In the season premiere of Netflix’s empathic, quick-witted prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) meets Felicia (Judy Del Guidice), an incarcerated astrologer with a penchant for unsolicited readings. Wearing thick-framed glasses and a friendly smile, she appears a likely ally, accurately pegging Piper for a Gemini and chattering about the position of Mars. Though we soon discover that Felicia harbors demons more troubling than any horoscope, including an unnerving obsession with Piper’s time of birth, she remains a sage of the cellblock. Indeed, if the first season of Orange Is the New Black introduced its diverse cast of characters by examining the fateful moment of decision that landed them in prison, the excellent sophomore outing deepens the group portrait by applying a bit of Felicia’s casual wisdom. “Typically,” she observes, “people who are in prison have been led astray by a powerful force.”
Orange Is the New Black grapples with those forces—familial and societal, interpersonal and institutional—in the service of an ensemble that counts among television’s most engaging. Indeed, as Piper hardens to incarceration’s indignities and grows isolated from the outside world, the series turns increasingly to the collective to suggest how Litchfield’s machinery is wound. Much of the second season’s narrative concerns an emerging battle for primacy among the prison’s distinct white, Latina, and African-American constituencies. While Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) assumes control of the kitchen—Litchfield’s version of the Oval Office—from Red (Kate Mulgrew), who’s relegated to the marginal “Golden Girls” faction, newcomer Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint) presses for influence over the unit’s black women. No shrinking violet, Orange Is the New Black asserts the importance of cultural identifiers (race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality) in shaping the lives of its characters to the point that it flirts with archetype, but it always manages to zoom back out to consider Litchfield’s dynamic constellation of conspiracies, shell games, favors, and slights.
The series thus plays foul-mouthed heir to a long tradition of woman-centered melodramas, deploying heightened affect to make space for feminist, queer, and nonwhite perspectives in a television landscape still dominated by “difficult men.” From the title sequence’s hypnotic montage of lips and eyes, Orange Is the New Black wears the badge of agent provocateur proudly, almost defiantly. In the season premiere, for instance, a rainbow of urine samples (olive green, neon yellow, delicate pink) reflects the multitude of human shapes, sizes, and colors we see as naked inmates bend over for inspection. Indeed, the salty brand of humor that lends Orange Is the New Black its binge-worthy zip, from shit bubbling out of the shower drains to the geography of female genitalia, aptly suggests both the subtle and obvious acts of violence perpetrated against women under the guise of “justice.” Sure, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) competing to see who can perform the most cunnilingus isn’t exactly a Sirkian splash of crimson, but the repressed feelings of loneliness or inadequacy their contretemps represent are no less potent that those of a housewife carrying on with the gardener.
With the exception of the premiere’s ingeniously disorienting first half, which is best left a surprise, the episodes that follow blend this communal melodrama with the flashback structure developed in season one. For Piper, Taystee (Danielle Brooks, in a winsome star turn), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Marello (Yael Stone), Mendoza, and Poussey (Samira Wiley), the constraints of circumstance clear a path to Litchfield that long predates their sentencing. Orange Is the New Black refuses to frame their personal histories as determinative, and clearly delineates the privileges of whiteness and wealth, but nonetheless the women find themselves hemmed in from an early age by liars, abusers, racists, manipulators, and homophobes. These are “powerful forces,” as Felicia might say, yet they’re neither fated nor easily interpreted. Though the flashback sequences fitfully lapse into armchair psychology, their impressionistic design—brief, scattered glimpses of the past—conveys each character’s ongoing struggle to escape to a better life. “This is not my forever career,” Taystee reports to Vee from across the dinner table, referring to her participation in the latter’s drug-dealing operation. I hope she’s right.
It may be a mark of how successfully Orange Is the New Black conjures the microcosmic society within the prison walls that the series falls to pieces the moment it leaves Litchfield behind. Periodically pausing to check in on Piper’s husband, Larry (Jason Biggs), and her best friend, Polly (Maria Dizzia), in Manhattan, or to follow corrections officers Healy (Michael J. Harney) and Caputo (Nick Sandow) to the local watering hole, the series abandons its trademark compassion so quickly you wonder why it expends the energy at all. The society that allows Litchfield to go on as is might well be selfish, venal, lazy, and spoiled, but reducing individual members of that society to caricatures loses sight of what otherwise makes season two such a fine piece of work. As Red explains to Piper, “all problems are boring until they’re your own,” and the series ultimately asks viewers to see the prisoners’ plight as one for which we all must accept responsibility. Comfortably inhabiting a world far from perfection by embracing the warty and the impolitic, the real inner strength of Orange Is the New Black resides elsewhere: an uncommonly warm heart.