We're continuing our periodic look at “Orange Is the New Black” season 2 with thoughts on episodes 3 and 4 coming up just as soon as I know you're talking about the white Michelle Williams…
I wanted to approach this season reviewing two episodes at a time because it seemed a manageable compromise given the binge-viewing of it all. (I'm guessing many of you have already finished the season by now.) But it also made sense to me because, at least through these first four episodes, the season has been deliberately structured in pairs. Episode 1 was all-Piper, while episode 2 was no-Piper and all-everyone else. Episode 3 gives us backstory on Suzanne, whose emotional problems have long been on display for all to see, while episode 4 reveals that Morello is just as unstable, but has wrapped her crazy in a more presentable package. The episodes complement and comment on each other very nicely.
I've been waiting for a Suzanne flashback episode ever since we got a brief glimpse of her parents during a visiting day scene last season, and “Hugs Can Be Deceiving” did not disappoint. Her story is not an unfamiliar one in life or literature – parents struggling with fertility choose to adopt, then improbably conceive a biological child – and what makes this version of it so poignant is that we see just how much Suzanne's parents loved and fought for her as a kid. They worked so very hard to protect her from both the outside world and her own demons – we see that her mom(*) is even willing to play the race card on occasion to get people to overlook Suzanne's obvious issues – yet ultimately they couldn't get her out of her own head and her own neuroses enough to prevent her from winding up in a place like Litchfield, so broken and down on herself that she would so eagerly become Vee's new house pet.
(*) They cast new actors as her parents this season, and though the mom isn't a dead ringer for Taylor Schilling, they're similar enough types – Suzanne even screams, “No more, Mommy!” while hitting Piper – that it adds a whole complicated layer to Suzanne's obsession with Piper last season.
Now that Vee's back inside those walls, we see how masterful she is at manipulating others and building a solid power base. She recognizes in Suzanne someone who will be intensely loyal in return for some affection and respect that's easy to provide, and she quickly begins building her own gang from the ground up. Only Poussey seems to be resisting her corruption in this early going, and her situation is complicated by her romantic feelings for Taystee – feelings that Taystee can't reciprocate and feels uncomfortable about. Suzanne is the first of Vee's soldiers to fall completely in line, but it's clear she'll be far from the last.
Suzanne was clearly a character last season who had a story to tell. Morello, on the other hand, seemed at times last year to be little more than local color: a friendly initial tour guide for Piper, and an extra voice at the lunch table with Piper, Nicky and Alex. When she would talk about her elaborate wedding plans, it always gave the impression of a distraction from the bleak day-to-day of prison life, but wish-fulfillment at worst. The thought that she might be this utterly delusional never crossed my mind, which is what makes the flashbacks in “A Whole Other Hole” so effective.
The show often plays games in those flashbacks to keep you guessing about the crime each woman committed to wind up at Litchfield, but the Morello ones seemed fairly straightforward: even more concerned with her style and appearance on the outside than she is behind bars, she committed serial mail fraud to obtain clothes, shoes and accessories she otherwise couldn't afford. Nice and easy, right? And the brief glimpse of her first meeting with Christopher (carrying several boxes worth of ill-gotten designer booty) only ties into that version of things. But the very fact that she does something as ridiculous and self-destructive as driving away from her hospital parking spot to visit Christopher's house suggests all is not right inside that well-coiffed head, regardless of how stable Morello seems. And, sure enough, we find out that the entire relationship, other than one date, was entirely imagined, and that Morello's eyes can look just as crazy as Suzanne's. Uzo Aduba is always excellent in the very big role she gets to play(**), but Yael Stone was pretty wonderful herself at showing the madness lurking just below Morello's polished surface.
(**) And is also wonderful auditioning to play every other major “Orange” character.
“A Whole Other Hole” deals with a lot of fake relationships beyond Morello's imagined engagement. Boo and Piper discuss the value of prison wives (and Piper tries to trade Brook into matrimony to get Miss Claudette's blanket back), Vee claims that Taystee and Poussey's friendship is only real within the confines of these prison walls, and Larry and Polly convincingly pretend to be a married couple to amuse themselves with a stranger. This is not just the province of the mentally ill, even if someone like Morello (or Suzanne, back when she was still crushing on Piper) can take it to extremes.
Suzanne's story also provides some closure on the Piper/Pennsatucky cliffhanger from the end of last season, as a flashback to her mortifying high school graduation appearance leads into her similar meltdown at the prison Christmas show, which then leads her to vent all her self-loathing outward to beat up Piper, who made her feel so small and humiliated with her contribution to Larry's radio story. It winds up being a useful thing for Piper – her bruises (and the secret of their origin) make the fight with Pennsatucky seem more even, and combine nicely with Healy's desire to make the whole thing go away – but it's also a cathartic moment for Suzanne, who feels ever so strong enough (or, at least, reliant enough on Vee) to decline Piper's offer of a movie date.
Though the series is more of an ensemble than ever, some stories like Piper's always loom larger than others. But there's a scene in “A Whole Other Hole” featuring an extremely minor character that functions as a mission statement for the whole series: Rosa befriending the boy in the chemo chair next to hers. He wants nothing to do with this weird old bald lady until his phone's battery runs too low to play Fruit Ninja, and within a few minutes of reluctantly engaging her in conversation, she's telling him all about her long and colorful career in the field of bank robbery. That's “Orange Is the New Black” in a nutshell: a character who's had very little screen time, rarely speaks, and is largely ignored by all the show's major characters beyond her one defining feature (the bald head as a symbol of her cancer treatments) turns out to have a fascinating story to tell if anyone bothers to ask her about it.
Once upon a time in the series, Suzanne and Morello were only slightly more prominent than Rosa. In time, though, we got to learn how complicated and interesting they really are, and if this series has a long enough life, I imagine we're going to get to hear a lot of other great stories with unlikely heroines.
Some other thoughts:
* At the ATX TV Festival in Austin last weekend, I wound up spending a few minutes with Uzo Aduba in the green room while we were waiting to participate in different panels. She went on at length about Eden Wiggins, the girl who played Suzanne as a 10-year-old (“We had Little Suzanne, Middle Suzanne and Big Suzanne – me – in that episode”) and how preternaturally composed the girl was as she hung out with the adult actress she would have to imitate. Definitely made me want to see more of Middle Suzanne at some point, even though I imagine any Suzanne flashbacks in later seasons would be more about the crime(s) she committed as an adult.
* The episodes bring Piper back to Litchfield, and introduce us to new inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), who's like a more extreme example of Piper at her most sheltered and annoying. We get to see not only how much Piper has changed in just a few months (Nicky tells her, “It's great to see you evolving, Chapman, and getting past the 'I'm the star of the movie and everyone else's too' complex”), but how much our own perception of this place and its people has. When Piper arrived back in the very first episode, the other inmates all seemed unsettling in one way or another, but as we watch Brook and the other newbies get their first look at Boo and company, we know the veteran inmates too well to be scared of any of them.
* The fight winds up working out well for Pennsatucky as well as Piper and Suzanne, since she gets a mouth full of sparkling new teeth to replace the ugly mess she had before Piper applied her fists to the problem.
* “The Wire” references: Sophia says she heard that Piper's face would look like Omar's after the fight, while Vee and Red discuss how much The Game has changed since the last time they were in prison together.
* Though Red's previous smuggling operation has been shut down, new methods for importing contraband present themselves, as Bennett figures out that he can hide things inside his prosthetic leg, while Red discovers a sewer pipe underneath the prison's old greenhouse.
* “A Whole Other Hole” gets its title from the women's confusion over some basic female anatomy questions that Sophia understands better than all the women who were born female, in much the same way that naturalized citizens often know more about American history and government than those of us who didn't have to study hard for a citizenship test.
* With Alex for now out of the picture as her love interest, Nicky instead gets mixed up into a sex competition with Boo, declaring her bonafides by saying, “I am like a bean-flicking Mother Teresa!” Her approach to getting Brook to shut up during sex was excellent.
* Piper and Red wind up as roommates, in a way evoking her previous living arrangement with Miss Claudette.
Finally, let's talk spoilers. Some of you may have watched well past episode 4 by the time you read this, but we are going to aim to restrict the discussion each week to the two episodes in question (or to episodes previously reviewed in the series). So if you have seen more than what we're talking about here, please stay quiet about that. I'm a few episodes ahead right now, but I'm only discussing the content of what we're up to, and at a certain point a lot of you are going to get ahead of me. Let's all be considerate of one another, okay? Thanks.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com