There has been no shortage of intelligent television as of late, even with those Heisenberg-shaped shadows that are casted dismally over Sunday night lounging time. Already this year viewers have been spoiled with red weddings, Matthew McConaughey “palling” around with Woody from Cheers, a sullen Sally telling a dismal Don Draper that she loves him, and even the return of a particularly famous North Dakota accent, so needless to say there has been no cerebral drought within projected television waves. Netflix, looking to corner the market on binge-watching marathons and sleepless nights, followed up the success of the first seasons of the female friendly Orange is the New Black and the insuperable (yet horrifying) House of Cards with second seasons this year.
For those living under a rock, OITNB is a dark comedy created by Jenji Kohan (of Weeds fame) based off of Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” Netflix released the first season during the summer of 2013 with vivid success and both Kohan and Netflix hoped to catch lightning in a bottle the second time around with the release of OITNB’s second season. But did they?
Since I’m skilled in the art of apparent douche-baggery, I’ll compare this particular series with a classical music piece: If you remain a virgin to Antonin Dvorak’s 9th Symphony in E minor, the 3rd movement can prove a tad sonorous. Those violins would pierce the ears and undulate in unison – swift, and even somewhat painful in a pleasuring sense. The notes drop, unforgivingly restive, before building up again, febrile to the naked ear. Kind and grasping is the music when penetrated by color as it shifts into a halcyon pace, trusting and throbbing for attention like an innuendo-filled fairytale image. That supernal tune beckons and teases before exploding. It’s powerful. It’s desperate. It’s auspicious. And it mirrors the genius that is the acting in this particular season – which, when paired up with curious and (sometimes) uncomfortable storylines, explodes like a supernova of varicolored debris.
Last we left Piper Chapman (played by the blindingly white-toothed Taylor Schilling) at her new home in a federal prison, she was literally beating the absolute hell out of fellow inmate Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) after the latter smaller woman confronted her in the prison yard with the intent of shanking Chapman with a cross. Yes, a cross. Season two opens up with Chapman in a Chicago prison, having been transferred in order to testify in the trial of her former drug lord employer.
This season not only explores Chapman’s own complex past (along with her friction with the now free Alex – played by Laura Prepon – to the collapse of her engagement with Jason Biggs’ wide-eyed Larry Bloom), but shines a light on a few questionable inmates including the unusually chirpy Lorna Morello (played by Yael Stone), the tragic Rosa Cisneros (Barbara Rosenblat), and even Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (played by the breathtakingly splendid Uzo Aduba). Despite all the happenings inside (and outside) Litchfield prison during season two (Brooks having an affair with Chapman’s best friend! Corruption among the guards! Furloughs! Awkward blow jobs!), the real story lies not within the regular characters, but with a newcomer.
Along with the return of Chapman (and a new, and meekly annoying, Asian inmate named Brook Soso – played by Kimiko Glenn), the prison is blessed with the arrival of one Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), a mother figure with a looming shadow from Taystee’s past (Danielle Brooks). It becomes clear that Vee is no stranger to the system, and quickly falls into place by nefariously setting up those (who she mistakenly believes to be weak-minded) around her to play the role of her diligent puppets, including Taystee and Suzanne. It becomes clear that Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Vee knew each other from a previous incarceration, and that although all appears friendly on the surface, we soon learn that venom runs deep between the two.
Both Mulgrew and Brooks are veteran actresses and play easily off each other, the proof being in each diabolical scene-stealing frame either appear in. Vee begins to take over the prison with her arranged posse at her side and, in a power play to claim turf, purposely causes tension between the blacks and Latinas after she and her pawns take over the Latinas’ bathroom. She starts up her own little exchange business on the inside by smuggling in the ingredients to make her own cigarettes and soon monopolizes Red’s own vendors from the inside.
However, the world that Vee built begins to crumble after she begins to traffic in hard drugs by way of a sewage system discovered by Red in the prison’s abandoned greenhouse. When all the inmates are forced to sleep in the mess hall during a violent storm that floods the plumbing system, Red and Vee get into a physical confrontation where Red takes the upper hand (despite a “slight” altercation with some plastic wrap), but decides to not kill Vee in the eleventh hour. Both call a truce, which is quickly vaporized when Vee brutally attacks Red the next day, and nearly beats her to death. After Vee convinces Suzanne to take the fall, the pawns she so counted on, headed by Taystee, turn on her after the theft of Vee’s stash of heroin.
The climax comes to a head when Vee escapes via the sewage tunnel under the greenhouse after Taystee and the gang go to confess that it was Vee, and not Suzanne, who attacked Red. The prison goes on lockdown, leaving both Morello and Rosa (who had just returned from learning that the cancer that was eating away at Rosa would kill her in less than a month) locked outside the gates. The morally gracious (and sensitive) Morello ends up leaving the keys in the prison van and during a brief (but highly touching) moment, she tearfully tells Rosa that her last days shouldn’t be spent behind bars. Rosa ends up taking the van and flees the prison grounds dramatically. Set to Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” that’s blasting over the vehicle’s speakers, Rosa spots Vee as she emerges from the wooded area outside of the prison walls and swerves the van in order to successfully run down and (supposedly) kill the treacherous woman.
“Always so rude, that one,” Rosa calmly mumbles as she drives off into the sunset.
It seems like Kohan is looking to redeem herself for the lackluster way Weeds started to decline after its second season. Let’s hope, for the sake of intelligent TV, she keeps on the brilliant path she’s paving for herself in the coming seasons of OITNB.