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After an agonizing year-long wait, Netflix finally released the second season of its hit dramedy Orange is the New Black. And boy, was it worth the wait.
Reviewing a Netflix series is strangely complicated. Due to the binge-encouraging nature of the site’s policy of releasing all episodes at once, one can never know how many episodes another person has seen. With that in mind, I’m going to take a few paragraphs to share my general spoiler-free thoughts on the second season of OITNB and then, in a spoiler section that will be clearly marked, I’ll get into the specific things I loved about the season, as well as the plot points I was less enthusiastic about. So, here we go.
One of the greatest strengths of OITNB is its incredible ensemble cast. One of the most common quibbles with the show’s first season was its constant focus on Piper and her acclimation to prison, often at the expense of spending time with the other more interesting members of the ensemble cast. Season two is a testament that the writers really took this criticism to heart, as the season doles out more time with some of our favorite residents of Litchfield and puts the Piper drama on the backburner. In fact, there is even an entire episode without Piper- and I can almost guarantee you won’t miss her.
This isn’t to say that Taylor Shilling is not an incredible actress and an asset to the series – she most certainly is. However, spending time with the wide tapestry of characters within the series feels almost decadent. There are so many wonderful and capable actresses dotting the OITNB landscape that even having 13 episodes doesn’t feel like enough time to really get to spend quality time with everyone.
The other key element within season two is the presence of more than one story through line within the season. Season one was overly concerned with Piper, Larry, and Alex and the heaps of drama surrounding them. Yes, there were other stories that threaded through several episodes, but there weren’t any other stories that continued throughout the entire season. Season two contains a central storyline that doesn’t even involve Piper. Taking things a step forward, I would argue that Piper isn’t even the main focus this season. And, for those still worried about Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) only appearing in a handful of episodes (four, to be exact), don’t be. Her absence is, in my opinion, well handled, and only serves to deepen Piper and Alex as characters, as well as allow other cast members to shine.
WARNING! Beyond this point, there be SPOILERS!
Now, is season two perfect? Nope. But I enjoyed it a great deal more than season one. In fact, I could write a doctoral thesis detailing all the positive elements within the second season. But, before I get to my favorite parts of this past season, here are a few thrings I would change about the season (or, rather, things Jenji Kohan and company could keep in mind for season three):
Way less Larry and Polly: Here’s the thing. Larry was really annoying in season one and definitely overused (some Larry was certainly necessary, but we definitely didn’t need as much as we got). And I can understand how Larry and his (ridiculously quick) relationship with Polly are important to Piper’s continued storyline. But we definitely didn’t need Larry and his dad in the bathhouse. Or Larry and Polly spending so much time together. Or even seeing Larry and Polly tell Pete about their affair (and, come to think of it, what was the timeline on this reveal? It seems like they had just started sleeping together.). Time spent dealing with the stupid mistakes of Larry is time we don’t get to spend with Red, Nicky, Taystee, or Poussey. And that isn’t ok.
SoSo: I’m not even mad about how annoying this character is, or how the hunger strike story could have been handled in a more timely fashion. I also liked some elements of the storyline and how it attempted to shine a light on some of the awful elements of the prison system. But SoSo was so similar to Piper in season one that I’m not sure we needed her to take such a large role within the storyline this season (and, to interact so often with Piper). I was far more interested in the Vee-Red showdown (which also showed some of the horrific elements of the prison system) than watching SoSo try to organize a campaign to fight the system, which really turned out to be an in for Sister Ingalls’s backstory. Also, SoSo had way too much screen time compared to some of our other Litchfield inmates (namely Nicky and Lorna).
Daya and Bennett: Honestly, I’ve never really been all that impressed with this storyline. I wasn’t a fan in season one, but I was definitely not a fan in season two. Here’s the main problem: Until the baby is born, these two will be caught in a whirlpool of the same storyline rotating over and over. The writers have written themselves into a corner here, and there are only a finite number of ways to get out. First, Bennett could be arrested, but since the show has already gone that route with Pornstach (and Caputo pretty much nixed it happening at the end of the season two) I highly doubt this will happen. Bennett could also leave his job, and periodically visit Daya. But this option also runs into the same issue as the first option – this would mark Bennett as the father, and he would go to jail. Finally, Daya could somehow lose the baby. Now, OITNB has done some twisted things, but I’m not sure it would go this route. After investing so much time and energy into this storyline essentially blowing it up and starting over might be the best option (unless the writers would like Daya to complain about Bennett for another 13 episodes next season and have absolutely no storyline again), but the characters of Daya and Bennett may not be salvageable.
While there were a few glaring issues with the season, it was still one of the best and most cohesively plotted seasons of television I have ever seen. In the interest of time, I’ve limited my list of favorites to three. Although there are many more that could have made the cut, these three were the shining moments of the season, holding it together and turning it into an exceptional season of television.
The Vee-Red Storyline: The major plotline of the season (sorry Piper, the world does not revolve around you), the battle between Vee and Red was suspenseful, painful, and all-around amazing to watch. Both Kate Mulgrew (Red) and Lorraine Toussant (Vee) are incredible actresses, and after sorely underusing Mulgrew last year (while Red did have a good storyline, it was often buried under the Piper-Larry-Alex drama) the show made up for it a thousand times over by pitting Red against newcomer Vee in a battle for the prison. It’s rare that two actors of a certain age are given such an incredible story to work on, but even rarer for two actresses, making this storyline one of the best of the year on television. Not only did it give Toussant and Mulgrew the chance to stretch their acting abilities, it also allowed the series to make great use of its supporting cast. Tying the fates of fan favorites Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Poussey (Samira Wiley), and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) into the feud served to raise the already heightened stakes.
The Increased Profile of Last Season’s Breakout Characters: The most common complaint of season one (after having way too much Larry) was that the secondary characters didn’t get enough focus. In fairness, I doubt the writers were thinking about how popular Taystee, Crazy Eyes, Nicky, or Lorna would become when they were conceiving season one’s main arc. But they certainly took it into account for season two. The second episode of season two, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red,” doesn’t even have an appearance by Piper and instead focuses on life within the prison and Taystee’s backstory. Several of the flashbacks this season flesh out some of the show’s wonderful supporting characters, offering the backgrounds we have wanted since season one (Lorna’s story, proving that her beloved Christopher wasn’t what she claimed) and some we didn’t know we needed (Miss Rosa, whose story was one of the season’s wonderful surprises, offering depth to a previously untapped background player). Season two showed the writers know that turning OITNB into the Piper show isn’t what it needs, and that it can function with anyone of its characters in the driver seat. There are many shows on television with vast supporting casts, but I cannot think of one that has managed to unlock the secret to an ensemble in the way OITNB has.
The Lack of Focus on Piper and Alex: Don’t get me wrong, I think both Piper and Alex are incredibly complex and interesting characters. And considering the undercurrent of fear that went through the OITNB fanbase when it was announced Alex would be off-screen for most of season two (Laura Prepon only signed a one year contract, and had filming conflicts – she will, however, return as a series regular in season three), one might think the absence of Alex would have doomed the season. Actually, the opposite happened. There was just enough Alex to keep the character interesting, and to keep Piper pulled into her destructive orbit (although, the power balance definitely shifted by season’s end), and it allowed the rest of the cast a chance to shine.
All-in-all, the second season of OITNB was a rousing success. Spending thirteen episodes with the ladies of Litchfield is a wonderful way to spend a summer weekend, or week, or even a month, depending on your watching speed. The only major downside? Now we all have to wait another year to see what these colorful characters have been up to. I can’t help but think season three will also be worth the wait.
Since season two offered such a wide range of story and character growth, chances are I didn’t touch on your favorite moment (or, even hit on a complaint you may have had regarding the season). Feel free to chime-in in the comments and share your thoughts about the second season of OITNB.