When I saw the first season of Orange Is The New Black I was in awe of how good it was. I watched the first season in about two and a half days, which is pretty fast for me. Orange Is The New Black's first outing had a lot of great female characters. Actually it encompasses almost entirely of female characters. There are some male characters, but they didn't get to show their potential all that much in season one. Season two is all around great for every character and in some ways it's much better than the first one. Before I take a look at the season as a whole and review it, I just want to go through some of the characters from season one. Also there are some minor spoilers here and there.
Myriad of characters
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the lead character, gets sentenced to jailed for transporting money for her ex-girlfriend who was working for a drug dealer. Unfortunately for her, prison life doesn't seem to be agreeing with her at first. It doesn't make it better that she gets placed in the same prison as her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). At the same time Piper is really naive and starts feuding with the different cellmates. The way she never changed or learned anything in the season made her really unlikable. I must admit I sometimes had problems with this, because if the lead is not someone you root for then what's the point? At the same time I appreciated that the lead character was unlikable. All too often the lead character is a goody two shoes, who never does anything wrong. It was for some reason satisfying watching Piper making the same mistake over and over. It makes her so much more human. When that is said, if the character doesn't change at some point, you stop caring about her. Did she change in season two? Both yes and no. Fortunately there is a lot of great characters in this show. So even if the lead character at times bombed, I won't have to worry. Season two really progresses a lot of the characters, which I love. Also, I am not sure anymore if Piper really is the lead character. Many of the other characters take center stage. Season two is a complex piece of television, it may be overcrowded at times, but makes do with the characters superbly. I am not sure if I like it better than season one. But great television none the less.
I have talked a lot about the great characters, let's really delve into these lovelies. We have Galina 'Red' Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) that leads the kitchen in the first season. In season two she has been demoted and lost her family. Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) is part of her gang, and family. But nowadays hangs more around Piper and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria). On the other side of the coin we have Tasha 'Taystee' Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey Washington (Dascha Polancho) who horses around and never takes anything serious. This changes drastically in season two. Pipers first prison wife in the form of the utterly crazy Suzanne 'Crazy Eyes' Warren (Uzo Aduba). She gets a lot more to do in season two, and actually progresses to a real live flesh and blood character. Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) battles with Red in the first season for the position of chef of the prison. When season two starts up Gloria has retained the rights of chef. Nice, accommodating and likable Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) resides by Red and Nicky's side, crazy and antagonizing Tiffany 'Pensatucky' Dogget (Taryn Manning), hairdresser extravaganza Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), the silent and accommodating Norma Romano (Annie Golden), the former nun Sister Jane Ingalls (Beth Fowler), the yoga guru Yoga Jones (Constance Schulman) are among some of the great characters we get to see. The staff comprises of Joe Caputo (Nick Sandrow), George 'Pornstache' Mendez (Pablo Schrieber) and John Bennett (Matt McGorry).
It's really hard reviewing this season without at least talking about all of them. It's amazing how well these characters are integrated into the show without it ever feeling too overcrowded. But the show somehow juggles the characters and gives them the space they need. The flashbacks are back again, but this time around it's utilized much better. Some of the characters forgotten last season gets their own flashbacks and they come out better for it. The flashbacks still feel tacked on, but they are better integrated and add more to the show.
We also get some new faces in the form of Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint) and Cindy 'Black Cindy' Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore). While not as groundbreaking as season one this chapter is still great television, with some of the greatest female actors I have seen in a great while. The worst parts of the series, is still Piper, and while she has some glimmers of hope, she is still the naive lovesick puppy we see from season one. Still one of the best series out there. Let's dig into the juicy bits.
Meet your new cellmates
After literally punching the teeth and lights out of Pensatucky in season one finale, Piper gets sent to another prison. We are meant to think this is the reason for her being shipped there. But it turns out she is going to testify against Alex Vause's (Laura Prepon) drug-dealing boss. After all the shit Piper went through in season one, you'd think she'd hardened. But after her punchfest of Pensatucky she regresses back to the old naive Piper. At least for one episode. It's really frustrating watching a show knowing the lead character is going to make the same mistakes over and over. At least season two corrects this in episode two and going forward. I read some stuff about the season that Piper was going to be hard and cold, and while that is kinda how she gets, I didn't feel they did it justice. Maybe I was expecting to much? Either way, season two is not Piper's show at all. It is all the other characters who are greatly fleshed out, go through a lot and for the better for it at the end of the season. For one thing Schillings acting isn't all that great. Yeah she can be cold and unlikable, and she do that great. But in the big emotional scenes it looks like she's at a loss. I may be out of line here, but maybe it was wrong to get this actress or a white female to play the lead?
The other person that gets the most amount of screen time, and probably even more than Piper, is Red. In season one I was in awe of the transformation of the scary Red to the helpless person we saw at the end. In season two she starts out this way and keeps going the same road. The difference from her and Piper is that she seems to learn from her mistakes. While we could see that she would be a revenge laden woman at the end of season one, her persona in season two is much more calmed. This is of course until her old pal Vee shows up, and an all out war between them starts. Mulgrew plays Red with an interesting calm, frightened and nervous palette that suits the character greatly. While the scary and intense Red from season one was interesting to watch, this persona is someone you can relate more to. It also shows she is not the cold woman the first season tried to picture her.
Nicky was one of the characters that didn't get much screen time compared to the big hitters. In season one she did get her own flashback and we also saw her kicking her habit. Nicky always was one of the characters that belonged in the show, but that the writers didn't know what to do with. She's kinda the same in season two, except now she plays more off the other characters. I really like her bonding with Piper. Unfortunately Nicky gets no flashback this time around. Before Orange is the new Black I only knew Lyonne from the American Pie movies. In this show she gets to show her acting chops, and in this season I have an even bigger love for this character.
In season one Suzanne was a character that was just crazy and pressured Piper to be her prison wife, and nothing more. This is further from the truth in the second outing of the show. Vee takes a liking to Suzanne and starts showing her the ropes. Of course, Suzanne is still the crazy one, and this is exhilarating to watch but this time around there is a method to the madness. Crazy Eyes gets her first flashback and we learn why she is so possessive of her friends. Uzo is great as the deranged Suzanne, and even though she is stark raving mad, I don't feel that the character is crazy just to be a comic-relief. She breaks out of the characters mold season one created and she is all the better for it.
Taystee and Poussey are always a hoot to see together. This time around there's trouble a brewing, and of course it has something to do with Vee. It turns out that Vee paved the road for Taystee's criminal career. Vee showing up in the prison doesn't make it any better, and slowly but surely she is turning them against each other. This makes for some great drama, but at the same time I am not fond of the way the writers do it. It is way too brief and before you know it they are pals again. Brooks is at times hilarious as Taystee, but in season two she gets to show her more serious side and she masters this as well. While there were enough serious acting in season one, still back then she was more of the comic-relief. Poussey gets greatly fleshed out in season two as well, even though her flashback isn't all that interesting unfortunately. Other than that Wiley gets to show her lengthy acting capabilities.
The real standout of season two, and finally getting her own flashback is Morello. Stone really knocks it out of the park this time around. In season one we saw the lovesick puppy getting ready to get married when she got out of prison. This time it all gets turned on it's head in her own flashback. Who knew sweet and accommodating Morello would be this conniving and seriously wacked out? Even though I still feel for her. When I saw season one, I thought that this characters had potential to be something great. How right was I? This is the best flashback so far in the series, and I was not expecting this. We get a better understanding of how Morello is put together, and this path is most definitely the right way to go for this character. I love it when shows depicts something and then just turn everything you knew on the head. It could have been contrived, but the way the episode and the flashback is built up makes a convincing case for this. Stone is up to the task, and I am happy camper.
Now I have to get into Vee and the complexities of the character. No matter how unlikable this character and her motivations are, it's still a testament to how complex and fun it is to watch her play the other cellmates. Toussaint plays her with an uncertainty that is so far beyond the other actors. In one scene she is weak and vulnerable, and in the next minute with a strong smile she has gotten what she wanted. She plays her pieces close to the vest, but when we see the full scope of her plans I'm on my knees in awe of the character. All through the season she shows herself like a better chess player than Red. A more worthy opponent she shouldn't be asking for. With a season full of standout characters Vee takes the cake.
There are loads of other characters, and I can't really write too much more about them, because I have to stop at some point. But Brook Soso is a decent addition to the fold, and while she isn't a central character, she is still a voice of dissent against how the prison handles the prisoners. This becomes a very important topic, and Caputo also leads the charge as the likable assistant to the warden. In season one he was the odd man out who didn't seem to care about the prison. This time around he becomes more interested in doing the right thing. We also get to see a more sweet side to him, and especially through his interactions with the prisoners and him playing in a band. He starts to butt heads with the warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner). If you had told me Caputo would be one of my favorite characters in season two, I would not have believed you. I liked him in season one yes, but he really didn't get much to do. In season two we see him from a more human side, and it helps that we learn more about him and his personal life.
One of the best qualities of this season is how the storylines are built up. Especially the A-plot line, with Red and Vee. It starts off really slowly with Red out of the kitchen. When Vee meets Red again the feuding starts right off the bat. We don't see the full scope of the plan in the beginning, and we're start to feel where this is going. I was dead fooled when Vee was crying and really vulnerable when trying to get what she wanted. At the end of the scene she had turned a corner and was smiling devilishly. This is also how the season progressed. We didn't see where the plot threads were going, but they were weaving them out none the less. When the pieces of the puzzles formed with crazy eyes, Red and Taystee and Pouessy, you'll get it. When you do, it's really rewarding and I love the show for it. When that is said, there are some stuff that just didn't gel for me.
In season two Jason Biggs' character Larry Bloom (Piper's ex) got even more screen time. It was cute to see him and Piper's best friend Polly Harper (Maria Dizzia) bond. But then it suddenly moved over to a crush and they had sex. Why is it that women and men can't be just friends in television? We see it in real life, and it works. But I guess that isn't good enough drama for the viewers. Well, I am one of those who would've liked to see them just being friends and not hook up. But maybe that is just me? What started out as something cute, just turned the wrong corner.
Yes Piper, I am starting to really not care about this character. As I've stated previously, I was not a big fan of her in season one. The problems is when the lead characters gets so uninteresting that you don't care about her. After the horrible regression in episode one Piper gets more hardened. She is much better for it in season two, but at the same time she pines too much over Alex still. This time around though she is much more angry at her, but still we see that she cares about her. It's really annoying that this character can't seem to change her naivety one bit. When me as a viewer really looks forward to see what the other characters are up to when Piper is onscreen, it is a symptom that won't easily be cured. I just wished they could've made her more interesting.
Make it or break it
Good characters make and break a televison show for me. Orange Is The New Black took what it had in season one and made it even better. I just can't for the life of me understand how they juggle all these characters, and do it so well. Even the smallerish roles get something to do. The main plot line of the season really wins me over with the feuding between Red and Vee. But hadn't it been for great characters this would not have worked. It will be interesting to see which way they go with the next season. Can they keep up the momentum?