‘Orange Is the New Black’ season 2 in review

We've come to the end of this trip through “Orange Is the New Black” season 2. Thoughts on the final three episodes, and season 2 as a whole, coming up just as soon as I buy a banjolele on Craigslist…

“Feeling our feelings might actually make it impossible to survive in here.” -Poussey

For the sake of this experiment of trying to review a Netflix show as if it were distributed more traditionally, I tried not to get too far ahead of what I was reviewing. And watching at that two at a time pace, I was still enjoying the season a lot, but not feeling quite as bewitched by it as I was in season 1. Then I got to the end of episode 10, with Pornstache's arrest, and decided I just wanted to keep going, unwritten rules of the project be damned, and I wound up watching the season's final five episodes within 24 hours of each other. And by the time Rosa had turned Vee into roadkill, transformed back into her younger self and laughed as she drove off into the unknown, I was as pleased with “Orange Is the New Black” as I've ever been.

Some of this was the mini-marathoning of it, as I do think that “Orange” is a show that plays better in large chunks. (I found myself wishing, for instance, that I had seen the Vee flashbacks in episode 12 much closer to when I watched the interlocking Taystee flashbacks in episode 2.) But much of that satisfaction came from the way that Jenji Kohan and company tied all of the season's themes and arcs together so wonderfully in the concluding chapters.

There's a moment in episode 11 where Taslitz, one of the Golden Girls working in Red's greenhouse, offers to kill Vee, where I thought, “Oh, that's perfect. Vee as big bad collides with the season's running commentary on the way that prison – and society in general – marginalizes the elderly.” As it turned out, Taslitz shivved the wrong inmate, because it was still too early in the season for Vee to be taken down, but also because the creative team had a much more elaborate plan for how many plot and character arcs were going to verge in the process of killing her. 

This season had a few joking references to “The Wire,” and of course it had “Wire” alums Pablo Schreiber and Deirdre Lovejoy in the cast, and as we pushed towards the finale, the season began to feel very “Wire”-esque in both structure and theme – and then very much its own thing in the closing emotional burst. When Caputo finally ousted Fig (with help from Piper), for instance, and began telling Bennett about all the ways he was going to make Litchfield a better place, it began sounding exactly like Carcetti's promises to clean up Baltimore. And, sure enough, poor Caputo's dreams of a long and benevolent rule started crumbling as Bennett confessed his relationship with Daya, the nuns made a very visible protest in support of Sister Jane, and then not one but two different prisoners escaped on only his second day.

And yet even as Caputo was facing defeat and humiliation right and left – making prophetic Fig's earlier comment: “Good luck with your noble intentions. This place'll beat them out of you quick.”  – and even as it seemed like Vee might actually somehow get away with her attack on Red and so many of her other crimes, we got to see the way so many disparate parts of the prison population (staff and prisoners alike) were converging to stop her.

And it wasn't just different groups teaming up, but different stories colliding with one another. The Gloria flashback wasn't my favorite of this season, but it was all worth it for the realization that she and Norma were cooking up a new Santeria curse to put on Vee. Healy's crippling loneliness and need for affirmation from the prisoners (or, really, from women in general) builds up to the moment where Penssatucky thanks him for being so helpful to her, which in turn inspires him to help Suzanne escape the frame Vee placed her in. Poussey and Taystee have a poignant reconciliation, then get Cindy and Janae to turn against their evil leader. Sister Jane and Red wind up in neighboring infirmary beds, each realizing they're too old for the kind of stunts they used to pull (and the sort of rigid principles they used to stand behind), but needing the other to coax her into truly changing. Rosa and Morello's trips to chemo take on greater weight when they find out that Rosa has only weeks to live, and Rosa's compliment to Morello about how her madness is actually what makes her great is not only a touching payoff to Morello's character arc, but helps prime Morello for the decision she makes in letting Rosa escape in the transport van.

Throughout the season, we've heard various characters talk about the overwhelming feeling of isolation that comes from prison life, whether you're someone like Nicky or Morello who has a lot of friends or someone like Soso who has none. What was fascinating and so poignant about the season's closing chapters was the way in which genuine attempts at connection were rewarded, while attempts to go it alone – or to fake connection in order to manipulate others – were punished. Red gets her family back, Poussey and Taystee get each other back, Morello sets Rosa free one last time, Sister Jane gets the support of the other nuns (even though she's no longer technically one herself), Healy manages to do some good (even if he's still at heart a miserable, homophobic bully), etc., while Fig loses her job (even if she's able to avoid criminal charges) and Vee gets shunned and attacked to the point where she has to flee the prison's walls, only to fatally cross paths with one of the many people she bullied while inside.

In the later episodes, both Morello and Soso note at different times that Litchfield isn't really summer camp, even if it may seem that way from the outside – as well as to viewers of the show, who understand that “Orange” is on some level a fantasy depiction of what this place would be like, and one that has room (in the storm episode, anyway) for sleepovers and fantastic Lisa Loeb singalongs. But there are bonds forged in this place that those outside it can't understand, and the prison is sure as hell better off without Vee than it was with her, even as I'll miss the chance to watch Lorraine Toussaint in this great role.

I'll be curious to see how season 3 is structured. I have to assume that some of the Piper marginalization was due to Laura Prepon's very limited availability, and that we'll get back to a lot of Piper/Alex drama now that Prepon will be a full-time castmember. But both the show and Piper were a lot better for moving away from that – making it an element of the overall story, but not the single most important one – and I would hope that the rewards of being able to focus even more on the other inmates than last year should be obvious to everyone. I don't know if we need some kind of replacement Vee – a Ralphie Ciffaretto to her Richie Aprile – but now that Piper has screwed over Alex to get her parole violated, I don't want the show to revert to being primarily about that, when we've seen this year how much more it's capable of.

Season 1 was mainly the story of a vital young woman's life being disrupted by prison. Season 2 told many stories, but at heart it was about a bunch of older women – Vee, Red, Rosa, Sister Jane – grappling with their advancing years, trying to grab onto the vitality they once had, sometimes at great cost to themselves and/or those around them, and ultimately figuring out whether or not they are, indeed, too old for this stuff.

It was hilarious at times, heartbreaking at others, sometimes scary, sometimes moving, always watchable and often brilliant. It was, in other words, “Orange Is the New Black,” and I'm so glad it remains such a prominent part of the TV landscape.

Some other thoughts:

* Like Morello's flashback, Sister Jane's was terrific in how it cast what seemed to be a familiar, understandable character in an entirely new light. We knew she was in prison for her political activism, but we didn't know that it was her desire for celebrity that fueled it. (And I give all the applause to whomever came up with the title for her memoir: “Nun Shall Pass.”) The sequence where she was being cheered on the way to the infirmary – this time for a cause she genuinely believed in, even as she was also basking in the attention once again – was great.

* Terrific Cindy moment where she explains the free market to Red before casually giving up Boo as the rat. Cindy's far from the most sympathetic prisoner, but there's great entertainment value to be had from someone who just does not give a bleep to that extent.

* Speaking of Boo, it was fun watching her deal with her new outcast status by befriending fellow reject Pennsatucky, taking advantage of her misguided (and Healy-enhanced) understanding of lesbian culture to put her through a silly initiation ritual.

* The show as a whole became much more of an ensemble this season than even last year, which makes Larry's continued and frequent presence feel even more imbalanced than in season 1. When Piper is the unequivocal lead, then it makes some degree of sense to keep tracking the loved ones affected by her absence. When she's just one interesting prisoner of many – and only tangentially involved in the season's main story arc – then it's much less natural to keep cutting away from the prison to show Larry, Polly, Pete, etc. That said, I highly recommend reading this account by the real Larry about his very different relationship with the real Piper.

* Gina to Vee: “I don't banter. I'm an envoy.” Always nice when minor characters get good lines.

* From my notes, upon Fig spotting her husband making out with Gavin: “Even if Fig is the worst, other people are worse than Fig, somehow.” For that matter, Caputo taking the blow job even though he knows he's already ratted her out is a nice reminder that he's not exactly a saint here.

* Hey, it's the chemistry teacher from “Louie” (aka New York-based character actor Skipp Sudduth) as the lead investigator into the attack on Red! What I really loved about that storyline, beyond the way that so many different elements of prison society converged to stop Vee, was watching poor Suzanne get sucked up into Vee's mind games until she's tying herself up in knots to convince herself that she was the one who beat up Red. With Pornestache gone, Suzanne is by far the biggest, broadest character the show has left, but watching the way Uzo Aduba modulates her performance in the finale – up to and including her grief at losing Vee (who used her and betrayed her, but still was sadly the best friend Suzanne has had in this place) – made me appreciate both her range and the ways in which some of the physical and verbal tics Suzanne normally displays are a put-on that recedes when she's experiencing a deeper form of madness.

* Outstanding job by the makeup team on Kate Mulgrew in the finale. Real injuries like the ones Red suffered would look that grotesque, but they rarely do in film and television.

* O'Neill didn't get as much screen time this year as Caputo or Healy or Bennett, but the writers did a nice job of humanizing him in the background of the season, from his relationship with Bell all the way through to his confrontations with the nuns in the finale. On the other end of the “Guards: They're People, Too” curve is the guard who happily sings along with “Breakfast at Tiffany's” mere moments after pondering Rosa's prognosis.

* Morello describing the plot of “Toy Story” to make it sound like a prison story means that I now require a crossover with “Enlisted” (which could be resurrected by Yahoo) where Randy and Morello become pen pals and discuss movies together.

* Speaking of shows from non-Netflix sources, Taystee extols the virtues of the “Outlander” books, which have been adapted for an upcoming Starz series.

* Another case of “Orange” doing a lot with a little: Ruiz's quest to get her stoic boyfriend to communicate more with their baby was a really minor element of the season, but appeared often enough that the scene in the finale where we see him being so friendly and warm with the baby felt incredibly powerful and sweet.

So what does all this mean for how I'm going to cover season 3? I don't know yet. Some of you were frustrated at the pace I was going at, while others appreciated that I was spending a lot of time on individual episodes, which isn't possible when I take my usual “one review at the start, one review at the end” approach to Netflix shows. Short of doing nothing else for a week but watching and writing about episodes of “Orange” – which is never, ever going to be practical, no matter how much I love the show – I'm not sure there's a perfect way to cover it. But this was an awfully great season, and I look forward to seeing the next one, even if I'm still trying to build a better mousetrap when it comes to covering shows like it.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com