As with Orange Is The New Black’s first season, we will be covering two episodes of the show’s second season weekly, with regular reviews posting on Tuesday mornings at 11am Eastern starting on June 10 with the third and fourth episodes of the season. These reviews will be written without foreknowledge of what takes place in future episodes, and thus will feature no spoilers for later episodes. If you wish to discuss the entire season, a full season review will be up soon—in the meantime, please be respectful of those moving at a slower pace and avoid spoiling or heavily alluding to future developments in the comments.
“Thirsty Bird” (season 2, episode 1)
When the first season of Orange Is The New Black was produced, Jenji Kohan and the series’ writing staff had no idea every episode would be released at the same time. Those plans came after the series went into production, and have become strongly associated with the service and its original programming. It’s also undoubtedly bled into the storytelling of the show’s second season, now being produced with a clearer understanding of how audiences will likely consume the series.
The biggest impact of the “all-at-once” model is not the death of episodic criticism—despite some conspiracy theorists’ claims—or the fundamental destruction of the traditional mode of television distribution, but rather something very simple: there is no scenario where audiences will be forced to only watch a single episode of the show. As a result, if you create a cliffhanger between episodes, you’re not building anticipation for the following week’s episode—you’re pushing the viewer to let the flow of Netflix take over their lives instead of pressing stop and switching to some other activity.
On a more subtle level, though, the foreknowledge of how audiences watch means that the writers have greater freedom to create episodes like “Thirsty Bird,” which ignores every rule of how you’d typically plot the season premiere to a series with a large ensemble cast. Picking up a month after Piper’s assault of Pennsatucky during the Christmas Pageant, the episode pulls Piper from solitary confinement and never steps off the gas long enough for her to breathe. Suddenly she’s in a van, on a bus, on a plane, on another bus, and then acclimating to her new surroundings in a Chicago penitentiary. For a moment it’s as though Netflix stealthily ordered a spinoff entitled Piper’s Adventures in Chi-Town, right up until the moment Piper spots Alex, discovers she’s in town to testify against the drug kingpin Alex worked for, and finds herself wrapped up once more in the drama of her past.
From a conceptual perspective, the idea of telling such a close character study to start the season is daring, and admirable. The show has the freedom to isolate a character’s perspective, using combinations of flashbacks and present day storylines to emphasize themes relevant to their personal journey and the series as a whole. And yet the show chooses the character that had become—arguably—marginal to its most interesting storytelling, and whose status as the so-called “Trojan horse” enabled the series to explore a wider range of women over the course of the first season. As much as Piper remains the show’s central ‘plot’ in the traditional sense, with her attack on Pennsatucky as the direct cliffhanger to last season and her relationship with Alex as the catalyst for much of the show’s drama, to create a first episode that completely ignores the series’ breakout supporting cast takes a lot of guts, even if it’s done with the knowledge that everyone watching has the ability to go right onto episode two where it’s likely those characters will appear. As I was watching the episode, I kept looking at the timestamp, wondering how long Piper’s segment of the episode would be, before eventually realizing that we were staying with Piper until the bitter end. It’s a bold decision, and one that I respect.
It’s also one that doesn’t work, at least based on the series’ own standards. To be clear, this is not simply because the other characters do not appear: I accept the logic that this is effectively a two-part season premiere, and that there was thematic value in mirroring Piper’s arrival at Litchfield in the first season with another set of new surroundings and new characters. Similarly, it is not that I disregard Piper as a character, or Taylor Schilling as an actress: she’s very good as the episode’s anchor, particularly in the long take on the plane when she explains to her seatmate Lolly what happened between her and Pennsatucky.
Rather, my issue is that the thematic material being worked with is rote, and dull, and plain uninteresting. The episode works too hard to use flashbacks to lay out Piper’s shifting morality, crafting tales of a tween Piper who always follows the rules but learns an important lesson about the failings of honesty after discovering her father’s affair and getting punished for telling the truth about it. There is no doubting the theoretical utility of the theme, given that Piper ends up accepting dishonesty as the right thing to do in her testimony before being screwed over when Alex tells the truth, gets released, and leaves Piper in a compromised position. But the more the flashbacks keep harping on it, particularly after Piper has a philosophical conversation with her grandmother for reasons that are not entirely clear, the more the episode is running a highlighter over something that’s most interesting when it’s ambiguous and muddled.
The show’s flashbacks have never been its strongest suit, but they’ve never been in such isolation from other storylines before. Typically, the flashbacks are laying out a single character story among many, but here they function as a Greek chorus laying out the moral of the episode’s only story in terms too plain for the linear narrative on display. Everything about the episode feels engineered, from the guards’ discussion of why they can’t say “bitches” anymore to the new set of zany inmates Piper confronts. It’s true—as I often say when I make this criticism of a show—that all television is engineered, but Orange Is The New Black’s diverse ensemble made its engineering feel strikingly organic compared to the isolation experienced here.
I would be open to the show following this episode structure with other characters—or even Piper, if she spends more of the season in Chicago than I’m anticipating—later in the season . There are moments where the sense of isolation creates a strong bond between the audience and the character, returning to the surrogacy Piper represented when the series began but with a season’s worth of story burdening that identification. Even though I knew Pennsatucky wasn’t dead—a peril of learning Taryn Manning had been upped to series regular, which eagle-eyed viewers would have spotted in the season’s opening credits—the scenes where Piper confronted her ignorance to her fate made sense for the character and provided good insight into the impact of being in solitary.
All of these details support the logic behind the episode, though, and not the episode itself, which is too burdened with thin storytelling and plot development to fire on all cylinders. Rather than signal any concern for where the season goes from here, the episode simply narrows its focus to the point where it’s only scratched the surface of the season—and the show’s—potential.
- It will awkwardly be only the show’s first season competing at this year’s Emmy Awards—as a Comedy, which is also awkward—but I imagine this will be Taylor Schilling’s Emmy submission next year, and might have been her Emmy submission this year if they had chosen to premiere the season earlier. She’s very strong in the episode, and it’s entirely about her.
- I mentioned it earlier, but Piper’s monologue about Pennsatucky on the plane is really effective, particularly the way the camera subtly circles around Piper during the long take to eventually show Lolly’s reaction.
- “Oh, I thought he was a rapist, I’m so relieved!”—I really can’t emphasize enough how much I liked Taylor Schilling in this episode, and this was a fine argument for her competing in comedy categories (which is a rare thing, in my books).
- I found the cockroach stuff a bit broad for my liking (it was very reminiscent of when Weeds worked too hard to be quirky), but I wish I had been able to meet Fred Savage III.
- Was I the only one who thought the “Piper’s bus drives through Chicago while Andrew Bird’s “Pulaski at Night” plays” sequence was way longer than it needed to be? Piper clearly announces they’re in Chicago, we don’t need so many shots of the El and the river and a song with the lyrics “Greetings from Chicago” to realize they’re in Chicago.
- Ugh, Larry: While we get Piper cutting ties with Larry’s father by willfully lying on the stand, Larry is nowhere to be seen, raising questions about how exactly he’s going to fit into the season’s narrative. Perhaps he’ll become like Betty on Mad Men, useful to tell certain stories but often left out of episodes where the character does not serve a specific purpose.
“Looks Blue, Tastes Red” (season 2, episode 2)
This is more like it. “Looks Blue, Tastes Red” is Orange Is The New Black at its chaotic best, resisting the simplification of the season’s first episode and juggling a wide range of stories with an almost untenable collection of themes and ideas floating around. It anchors the episode around one character, Taystee, without reducing itself to wholly serve that character. It has a point to make about the system, and about how that system works, instead of a point that serves a too-specific narrative purpose. It returns to tell stories about characters who have lived their whole lives on the margins, and makes them feel central and marginal simultaneously through the push and pull of day-to-day prison life.
The episode also lays out further why Piper’s flashback was so ineffective: it didn’t feel like new information. While there’s room to explore new dimensions of characters whose back story we’ve had previously, the flashbacks work best when we’re learning something formative about that character, and which helps us to better understand not simply what they’re going through in a given episode, but also who they are more broadly. In Taystee’s case, we learn the story of how she earned her nickname, and how someone who seems so bright and engaged would end up in “the system.” After struggling through group homes, she accepts the refuge offered by heroin dealer Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), using her aptitude with numbers to run her books, make supply runs, and settle into an unorthodox family that lives on the edge of stability. It’s a life where one moment is about whole grain flax seed bread and salad bowls, and where the next is a funeral after the police gun down your adoptive brother-of-sorts.
Taystee’s backstory resonates in the episode’s Litchfield story as she competes in the Mock Job Fair, a tryout for the reality waiting outside (and the reality she failed to acclimate to when she was released last season). She desperately wants to win, in part because she’s convinced herself it could lead to a real job based on hear say from a previous winner, but also because she knows she has real skills when it comes to math and memorization to make her a viable job candidate. It’s no coincidence that the episode opens at a “Black Adoption Festival” and ends at a “Mock Job Fair,” and that Taystee faces intense pressure and scrutiny in both instances. She’s too old to be attractive to prospective parents as a child, and she’s too curvy to win the Dress For Success fashion show with the same outfit that won the year before. Her victory in the mock interview—relying on a respectful tone and comprehensive responses compared to the sexual advances of Flaca—is a brief glimpse at how that part of her might finally be valued, only to have the promise of a real job prove false just as Vee shows up in orange.
However, whereas Piper’s story was mainly just about Piper, Taystee’s story extends to a broader critique of how the prison system prepares inmates for the real world. Figueroa gets a visit from the journalist who was investigating the—clearly corrupt—prison finances last season, and she claims the Mock Job Fair as a reflection of the prison’s focus on education that the Department of Justice doesn’t necessarily see as being important. And yet neither do the inmates, given the way they’re treated throughout. Leanne is told she’d look lovely in a peach suit by the woman from Dress For Success, and then criticized for her ill-fitting and unflattering look, turned into a cautionary tale through no choice of her own. Black Cindy is criticized for her loose-fitting dress, but it’s the only plus size outfit made available. Janae is told by an aptitude test that she’d make a great athlete, a fact she already knows, but which isn’t going to just magically happen overnight. Nurse Ingalls questions whether going from a habit to a jumpsuit is likely to make her a player in the fashion industry (although that’d be a hell of a back story for Project Runway).
Taystee’s final confrontation with Figueroa captures the struggle of being in the system, in that she is effectively told that there is no reward. Winning the contest doesn’t get you a better life or win you any advantage: “You do your best because it’s what you’re supposed to do.” Figueroa is not wrong to say that Taystee’s expectations are at odds with her circumstance, but she’s hiding behind a system that mistakes events like the Mock Job Fair as a meaningful form of rehabilitation. Taystee eventually complains her way into a $10 commissary credit, and is glad to simply have “something” to show for her trouble. Prison is an environment where you’re asked to forget about having everything, or even having something substantial, in favor of desperately hoping to get something, or anything, out of your day-to-day experience. It mirrors a similar conversation Taystee had with Vee, where Vee argued there is no such thing as a career in their neighborhood. There are only jobs, a structural limitation that Taystee resists because she has dreams of Wall Street, and because she knows she’s capable of more. Danielle Brooks was one of the supporting players upped to series regular status this season, and this episode is her earning her stripes, and stepping forward to her rightful place as one of the series’ strongest performers.
“Looks Blue, Tastes Red” also benefits from the fact that it’s telling a range of stories instead of just one. These stories vary in quality: Red struggling to accept her new lot in life following her removal from the kitchen and bonding with the “mature” inmates was some nice subtle work from Kate Mulgrew, but Daya’s constipation wasn’t exactly compelling television. However, even in that case the theme of family—resonant in the dinner scene in Taystee’s flashback—plays out in Gloria and Aleida both mothering Daya during her pregnancy, and pulls to the surface ideas that expand beyond their individual characters to others (including Red, who meets with her son hoping for news from the outside, and Maria Ruiz, whose daughter comes to visit after she gave birth last season).
There’s also the fact that the small comic asides in the episode feature characters that we connect with, as opposed to characters we’re just being introduced to. Whereas Piper’s Zodiac-obsessed roommate licking her face reads as broad, we have nuance to help us frame Suzanne’s interest in working with round objects, or the events that made Big Boo’s relationship with Little Boo too weird, or why Morello goes straight to “cop in his sweatpants in the kitchen after having sex with your sister” as her simile when she sees Red out of her chef’s coat. Even for characters we despise, like Healy or Pennsatucky, there’s a value in familiarity, and in the knowledge that we’re back where we’re supposed to be. If nothing else, the premiere’s focus on Chicago made it that much more cathartic to return to Litchfield, and to return to even those characters we despise.
The episode is not perfect—more on that in the stray observations—but it does a nice job of balancing plot with story. Whereas the stories in Piper’s episode mostly existed to serve the plot, here we see stories being told to serve character, and to live briefly in the peace that Leanne mentions when describing what life was like in Litchfield without Pennsatucky. The biggest problem with the first season finale and this season’s premiere is that there’s so much plot there’s no room to capture what made the show so strong before the stakes grew unwieldy; this second episode returns the show to its best self, but with the acknowledgment that more plot may be around the corner.
- Ugh, Larry: I thought Larry’s father inciting his son to stick his penis in women while in the sauna at a gay bath house was going to be the low point of Larry’s return to the narrative, but then he went over to visit Piper’s friend Polly whose husband went on a vision quest and who spends much of the scene exposing her breasts in her nursing bra. If that’s seriously heading where it appears to be heading, I’m going to need a bigger Ugh.
- I sort of raised an eyebrow at the banner reading “Black Adoption Festival,” as I found it difficult to believe it would ever be called that, but Google turned up this 1987 Los Angeles Times article, and some more recent examples of similar events. The more you know!
- Laverne Cox, recently nominated for a Critics’ Choice TV Award for her work on the series, is not among those upped to series regular status, but may stand the best chance at earning an Emmy nomination based on the high-profile—and well deserved—TIME cover from last week.
- I’m curious to see how the season wants us to think about Pennsatucky. Pitting her against Healy—the show’s true villain—so quickly certainly makes me think they’re heading toward a redemptive arc, but is that feasible? I am skeptical.
- I wonder how much Pennsatucky’s oral surgery costs compared to the cost to the production for using visual effects to edit out Taryn Manning’s teeth in this episode.
- “Maybe I’ll Pinterest. I hear that’s a thing”—Morello, I hope you marry Christopher, except it would mean you’d have to leave us.
- The show is often at its best with subtle humor, so I really liked Maria’s baby daddy’s lackadaisical responses to her questions for some reason. Cracked me up.
- Lorraine Toussaint recently did a fascinating recurring spot on The Fosters as Lena’s mother, where she had a storyline focused on the distinction between dark-skinned and light-skinned blackness, so it was interesting to see Vee refer to Taystee as “too dark” in her initial assessment. This is also a reminder that while you’re on Netflix, flip on over to The Fosters (which returns for season two on June 16), a show that despite some hiccups is hitting above its weight consistently when it comes to many of the same issues relevant to this show, oddly enough.