Orange Is the New Black Season 2 Review
Reviewed by Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull.
At the end of the first season of Orange Is the New Black, now the most popular programme to come out of the Netflix stable, we were given a cliffhanger to mull over. One year later and I was, frankly, sick of considering all the ways they could resolve season one’s dramatic ending – and restore the equilibrium in Litchfield Penitentiary (you’ll know the place like the back of your hand come the season two finale). Showrunner Jenji Kohan – of Weeds fame – and a selection of writers manage to pull multiple punches and plenty of shocks when we meet Piper at the start of season two, now facing the consequences and the aftermath of her actions.
As ever, Taylor Schilling shines as Piper: spirited, fragile and determined to make a difference while in residence at the prison. Chapman takes less of a prominent role in season two, though this is only to be expected with new members being installed at Litchfield; resulting in more back-stories to cover in the series’ superlative flashback narrative framework. Old favourites from season one also excel; the terrific Kate Mulgrew as salty jailhouse matriarch Red, Uzo Aduba as the manic Crazy Eyes, Yael Stone as lovely, sweet Morello. Likewise, the staff return with expanded roles for venal Assistant Warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), and tough counsellors Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney): all of them performing exceptionally. Other characters are less explored onscreen, and this is a problem though I won’t name names so as to withhold any of the shocks in store.
Orange Is the New Black is a drama firmly built on its characters. In a show that centres around one place, and one lasting band of characters, you have to invest in them emotionally if you’re in for the whole ride. Had Kohan and company not written the characters as beautifully and realistically as they did, Orange Is the New Black would have been a complete non-starter.
My one reservation about season two of Orange Is the New Black is that it’s awfully bleak, much more than season one. The latter let its hair down occasionally with fun moments; the prison community tended to unite for the odd ‘party’ so there was light in the darkness. Season two lacks this relief and a few of the show’s notoriously tantalising endings are heavy affairs, meaning you have to take frequent breaks as opposed to waiting the 15 seconds for the next episode. Admittedly, time in prison isn’t the best experience of one’s life, with a hardly upbeat atmosphere, although I don’t think it would kill Orange Is the New Black to sometimes look on the bright side of life.
Going back to what I said about the writing, this is Orange Is the New Black’s strong suit. The scriptwriters manage to do something excellent, and that is give their protagonists and antagonists fully fleshed out backgrounds, almost to the point where those titles are reversed, and you’re not sure who you should be rooting for. Healy, the prison’s resident MCP, is given considerable light and shade, the same can be said for Figueroa and many of the inmates. The new villain on the block, Vee, a guileful, manipulative former kingpin, is shown sympathetically unlike Pennsatucky before her, who was shown as a deranged Christian, lacking in any real motive. Every character is supplemented, and you don’t feel short-changed with any of the flourishing back-stories. There are only one or two minor characters that you think deserve to be put in the foreground more but, naturally, there are going to be casualties in an ensemble piece such as Orange Is the New Black.
Something worth note is that Piper makes a substantial jump from the lead character to a cog in a larger machine (take the poster for season one in which she is seated in the centre, and compare it to season two’s, where it takes you a moment to place her in the throng of inmates). She still has personal drama with her old fiancé, Larry (American Pie’s Jason Biggs is given considerably less to do this season) but, much like the poster, she’s part of a bigger, wider picture.
Orange Is the New Black is a comedy, and occasionally this second season forgets this. Some episodes are peppered with terrific one-liners (check out a character’s offbeat synopsis of Toy Story) while others lean more into the drama half of the show’s umbrella description: comedy-drama. The last episode, a finale that’ll have you experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, is filled with an abundance of gags, emphasising the show’s darkly comic touch.
It was the standout hit of last year with plenty going for it, and I’m delighted to see that Orange Is the New Black has lived up to its extraordinary first season. The second string of episodes is similar to the first but with a few slight adjustments that work well. Frequently, Jenji Kohan and her squad of writers deliver terrific, bar-raising scripts and there is no faulty character in the roster. More please, and soon.