By: Madelyn Glymour, contributor
“Thirsty Bird,” the Orange Is the New Black season premiere, is an episode hyper-focused on Piper. The flashbacks are Piper’s, and the present-day action contains only Piper and Alex—no other series regulars appear. Meanwhile, the second episode, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red,” contains no Piper at all, instead devoting all of its time to catching up with the rest of the characters, and to introducing the season’s defining character, Vee. Taken together, the first two episodes set a pretty good standard for the rest of the season: There’s what happens to Piper, and there’s what happens to everyone else. Piper’s plotline has massive consequences for the prison’s bureaucracy, but limited effect on the day-to-day goings-on of the prison; Vee’s takeover sends shockwaves through the inmate population, but ultimately has very little effect on Piper. Tellingly, Vee and Piper interact only once—when Vee tells Piper to get off the phone, and Piper, who was almost done anyway, complies.
Both Piper’s plot and Vee’s, however, mark a significant shift from what came before. Orange Is the New Black’s first season focused almost entirely on character exploration. Characters formed resentments, fell in love, pissed each other off, and the plot followed naturally. In season two, though, the show may still be dedicated to its characters, but politics is the name of the game. Piper finds herself embroiled in the strange world of jailhouse office politics, while Vee pulls off a Frank Underwood-style power grab, assuming control of the prisoners themselves.
I imagine that Vee’s plot resonated more strongly with viewers than Piper’s. Vee is an undeniably charismatic presence. The plot is well written and paced, it involves many of the show’s most popular characters, and it hinges on the kind of intrigue and complicated scheming that has made “House of Cards” so popular. Ultimately, though, Vee blows through season two like Winter Storm Wanda, making a mess of things for a while, but leaving behind little to show it was there except for a few waterlogged books. The characters, relationships, and social structures that were affected by Vee’s takeover mostly return to status quo as soon as she is gone. Taystee and Poussey are friends again. Red and her family are safe again. The only exceptions are Crazy Eyes, who will undoubtedly feel some lasting effects from the disappearance of her idol, and Nicky, who’s now facing temptation in the form of several bags of heroin.
Piper’s plot, on the other hand, changes the game. When a reporter approaches Piper to help him uncover misappropriated funds in the prison, Piper starts snooping. When Healy catches her snooping, she makes up a story about starting a prison newsletter, which quickly becomes a real prison newsletter. The newsletter heightens tensions between Figueroa and Caputo. And when Piper gets caught snooping a second time, that tension turns into action: Piper and Caputo team up to get Figueroa fired, and Caputo put in her place. Caputo is such a mercurial figure, and so much of what happens at Litchfield is out of his hands, that it’s hard to say what effect that change will have. But it’s bound to change something. At the same time, Piper’s isolation from the rest of the inmates—hinted at in the first two episodes, and in some later episodes, like “Appropriately Sized Pots”—as well as her growing isolation from the world outside Litchfield, leads her to take drastic action. She snitches on the recently-freed Alex, getting her caught on a probation violation. Alex is coming back to jail, and Piper’s often-latent selfish streak is officially active.
The real problem with Vee’s plot, though, isn’t that it leaves the prison unchanged. Plots don’t necessarily have to create permanent change to be good and useful, as long as they tell us something about the characters, and Vee’s presence on the show certainly revealed important aspects of Poussey, Taystee, Red, Boo, and others. No, the real problem with Vee’s plot is that Vee is a villain, and only a villain. Orange Is the New Black’s best quality is that it never allows any character to be only one thing. Characters may start out as jokes, stereotypes, or bad guys, but then the camera pulls back—to put it the way the newly in-touch Healy might, our perspective shifts—and we see that they have layers. Nothing demonstrates this better than the staff of Litchfield, who get a lot more screen time in second season. Caputo plays in a band. Figueroa struggles to connect to her secretly gay husband. Even Mendez, irredeemably horrible person that he is, loves Daya, and wants, in his twisted way, to do right by her. (It’s interesting that Mendez does all of the things that Daya asks Bennett to do: He publicly declares his love for her, he shows a determination to be there for the baby, and he goes to jail.)
Vee doesn’t get any of that, though. Instead, every emotion we see from her, every shade of grey the character displays, is eventually revealed to be an act that she’s putting on to further her agenda. Vee doesn’t care about anything but power, and she doesn’t love anyone but herself. She has no shame, no regret, and no grief. She doesn’t even have hobbies. There’s nothing in her that any viewer could possibly empathize with or connect to. She is so empty, in fact, that when she is hit by a van, we cheer.
Orange Is the New Black’s second season does a lot more right than it does wrong. There’s so much attention to detail on the show, and the season touches on so many characters and plotlines, that it would be impossible to cover them all in this review. I haven’t even mentioned the acting, which is superb, or the other major new character, the naïve and idealistic Brook, who is both a wonderfully funny presence and an excellent tool for showing how much Piper has changed since the series premiere. Nor have I mentioned this season’s flashbacks, which focus primarily on previously overlooked characters, often to great effect. (Morello’s and Rosa’s episodes stand out in particular.) And of course, amidst all the drama and intrigue, the show remains incredibly funny. I’m not sure that I would even go so far as to call Vee’s emptiness a mistake; I imagine the writers knew exactly what they were doing when they created her. They wanted to create a character who was fascinating to watch, but satisfying to dispose of, and they succeeded. I did, after all, cheer when Vee died. I just kind of wish I hadn’t been asked to.
Madelyn is a freelance writer based in LA. She shares her generally unpopular opinions about television at stopitshow.blogspot.com.