Recurring Cast: Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew, Lorraine Toussaint, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Uzo Aduba, Michael J. Harney, Nick Sandow, Dascha Polanco, Matt McGorry, Yael Stone, Selenis Leyva, Taryn Manning, Laverne Cox, and Jason Biggs
One of the best things about jumping from Lovefilm to Netflix is that I now get to watch the entire second season of Orange is the New Black early. This helps, because this show is really addictive, which seems oddly apt, considering the criminal material and references to heroin.
In a brave move by the writers, this season strips away some of the stronger characters, allowing some of the secondary criminals to get their time in the spotlight. Last time, we lost Miss Claudette and Mendez, one of them very mysterious and interesting, while the other was a clear fan favourite. Season Two instantly puts another major character out of play, reducing her to a supporting star, rather than a lead. This jumbling around of the stars means that some of the less interesting characters have time to show you what they are made of. The Latinas have a stronger standing now, taking over the kitchen from Red and sitting at the top of the prison food chain. The black community end up embracing ambition, but this could turn around and destroy some of their close-knit friendships. Meanwhile, some of the older stars are not forgotten, with Red on a quest for redemption and Bennett still coping with the fact he got an inmate knocked up. On the Piper Chapman side of things, she becomes obsessed with bringing the prison down on its knees, tired of the awful administration and unfair treatment. However, this makes her a target to both her surrounding inmates and the prison staff, who don’t like Piper getting too close to an embezzling conspiracy.
The main attraction of this series is a gang war breaking out in the prison. Lorraine Toussaint plays the newcomer on the block, Vee, a veteran black woman who knows how to work the prison system. She inspires Taystee, Crazy Eyes and the other black women that they can become the most feared and respected women in the entire building. This brings her up against Gloria, the Latina given the kitchen after Red’s downfall. And on top of that, Red has a plan up her sleeve to regain her status as the top dog in the prison, although that requires taking Vee on, a woman who was in the prison when she first arrived and someone she knows should be feared at all costs. Vee and Red are the best things about this season. Vee is a nasty piece of work, but it is really refreshing having a constant villain added to the proceedings. While Pennsatucky was hilariously fantastic as the bad guy last time around, the show liked to play around with the idea that she would clean her act up. Vee, while always inches from redemption, is a true villain, manipulating the weak from the moment she walks in. There is something hard to dislike about her ability to claw her way to the top after a few weeks in Litchfield. The gang war story builds this terrific character and pits her against Kate Mulgrew’s ever-amazing Red. The show knows that Red is one of the more fascinating characters in Orange is the New Black, so it gives her the majority of the show to strut her stuff. It is great to watch her start at the awful position the last season left her in and see her come up with a plan of regaining her old status. This season is all about taking the heads of these prison families and having fun playing them off against each other.
Sadly, the cracks are beginning to show in Orange is the New Black. The character priority reshuffling is hit and miss. While some of the new storylines are great, others aren’t too exciting. The first season liked to make us love background characters with a flashback of their life before, but that trick has gotten a little old. Some characters we simply do not care about, especially once we have figured out all the tricks the flashbacks have up their sleeve. The subject will have a normalised storyline, but there would be one crime in the background that always catches up to them. The show doesn’t even seem particularly interested in them, always cutting back to the action in the prison as fast as it can. It feels as though the show feels dedicated to giving us these flashbacks, but doesn’t particularly want to anymore. Other characters aren’t as important anymore which is a shame, because they were the ones to watch in season one. Pennsatucky is trapped in the background. The black girls are relegated to pawns in Vee’s game, rather than independent figures. The biggest problem is that even Piper feels less important. The show has written her into an isolated figure, slowly toughening up with prison life. This is probably good for the long game, but it means she has less characters to play off against. The embezzling plotline is good, but the gang war is far more interesting. There are episodes where Piper has the most boring story to follow and seeing as she is the lead, and probably still the best actress on show, then, in my books, that is a serious problem.
But these are just small jolts that hardly hurt the overall picture. Orange is the New Black still handles comedy and drama superbly well. It can be heart-breaking in some moments, mildly funny in others, and then be heart-lifting. Sometimes these feelings are all in a single episode. Some flashbacks hit the mark perfectly. Lorna Morello, one of the more innocent and adorable figures, gets a massive reveal that changes everything you thought you knew about the character. Looking back at season one, the clues were probably all there, but her cute composure makes you overlook all of them. Also, Rosa, the bank-robber with cancer is given some terrific material. The ending… Oh, that ending!
Final Verdict: It isn’t as evenly balanced as the last season, but Orange is the New Black is still a great piece of television. It is funny, feel-good and upsetting; all in the right ways.