piper, but it isn’t until the end of the season that she shows up again, scared because Kubra wasn’t convicted and she is certain an attempt will be made to kill her. When she tells Piper she’s considering fleeing the city, Piper warns Alex’s parole officer and Alex is found with a gun. Laura Prepon had scheduling conflicts that prevented her from doing more episodes this season, but has said that her schedule is clear for season three, so it looks like Vauss is coming back to Litchfield.
Piper’s ex-fiancée, Larry, is feeling a bit at a loss after splitting with Piper – but after sleeping with her best friend, Polly, Larry and Piper split up for good. Piper is okay with it, but once she learns that is was her best friend Larry slept with, she has a flaming bag of poop put on Polly’s porch – something Alex’s ex did to Piper.
Early in the season, Suzanne, who was once infatuated with Piper, runs away scared when they run into each other. It turns out that the night of the throw down between Piper and Pennsatucky, Suzanne came across Piper beating an unconscious Pennsatucky. Stressed from the humiliation of stage fright at the Christmas pageant and confusing Piper for her own mother, Suzanne knocked out Piper. Now, convinced that Piper must hate her, Suzanne is scared. However, because Piper was wounded, the administration thought it was a fair fight with both parties at fault, which is why Piper is not in a higher security facility. She is grateful, but Vee’s manipulation causes Suzanne to brush off Piper’s attempts at friendly interaction.
Because Piper’s grandmother is dying, she requests a furlough to visit her. Unfortunately, Piper is released just in time for her grandmother’s funeral. While interacting with her extended family, Piper starts to realize her interest is returning to her old life is diminishing. She also visits Red’s old restaurant to discover it has been shut down, but she lies about this to Red. Throughout the season, Piper implies that she is happy not being the same person she was before, but in one of her last scenes in the season, she admits to herself that while she can’t be the same, she’s not okay with that.
Through Larry, Piper is put in contact with a journalist investigating potential embezzlement in Litchfield. Piper starts up a prison newsletter to cover up her investigation, but is discovered by administrator Caputo when she decides to go Veronica Mars on the office of assistant warden Figueroa. After issues with Pornstache, a returning antagonist from last season (he rolls up like a movie villain when he returns), a senile patient that escaped, and now the potential embezzlement charges, Figueroa resigns. She was easy to dislike for her treatment of the inmates and administration. Her solution to damaged drainages is to restrict showers to thirty seconds rather than fix the facility and she forces the guards reach a weekly quota for writing up inmates. Still, in her conversations with her husband, who is running for Congress, they are both revealed to be people who believe the penal system itself is broken and they are working to get into a position to create real change. Sadly, Figueroa discovers her husband is romantically involved with his campaign manager the day before Caputo reveals that he has obtained proof of her embezzlement.
Caputo is promoted into a mess of a situation. A number of prisoners, motivated by newcomer Brook Soso, decide to go on hunger strike. The movement is unfocused, though. A political activist, Soso simply wants to protest the general conditions of the prison, Yoga Jones is protesting the use of solitary confinement, and one of the meth heads demands more desert options. Sister Jane, who we learn was excommunicated for her need to be in the spotlight of her activist work, joins the hunger strike late and sticks with it the longest. One of the inmates, Jimmy, is a Golden Girl with Alzheimer’s that escaped once and hurt herself another time. The prison administration decides to grant her compassionate release, meaning they leave her at a bus station with nothing since they cannot afford to care for her and she is not a threat to society. Sister explains to Piper that this means she will be left to die, since she has no resources or anyone to care for her. Sister continues her hunger strike in demand of better care for senior inmates, but once she is removed to the medical section, she is force fed against her will.
Still, her efforts gain the attention of a number of nuns who begin to protest in solidarity on Caputo’s second day as assistant warden. After Caputo fires a female guard, Fischer, for complaining about how the guards are being forced to treat the inmates (and also a little because he has feelings for her and she doesn’t even notice him), Pornstache is brought back to the Litchfield. Seriously, his return is over-the-top ridiculous and we hate him but that role is played so well. He believes he is the father of Daya, an inmate he was caught having sex with last season, which led to his suspension. Bennett, another guard and the actual father, tells Caputo that Pornstache got Daya pregnant, leading to Pornstache’s arrest. Pornstache being taken out of the prison in handcuffs is the scene we all wanted last season. As he is taken out, he declares his love for Daya, which she has wanted Bennett to do the entire season – but twhen Bennett finally tells Caputo the truth, he tells Bennett to keep the truth to himself.
Rosa, the inmate currently undergoing chemo, gets a completely unrealistic but fantastic backstory as an intense, romantic bank robber. After losing her lovers on two separate jobs, she gets herself arrested. After a season of being told the Department of Corrections can’t pay for Rosa’s surgery and Rosa dealing with a “rude” Vee, she is told by her doctor that she will be dead within a number of weeks. Rosa loved the smell of money and the thrill of speeding away after a heist, and being faced with the sight of her sick and dying in prison is actually painful for the audience. While the administration looks for an escaped Vee, still on Caputo’s second day as assistant warden, Morello – who drives Rosa to chemo – leaves the keys in the van and lets Rosa escape in the confusion. Caputo looks on in horror as he realizes he’s lost two prisoners in one day as the new assistant warden. While driving away, Rosa sees Vee on the side of the road, fleeing the prison, and runs her down, killing her and says, “Always so rude, that one.”
There are over three dozen recurring characters in this thirteen episode season and a number of side plots I couldn’t touch on in this recap. Nicky and Big Boo have a sex contest, Healy tries his hand at group counseling, Pennsatucky gets new teeth. The show is dense with humor, insight, and social commentary. Sophia mentions rumors that after Piper’s fight she looked “like Omar from The Wire” and Tiki Barber – a former New York Giants player – explains Michel Foucault, author of Discipline and Punish, at a party. The second season maintains what made the first season work. Most drama series are motivated by our fear of losing characters we love, but Orange Is the New Black doesn’t work that way. When we thought Piper might have killed Pennsatucky, we didn’t care about losing Pennsatucky as much as we hated watching Piper lose herself. And Piper has lost at least part of herself when she tries to pimp Soso for a blanket. Watching Suzanne turn her back on Piper, beat Poussey, and lose her mind thinking she attacked Red hurts because we don’t want Suzanne to lose what little she has of herself. Vee takes from people and turns them into what she needs them to be – which makes her the perfect villain for this show. Not because she might kill someone (she totally will), but because in a place where all you have is yourself, Vee will take that away from you.
Most importantly, this season showed that this show does not need Piper to work. The enormous cast has more than enough chemistry and history to carry this series long after Piper’s sentence runs its course. In fact, the show might be better off once it does.