Our judicial system may have outlawed cruel and unusual punishment, but we’re about to inflict some serious, undeserved torture on you.
The new season of Orange Is the New Black is excellent. It’s just really freaking excellent.
It’s better than the breakout first season, even, finally equalizing the wildly—though thrillingly—undulating tones and sprawling cast of characters into a streamlined and balanced, but just as original and bracing, mode of storytelling that makes the 13 episodes more bingeworthy than ever.
And you’re going to have to wait three more weeks to devour them.
It’s not fair, we know. The new season won’t be released on Netflix until June 6 and we’re taunting you with news about how fantastic it is. But as Piper Chapman learned in Season 1, life’s not fair—especially life in prison. And, thanks to the rabidness with which we consumed OITNB’s quirky, bleak, devastating, and wildly entertaining first season, we’ve all happily sentenced ourselves for long terms with the women of Litchfield prison. And in that spirit, we’re going to tease you with the details about just how good these new episodes are.
Because, yeah, they’re really good.
The first episode of season two picks up a few weeks after the jaw-dropper (and, as the plot would have it, jaw-breaker) of a cliff hanger that ended the first season, with Piper (Taylor Schilling) beating rival prisoner “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning) to possible death outside in the snow. When we reunite with Piper, she’s being roused by a prison guard and marched out of the SHU, which OITNB fans know is shorthand for solitary confinement. (One of the new season’s earliest, best lines, comes from Piper’s pre-prison-life friend, Polly, who flippantly gives an update of her most recent conversation with Piper: “She freaked out and got sent to live in a shoe, or something.”)
Unsettlingly, no one tells her where she’s being marched to, even as she’s put on a bus, then put on a plane, and processed into a new prison. You should probably apologize in advance to all of your neighbors for all the times you will be shouting at your screen, “IS THIS EVEN LEGAL!?!?”
Piper, of course, is OITNB’s heroine, though that might be a lofty title to bestow on her, given how quickly her morals were corrupted, how irritating her behavior became, and the fact that she was, you know, a criminal in the first place.
A well-adjusted city girl with a good life and a good job, she’s thrown in jail for a crime she pseudo-unknowingly committed a decade earlier. With seemingly no business being in prison and no idea of what was in store for her, she was our similarly naïve eyes into Litchfield. And played with the wide eyes of actress Taylor Schilling, Piper was like Bambi being thrown into the slaughterhouse. Season one of OITNB chronicled her clumsy, fumbling attempts to get her legs under her so she could run for safety.
Safety, it turns out, was learning to become part of the prison culture—deciding that it was pointless to run away or act above the fellow inmates, and release yourself to the freefall down the rabbit hole to where the morally ambiguous prison community lives. It’s at the bottom of that rabbit hole that Piper found herself beating up Pennsatucky, being sent to the SHU, and ending up transported to the new prison.
We soon learn that she’s been temporarily moved to Chicago for the trial of the drug dealer that landed both her and her one-time girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon) in jail. Yep, we can confirm Alex is definitely back this season—we saw her with our own eyes!—and plays a major part in the first episode. When it was announced that Prepon would only appear in four episodes of this season (the premiere is one of them), OITNB wondered how the vibe of the show would work without their tortured, tangled romance as a central plot. Those people won’t get their answer in the first episode, because the only familiar face besides Piper you see in it is Alex’s.
That’s right. The entire first hour of the new season doesn’t feature—prominently, at least—any of the other Litchfield inmates. It’s an entire episode focused on Piper and Alex and how their complicated relationship leads Piper to embrace the more reckless side of her personality. A series of flashbacks to Piper’s childhood show that she was always diligent to avoid “unnecessary risk,” but there’s something about Alex, it becomes obvious, that convinces her to throw that lifelong caution to the wind.
The episode ends with one of those big, heart-stopping, stress-inducing cliffhangers that mark one of the few occasions that the term “OMG” is actually an appropriate descriptor, and which get you to immediately click the “Play Next Episode” button that pops up on Netflix—aiding and abetting your binging addiction. But the thing about the episode is that it offers absolutely no indication about what the rest of the season is going to be like.
It’s an impeccably written, terrifically acted episode. But it’s also a “bottle episode,” a term used to describe an episode of a TV show that sort of freezes-in-time the show’s universe in order to zero in on the character or plot development of just one or two characters, sort of like a stand-alone one-act play. (The “One Man’s Trash” episode of Girls and “The Suitcase” episode of Mad Men are good examples of this.) It’s a strange decision to start a season with a bottle episode, but also a really bold one. Of course, we wouldn’t expect anything less strange or less bold from OITNB.
But then episode two opens, a riotous scene back at Litchfield where the girls are getting dressed in business clothes for a mock job fair being held at the prison, and it’s like being home again. God help us all, this show has made us feel at a home in a prison.
There was a blissful feeling after the premiere of the first season that all of those great roles for women of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and orientations that had been locked away somewhere in Hollywood had been set free. That their freedom came in a series about a prison was humorous irony. In this season, they’re not just free, they’re blossoming.
Pennsatucky (spoiler: she lives!) is a transfixing blend of disturbing and adorable as she flaunts a bit of a cosmetic makeover. Danielle Brooks as Taystee makes an infectious joie de vivre turn positively heartbreaking, as the spark in her eye is so frequently extinguished with the disappointment of her lot in life—more and more as the season continues, thanks to the introduction of Lorraine Toussaint as “Vee,” a woman from Taystee’s past who shows up at Litchfield as the season’s resident shit-stirrer.
The same structure that began last season—the daily prison life is interspersed with “origin stories” of sorts, revealing how the inmates landed in jail—is the same here, allowing for showcases for the actresses and characters we’ve been clamoring to learn more about.
Look for hints at how Suzanne Warren became Crazy Eyes (not to mention a wrenching, fantastic performance by Uzo Aduba) and some heartbreaking developments in the planning of Lorna Morello’s fantasy wedding to her beloved Christopher during early-in-the-season flashbacks. (Yael Stone, who was the unsung hero of OITNB’s first season as Morello, finally gets the chance to sing in her juicy episode, and she more than rises to the occasion.)
It’s near impossible to single out every standout actress in this series (the brilliant Laverne Cox, Natasha Lyonne, and Kate Mulgrew are still brilliant) or plot development. Though we will say Piper gets a new roommate—a fan-favorite character—and you’ll want to raise a glass of vodka (wink wink) at the writers’ amazing choice.
We’ll also say that this season is a lot less Piper-centric. The balance has switched: Piper is now a veteran inmate, too. She has power. She knows how to intimidate. She’s assimilated. So it actually makes creative sense that she’s folded into the ensemble more seamlessly. Though make no mistake, this is still Piper’s story. The aggravating presence of Jason Biggs as her husband, Larry—yep, he’s back, too—is proof of that.
Also back is that impeccable writing, packed with all the weird, wonderful one-liners that fans fell in love with last season. Prepare to delight in the best Groupon joke that may have ever been put on TV, and bust a gut at the most hilarious, politically incorrect clue-and-answer given in a game of Celebrity ever. Clue: “Chick whose husband died way too young.” Answer: “White Michelle Williams.”
But as much as the season retains its sense of quirky fun, it’s still jarring to be thrown back into jail with these girls and once again be affronted with the uncomfortable, seemingly unjust realities of prison life. The paranoia that comes from the helplessness the inmates feel at the mercy of a court system and prison guards they have no control or power over, but who have ultimate control over them. The disturbing pace and ease with which they resign themselves to the lifestyle and surrender their dignity, and maybe even their humanity, too.
Of course, the terrific thing that OITNB does is take that darkness, that Oz-like grit, and imbue it with some estrogen and a sense of humor. So while most of us can only imagine the horror of having to poop in the middle of a room of strangers—oh, brace yourself for a lot of bathroom-going scenes in this new season—OITNB manages a way to telegraph the mortification of such an act while having us laugh at it, too. (At one point, a character sings a rousing rendition of Carole King’s “Natural Woman” while sitting on the can, some…uhhh…percussion from her “bottom” scoring the song.)
But if OITNB successfully depicts how prison life strips these women of their humanity, it’s also so engrossing because of its steadfast mission to bring humanity to a cast of characters that, on any other show, would just be cartoon characters in the pursuit of laughs rather than real people. It’s the fact that these women seem like real people, though, that make Taystee’s glowing sassiness, Nichols’s lesbionic wryness, or Crazy Eyes’s unsettling oddness so damned funny. Their pain is so believable that their humor is, too.
That’s the secret sauce that hooked us—the combination of scariness, authenticity, and heart—turning Orange Is the New Black into Netflix’s first mass-appealing phenomenon and us into gluttonous fans starving for more episodes. They’re coming soon, and they’re so tasty. So get ready to binge.
These next three weeks, though? Yeah, they’re gonna be torture.