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As with Orange Is The New Black’s first season, we will be covering two episodes of the show’s second season weekly, with regular reviews posting Tuesday mornings at 11am Eastern. These reviews will be written without foreknowledge of what takes place in future episodes, and thus will feature no spoilers for later episodes. If you wish to discuss the entire season, visit Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the complete season here —if posting here, please be respectful of those moving at a slower pace and avoid spoiling or heavily alluding to future developments in the comments.

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“Comic Sans” (season 2, episode 7) and “Appropriately Sized Pots” (season 2, episode 8)

Even as the series embraces a new collection of perspectives in its second season, Orange Is The New Black broadly remains a show about the prison system and the people within it. However, this season in particular, there are two completely different shows functioning within that broader premise, as the guards and the inmates each feel as though they’re in their own struggles within the system.

“Comic Sans” features Caputo’s efforts to turn Piper’s Big House Bugle into a state-supported newspaper by inserting a regular feature profiling one of the guards. Piper calls him on its similarity to Us Magazine’s “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” column, but he doesn’t seem to care, because he believes this will solve the tensions between the two sides. What he doesn’t know is that the season has been charting the inevitable collision between the two sides, despite the fact that neither one fully understands the logics driving the other. Caputo has no idea that the battle between Red and Vee is heating up and raising the stakes in the smuggling of contraband when he’s forced to introduce a shot quota. He thinks he’s in his own television show about the challenges facing a prison administrator with a boss who doesn’t understand the day-to-day running of the prison and employees that are for a variety of reasons—that he has no knowledge of—failing to do their jobs competently.

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This season has done a nice job of making that story resonate, even if it’s hard to show Caputo too much sympathy. He’s not a bad person by any stretch, but he has his flaws, including singling out Fischer for punishment mainly out of spite for not embracing his almost completely illegible romantic overtures. And yet at the same time he’s not wrong about Fischer needing to toughen up: she was the one who let  Morello escape away to Christopher’s house, after all, as we’re reminded in “Appropriately Sized Pots” when Rosa notes her guard on the day of her chemo treatment is one of the few who regularly checks on the driver in the parking garage. If there are concerns about the guards failing to keep the inmates in line, Fischer is an easy target given that she is so clearly pleasant and friendly to them. Caputo doesn’t know that Bennett impregnated one of them and is running contraband for others, or that Bennett was too busy having sex with Daya to properly secure the party and keep Cavanagh from wandering off to the Sideboob show. Fischer’s “failure” is more visible, and he fires her as a show of force at the end of what we could call “Joe Caputo’s No Good Very Bad Day.”

What makes a good prison employee? Nicky suggests to Fischer following her firing that this is the best thing to happen to her. No one should want to work in this horrible place. She should go to a technical college, or a cosmetology school, and do something that won’t destroy her soul. As Nicky points out, Fischer has the power to leave, to be able to pack up her things and walk away from an environment that almost no one would willingly walk into. She might have had dental, and she might have been paying off her Kia, but it was at the expense of being asked to contribute to a system she didn’t believe in. She was fired for standing up for her way of doing things, when her way of doing things—despite being far more humane and reasonable, from our perspective—was never going to fly with someone like Caputo who’s constantly under pressure from Fig, and constantly being taken advantage of by both his employees and the inmates.

Caputo loses his mind as he tours the prison in “Appropriately Sized Pots,” breaking down at Red’s greenhouse when he finally decides to take a big swing in his daily game of whack-a-mole and comes up empty when Red’s a step ahead of him. One could argue Caputo and the guards fit into the category of television authority figures who exist solely to make mistakes that benefit our protagonists, incompetent enough for engaging television to take place. They need to be ignorant to Vee and Red’s war for control because if they shut it down there would be no show, and they need to be ignorant to Daya’s pregnancy because it helps create narrative tension. But at the same time, their “incompetence” often makes them more compassionate, and more willing to embrace principles of health and safety—like Sister Ingalls’ smuggled cornbread to fight off low blood sugar—as opposed to rigid structures of law and order.

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These episodes are very invested in humanizing the prison bureaucracy, but it’s doing a nice job of making it clear that just because someone is human doesn’t mean they’re a good person. Healy is still a misogynist and a homophobe, but he’s also incredibly humane delivering bad news to Rosa, and is not wrong in his advice to Piper about how to accept the good news of her furlough even if it reeks of privilege, given how little good news you see come out of the prison system. Fig is still presumably funneling money out of Litchfield into her husband’s election campaign, but she’s convinced herself that the only way to create real change in the prison system is through politics, and that her—clearly gay—husband is the best chance she has. While the show has been clear that each has actively abused their position in ways that have negatively affected inmates and only increased the corruption of the system, these episodes seek to show the audience that they’re more wrong-headed than outright evil. It is not that they don’t believe in making the prison system better, but rather that they operate with fundamental misunderstandings of how the prison system works.

I was initially skeptical of the increased role for the guards, but what sold me on it was that it didn’t violate the cardinal rule of the series: there is no central character. Caputo is ostensibly in charge, but the show still finds time to give us Bell and O’Neill’s tearful reunion. Bennett is still more caught up in the plot like the other characters, but Luschek (admittedly less of a guard) still gets in a scene with Nicky during Caputo’s rampage and has the nascent relationship with Fischer. The scenes in “You Also Have a Pizza” at Caputo’s show were basically centered on Caputo, but you could easily shift the focus to another character, and it feels sustainable. You can imagine the parallel show with flashbacks of how each of them became a correctional officer, and even if you don’t think that show would be as interesting, it gives added depth to conflicts and interactions that make up the prison ecosystem, all right before Pornstache returns to remind us just how inhumane they can be.

These episodes are still invested in the plot of the season, but to some degree it’s put on hold. Focusing on Black Cindy in “Comic Sans” is a fitting choice, given the nature of her story. A teen mom who gave up responsibility for her daughter to her mother, Black Cindy’s problem is that she’s never lived for the future. She worked as a TSA agent, but she willfully stole from people’s luggage, and from the vendors at the airport, and stole a few overeager touches of attractive male passengers who needed a patdown. It’s a broad caricature of the TSA—notable in a season where the show is working to humanize the prison equivalent—but it helps reinforce that Black Cindy’s attitude toward prison is really no different than it was on the outside. She’s still not willing to play Vee’s game when it doesn’t work for her, breaking rules and making no effort to secure or plan for any kind of future. While Poussey takes Nicky’s advice and agrees to play Vee’s game to keep from pushing Taystee further away, Black Cindy is either unwilling or unable to change. So much of the show is built around people grabbing hold of their prison experience or being changed in dramatic ways, whereas Cindy is all about the status quo, making her of thematic use in two episodes that have Red and Vee’s battle for control at a détente.

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The other recurrent thread is Piper’s furlough, and the death of her grandmother. On a plot level, it’s certainly a return to interrogating Piper’s privilege, but with the added twist that she’s much closer to the inmates than she was when she won the WAC vote last season, for example. Suzanne throws dessert at her, and many are bitter that their own furlough requests were rejected, but they also want to live vicariously through her. They want to know what she’s going to do with her freedom, because they want to think about what they would do. The fact that everyone had a dying parent like Sophia or a new grandchild like DeMarco makes them hate Piper, but it’s also something they can use to relate to Piper. In the end, Piper’s grandmother dies before she can get her furlough, a sad piece of news that nonetheless serves to give Piper another experience that unites her with her fellow inmates who have almost all experienced something similar.

It also sends Piper to the Golden Girls, who have emerged with the prison staff as the series’ biggest space of expansion in the second season. We knew they existed last season: they emerged in “WAC Pack,” where I wrote that “even in a show as progressive as this one, the ‘Others’ and the ‘Golden Girls’ still get shafted.” While this is still true in the prison system itself, this season has done a lot to bring the Golden Girls in from the margins, first with Red’s exile offering an introduction and now through Cavanagh and Rosa’s respective marches toward the end of their lives.

In Cavanagh’s case, it’s a tragedy that has been coming for years. They tell stories of having to hide her dementia from the guards, frantically searching for her before count and protecting her during the day. They’ve known she’s been far gone for a while, and it’s simply become part of their daily lives: they sit at meals and make fun of her, and for much of the season it’s been a source of light humor. But then Cavanagh escapes to attend the Side Boob show. And then she slips away from her full-time guard and takes a stage dive in the chapel. And then she’s given a “compassionate release,” likely dropped off in some location with no support structure and with no sense of where she is. Everyone except the prison system agrees it’s a death sentence, but the prison system has no way of dealing with an inmate in her condition.

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The prison system, by comparison, has ways of dealing with Rosa’s condition to a point. They can provide chemotherapy, but they’re not willing to commit to highly invasive surgeries like the one she needs. While without the same sense of abandonment as seen in Cavanagh’s case, it’s the prison system effectively giving her a death sentence, knowing that she will die in a manner very different from the blaze of glory she imagined. While other flashbacks have shown us glimpses of systemic struggles, Rosa’s is all about poetic tragedy, fleshing out the character’s previous appearances this season that you may remember me celebrating as resonant tangents. In truth, they were building blocks, here expanded through Rosa’s love of adrenaline, her kisses of death, and her relationship with fellow cancer patient Yusef.

So much of the series is focused around characters like Yusef. For Yusef, cancer interrupted his life before it began. It threatened to end it before it started, and it likely took him away from parts of his life that he thought would be parts of his life forever. While few of the series’ characters are as young as Yusef, they are mostly at the stage where they’re reflecting on what they’re missing, as opposed to thinking about the sum total of their lives. I don’t know if they always had plans for Barbara Rosenblat to emerge in this way, but she takes full command of the character, and her scenes with Yusef make a powerful chapter in the series’ larger story by exploring the prospect of death, rather than life, in prison. The show has dealt with mortality in the past, and will likely deal with it again, but Rosa is forced to live with that, to know that the prison system is effectively denying her the right to fight her cancer to the fullest of medicine’s capacity. She may be more willing to accept her death than she would have been willing to accept feeling responsible for Yusef by cursing him, and she may revel in Yusef’s remission and the intoxicating smell of $43, but she is ultimately facing her own mortality with each day she lives.

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Piper relates to the Golden Girls. She wants to tell their story. She wants to give the reporter asking her for inside information on prison corruption Cavanagh’s story. But the Golden Girls know they’re not an attractive headline. They know that no one—including Fig’s husband, who complains about talking to them while campaigning—actually cares about the elderly outside of the fact that they turn up to vote. They know they’re on the margins, inside and outside of Litchfield. While many of the other women lack the self-awareness to understand where they fit into the ecosystem, and what their story means to those around them, the Golden Girls have resigned themselves to invisibility, which makes it all that much more important for the show to tell their stories. And those stories work because they’re not treated differently than anyone else: Rosa’s story could be a Hallmark movie-of-the-week, but only if you leave out the cursing and the bank robbery and the fact that Yusef is kind of a shit.

The way the show survives to run for three or four more seasons is if it keeps expanding its focus without losing its point-of-view. With the prison staff and the Golden Girls, you can see the show actively charting out new areas of interest, to the point where some could argue they’re not even being subtle with the issues they’re raising. However, the tone remains right on, sardonic and twisted enough to make even overly constructed arguments against the prison system into resonant dramatic television. To adopt the language of the two episode titles, the show only works if nothing’s written in comic sans and if the size of the plot continues to line up with the size of the plant. In two crucial episodes for the season’s efforts to stay on this path, I would say it passes the test.

“Comic Sans” grade: B+

“Appropriately Sized Pots” grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Ugh, Larry: Do you really want to discuss Polly deciding Larry’s always been there for her and having sex with him? Or Larry then having to listen to her husband complain about how weird she’s being? And did anyone miss Larry when he was absent from the second episode? I didn’t think so.
  • The show continues to use Sophia sparingly, but Laverne Cox absolutely nailed that monologue about not getting to say goodbye to her father and close the loop.
  • Fischer gets fired, apparently before doing anything about the news from Aleida’s phone call about Daya being pregnant. Does that cut off that story thread?
  • Speaking of, it’s nice to see Daya start to stand up to Bennett and force him to acknowledge that he is not innocent in that whole situation. I’m still not entirely sure I’m invested in the result of that storyline, but I’m happy to see Daya reemerging as an agent in her own right.
  • “The health code is still the health code”—I love this conversation about Ratatouille, but shouldn’t there at least a bit of discussion about the technological feat of CGI animation given the confusion about the Internet?
  • If you didn’t immediately think Fig’s husband was going to suggest old people only care about Matlock, please immediately pull off the Matlock Expressway to find a parking lot full of rakes to walk around in and think about what you’ve done.
  • I will admit to not understanding how exactly stamps function as meaningful currency, and I’ve decided I’m not really supposed to understand it.
  • “We are demonstrating aggressive aggression”—the system really wasn’t made for passive resisters like Brook Soso, was it?
  • “Have you ever been kissed by a six-foot transgender woman?”—I was really hoping Red was going to answer yes, so that we could get that flashback later in the season.
  • “It’s full of Fleet Foxes and shit”—Flaca’s music taste is one of those things that has been embedded into the show but never commented on, but it’s been one of my favorite runners.

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