Orange Is the New Black season premiere recap: Back in Black — Er, Orange – Entertainment Weekly
Leave it to Litchfield to keep us on our toes.
As OITNB creator Jenji Kohan told EW way back in June of last year, the “nice blonde lady” at the center of Orange was never meant to be the series’ only focus. Instead, Piper was designed to serve as a “gateway drug”: “We wanted to write stories about all sorts of women and their experiences. But it’s very hard to sell a show about women of different colors and different ages and different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she explained. “This way, we almost get to sneak in these amazing characters and amazing stories through this white girl going to prison. With each episode we explore a different character.”
The plan went off without a hitch; throughout Season 1, Piper remained a central presence but began ceding more and more screen time to the show’s ever-expanding ensemble. We adjusted to life in prison the same way she did: first by viewing the ladies of Litchfield as one-note supporting characters in the drama that was Piper’s life story, then gradually getting to know them as human beings with pasts and multi-faceted personalities. Piper, too, changed along the way, not only getting tougher (“Bitches gots to learn”) but also revealing herself to be more than the bougie stereotype she appeared to be in the show’s pilot. By the end of its first season, Orange was no longer simply Piper’s show — the gateway had been opened, revealing an ensemble filled with complicated characters each capable of anchoring a series in her own right.
Which is why it’s so surprising to see season 2 of OITNB begin the way it does: With an episode that’s focused completely on Piper, to the exclusion of almost everyone else we got to know and love in season 1. Have Daya and Bennett been found out? Did Pennsatucky get those new teeth? How’s Red adjusting after being stripped of her power, and what’s the mood at Litchfield like now that the Latina women are basically running the show? We won’t know the answers to any of these questions until at least episode 2, which is a pretty bold move for a program that wrapped its first year with a series of increasingly insane cliffhangers.
Instead, episode 1 begins with an utterly isolated Piper, who’s gone so nuts after four weeks in the SHU that she’s painting the walls with her old egg yolks (“I’m calling it Thirsty Bird”). Then the show isolates her even further, transporting our gateway drug out of solitary and taking her on a Kafkaesque journey to an unknown location. By the end of last season, we had come to understand Litchfield as an improvised community — a sort of Springfield-ian small town overflowing with quirky residents, albeit ones who had all committed federal crimes. It never felt like a safe place, exactly — recall that when most of Litchfield’s ladies were bonding over soul-stirring Christmas music, Piper was busy beating Pennsatucky half to death — but there was still a sense that on some level, these women supported or at least understood each other.
But once Piper leaves the relative cocoon that is Litchfield — a society that’s largely matriarchal, on levels both micro (the members of the WAC) and macro (Fig ultimately rules the place with a tight, manicured fist) — she’s subjected to a series of petty and not-so-petty humiliations and degradations, nearly all at the hands of men. The male guards who escort her out of solitary treat Piper as though she’s invisible, refusing to answer when she asks where she’s being taken or when she’ll get there; they engage in uncensored guy talk in front of her, reducing the women they know to collections of aesthetically pleasing body parts (“she’s got that Kunis face, but not that Kunis ass”); they punish Piper for being a “demanding poochie,” giving her the transport bus’s tightest shackles; they even speed her along when she’s relieving herself, demanding to hear a heavier urine stream. The most striking thing about the male/female power differential in this episode is that it exists even between male prisoners and female prisoners; once her Con Air flight goes coed, Piper is harassed by a hitman named Gun (hey, it could be worse — she thinks at first that he’s a rapist) and, eventually, reduced to giving the guy her dirty underwear in exchange for a favor. Say what you will about Litchfield, but it’s a little more civilized than Chicago’s Metropolitan Detention Center.
Why is Piper so far from home? At first, she’s convinced that her transfer must have something to do with Pennsatucky. Though weeks have passed since their snowy fight, Piper is clearly still disturbed by it – especially because she’s not sure whether Tiffany survived the brawl. It’s all she can do to keep from breaking down when sharing details of the incident with her new Con Air pal. (I’m tempted to call the new character Ellen, because she looks like the talk show host might if she spent some time in jail — but her name is actually Lolly, and she’s played by the lovely Lori Petty.) The confession scene has Emmy Reel written all over it — but Taylor Schilling never overplays the material as she digs into the “really, really bad thing” Chapman did in December. She may be an emotionally manipulative narcissist, but guilt like this is proof that Piper’s got a good heart, underneath it all.
As it turns out, Piper’s trip to the Windy City isn’t related to the beatdown. After days in conditions that make her old cell block look like a five-star hotel, she eventually learns that Pennsatucky is alive. Piper isn’t being sentenced on murder charges; she’s actually being called as a witness in the trial of Alex’s old boss, a drug trafficker named Kubra. (Fun fact: This is the closest the show has gotten in awhile to following Piper Kerman’s actual memoir Orange Is the New Black. Partway through it, the real Piper is taken to Oklahoma City, then Chicago to testify against her ex-lover’s old boss. It’s during this journey that she gets reacquainted with the women on whom Alex is based, though she’s called Nora in the book.)
NEXT: Déjà vu all over again
This information is conveyed, naturally, by Alex herself, who’s also on hand to testify against Kubra — and who will evidently always be just a few steps ahead of Piper. There’s a whiff of familiarity around Chapman’s sudden encounter with her ex — she and Alex reconnect abruptly and randomly, just like they did in OITNB‘s pilot. In fact, Piper’s time in Chicago feels like a funhouse mirror version of her introduction to Litchfield in a lot of ways: Once again, she immediately antagonizes her scary new cellmates, not by insulting the food they made but by stepping on their beloved cigarette-running cockroach. Once again, she’s caught off guard by an exchange with another inmate about bed-making. And once again, she’s immediately and aggressively pursued by an unstable fellow prisoner, albeit one who seems a lot more dangerous than the Woman Formerly Known as Crazy Eyes: It’s tough to imagine Suzanne ever biting off another woman’s tongue and swallowing it. (The face lick made me want to write fanfiction about Biter and Huck from Scandal. That’s a normal reaction, right?)
The difference, of course, is that the very air in Chicago seems tinged with malevolence; even the group of women who invite Piper to stay warm with them during rec time seem threatening. (And naturally, a fight breaks out not long after they extend the invitation.) Then again, Piper — and viewers, by extension — felt pretty similarly about Litchfield before we got acclimated to life there. Could it be that if Orange spent a little more time in Chicago, we’d eventually get to know and love these ladies (and men), just as we did in Litchfield last year?
It’s an open question — and one we’ll have to ponder later, since I haven’t even gotten to Piper’s testimony. Before the trial, Alex urges her ex to perjure herself, saying that it’s the only way to protect against Kubra taking “sick, deep revenge” against them: “There is no justice, Piper,” she explains. “So we will lie to protect ourselves. Or I will.” The idea makes Piper understandably uneasy, although the episode’s flashback sequences show that throughout the course of her life, she’s gradually grown more accustomed to lying: As a nerdy, rule-abiding child, Chapman once caught her father kissing another woman. When she told her mother what she’d seen, Mrs. Chapman responded by transferring her anger about the infidelity onto Piper herself. Over milkshakes, her beloved grandmother explained that strange reaction by reciting the main thrust of the WASP Code of Conduct: “Sometimes it’s not a matter of right and wrong. It’s about making a choice that will cause the least amount of pain to others — keeping things to yourself, sitting on information and feelings, and living with your secrets.”
So wait — if grown-up Piper sits on the information she knows about Kubra, does that mean she’ll be inflicting the least amount of pain on others? Not exactly; though she may save herself (and Alex) from the drug dealer’s wrath, she’ll also be causing plenty of suffering by obstructing justice and preventing the feds from putting him away for good. Lying in court — and thereby putting herself at risk for added time or resentencing on new charges — also means hurting Larry…especially because his father, who’s also acting as Piper’s lawyer, is there to hear his client tell a judge that Alex was the love of her life. Lying about her acquaintance with Kubra is just icing on the cake. Mr. Bloom is disgusted with Piper, telling his onetime future daughter-in-law in no uncertain terms that after this latest betrayal, he’s done with her. Piper seems sad to see him go, but she also doesn’t regret her decision; if prison’s taught her anything, it’s the importance of looking out for number one.
And then Alex walks by Piper’s holding cell… wearing street clothes. All the air is immediately sucked out of the room. “I had to tell the truth,” the woman who landed Piper in prison tells her. Wait — Alex is getting out early?! And Piper could have gotten the same deal, if only she’d listened to her own instincts instead of her WASP conditioning and her ex-girlfriend’s bad advice? This… is… brilliant. Devious, and terrible, and shocking, and brilliant — not to mention an elegant way to get Laura Prepon off the show, at least for a little while. (More on that below.)
We’re left with the sight of Piper, totally shattered and disillusioned… until she spies a cockroach faithfully carrying a cigarette on its back. So even in the frequently bleak universe of Orange, miracles are possible every now and then. Maybe Piper can get over this latest setback by eating the roach smarter than the other roaches and absorbing its power.
And now a collection of miscellaneous thoughts, questions, observations, and quotes that I’m going to call The Commissary:
- Waaait a minute — cigarette-running roaches are real?!
- A semi-spoiler: According to Buzzfeed, we can expect Laura Prepon to show up in three more episodes this season, and as a series regular in season 3. Which means we probably shouldn’t count on Alex keeping her freedom.
- Hey, Piper’s 33rd birthday is June 7! Figures she’d be a Gemini.
- When Piper was first hauled out of the SHU, I thought she might be taken to a maximum-security prison — and held out hope that it’d be the same place where Miss Claudette is currently incarcerated. Will we see Miss Claudette at all this season, do you think? It doesn’t seem very likely, especially since the actress who plays her (Michelle Hurst) was in a serious car crash earlier this year. (She’s on the road to recovery, thankfully.)
- This episode, like season 1′s “Lesbian Request Denied,” was directed by Jodie Foster. Notice any formal similarities between them?
- Who else felt a little tingle when Uzo Aduba’s name appeared in the opening credits?
- Today in Prison Ingenuity: The Pee Pad, “two maxis stacked, so they’re like a Maxi-maxi.” Never underestimate OITNB’s ability to simultaneously fascinate and disgust you.
- Piper, when Hannibal-Masked Inmate requests a bit of the vaseline Lolly stored in her ear (eww): “Even if I was willing to touch her ear glob, and even if I was able to reach across the aisle with no guard noticing, what makes you think that I could get up underneath that mask and touch your lips?” Hannibal-Masked Inmate’s eloquent response: “F— you, you dumb bitch!”
- Another great moment from Con-Air: “Well excuse me, Carmen Sandiego.”
- I’m sure there’s no way to bring Spongey back onto the show, but I want to know his whooooole story.
- Inmate Joyce’s favorite cockroaches: Yoda; Gremlin; Fred Savage III.
- The line that may sum up Orange better than any other: “Hello, passengers. We want to thank you for flying with us today. We know you have a choice in your air travel… kidding! You have no choice at all, because you’re prisoners…Relax and enjoy our in-flight entertainment, which is staring off into space.”
Orange Is the New Black season premiere recap: Back in Black — Er, Orange – Entertainment Weekly