CAUTION: GROTESQUE SPOILERS AHEAD
The first season of Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” was something like a proof of concept that worked almost too well. A cast of insanely diverse characters of multitudes never seen before on television, to my knowledge, paired with a quick-witted script that often toed the line between knee-slapper and tear-jerker several times within the same episode. It was a lowish-budget gamble that, along with “House of Cards,” put Netflix on top of the television game, and it wasn’t even broadcast on a network. “OITNB” was the televised revolution that the TV Renaissance seemingly had been leading up to.
But with anticipation comes an equal amount of expectation; to be even funnier, even sadder, somehow more bewilderingly creative. “OITNB”s second season didn’t really meet any of these marks, which is to be expected, given the ages-old “sophomore slump” and the nature of critiquing these things. Still, its reliance on contradictory and predictable plotlines, coupled with its amazingly “meh” finale, make the latest season something of a downer.
I spent most of the interim months between finishing the first season and this new one coming out proselytizing “OITNB” to my friends, fawning over its groundbreaking cast and captivating plot. Many of them gave it a try, but those who didn’t latch on generally cited the acting or the meandering storyline. One of these things is better in the new season, the other is not. The performances of the usual suspects is actually much better than in season one. Apparently, much of the cast squeezed some acting lessons in between their public appearances, which subsequently allowed for a greater portion of the spotlight to be shown on them. Perhaps the biggest improvements were made by Taystee and Poussey, whose relationship becomes strained when an interloper and former crime boss of Taystee’s, Vee, enters Litchfield. With this, we get a fleshing out of all three backstories, revealing that Taystee is actually a mathematical pseudo-savant, and Poussey a twice-heartbroken punk.
The writers of the series also took minor character’s stories to new heights. Rosa, who for most of the first season was just an old fat background character, is revealed to have lived an insane life of crime and tragedy. Sister Ingalls was actually a hippie nun before being arrested for trespassing on a nuclear plant. Lorna Morello’s husband-in-waiting actually has a restraining order against her, and their romance is an artifice of her own mental disorders. Administrator Joe Caputo is actually a nice, cool bass guitar-playing dude, who wants to take down assistant warden and embezzler Natalie Figueroa, who also happens to have a husband who is running for state senate who is a closeted homosexual. Sorry for the run-on there, but that one might be the best of all of them.
These three or four arcs are probably the most compelling, amidst the rest of the stories that were incomplete going into the season and remain immature coming out of it. Piper, the main character, inhabits an arc that begins ridiculous (she commits perjury to stay in jail with girlfriend Alex, who then gets acquitted), gets interesting (she gets furlough to attend her grandma’s funeral) and finishes flat (she is almost unseen in the finale). Officer Bennett, who knocked up inmate Daya Diaz and then framed the sacked Officer “Pornstache” Mendez for it, all share a plotline that goes nowhere. Mendez is even brought back for almost no reason, only to be fired again and arrested at the end of the episode. Red is still a saucy, intolerable Russian ice queen. Pennsatucky becomes irrelevant. Sophia Burset, played by the amazing Laverne Cox, also becomes disappointingly boring, and mostly only appears to deliver smarmy one-liners. Soso, the only other new recurring character besides Vee, is just plain annoying, and seemingly added in only so there would be a prominent Asian character on the show.
I imagine it’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop the minor characters in the brilliant way that they were, without sacrificing some of the main ones. It’s just unfortunate that the writers seemed to press pause on some of the most captivating storylines from the previous season, in favor of arcs that were captivating but ultimately inconsequential to the main storyline. Or maybe this is something to be admired, a deft way to shift focus from one character to another. After all, we can’t focus on Piper forever, and one thing the “OITNB” team innovated last season was the art of the flashback.
There were ups and downs and surprises and predictable moments throughout Season Two, but perhaps the biggest letdown was the ending. After Figueroa gets it almost literally rubbed in her face (in a very lazy way, I might add) that she is a criminal, Caputo takes charge of a prison on the brink of comical collapse. Vee’s followers turn on her, and she subsequently flees to avoid charges for beating Red to a pulp. Meanwhile, Rosa finds out her chemo isn’t working and she has only weeks to live. This all collides — again, literally — when Vee escapes through a drain pipe into the forrest, and Rosa does the same via a hijacked van. Rosa then, in an annoying bit ofdeus ex machina, comes across the fleeing Vee and runs her over with the van, laughing maniacally while simultaneously morphing into her youthful self for a second, done in a really weird CGI sequence that is kind of poignant but also awkward looking. And then it fades to orange, and you half expect some voice to implore you to “tune in next time, folks!” None of this had to happen for any motivated reason, but apparently the writers were rushing to get the finale done in time or something.
Overall, the second season of OITNB is certainly worth a viewing if you’re a loyal fan. For those who watched the whole first season and were a bit apprehensive, this season isn’t going to sway you otherwise. And if you haven’t finished the first season and don’t plan to, and you just read all of this for some reason, well, I guess you’re welcome.