Last year, despite my initial doubts about the show, I gobbled up the first season of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Although I ultimately enjoyed the experience, I just couldn’t bring myself to give it five stars and felt a little dirty even giving it four. As time went on, I discovered that other people, especially those of “otherness” felt the same way.
While there’s still some lazy writing in certain moments, this new season persuades me to change my mind by addressing the issues that made the show fall a little flat last year.
In season two, white inmates aren’t the only ones whose pasts get revealed for character context instead of just background. This feat is made easier by already having 13 episodes worth of character familiarity, but is accomplished surprisingly well given the initial caricature-like presentation of the supporting cast. We get to see characters like Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) in the outside world in order to learn more about her rather than just explaining why she got convicted as well as the perseverance of Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) work ethic. That being said, stereotypes and predictable storylines still pepper the narrative, but it feels more like a reminder of the circumstances that propagate these stereotypes than an ignorant, character template copy and paste.
More events are allowed to take place without Piper having to know about it or react to it, finally letting us off her restrictive, artisanal leash.
Another great aspect of this season is the transformation of the onscreen discussion about racial tension. While the first season uses Piper (Taylor Schilling) as a privileged Trojan Horse into the prison world, we now get to simply watch as the different groups butt heads. More events are allowed to take place without Piper having to know about it or react to it, finally letting us off her restrictive, artisanal leash. The black women finally get a mother figure who allows them to become a legitimate player in the power struggle among the inmates and their increased screen time gives them the space to metamorphose into complex characters. Now that every group knows which corner to stand in, true conflict can emerge.
We also get a nice, though brief, appraisal of mental illness. The new depth of Lorna’s (Yael Stone) obsession with Christopher makes her character more likeable while the vignette of Suzanne’s (Uzo Aduba) childhood inspires pity if observed on its own. When placed in the context of Vee’s (Lorraine Toussaint) manipulation, we finally get to see Suzanne as a person with a strong desire to belong somewhere. Vee herself shows clear indicators of psychopathy, an illness typically reserved for white characters in film and television. A psychopath is intelligent and charming, so I was honestly flattered that a woman of color was allowed to play one in such a dominating, narrative-driving way. Generally, when people of color are depicted with a mental illness some childhood trauma or drug addiction is the cause. By giving these women innate disorders, the show also breaks down racial barriers in terms of psychological representation.
While Laverne Cox’s Sophia all but disappears this season (with the exception of some humorous sex education), we get properly introduced to another queer woman of color: Poussey (Samira Wiley). Poussey is intelligent, speaks German, and has known she was a lesbian since she was a teenager. There’s an understated confidence to her character that makes her likeable even during her brief descent into alcoholism and her stereotypical lack of ambition during the Career Day competition. The examination of her relationship with Taystee in addition to some experimentation between Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) opens up the show’s portrayal queerness in a surprisingly honest way.
Though everyone’s talking about this scene in the season’s last episode, the next van scene when Lorna starts talking about “Toy Story 2” gets a little self-reflexive:
“You know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s better than the first one. And even though sequels never are…this? This is the exception to the rule.”
In most situations, I would call out the writers for patting themselves on the back, but they are not wrong. At the end of my binge, I still gave the show four stars, but I can sleep at night with that decision. Maybe season three will be as good as “Toy Story 3.”
Photo Credit: Netflix