Our favorite show that rarely isn’t passing the Bechdel test brought us season two this past Friday, at 3 a.m. EST. I was the there for you readers. Angelina and Alyson will be bringing you episode by episode recaps. This post is for those of us that swallowed our OITNB in one bite, and the rest of you when you’ve caught up. Needless to say, spoilers abound.
Instead of a play-by-play of what happened to whom, I thought we could explore some of the season-wide themes, character arcs, and, of course, the efficiency of a tampon-based economy. We’ll wait for the ‘caps to talk specifics, but feel free to bring up moments you loved or found noteworthy in the comments below.
While we’ve met most of the faces on our screens last season, a few newbies have been added to the mix. The most significant of these, Vee, is played by the luminous Lorraine Toussaint. Vee is terrifying, brilliant, and charismatic. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) has known Vee since she was a precocious foster kid looking for a forever family. Vee’s greatest talent is manipulating and exploiting those she considers more vulnerable than herself, we see her manipulate Taystee’s friend R.J. (Eric D. Hill Jr.), Taystee herself, Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Red (Kate Mulgrew), and, most cruelly, sweet, gentle Suzanne (Uzo Aduba.) Vee’s been to Lichtfield before, several times by her own admission, and she knows how to exploit the system better than just about any of the inmates. Unlike Red’s kitchen/greenhouse mercantile of panty hose, colorful eyeshadow, and real lotion, Vee imports first tobacco, then hard drugs.
Vee adds necessary conflict to the prison. While last season was groundbreaking, and introduced us to a fantastic roster of complex female characters, aside from a few minor scuffles and Hurricane Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), the conflict between the main characters was minimal. Drama needs conflict to keep the stakes high, and Vee definitely brings the conflict. She’s a great foil for Red, an illuminating force in telling us more about Taystee, Black Cindy, Poussey (Samira Wiley), and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). On top of all this, Toussaint just kills it, not only by being the most riveting part of every scene she’s in, but by elevating the performances of everyone around her. I’ve been a huge fan since her turn in the highly underrated Lifetime drama Any Day Now, and I was aware of the gravitas she could bring to a performance, but as Vee, she’s a revelation. Please, Hollywood, cast her in more things.
Several significant, if small, roles from season one have been expanded. We learn more about Rosa (played by Stephanie Andujar in flashbacks, Barbara Rosenblat in the present), a real life Bonnie with a series of deceased Clydes behind her, who’s now dying of ovarian cancer. We get to know the Golden Girls, four senior women more than willing to let their fellow inmates underestimate them to gain an upper hand. Well, three and Jimmy, who is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, who’s put on the streets under the guise of “compassionate release” when the guards can’t stop (and don’t try very hard) her from wandering away. Leanne, Tucky’s former right-hand woman, is given a larger role, sliding in to Tucky’s role as Top Heather among the meth girls when Tucky is de-throned. We get a backstory for Morello (heartbreaking), Black Cindy (heartbreaking), Poussey (heartbreaking), and even a little of Piper’s BFF, Polly (boring.)
In the first episode, when Piper is sent to Chicago to fuck up her life even more, we meet another assortment of women inmates, including the always solid oddball Lori Petty as a seatmate of Piper’s, and a woman (Amelia Fowler) who sings “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” while she poops. She’s pretty good.
Finally, we meet Soso (Kimiko Glenn), a young, idealistic hippie who is, I assume, an avatar for who Piper was last season. She has some very funny moments, but she’s sort of Piper’s Manic Pixie Dream Hippy, and I’m not really here for Piper’s journey.
With all the new faces, some of our friends from last season get a bit of a short shrift, most notably Sophia (Laverne Cox.) Sophia’s moments are all stand-outs, so everyone is certainly making the most of the limited screen time she has, but I was hoping for more. Cox has incredible comic timing, and her scenes definitely make the most of it, especially in an extended gag about confusion regarding female anatomy.
Jenji Kohan, OITNB’s showrunner, throws a lot of stuff at the screen this season. For the most part, it’s successful. At times, it feels like she’s trying to cram all the things women never get to see represented on screen in at once, but each nibble is such a rare treat in any other entertainment, I’m not complaining. For example:
- Women having orgasms.
- Women over 40.
- A spectrum of women’s bodies.
- A spectrum of sexuality.
- Women who are complex and nuanced, even the villains.
- Feminist humor.
- Women of color who are the center of their own stories.
- Mental illnesses and disabilities don’t define the women who have them.
- Plus, there’s a dig at Hannah Rosin in the finale, and it’s hilarious.
On top of all this, Kohan addresses racism, sexism, homophobia, religion, rape culture, prison reform, elder care, classism, poverty, and apathy; all in about 14 hours.
It’s ambitious, it’s revolutionary, and it doesn’t always work, but I’m more than willing to forgive the sporadic hiccup in return for the effort even being made.
Season Two MVPs
Aside from the over-the-top portrayal of Pornstache, there isn’t really a weak performance in the bunch, but Lorraine Toussaint and Samira Wiley both wildly exceeded my already-high expectations. Toussaint’s Vee should go down in history as one of the best television villains ever, and if you’re not utterly in love with Wiley after her beautiful and sweet portrayal of Poussey as she finds her own strength, I think you might be dead inside. Her eyes deserve an Emmy each.
What did you think, readers? Tell me about your favorite moments in the comments.