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‘Orange Is the New Black’ Is Even More Powerful — and Addictive — in Season 2

Here’s the short review: If you loved Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black, then you will love Season 2. You might, I strongly suspect, love it even more. You will certainly race through the 13 episodes as quickly as you can, perhaps even in one viewing, pausing only for bathroom breaks or to answer the door for food delivery. OITNB is the very definition of an addictive TV series. It doesn’t just manage to remain engaging while dramatizing a milieu of people whose lives are characterized by boredom and passing time, but it manages to do so effortlessly.

Orange Is the New Black was a surprising success for Netflix. I’m sure the service expected House of Cards to be the breakout hit (David Fincher, big names, etc.), but it was Orange — created by Jenji Kohan (who famously allowed Weeds to go disastrously off the rails) and starring a group of mostly unknowns — that everyone couldn’t stop talking about. (Netflix hasn’t released the viewer numbers; Kohan doesn’t even know them.) Sure, we talked about House of Cards, but in a different and more detached way. OITNB felt ultra personal, deeply special, and beautifully fucked up. It felt, in simplistic terms, human. And this continues throughout the second season.

I won’t spoil anything here — don’t worry, we’ll delve deeper into each individual episode this month — but it’s safe to say that Season 2 both sticks to the loose formula the show established in Season 1 (a single episode will focus heavily on one inmate and her backstory while the overall narrative pushes forward) and has a little fun experimenting. In the Season 2 premiere, “Thirsty Bird,” Piper (Taylor Schilling) is separated from Litchfield and sent to Chicago; Alex is the only other person we recognize. In the next episode, the show returns to the prison but Piper stays behind. What this episode does — besides giving us a rich but heartbreaking story about family, hopelessness, and hesitant optimism — is prove that Piper really is the weakest link of OITNB. But we already knew that, didn’t we? Kohan famously explained that Piper is a Trojan Horse: lure in the executives with a pretty blonde who kisses girls, then fill the show with a cast of incredibly diverse women and portray how prison life is for them. Piper isn’t a bad character; she just dulls in comparison.

Yet Piper is still integral to Orange Is the New Black. When the show left us, she was beating the living shit out of meth angel Tiffany Doggett, aka “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning). If you’re expecting the show to pick up exactly from that moment (as I was), you’ll have to be a bit more patient. OITNB does eventually show exactly what happened after the fight, but it takes its time because there are more pressing matters to attend to. I’m sure it isn’t too spoiler-y to say that Doggett survives (this show isn’t going to make Piper a murderer) and that the two are no longer out for each other’s blood. In prison, one of the worst things you can do is dwell, even if prison is the one place where you have all the time in the world to dwell.

oitnb_ps2_022_hWe finally get backstories for some of last season’s breakout characters (and some of my personal favorites) that do not disappoint but will definitely shock. “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne’s (Uzo Aduba) flashback is a short story in itself, one that succinctly and deeply tackles themes of class, racism, and mental illness in one fell swoop but also leaves you wanting more. Morello’s (Yael Stone) is a true shocker, surprisingly depressing and much darker than I imagined; one of the many highlights of this season is watching her become unhinged in short bursts, then blink it away. All of the actresses are at the top of their game here (I’d say pay close attention to Samira Wiley as Poussey, but I don’t have to because she quietly demands it). Orange Is the New Black should have an entire Best Actress category specifically devoted to its stars, and all the nominees should take home statues.

The show still has plenty of heart — maybe even more of it than before; I was surprised at how much the scenes featuring Pennsatucky’s childlike naiveté and sadness affected me — but OITNB doesn’t skimp on the heavy drama. Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Bennett (Matt McGorry) are dealing with her pregnancy. Sometimes, they bicker so much like a real couple, it’s easy to forget they are both technically in prison (one by choice) and he’s her guard. The prison guards get more time, too, as the show travels off the Litchfield grounds and into their personal lives.

Many shows have touched upon women struggling to accept the aging process, but OITNB brilliantly reimagines this within the prison walls. Graying hair, crochet circles, and retirement — all while locked up.

Relationships abound in this season: daughters and mothers (biological and surrogate), exes, new lovers, confusing friendships, fuck buddies, and unrequited love. Then there are the power struggles. There is the quick introduction of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a conniving prisoner with past ties to both Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks). Vee reminisces about the good old days when the black prisoners ran Litchfield, and she seems hellbent on making that happen again, setting up racial tensions that divide the prison and will surely end in disaster.

It gets dark (of course!), but it remains funny. For every depressing scene about a woman who is out of choices, there is a laugh-out-loud-funny scene with an impromptu health class on female anatomy. Netflix sent out six episodes to critics, and I devoured them all quickly, with more hunger than I had for even the first season, and all I can think about is what happens next. Orange Is the New Black spent its first season delighting in making its audience nervously bite our fingernails while alternating between laughing or crying, and it’s ready to do it again.

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