The race wars are heating up on Orange is the New Black as we hit the mid-way point of S2.
Let’s bitch it out…
2×05: ‘Low Self Esteem City’
If the second season of Orange is the New Black is concerned with one thing thus far, it is exploring how Litchfield prison runs. S1 was about Piper learning the rules, which is turning out to be a very different process to how things get done…and by whom.
‘Low Self Esteem City’ is another hour built around Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) and her efforts to further cement her power base. At this point it’s not entirely clear what Vee’s end game is any longer (if you consider how she talks about the old days, one presumes she’s after no less than total domination). Tensions rise when the showers get backed up and the members of the ‘Ghetto’ and ‘Little Harlem’ are forced into more regular contact. Vee’s girls feel unfairly targeted after they sense they’re getting the short end of the stick and a single moment – a pregnant Diaz (Dascha Polanco) getting tripped in the cafeteria – threatens to erupt into all out war.
Things come to a head when Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) confronts Vee and – in another moment of reversed expectations – Vee doesn’t strike back, she cowers. It should come as no surprise that this is another strategy for getting what she wants and the meek reaction is meant to completely disarm her adversary. It’s unclear if the audience is meant to be fooled by Vee’s emotional tear-up in the toilets, but the charade was immediately clear to me. It’s a good play on Vee’s part because everyone expects the physical response between the two groups to escalate. By diffusing the tension and seemingly bowing to Mendoza, Vee has quietly gotten what she wants: a few of her girls assigned to the maintenance crew (presumably to better facilitate some kind of illegal import business). We’ll have to see what her next move is and whether Mendoza ends up confronting her again – after all, between this and the stale cigarettes from episode 2×02, Mendoza has been burned by Vee twice now.
Also working on her influence is Red (Kate Mulgrew) who capitalizes on her discovery of the greenhouse grate by putting the other Greys to work. She works around Caputo (Nick Sandow) in much the same way as Mendoza, proving that Caputo is an even bigger push-over than Healy (Michael Harney). What’s striking is that the push and pull dynamic over who has power and control is mirrored in both the storylines of the prison staff and the prisoners: Caputo gets in hot water for calling in outside help to deal with the back-up in ‘Little Harlem’ and Fig (Alysia Reiner) craps all over him because she doesn’t have the budget for it. One thing most prison shows do well is highlight how the currency may be different (money for prison employees; influence and popularity among prisoners), but the scramble for power is eerily similar.
- Healy’s marital woes with his Russian bride continue. Initially I was completely disinterested, but I’m hoping that the newly formed bond (or dependence since it seems entirely one-sided) between Healy and Caputo yields some interesting interactions. If nothing else, more inappropriate songs from Caputo band could be fun.
- Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) begin their Bang-Off challenge (hilariously judged by Lori Tan Chinn’s Chang). Right off the bat you can tell Nichols is making a wrong move going after Officer Fischer (Lauren Lapkus). Interestingly their interaction near the telephones yields a new development as Fischer makes a pitch to begin monitoring prisoner calls. This could end up impacting the empire building plans of both Red and Vee (or maybe not since Fischer seems most interested in listening in on the Spanish speaking prisoners).
- Oh yeah, Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Larry (Jason Biggs) kinda/sorta make up over the news that her grandmother is dying (though he doesn’t yet know that that’s why she initiated contact). Yawn to this…wake me if she and her brother Cal (Michael Chernus) play another round of Bad News Charades.
- Big Boo (talking about having sex with Alex): “Me, too. Love to get my dick in her mouth.” Oh dear…she’s such a potty mouth.
- Piper (when Cal wishes she would have a gnarly scar): “There’s still time.”
2×06: ‘You Always Have A Pizza’
There are a lot of stories getting airtime as the season hits the half-way point, and yet by the end of the hour, ‘You Also Have A Pizza’ feels like a well-balanced episode. Vee and Red are both deep into empire building mode as deliveries start to come through maintenance and the greenhouse. It wasn’t until Vee and Red’s second tension-filled discussion (this time at the Valentine’s dance) to realize that their relationship is being mirrored by Nichols and Big Boo’s sex challenge, but obviously there’s a great deal more at stake when it comes to gifts and cigarettes than scores and bragging rights. The initial scene between the queens of the prison from 2×02 ‘Looks Blue, Tastes Red’ hinted at their mutual lust for power in the old days and this new scene revisits that idea but it underscores the dangerously competitive nature between the two women. Expect these two to try and take each other out before the end of the season (if not sooner).
While there’s obviously an overarching theme about the nature of love and romantic relationships given the holiday season, it’s the moves towards power and agency that catches my attention in this episode. Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) girls decide they’ve had enough of her attitude and Leanne (Emma Myles) acts on their dissatisfaction to tell her former friend to take a hike – then immediately takes her place as ringleader of the group. Mama Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) uses her familial status with John to secure her own contraband, which has a domino effect as the other kitchen girls begin blackmailing him for their silence. And then there’s Poussey (Samira Wiley) whose attempt to stand up to Vee in Taystee’s defense reveals a recurring pattern in her love life. We see via flashback that she had an illicit relationship while her army parents were stationed in Germany and the affair ends up dictating the direction of her life when the other girl’s displeased father catches them in the act (Side Note: let’s take a moment to applaud the very frank lesbian sexuality because we will never see anything even close to that on network or cable television). It’s clear from both of Poussey’s stories here that she has a habit of falling hard for the wrong girls and paying the price when their more powerful parental figures get involved. It’s no wonder that she’s willing to walk away from Taystee at the end of the day; she’s been down this road before and it’s clearly altered her life for the worse.
The final development is Piper’s relationship with Larry, which enters a confrontational negotiation stage. He visits her for the first time this season and there’s an implicit suggestion that one way she can prove to him that she’s serious about their future is to collect information for the prison exposé story. Whether she ultimately decides to do it for him or out of her own natural curiousity is uncertain, but she’s almost immediately found out by Healy and forced to make up a weak excuse about starting a newsletter. Still, the reveal that the questions about love that are peppered throughout the episode are actually Piper’s faux interviews while she collect research on prison spending is kind of ingenious. It not only reinforces the Dickens-esque nature of telling stories about a wide variety of lives (something Fischer talks about with Caputo in a not-very-subtle-metatextual-way), it’s a nice thematic tie-in for the episode as everyone tries to make a connection in time for Valentine’s Day.
- Suzanne is a background player in this episode, but she’s my secret MVP. Between amusingly insightful chats with a mop and comforting Morello (Yael Stone) about her fake fiancé, Uzo Aduba does a great job of giving Crazy Eyes a quiet and unexpected intelligence.
- Nichols and Big Boo break off their sex contest…and immediately initiate a cookie eating contest. This has been a fun recurring B-plot because it gives us an idea of the things inmates do to pass the time but I’m not at all sad to see it wrap up. It’s been a fun diversion, but it’s doesn’t have a lot of longevity in it.
- I’m unsure what to feel about the Caputo/Fischer storyline. Her misreading of his romantic interests and invitation of the other guards to see Side Boob perform feels particularly cliché and obvious. As if this show doesn’t already have enough failed/unrequited love stories. Surely there must be other stories to tell about the prison staff, especially if we’re forced to continue spending time on Healy’s failed marriage to the Russian bride.
- Speaking of cliché: Larry finally kisses Polly…just before learning her husband has returned from his wilderness walkabout. Oh these wacky kids and their first world, white people problems! Blurg…
- Piper (after Larry suggests living with her stuff is like living in a mausoleum):“And you mean mausoleum, not sarcophagus.”
- Leanne (when Pennsatucky asks if she’s calling her Hilary Clinton): “If the pantsuit fits.”
- Nichols (describing a recent sex act): “This mackerel clit. It was like blowing a toddler.”
Your turn: are you enjoying the rise in power and prestige of Red and Vee? Are Piper and Larry inching towards reconciliation or is there something genuine between him and Polly? Are you enjoying the shifting focus to the guards? Are you still feeling the Diaz/John storyline and is it more interesting now that he’s a drug mule? Is the Tastyee, Vee, Poussey dynamic interesting or disappointing? Sound off below, but *please note*: since the entire season is now available, please refrain from commenting on future episodes and spoiling the viewing experience of others.
Orange Is The New Black is now available in its entirety on Netflix. Our coverage continues next Wednesday with a review of episodes 7-8. If you are binging, however, be sure to check out TVAngie’s take on the first and second halves of the season.