“We Have Manners. We’re Polite.” (season 2, episode 13)
Orange Is The New Black’s second season ends with a character barely present in the first season running down a character that was only introduced this year. It’s a great moment, choreographed but no less satisfying for being so, but I can safely say it wasn’t the kind of ending I would have expected going into this season.
This isn’t a bad thing. And I don’t know if I could explain exactly what I expected. But after the first season featured so many breakout characters, it felt like there was more than enough story to be told that the show could largely just keep doing what it was doing. There were enough continuing stories—Piper’s return from solitary, Pennsatucky’s fate, Daya’s pregnancy, Fig’s corruption—that the show could rely on, and the promise of extended storylines for Suzanne and Taystee as two of the show’s new series regulars seemed the logical point of extension.
The introduction of Vee changed all of this. Rather than allowing Taystee and Suzanne—and Poussey—to shift to the center of the narrative on their own, Jenji Kohan and the writing staff introduced the character of Vee as a catalyst around which those characters would develop. Vee has a complicated past with Taystee, an antagonistic relationship with Poussey, and a strong yet destructive bond with Suzanne that’s been building throughout the season.
On this level, I would argue Vee is one of the second season’s greatest success stories. As much as the season could have coasted on the comedy stylings of Taystee and Poussey, the way their relationship is tested adds depth to their characters that will only make that comedy more effective in the third season. The season denies us the versions of these characters we’d come to expect—best captured in the taming of Taystee’s hair once she falls in with Vee—but in the process it makes us appreciate their dynamic more now that they’ve been forced to work for it. The story lacks the subtle emotion of Taystee’s brief release, where the tragedy of her struggle to survive on the outside is mitigated by their reunion, and I’ll admit that not even multiple flashbacks can successfully justify the speed at which Taystee throws away any sense of morals out of loyalty for Vee. However, the closed circle of Vee’s arc leaves the characters in a more complicated emotional position with one another and as individuals, and that seems to me to be the primary goal for any second season.
Meanwhile, Vee is also tremendously effective as a way of doubling down on the tragedy facing Suzanne. Although Vee’s flashback to her first stint in Litchfield paints her as an outright villain in her attack on Red (which is, of course, repeated leading into the finale), the real sign of her “evil” is the way she uses Suzanne. Before that evil emerged in full, Vee’s attention to Suzanne showed her as one of the few people who understood what Suzanne was like. She was the one who understood how hard it was for Suzanne to keep from interjecting, and who thanked her for even the smallest affordances. She tells her she is strong, and she tries to eliminate any self-doubt Suzanne might feel expressing herself or taking charge of her own life. But with each episode, Vee’s kindness shifts into manipulation, and Suzanne becomes an attack dog whose inconsistent moral compass is reconditioned by Vee to operate to her every whim.
This has been happening throughout the season, and it was certainly heartbreaking to see Suzanne attack Poussey, but you also saw examples of how it had emboldened Suzanne in more positive ways, like her pudding attack against Piper during her white privilege moment. Piper wasn’t entirely wrong, but Suzanne was acting on her own accord, and in a way that spoke to her pride in who she is, and so there were still brief glimpses of Vee’s positive influence. It provided hope that should Vee be removed from the picture, there was a chance it would be Suzanne who would realize what was happening, emerging to take control of her life and in the process the narrative.
That doesn’t happen in the finale. At every turn, Vee takes advantage of Suzanne, convincing her that she committed a crime she didn’t commit. Suzanne is the perfect person to take the fall: she has a history of violence, and she has a habit of losing track of what she’s doing at any given time. Even if Vee hadn’t used Lady Locksley—Suzanne’s lock—to commit the crime, the basic facts of Suzanne’s time in prison make her an easy suspect for SIS investigators more interested in getting home to their families than getting to the root of the attack. As witnessed by the investigators, Suzanne’s behavior is erratic and unclear, and gives them every piece of evidence they need to accept the word of Janae and Black Cindy and put Suzanne away for something she didn’t do.
“We Have Manners. We’re Polite.” is a test of the prison system that has been deconstructed and protested throughout the season. We know what happened. Red knows what happened. Every other inmate knows what happened. The question is whether or not—presented with a logical alternative for those who haven’t seen everything the inmates and we have seen—the investigators will see the same. Will people in a position to help them see it—Red as the victim, Healy as the C.O.—play their part? And as Caputo takes over following Fig being removed due to the discovery of her embezzlement, can he provide the meaningful changes he wasn’t in a position to make previously, to keep events like this from happening again?
In the end, almost the entire prison rallies around Suzanne in an effort to rid Litchfield of Vee. Although Red initially suggests she has no idea who attacked her, a heart-to-heart with Sister Ingalls pushes her to tell Healy the truth about her attack. Healy, initially soured by the lack of attendance at Safe Place but then boosted by learning he got through to Pennsatucky, pulls some strings and gets a fake work order to exonerate Suzanne. Janae and Black Cindy, realizing they’ve been working for a psychopath, team up with Taystee and Poussey to recant their previous statements. Sensing Norma hasn’t done the math on her arsenic revenge strategy, Gloria offers a spiritual option (picking up on her flashback). Nicky pulls Big Boo back into the fold, learning where Vee’s stash is hidden and confiscating it as part of a plan to get Vee busted.
One of my biggest reservations about the season to this point was Vee as a plot point, rather than a catalyst for individual characters. And although there were stages in the season where the character risked feeling like a contrived way to create drama, “We Have Manners. We’re Polite.” does some great work by making Vee’s exit the product of various character moments. The episode may be focused on wrapping up Vee’s story, but the impacts don’t just go away now that Vee is gone. Taystee and Poussey confront their friendship in emotional terms in a way Taystee has never done before; Healy acts due to a relationship with an inmate that reminds him why he used to find this job so fulfilling; inmates representing every race band together to remove Vee from the equation, regardless of the conflict she stirred up. While the basic status quo of life at Litchfield is largely reset to where it was at the start of the season, there are enough lingering effects to sell Vee as a function of character rather than solely a function of plot-related conflict.
This is particularly true given that Superstorm Vee didn’t blow through Litchfield without leaving some scars as well. While Nicky might be happy to see Vee go, she left behind her heroin, and the shot of Nicky staring at her drug of choice suggests its continued presence will have as much of a negative influence on her as Vee’s did. And although Suzanne is exonerated, she ends the episode in tears holding Uno and lamenting the loss of someone who showed her affection, gave her praise, and made her believe that she was unique instead of crazy. She doesn’t know how manipulated she was, and she has no sense of how hard everyone worked to protect her. All she knows is that a major force of stability in her life has disappeared. For as much as the broader prison ecosystem may have been helped by Vee’s exit, and as much as we know Suzanne is better off without Vee, it doesn’t change the fact she has been gutted by her absence.
One of the central points this season has made is that Litchfield exists in a state of constant negotiation between how prison should work and how it actually works. The corruption storyline, a huge part of the season, would seem to be resolved when Piper pieces together the meaning of the evidence she took from Fig’s office during the storm for Caputo. But the more time Caputo spends in power, the more we understand that whatever decency he has is at risk in this job. The blowjob represents the uncomfortable—and disturbing—transition from Fig’s desperate efforts to hold onto power and Caputo’s lust for it, but Caputo subsequently asks Sister Ingalls to trust his judgment and then refuses to accept Bennett’s admission he is the father of Daya’s child because it inconveniences his attempt to hold onto the job beyond the interim period instated by the—still-unseen—warden. Fig warns him—in a case of obvious foreshadowing even before Caputo suffers another very bad day—that this would happen, but he wants to believe things will be different.
And yet one senses Litchfield and the prison system more broadly is a closed ecosystem, one that may seem different from certain perspectives but struggles to change through the actions of any one individual. (And yes, I saw Snowpiercer recently, why do you ask?). Vee was a threat to the ecosystem, but she was too much of a threat for the community to accept, leading to her exit. Caputo wants to be an agent of change, but the forces above him push him to resist more substantial reforms, and cover up the very kind of situations that he promised to protect against. Both Soso and Morello argue that Litchfield is far from summer camp, but whereas Soso states this as a harsh reality Morello says it with a shrug, accepting that the status quo she knew—where no one was trying to actively kill one another thanks to the influence of a psychopath—was just life as she knows it.
Any finale raises issues of resolution, but this particular finale is highly invested in it. On the one hand, it resolves Vee’s arc in the series, with Rosa running her over as she escapes from Litchfield. But Rosa’s story is equally about resolution, and how her ability to resolve her life on her own terms was taken away from her by the system. She couldn’t even receive the surgery that could have prolonged her life, and so in the end the most she could do was take advantage of Morello’s reckless kindness and drive off listening to Blue Oyster Cult and searching for a resolution the system wouldn’t allow her to have. Although it’s possible that we’ll see Rosa again, I would almost be disappointed as we did, as it seems meaningful that this single moment—Vee lying dead in the road, Rosa driving off to die—brought each of those character arcs full circle in one efficient swerve.
Additionally, however, their respective resolutions reinforce how such resolution is inconceivable for almost every other character in the series. Larry and Polly come to Piper looking for her blessing because they know they’re never going to be entirely gone from Piper’s life, and they want to achieve something of an understanding about what their relationships will mean moving forward. It’s the first time outside of Piper’s furlough that the story has felt tied into the larger thematic goals of the season; it doesn’t do enough to justify the sheer volume of Larry and Polly narrative the season delved into (it would have been the first thing cut if they had to deliver 50-minute episodes), but it’s a reminder that there is no way to just resolve parts of your life when you go into prison (or, in Alex’s case, when you get out of prison). Larry lingers because Piper isn’t driving off into the sunset with a death sentence like Rosa. She’s a criminal, and even in situations where criminals leave prison, the impacts of that won’t be resolved by their release, or by any single milestone that comes after it. Piper must embrace resignation rather than resolution, accepting dramatically altered relationships with her friends, and finding other spaces where she can exert control.
Her choice to effectively force Alex back into prison is a selfish one. It goes into the pile of selfish things Piper has done, given that her primary interest would appear to be ensuring she could continue exploring her feelings for Alex (and the resolution she dreams about but is likely unattainable). But it’s a selfish decision that she makes because the system wasn’t protecting Alex, and because Alex—whose perspective we lack, in general—wasn’t protecting herself in a sustainable way. It’s the part of the finale that works the least, most burdened by the need to set up a third season and get Laura Prepon back to the show closer to full time, but it’s also a part of the finale that feels like a decision Piper makes due to the amount of time she’s spent trapped in this ecosystem.
The ecosystem corrupts. It corrupted Fig, it’s corrupting Caputo, and it’s corrupting each of the inmates slowly but surely the more time they spend in it. Orange Is The New Black is a show about that system, which is why it’s a show that lacks the sense it’s working to a definitive ending. You could extend the show beyond Piper’s exit, because her story doesn’t end when she leaves Litchfield given how the effects of the ecosystem linger, and because the show’s larger thematic interests are embedded in the system itself as opposed to any particular character or characters. There will always be forces that threaten the status quo in a dramatic fashion, as well as forces that destabilize that status quo in subtle ways, but there are also forces within the status quo that consistently dehumanize the inmates relying on the system for their basic survival. Orange Is The New Black could run forever, effectively, because the second season has revealed the degree to which there is no end to the injustices embedded within the very premise of the justice system and its intersections with race, gender, age, and humanity in and of itself.
Now, while Orange Is The New Black could run forever, we probably don’t want it to. Although more assured of itself when it came to expanding its perspective on the prison ecosystem than last year’s freshman effort, the second season also demonstrated—particularly with the Larry and Daya/Bennett storylines—that there is a challenge in playing out the slow, often frustrating navigation of this system. It’s not unrealistic for someone like Larry to be a kind of awful person as his ex-fiancé spends time in prison, and the idea of Daya and Bennett having no idea how to handle a complicated situation as two kids who one senses weren’t too bright to begin with makes basic sense. The lack of resolution that makes so many other stories so compelling make these stories borderline insufferable, though, which is useful up until the point it starts to seem like the show being unable to rid itself of the bathwater to focus on the baby. The balance worked out this season, but one imagines that other stories would linger too long in subsequent seasons, creating more and more opportunity for the series to lose itself in the neverending cycle of injustice.
For now, though, Orange Is The New Black remains one of the most engaging series on the air even if it would be tough to label it as the most precise or consistent. It introduced a character that risked stabilizing its storytelling, but pulled it off with strong casting and a satisfying “resolution” with plenty of long-term consequences. It continued to push its “Trojan horse” Piper away from the center of the narrative (she barely interacted with Vee), while nonetheless offering character development to build on in future seasons. It continued to isolate parts of the supporting cast for standalone stories, enriching the ensemble and making surprisingly moving poetry with both characters it elevates—like Rosa—and characters it drops in only often enough to remind us that every character has a richer story than we could imagine, as in the case of Ruiz and her visitations with her daughter and her baby daddy. We never got a flashback. We never spent time with Ruiz reflecting on the meanings of their meetings. People in the comments even debated whether or not he was unfeeling or violent in his silence, rather than simply soft-spoken. We latch onto small moments because the show has convinced us they can become large, and there was no greater reminder of this than the scene where—after Ruiz’s transfer is canceled—he speaks more words than in every previous scene combined.
That’s the beauty of Orange Is The New Black. As much as the finale worked in part because it resisted all but Vee and Rosa’s resolutions, it made for an excellent resolution to a scrappy, ambitious, and compelling second season that never rested on its laurels, and which bodes well for the—finite—future of the Litchfield ecosystem as a setting for television drama.
Episode Grade: A-
Season Grade: A-
- O’Neill, his banjolele, and a gaggle of nuns: an unexpected tangent that was even funnier than it sounds when you write it out. Rosa’s escape was cathartic on so many levels, but it was also made outright hilarious by “Scatter the nuns!” Of the elements of the finale, this felt the most like a classic Jenji Kohan runner—it reminded me of Doug and his banjo in Weeds’ third season finale, for instance—but it was played at just the right speed for the episode around it.
- Speaking to the multi-generational nature of the season, the bonding of Red and Sister Ingalls is crucial to the episode: whereas they are women who made choices in their past that they’ve living with, the younger generation—Taystee and Poussey, for instance—are making choices that they’ll have to live with in the future.
- I already took a brief vindication lap in last week’s comments, but I was thrilled by Ruiz’s baby daddy’s progress in part because I had defended his good intentions early on. Say what one will about episodic criticism, but I loved that it allowed some of us to latch onto and debate those scenes in a way we might not have without it.
- “Is it cold for Amazon to underprice books just to capture market share?”—This was oddly prescient when the show first premiered in the wake of the Hachette scandal.
- The focus on mental illness never entirely rose to the surface in the season, but the way Suzanne, Morello, and Pennsatucky each navigated their identities relative to mentor figures (Vee, Rosa, and Healy respectively) made for some interesting identity work that will linger after two of those mentors are gone.
- As noted above, I had trouble with the blowjob scene, which was difficult to watch from both parties, but Alysia Reiner deserves credit for capturing Fig’s desperation throughout the season, particularly in a scene that I would argue works because Caputo thinks he’s in a comedy and Fig believes she is in a drama. They embody the existential tension of the show itself, in ways that are troubling but not unproductively so.
- “You ever think about Jay Z and Beyoncé fucking?”—I don’t know if I did before her most recent album, but after “Partition” and “Rocket” and “Drunk in Love” I’m with Black Cindy on this one.
- I’m calling shenanigans on the insert of the investigator underlining “Suzanne Warren Primary Suspect” in his notebook. It was entirely unnecessary.
- “I’m sorry, Nicky, I didn’t mean to make this about me”—Piper, in another moment of self-awareness, after which she makes things about her again, because Piper gonna Piper.
- Do we think Morello has seen Toy Story 3?
- A.V. Club contributor Ryan McGee inquired, in the spirit of Rosa’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper)” what song people would want playing as they burst out of prison—he made a Spotify list, but I figure we can discuss in the comments as well.
- After humming and hawing on whether it was a comedy or a drama, Orange Is The New Black led all shows in the comedy categories with 12 nominations, including acting nods for Schilling, Mulgrew, Cox, Lyonne, and Aduba. My question for you all: given that season two will compete at next year’s Emmys, which actresses—or actors, I suppose—would you like to see earn a nomination?
- Finally, thanks to everyone for sticking with the show as we spread out coverage over a month and a half. I wasn’t sure how well the conversation would sustain itself, or how we’d work against spoilers, but the discussion was engaging and respectful to the pace at which people were working through the series. It’s been a pleasure writing about the series, and we’ll hopefully see you back again for round three next year.
- Ugh, Larry: One more for the road. See you next season, [sadly,] Larry!