Almost 10 years ago, Piper Kerman served 13 months in a minimum security prison for her involvement in money laundering for a drug operation during the ’90s. She later documented that experience in her 2010 book, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which was then turned into a straight-to-web series by Netflix. The first season of the dramedy premiered last summer, and the show quickly became one of the most talked about programmes of 2013, thereby, helping to establish the streaming service as a legitimate player in the industry and taking the binge-watching trend to a whole new level.
Now, the Peabody Award-winning series has unveiled its second season, reuniting us with the oddball occupants of Litchfield Penitentiary for another set of 13 episodes.
When we last saw Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), she was busy pummelling her nemesis Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), the meth addict who had resolved to kill our protagonist. This season kicks off with Piper in solitary confinement, and an episode worth of twists takes her on an unexpected detour. The dynamic of her relationships with ex-fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) and former girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) are completely different this season, and we subsequently see how she evolves from the privileged white girl who entered prison at the start of the series to adapt to her new life there. But Piper hasn’t quite lost her wilful and foolish characteristics that often land her in trouble.
As vital as she may be to the series, this season’s focus isn’t entirely on Piper. While she still remains the story’s pivot, season two focuses more on the ensemble, touchingly and often humorously examining the interaction between the inmates, prison officials and the outside world.
We part ways with some prisoners and welcome new inmates as the series further explores the colourful characters at Litchfield. The show continues to delve deeper into the pasts of these women, unveiling their backstories one flashback at a time. Viewers get a chance to peek into the pre-prison lives of inmates, including Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Poussey (Samira Wiley), Suzanne aka ‘Crazy Eyes’ (Uzo Aduba), Black Cindy (Adrienne C Moore), Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), cancer patient Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), food in-charge Gloria (Selenis Leyva) who took over the kitchen following Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) ouster, and love-struck Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), whose story yields a heartbreaking revelation.
The central plot that binds the whole thing together revolves around the return of a repeat offender who is about to throw the balance of the prison ecosystem into disarray. The arrival of Taystee’s mother figure, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), begins to cause friction among the various groups of inmates as she enters the contraband game and once again clashes with her old foe Red.
Orange Is the New Black continues to be a resounding success because of its ability to interweave interesting story arcs while continuously developing its characters. Their stories make it easy to get invested in the lives of these flawed women who often display remarkable levels of love and loyalty towards both their real and prison families while finding their own ways to deal with the underlying loneliness of their situation. Along the way, the show explores the issues of gender, class, race, age, sexuality and individual identity. The series has never been shy of portraying explicit and unsettling situations, and its premise gives it every opportunity to do so, making it unsuitable for sensitive viewers.
Its cast is fiercely committed to their roles. Just as its Emmy nomination tally (Taylor Schilling has a nod in the Lead Actress category; Kate Mulgrew is up for the Supporting Actress award; while Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, and Natasha Lyonne are all vying for the Guest Actress award) would suggest, the performances are uniformly impressive across the board. And the show’s crew has very expertly complemented these ladies, displaying how attention to minute details in appearance and environment can amplify the storytelling. For instance, the use of shades of Red’s hair to reflect her disposition adds volumes to her character.
On the whole, Orange Is the New Black has returned with a deeper, more incisive offering, laced with poignancy and humour, making great use of its diverse and talented cast. The characters don’t always come off as likeable and the proceedings don’t always have a sense of urgency, but the show’s ability to create strong female characters and then show their evolution makes for very compelling viewing. It inspires one to just pause and be grateful for the simple perks of freedom that we often take for granted.
Sameen Amer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic. She tweets @Sameen
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 27th, 2014.