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Friday
Jun202014

« In Which It's A Metaphor You Potato With Eyes »

Pied Piper

by KARA VANDERBIJL

Orange is the New Black
creator Jeniji Kohan 

Orange is the New Black's wildly popular first season saw Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for a crime she'd committed ten years previous: carrying a suitcase full of drug money for her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), a globetrotting drug smuggler. In Litchfield prison, Piper comes face-to-face with a colorful cast of characters whose personalities are as varied as their crimes. More importantly, she sees Alex again for the first time in a decade, and they revisit their romance, to the detriment of her "real life" relationship with Larry, her fiance. In the season finale, after a bad breakup with Larry, Piper's ongoing spat with a fellow inmate, Pennsatucky, turns violent and they exchange blows (and perhaps stabs) in the prison courtyard. Then, every bit as dreadful as its blue counterpart, an orange screen flashed, letting us know we'd have to wait another year for more.

Binge-watching is proof of television's addictive powers. Two weeks ago, I sat down to watch Orange's second season, and didn't really stand up again until I was finished. I've always been partial to this kind of media-consumption; I like being able to get to the resolution of something on my own time. With Kohan's show, binge-watching only heightens the enjoyment. You begin to think you can't escape your own home (just one more episode just one more), then the only tolerable space between you and the computer is the distance between your armchair and the fridge. It's a sad existence but damn it if Orange doesn't make it worth my time.

Season 2 opens with a disorienting trip to Chicago in the middle of the night: Piper's pulled from SHU, where she's been since the incident with Pennsatucky, and thrown onto a plane with a bunch of strangers. Nobody tells her what's going on, which makes Piper very upset, because Piper is used to people humoring her. She's tall and blonde! She lives in New York! She juices! 

As it turns out, Piper and Alex have been brought to the Windy City for the trial against Kubra Balik, Alex's former boss. Alex begs Piper to lie to the court, to tell them that she's never met Kubra, because if they tell different stories things won't go well for them. Piper balks at the dishonesty, but obeys in the end: then, in a horrible twist, finds out that Alex testified against Kubra and was given an early release.

Alex's betrayal was so satisfying that it took me a while to figure out that the smoky-voiced Vause is actually trying to protect Piper. Alex is now basically a sitting duck for Kubra's evil henchmen, stuck in an apartment in Queens getting more and more paranoid. 

Piper's perjury and potentially extended sentence are peanuts compared to being dead. Still, being dead can’t compete with her hurt feelings. It’s hard to put things into perspective when the reigning perspective has always been your own. I'm surprised she didn't yell, "I've never been a lesbian!" as Alex disappears around the bend and into freedom. 

Piper returns to a Litchfield that’s facing significant problems. Assistant warden Natalie Figueroa’s embezzling has been taking its toll: there’s human waste coming up through the shower drains, the generators in the basement have no fuel in them, and there’s a staff shortage.

Figueroa’s crimes aren’t the only ones that are beginning to show. After their dalliance last season, Daya’s pretty pregnant with Officer John Bennett’s baby, and the bigger she gets, the more she wants him to ‘fess up and face the consequences so that they can build their family on a foundation of truth. Lol. You can’t blame Bennett for being reluctant — sex between an inmate and CO is considered rape, even if it’s consensual — but it’s no wonder Daya, whose own family was a mess, wants stability for her kid.

There’s new blood on the cell block, too: a chatty political protester, Soso (Kimiko Glenn), whose wide-eyed wonder reminds us of Piper on her first day, and Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), who isn’t new blood as much as she is bad blood. She’s got some uneasy history with Red, leftover from a previous incarceration, but more importantly, she’s Taystee’s foster mother/former kingpin.

Orange has always relied on flashbacks to bust us out of Litchfield’s walls and give us insights into the lives of its main characters. We sympathize with each woman as her story unfolds, and little by little, her crimes disappear into the background. Their pasts not only explain, but also excuse their behavior.

 

Not so with Vee. In Taystee’s flashbacks, she’s a caring mother figure, who takes in a ragtag group of children, feeds them wholesome meals, and encourages them, but she’s also a cold, calculating businesswoman who gets the kids to deal for her and doesn’t hesitate to betray them when her own interests are at stake.

Toussaint plays both with elegance; her Vee is a lethal, quiet tigress. Still, despite her overall evil aura, it doesn't take long for Taystee and the other young black women to drink the Kool-Aid (or in this case, take a slice of Funfetti cake) and get pulled into her business, which involves taking power by force and intimidation, deepening the lines between the races, between those who help and those who won’t.

Power is a funny thing. There’s not much of it up for grabs in prison, but for the high price of a stick of gum or a book of stamps, you’d be surprised at how much you can acquire. The women take control of their controlled lives by bartering, bribing, and trading goods and information. On the one hand, Red and her girls smuggle in goods that help the inmates feel good about themselves: candy, pantyhose, make-up, and hair color. On the other, Vee and her posse sell cigarettes and smack, throwing Litchfield’s women into a state of barely-contained violence, the threat of which increases with every episode.

Still, the second season isn’t without the mix of cutting humor and gruff warmth that endeared Orange to us in the first place. There are a few great one-liners (“It’s a metaphor, you potato with eyes!” and “You decide to tell me that with your flaccid dick in my mouth?” are my particular favorites) and even some tearjerking moments, like when we find out Morello’s adored boyfriend is actually a man she was stalking, or at the very end, when Rosa happily escapes in one of Litchfield’s vans, fragrant cash tucked into her bra. If anything, we care more for these women, as their relationships and the glimpses into their “before” lives show us that life at Litchfield just might be the best thing that happened to many of them.

I was particularly fond of Gloria Mendoza this season, played by the unfaltering Selenis Levya. She's the one character whose crusty behavior became more and more acceptable to us as time went on; hers is the saddest flashback, filled with an abusive boyfriend and two little boys who watch her get handcuffed and taken away for trading food stamps for money. The Golden Girls, three elderly women with whom Red starts associating, take Orange into territory few shows wish to explore: old age, and what happens to people when society no longer deems them relevant. With each new insight, my compassion for the women grew.

Vee is the antagonist because she doesn’t get a past. Maybe if we’d seen snippets of her childhood — how she was abandoned by a junkie mom, or how she had to fight her way through high school because the other kids bullied her — we wouldn’t be so fully invested in hating her. We’d find somebody else to hate, like Piper, or Soso the activist and her motley crew of followers who are hunger striking for “better prison conditions.” Do you think it’s a coincidence that all of them are white?

Piper and Soso are the anti-Vee. They’re the comic relief, because they take themselves and their problems so seriously. When Piper’s grandmother falls ill, she requests a furlough and, uncharacteristically, Healy grants her one. Everyone hates her, of course, which Piper can’t wrap her head around — doesn’t she have as much a right to suffer as anybody else? Isn’t her grandmother also a person? She doesn’t realize that being able to bust out of prison for three days, to determine her own narrative instead of society determining it for her, is a slap in the face to the women around her who only get a few flashbacks — not a future.

That makes her pain incredibly funny. Not to mention maddening, which is why it’s hard to blame Crazy-Eyes Suzanne for throwing a piece of chocolate cake at the back of her head, or Alex’s ex-girlfriend for leaving a bag of flaming poop on her doorstep. Do you know anyone whose first reaction to getting punched by the person they were cuckolding is to say, “Ouch, my face”? Who cares about your face, Piper? You just ruined some girl’s life.

People like to protect Piper. It's sort of like a media bias: unless a young white woman disappears, the news doesn't care. Without her to arrest our attention and take us into Litchfield with her, we would have never gone willingly. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. This season, we would not have understood how privilege works in an environment where there are no privileges, supposedly, and who has power when everyone is supposedly powerless.

Power is a funny thing. When you don’t have it, you think the world would be better if you did, and you do everything — including things those in power did to oppress you — to get it. What most of us fail to understand is that the balance of power is more important than finding the right people to put in power: any human left alone with their own narrow perspective and a lot of influence will end up oppressing someone. It’s just the way the world works. If people were better at balancing power, things like sexism, racism, slavery, and a lot of wars probably wouldn’t have happened.

To her credit, Soso understands this (she’s a political protester, after all) and she’s not a slacktivist (she’s in prison, not angrily tweeting about the word “bossy”). What makes her comical is the belief that by changing the system, you can eradicate problems. Captain Joe Caputo shares this belief. He thinks that he can wrangle Litchfield into some sort of order if he can just get Figueroa sacked.

This works out great for him.

Orange is the New Black continues to be one of the best things on the world wide webscreen, shocking enough to ward off your grandmother and possibly your mother (it might be the only thing on the internet that really belongs to you) and heartwarming enough to make you feel like you’re improving your life or the world by watching it. Even though things resolve a little bit too neatly in the end, at least to me, it’s a wild ride from start to finish. We’re left wondering if Piper’s scheme to get Alex back in jail will actually work. Basically, we end up right back where we started — worrying about Piper.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about learning how to drive. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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Reader Comments (2)

great article
May 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMothers Day Poems
I agree with Mothers Day Poems. A very good article and worth the read
August 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAshleigh

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