Netflix has been an up and coming force in the original programing game for a few years now, and since the debut of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black last year, I have honestly been waiting for a misstep. I admittedly do this with other great television networks; sometimes I never see the falter I seek, such as with a network like FX, and other times my keen eye for the mediocre is treated to a regular view of just that, like with AMC. Netflix still has a lot to prove to be sure, but as long as the keep producing content like the last two seasons House of Cards and now these two great seasons of Orange is the New Black (you can read my season one review here), I think we can expect the buzz around their original programing to continue its steady incline.
***SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SEASON ONE AND TWO OF ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK***
What Orange is the New Black does best is to take this extremely large cast of characters, and allow you to feel extremely connected to them, through a mixture of compelling back story and interesting personal relationships with one another. I really enjoyed that season two allowed me to get to know characters that I had not really noticed all that much in season one — namely Lorna Morello (Yael Stone, Me Myself I) and Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat, Little Shop of Horrors). Morello was a somewhat prominent figure in season one, but season two really allows her to come into her own, fleshing out the story we know about her waiting fiancé Christopher. As it turns out, Christopher isn’t Morello’s fiancé at all, but rather the unfortunate victim of the crazy stalker we discover Morello to be. You get to really experience the complete ride all in this one season, from the surprising reveal that Morello is delusional, to witnessing of the lengths she’ll go to as she slips away to take a bath in the home of her imaginary lover, to the fantastically dramatic confrontation that occurs when Christopher comes to the prison himself to confront her, and her secret is revealed to several of the inmates. Morello, played with great zeal by Stone, turned out to be one of my favorite characters this year, and I thought, certainly had the best story.
Miss Rosa, while not my favorite, may have been the character that made the biggest turn this year. I barely knew she was on the show last year, but as we travel with her to her chemo treatments this time around, we discover there is something great about this woman. Her back story goes quite a ways back, and we see that as a younger woman, Rosa was a bit of a thrill seeker, so much that it eventually lands her in the situation we see today. Most of my appreciation for her character comes not from her flashbacks, but from her interaction with a young man who sits beside her during her chemotherapy treatments. While in the beginning the young man sees her as just a grumpy old woman, eventually they begin a dialogue, and the two have a great impact on one another. The moment when he discovers he’s in remission is truly touching, and plays a huge role in Rosa’s later decision to basically say “screw it” and drive right on out of captivity.
While flashbacks and back story help us get to know where these characters better, there is plenty of drama happening in the here and now as well. Last year “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning, 8 Mile) was the driving force behind all the conflict we saw in the present day, but sadly her return is meet with a series flat and uninteresting scenes that feel like they’re forced into what is otherwise a masterfully balanced set of stories. This year a much bigger and badder force drives the drama — Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, Dangerous Minds). Vee is the former drug kingpin and mother figure to “Taystee” (Danielle Brooks, Girls), and is also a former inmate with a deep history involving “Red” (Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager). These two elements combined to make some big changes to the landscape of the prison’s relationships. “Taystee” and Poussey (Samira Wiley, The Sitter), one of the absolute best parts about last season, have a giant wedge put between them as them by Vee, who uses her motherly hold on “Taystee” to turn her against her best friend, in heart-breaking fashion. The turf war over contraband within the prison between Vee and “Red” is also one of the better parts of the season, and one that ends in savagery the likes of which I don’t think we’ve quite seen on the show thus far.
There is, of course, something to be said for those that aren’t in prison as well, at least not against their will. The prison staff is a solid part of the show, though often overshadowed by the prisoners themselves. We see the power dynamic shift between Caputo (Nick Sandow, Return to Paradise) and Figueroa (Alysia Reiner, Sideways), we see the unfortunate departure of Fischer (Lauren Lapkus, Blended), and most notably, the continuing vilification of Healy (Michael Harney, Erin Brockovich). To say that Healy is the most vile character in the show is an understatement as far as I am concerned. While he may not be a criminal, his level of contempt and distain for the women in the prison, born out of his own inability to cope with everyday social pressures, makes him outright loathsome. When I think of Healy, I think of a snake, of the most slippery persuasion. Admittedly, this is how we’re supposed to feel about this character, and Harney does a wonderful job of making the character the surprise villain I found him to be.
I also enjoyed what was done with Larry (Jason Biggs, American Pie), especially when you consider how poorly the show could have handled his character. Having him branch out and start something with Polly (Maria Dizzia, Martha Marcy May Marlene) was a fantastic way to keep the character feeling fresh when he was so far removed from Piper. Speaking of which, I guess I should mention Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One), as she is the main character on the show, but it has taken me this long for a reason. I found Piper doing what she’s been put there to do, reminding me that these women are more than they appear, but because of that, she is inevitably lost in the shuffle. I guess there is something to be said for that though. Right?
Season two continues to build on a wonderful cast of women that have largely never been in any major roles before the ones they are in now. A wonderful balance of past and present, and of an impressive number of story threads, all weaving in and out of one another, make this show one that no television fan should miss. Add to that the fact the it is one of the only female dominant shows on air right now, and you have proof that Netflix has something truly unique and special in Orange is the New Black.