Orange is the New Black is Back

US women's prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black returns to Netflix on 12 June. Before the inevitable back-to-back marathon watching sessions commence, Dawn Kofie provides a recap of season two and considers what might be on the agenda for season three

, 4 June 2015

For the uninitiated, Orange is the New Black is loosely based on the prison memoir written by Piper Kerman, a US woman who was sent to prison for 15 months for drug trafficking and money laundering.

As Lola Ripley points out in her review of season one, OITNB is a show about women. Not just white, well-educated and comfortably off, 30-something women like Piper, but women of differing ethnicities, colours, ages, sizes, shapes, sexualities, backgrounds and socio-economic statuses.

Season one sets the scene and introduces us to Litchfield (the fictional minimum security federal prison in which the programme is set), its inhabitants and some of their stories. Through the privileged eyes of its main character, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), it shows what life in the institution is like, along with the multitude of written – and unwritten – prison rules and codes that govern everything the inmates say and do.

In season two, OITNB‘s characters grow and develop, and it hits its stride. Piper has acclimatised to her new environment and relinquished her newbie status. The sunny, naïve and helpless version has disappeared and been replaced by a prison-hardened and slightly more self-aware incarnation. This point is underlined by the fact that Piper is knowledgeable enough to show recently incarcerated and unremittingly aggravating political protester, Brook (Kimiko Glenn), the ropes.

Unfortunately, Piper has more downs than ups in season two. In the opening episode, directed by Jodie Foster, she is transported to Chicago to testify at the trial of Kubra (Eyas Younis), the drug boss of her former lover Alex (Laura Prepon). Alex convinces Piper to perjure herself and Piper does as she asks. However, because Alex is a self-serving soul, she tells the truth and is subsequently released. Despite this, after Piper finds out that Kubra’s free because of a mistrial, she fears for Alex’s safety and it is suggested that she is partly responsible for Alex being put back behind bars.

Piper may still be at the centre of the show but, as the montage in OITNB’s title sequence suggests, it is not just about her

Piper-wise, notable moments in the season include: Larry (Jason Biggs), her opportunistic fiancé, using her to investigate the inconsistencies in the prison’s budget; Piper being granted some time out of prison to attend her grandmother’s funeral (much to the other women’s fury, because their furlough requests for similar reasons were denied); and her younger brother Cal (Michael Chernus) turning their grandmother’s funeral into his wedding in an embarrassingly public attempt to minimize the costs of getting married. On her return to Litchfield, Piper works out that Larry and Polly (Maria Dizzia), her best friend, have slept together and shacked up. And, in what’s got to be the season’s most cringe-inducing scene, they visit Piper to ask her to give them her blessing.

Piper may still be at the centre of the show but, as the montage of snapshots of eyes and mouths of real-life former prisoners in OITNB‘s title sequence suggest, it is not just about her. And, accordingly, other characters come to the fore in this season; sociopath Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a new addition to Litchfield and the closest thing that Taystee (Danielle Brooks) has to a mother figure, is the most notorious.

Through Taystee’s backstory we discover that she met Vee when she was a vulnerable child and Vee initiated her into the drugs trade. Flashbacks show that Vee has been in Litchfield before, when she pretty much ran the place, and has history with Red (Kate Mulgrew). Vee is the Grand High Priestess of Manipulation and Mindfuckery; she’s an emotional pain-seeking missile whose skills lie in pinpointing people’s weaknesses and insecurities, then exploiting them. Indeed, she wastes no time in inveigling her way into the black women’s affections, before promptly putting them to work making and exchanging cigarettes for contraband.

The ‘Golden Girls’, a group of older inmates, plan to murder Vee, but end up stabbing the wrong person. Meanwhile, Vee’s power struggles with Red carry on where they left off, culminating in Vee beating Red unconscious with a slock (a lock in a sock): an old prison favourite that ensures you can give your opponent a thorough doing, while leaving yourself unblemished.

Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) steals and hides Vee’s stash of heroin, while Vee’s gang eventually realise that she has been using them for her own ends. This leads them to turn on her after she attempts to manipulate Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) to take the blame for her attack on Red. (Later, Healy (Michael Harney) persuades Luschek (Matt Peters) to write a fake work order, which means Suzanne is off the hook and saved from being transferred to maximum security. Yay Healy! Now all he has to do is hang up his heteronormative crusader cape for good.)

Due to the double whammy of ageism and sexism, it’s unusual to see older women being badass on the small screen

Vee escapes, only to be run over by Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) (yet another Litchfield escapee) in the prison van. (The background music for the scene, ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult is a nice touch.) Rosa has cancer and only weeks to live and has managed to break out, with a little help from Lorna (Yael Stone), to enjoy her last days as a free woman.

Further revelations about the women’s relationships, and the schisms in them, mean that isolation, reconciliation and reversal of fortunes are recurring themes. For example, Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee’s friendship disintegrates because of the former’s distrust of Vee and the latter’s allegiance to her. But by the end of the season, and with Vee no longer in control of their group, their status as best buddies is restored.

Also in keeping with this theme, the end of season one shows Red going from having the coveted role of Head Chef, and everyone respecting her, to being an ostracised nobody. Here, in season two, she’s taken in by the ‘Golden Girls’ and, ever the entrepreneur, starts up another smuggling venture, using her new companions and a disused sewage drain accessed via the prison greenhouse. It’s telling that Red doesn’t use the route by which she receives her contraband to escape, but to try and regain her position as head honcho instead. Perhaps being institutionalised means that being a big fish in a little pond is more important to her than freedom.

Red eventually apologises to and makes up with Norma (Annie Golden) and Gina (Abigall Savage) (who had stopped speaking to her after Gina was badly injured when Red’s attempt to sabotage the Hispanic women’s kitchen takeover went horribly wrong).

Meanwhile, Jimmy (Patricia Squire) (an elderly inmate who has dementia), escapes from prison, turns up at one of Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) band’s gigs and is released (ostensibly to die on the streets). Litchfield apparently doesn’t have a duty of care for inmates who have the misfortune to be both in need of medical attention and over 55. Brook starts a hunger strike in protest at the conditions in the prison, and Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) joins her, making a stand against the deplorable lack of adequate support for older inmates.

Sister Ingalls craved the attention that her political activism brought her and shamelessly courted the limelight

Not only do the storylines featuring the older women draw attention to the fact that prisons aren’t equipped to deal with their vulnerabilities and health needs, they also highlight the fact that, due to the double whammy of ageism and sexism, it’s unusual to see older women being badass on the small screen (or the big screen for that matter).

Women over 50 are routinely marginalised and their experiences are woefully underrepresented. In something reminiscent of the sci-fi film Logan’s Run (where everyone dies at the age of 30), they’re spirited away lest they melt the viewing public’s eyeballs with their laughter lines and greying hair. This is a point sardonically made in the ‘Last Fuckable Day‘ sketch in which Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette pillory the media, and Hollywood’s, unsavoury and misogynistic fetishization of youth and narrow ideals of sexual attractiveness.

Another reversal of fortune comes for Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), whose former cronies oust her from their group, calling her a ‘Hillary Clinton dictator’. This seems a bit unfair, seeing as they have more than a few, real and usually male, dictators to choose from. She also manages to turn down her religious fervour a couple of notches and, as part of a deal she strikes with Healy about what she’ll say about her fight with Piper at the end of the season one, her meth-ravaged gnashers are replaced by straight, milk-white numbers.

 As always, a spotlight is shone on a few of the women’s pre-Litchfield lives, and in some (but not all) cases we find out how they ended up in the clink. It seems some made ill-advised choices are possibly a result of limited options, while others see the protagonists being victims of their own greed: Rosa, for example, was an audacious bank robber, while Lorna Morello was a scam artist and stalker. (It turns out that the Christopher she’s forever banging on about is her victim and not her fiancée.) Gloria (Selenis Leyva) is a domestic abuse survivor who committed food stamp fraud at her convenience store. Poussey was an army kid who lived on a German base and was sent back to the USA after she was found having sex with a high ranking officer’s daughter. And Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) was an airport security guard who stole from passengers. Her nine-year-old ‘sister’ is actually her biological daughter and now being brought up by her mother (the child’s grandmother).

But, most surprisingly, we discover that Sister Ingalls, the pacifist nun, isn’t inside for noble, godly reasons. It is because she committed one of the seven deadly sins – pride. She craved the attention that her political activism brought her and shamelessly courted the limelight (her brilliantly-titled autobiography is called Nun Shall Pass). This led Ingalls to be excommunicated by the church and imprisoned for handcuffing herself to a flagpole at a nuclear facility.

Caputo pursues earnest rookie guard, Fischer, and then sacks her in a fit of pique because she won’t go out with him

There are, unfortunately, some disappointments: the stereotype of gay women as sexual predators is trotted out when Big Boo (Lea Delaria) and Nicky have ‘bang-off’ (a contest to see how many women they can sleep with). Granted, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands, but it’s a nasty diversion which involves objectifying their peers by using a crude system to rate them from 1 (sexually unattractive or supposedly ‘easy’) to 10 (a guard). In the end neither of them wins, as they agree to call it a draw.

And so what of the guards and prison administrators? Moustachioed menace, Mendez (Pablo Schrieber), is out on his ass, along with his penchant for wanton abuse of power. He’s fired and then swiftly arrested because Bennett (Matt McGorry) suggests he is the father of Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) baby, as a cover for the affair that he and Daya have been having that has, of course, resulted in the pregnancy. Meanwhile, Executive Assistant to the Warden, Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), realises that her politician husband is in love with his male assistant and resigns after Caputo tells their superiors about her embezzling. Instead of being faced with a lawsuit and jail, she gets to leave scandal-free, and with a commendation, because the Warden didn’t want to take on a politician’s wife. Who says there’s one rule for the haves and another for the have nots?

Caputo shows himself to be both laudable and loathsome; on one hand, he hates the disingenuous, corporate claptrap spouted by Figueroa and cares about the inmates’ welfare, showing keenness for their voices to be heard through their newspaper and pushing for their (quite literally) shitty bathroom to be fixed; on the other, he pursues earnest rookie guard, Fischer (Lauren Lapkus), and then sacks her in a fit of pique because she won’t go out with him. Along with this, he accepts a blow job from Figueroa in return for not letting the authorities know about her embezzling (even though he’s already told on her) and feeds Sister Ingalls lines about why she’s decided to end her hunger strike. To top it all off, he keeps schtum about the fact that Bennett has confessed to being the father of Daya’s baby, basically because he doesn’t want to deal with the fallout from the revelation being made public.

As well as critical acclaim (season one of OITNB received 12 Emmy nominations and won three), OITNB has attracted criticism for the lack of realism in its portrayal of prison life. To be fair, it is indeed odd that inmates seem to wander about at will, free to enjoy lengthy, uninterrupted sex sessions in the chapel. And the idea that they would have got away with badgering external investigators about Suzanne being in the frame for the attack on Red is laughable. But, as annoying as it may be for prison purists, OITNB has never purported to be a realistic, documentary-style slice of life in a women’s jail. It’s a dramedy and by no means perfect, but still great TV.

The scripts are sharp — you’ve got to love Vee’s response to Black Cindy et al’s disgust at her attempt to blame Suzanne for the attack on Red, “Is it cold for Amazon to underprice books just to capture market share? No.” A tongue in cheek comment on the bookselling behemoth’s pricing strategy which, as well as letting us know the kind of business model Vee admires, also alerts us to the scale of her ambition. For the most part, OITNB’s characters are complex, a range of women represented in all their messy and multifaceted glory. Its focus is alliances, relationships and shades of grey.

So what’s in store in season three?

Jenji Kohan, OITNB‘s creator, has said that season three will be a little lighter and focus on faith and motherhood.

The trailer contains glimpses of new characters and poses tantalising questions and hints, about what might happen next:

  • There are new inhabitants at Litchfield (including a potential love interest for Piper) and a new guard.
  • Big Boo gets a makeover.
  • Suzanne is comforting Taystee. (But why?)
  • Bennett and Daya are still together. (Aaaahhhhh! But will it last?)
  • Alex is back in Litchfield (and asking Piper how that happened).
  • There is conflict between Gloria and Sophia (Laverne Cox).
  • It looks like Nicky’s out of her regulation khaki-coloured two piece and back in with the civvies on the outside.

Questions season three has to answer:

  • Is Vee really dead?
  • If Vee is roadkill, will Red reclaim her status as top dog?
  • What will Nicky do with the heroin she’s hiding?
  • How is Caputo going to deal with the red tape involved in his new role as Assistant Warden?
  • What’s next for Piper and Alex’s astoundingly dysfunctional relationship?
  • How is Mendez going to cope with life as a con?
  • What will happen to Daya’s baby when she finally has it?
  • When will Luschek ask Healy to return his favour, and what will it be?
  • Will Rosa be caught and taken back to spend her final days in Litchfield?

Questions we’d like season three to answer:

  • What are Big Boo, Norma, Maria (Jessica Pimentel), Flaca (Jackie Cruz), Maritza (Diane Guerrero) and Anita’s (Lin Tucci) backstories?

A question season three really shouldn’t bother itself with:

  • What happens to Polly, Larry and Pete (Nick Stevenson)? Their dull love triangle is nowhere near as engaging as the goings-on in Litchfield.

Image descriptions:

1. Head and shoulders shot of a formidable Vee in a crown made of wire that evokes a prison fence. Her hand is behind her head and she wears beige prison scrubs.

2. Head and shoulders shot of a stern Red filing her medium-length red nails with what appears to be sandpaper. She is wearing a grey/white hoodie.

Both images taken from promotional posters for season two of OITNB. Shared under fair dealing.

Dawn Kofie is a card-carrying Orange is the New Black bore. She’ll be trying her very best to savour season three. So the plan is to treat herself to an episode a week instead of gorging herself over the course of 48 hours. (We’ll see how that works out.)

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