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Orange Is The New Black spreads empathy in all directions

Lorraine Toussaint (left), Kate Mulgrew
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The second season of Orange Is The New Black doesn’t get everything right. It occasionally goes in for moments when the subtext is stated point blank, even though the audience has already gotten it, and it’s also a little too fond of unnecessary exposition to remind the audience of things it likely should already know (possibly a side effect of not having “previously on” packages). The series’ rapid expansion can feel like the growth of the universe in the wake of the Big Bang—thrilling, but with a disconcerting habit of hanging on to absolutely everything, to the degree that Jason Biggs’ Larry is still a part of the show for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. It would be easy to nitpick the show to death, to react to the hype and hyperbole that greeted the show’s return with sour grapes about how the show’s still good, sure, but it lacks the fundamental element of surprise that made season one such an unexpected delight.


But that would be wrong. Whatever flaws Orange Is The New Black possesses are ultimately minor and pale in comparison to the series’ epic, novelistic sweep. Put simply, this is one of the most empathetic shows in the history of television, and in the second season, its ambition and audacity in storytelling grew to match its already present but quietly revolutionary insistence on treating every character in its universe like a human being with oceans of stories to tell. By the end of the season, the show resembles nothing so much as HBO’s Deadwood, another series that trusted audiences to keep track of dozens of characters and the ways their actions reverberated outward to encompass the entire community. Litchfield Prison may be a fucked-up ecosystem, but it’s one where the community that sprang up among the women incarcerated there is as vital and vibrant as any TV has ever offered.

At times, the second season of the show seems intent on course-correcting all of the puff pieces and online quizzes designed to suggest to fans of the series that it might be fun to reside in Litchfield. If season one was about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, still giving one of TV’s best performances and still aggressively unconcerned with whether Piper is “likable” at all times) and her introduction to prison (and eventual understanding that everyone there had a story even more interesting than her own), then season two’s main character isn’t so much Piper as it is the prison itself. Litchfield might be filled with fascinating characters and unique opportunities to examine the social order, but it’s also an institution rotting from the inside out, one that corrupts seemingly anyone who comes in contact with it. Season two focuses on the guards and other prison officials more often than season one did, and the implications of these stories are clear: Everybody’s trapped by the inhumane prison-industrial complex. Everyone is a cog in the machine, and those hoping to change the system from within are doomed to become elements propping it up.

That description may make the series sound more like another HBO Golden Age drama—The Wire—and Orange certainly has an intense fascination with bureaucracy and institutions, with the ways that inhumane systems relentlessly propagate themselves even within the individual. In the second season premiere—one of the finest episodes the show has done—this is hammered home by sending Piper packing under circumstances that are kept veiled from her via a series of late-night bus and plane rides. Just as the various subgroups within Litchfield are mere expressions of the overriding culture of the prison, Litchfield itself is the tiniest of pieces in a massive, nationwide system designed less to rehabilitate or even punish those who’ve committed crimes and more to just get them out of the way and forget about them.

Though Piper is less central to season two than she was in season one, notice how the season continually strips her of everything that makes her Piper, how her friends and family cease visiting, how her various comforts and niceties are stripped from her. Even a midseason episode that gets to examine the character under new circumstances reveals just how much Litchfield life has come to dominate her methods of thinking. Everything that happens in prison—from warfare to disease to genuine human connection—is filtered through this viewpoint. While these stories are interesting to us as viewers, the tragedy of the show is how unimportant they are to Litchfield as a larger organism. The system has a way of reverting everything to the status quo, and even the people who work within it are irrevocably changed by it.


Season two’s chief improvement on season one comes in the area of plotting, where series creator Jenji Kohan and her writers have created a marvelously complicated structure that sets dozens of wheels spinning, then almost immediately starts crashing them into one another. Seemingly emboldened by the fact that Netflix would be making all episodes available on the same day and having learned from how viewers consumed season one, Kohan and her team build a structure less on plot machinations and more on the ways tiny actions—an act of rudeness here, a moment of kindness there—ripple outward until they become huge waves that can capsize ships. The season doesn’t care so much about plot twists as it does the way that people’s motivations may shift, but they remain fundamentally the same.

This is not to say that the second season doesn’t possess a strong, central story. This is the most obvious step up over season one, which could occasionally feel too fragmented. Here, the building conflict between Red (Kate Mulgrew, offering new shades on an already complex character) and new inmate Vee (the deliciously villainous Lorraine Toussaint) comes to envelop almost everything else in the show, but never subsume it. Things happening with Larry might inadvertently have a bearing on one of the prison staffers, say, or the war between Red and Vee might have dire consequences for supporting characters like Poussey (Samira Wiley) or Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). This is a show that tries as hard as it can to understand what every single person within its world—no matter how small the part—is thinking.


One of the earliest statements of purpose in the run of Deadwood came in the first half of season one, when a character declared, of an individual he considered loathsome, “He, too, is God’s handiwork.” And for as much as Orange’s love of corrupt institutions and the ways systems warp people to fit them (instead of vice versa) recalls The Wire, its dedication to the characters both as individuals and as a massive, ever-changing community recalls that quote directly. Orange Is The New Black doesn’t want you to like all of its characters, but it does want you to understand them, to force yourself to think about the world the way they do. And when a character has a flaw—like how Piper can be a little irritating or Vee can be absolutely malicious or Counselor Healy (Michael Harney) can be a judgmental asshole—the series doubles down on that flaw, then insists those shortcomings are major parts of what make these people human, not things to be overcome.

Orange Is The New Black isn’t great TV because it’s well-plotted or beautifully written or the series stuffed with the most literary references this side of Archer—though it is all of those things. No, it’s great TV because every single character it looks at has a point of view and a need to express themselves, because every single one of them struggles against the same, common enemy of dehumanization. It would be easy for the show to turn into some story of a massive fight against the system propagating that dehumanization, but Orange Is The New Black is too smart and nimble for that. It understands, above all else, that every act of kindness is a rebuke to the faceless bureaucracy, that every moment of connection is a chance to make the world slightly better. And it knows, more than anything, that everybody within its scope is worth considering. Everybody inside and outside of Litchfield’s walls matters. That shouldn’t feel revolutionary. That it does speaks both to how essential this show is and how much most other TV shows will have to do to catch up to it.


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