The second season of Orange Is the New Black started from a supremely unenviable position: It could never match the first one.
Before it aired, Orange Is the New Black seemed guaranteed to be one of the worst shows around. The most recognizable face in the cast was Jason Biggs. The premise (rich white lady is a “fish out of water” among people of color in prison) was wildly offensive. The ads looked corny; the heritage of women’s‑prison exploitation films was nothing to brag about; on top of everything else, the title was awful, a long, hard-to-remember nonsense phrase that could be read as either tacky Sex-and-the-City-ism (prison fashionistas!) or tone-deaf racial commentary. The fun of OITNB’s first season, like that of Hannibal or Battlestar Galactica, was that you tuned in expecting to see a bad show, and wound up watching a great one.
Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black couldn’t replicate that experience. Last year, people would have been impressed if OITNB had been merely watchable, and were blown away when it actually turned out to be good; this year, it had to be amazing, or else it would be a failure. Yet OITNB responded to this pressure by taking a huge narrative risk. Rather than writing traditional episodic TV, as they did in Season 1 — with each episode having a theme, a focal character, a distinct plot arc, a cliffhanger — this year, the powers-that-be gave us one long story. If you watched it episode-by-episode, it could seem excruciatingly slow. (How many times did we need to hear about Vee’s mysterious “plan?” How many times did we need to see Red soliloquize about once knowing Vee?) But, toward the end, it all pays off: After 11 straight episodes of set-up, we get three hours in which all Hell breaks loose.
The prison’s flooding problem — introduced as a gross-out gag early in the season — has now become a catastrophe of Biblical proportions. An incoming winter storm has triggered a flood that’s shorted out the prison’s electrical systems, washed out the surrounding roads, and left most of Litchfield waist-deep in water. This show is great at symbols that don’t seem overly “symbolic.” This season, “flood” always symbolizes decay of the established status quo. A flood caused the bathroom turf war that enabled Vee to install her crew in the warehouse; being forced to shower in that flooded bathroom prompted Soso’s hunger strike; this flood, the biggest one yet, leads to both Red’s climactic confrontation with Vee and Fig’s downfall. But they’re also, you know, real floods, in a show about a prison with a known flooding problem. So even when things get to Noah’s Ark levels, it doesn’t feel like you’re being bonked over the head with meaning.
In this case, in both a metaphorical and literal sense, the flooding was just an everyday irritant, right up until the moment it became a disaster. Little changes have been pouring in, drop-by-drop, and now everything is underwater.
One example of how that trickle has turned into a deluge: After a season of taking physical and emotional beatings, Poussey has seemingly given up on life and gone full-on day-drunk, loading up on her own prison hooch to anaesthetize herself. During one of these benders, she goes in and wrecks Vee’s stash of tobacco, tossing it on the floor and pouring cleaner on it. And just like that, Taystee is out of Vee’s group. It’s a chilling scene: Vee simply explains, calmly, that she can’t do business if Taystee’s in her crew, because Poussey will keep on endangering the operation by trying to rescue Taystee.
Which makes sense, until you consider that Vee has been trying to rope Taystee into her business since she was about 6 years old. Vee is also almost certainly the reason Taystee’s in prison. For at least a decade, Vee has been presenting herself as the lone source of stability Taystee has, fucking up Taystee’s life immeasurably in the process. Now, when being Taystee’s mother is inconvenient, Vee is able to dismiss her in an instant, with no remorse or sense of obligation. Vee is elegant, smart, and sophisticated; there are moments when she gives off sparks of warmth. But there’s no one in there.
Which is something Red has yet to fully understand. Things are at a head since one of the Golden Girls tried to assassinate Vee, and — whether due to racism or vision impairment, it’s not clear which — wound up stabbing a random black inmate instead. Red, reluctantly, decides to finish the job by strangling Vee with a sheet of Saran Wrap (if there’s one thing this show loves more than mommy issues, it’s weaponized food and food-adjacent implements). But Red, not being completely devoid of empathy, can’t finish offing her former best friend. She lets Vee go, they make nice and have a laugh together, and then, as soon as she has a clear opportunity, Vee calmly, efficiently fractures Red’s skull multiple times with a lock in a sock.
So, with Red hospitalized — yet refusing to name Vee as her accuser, due to some old-timey gangster code that prohibits anyone from undertaking the easy, obvious solution to a problem — we come to the most upsetting part of the finale. Or, really, the most upsetting part of the series: The part where we understand exactly why Vee was so nice to Suzanne. We’ve seen Vee hone in on Suzanne’s overwhelming loneliness and self-hatred; we’ve seen her play to Suzanne’s own considerable mommy issues; we’ve seen her tell Suzanne that she’s a garden rose who can hold her head up high, and we’ve seen turn Suzanne into a thug, making her prove her loyalty by dishing out beatings and cruelty.
But none of that is equal to the moment when Vee — again, calmly, and without blinking — gently, lovingly tricks Suzanne into believing that she attacked Red, with the intention of getting Suzanne sentenced to maximum security and put away for what may be the rest of her natural life. Suzanne’s mental illness wasn’t a bug: It was a feature. From the beginning, Vee has been keeping her around so that she’ll have someone to take the blame for her own crimes.
If you’ve been reading these recaps for more than five seconds, you know that Suzanne is my favorite. In fact, sometimes I think I like her more than OITNB does. I still believe that having “mental illness” signified by random bursts of violence and occasional funny accents is deeply irresponsible. Mental illnesses are diseases, with symptoms and treatments; they’re not just a case of someone “acting weird.” You’d think, on a show so good with character detail that we’re told precisely which 1980s post-punk bands a minor background character listens to, the writers would have worked out the name of a main character’s life-defining illness. Alas, that’s not the case here.
Yet Suzanne, herself, gets to me. Because she is weird, because she wants so much to be loved, and because she knows, better than anyone else, that there’s something about her that most people can’t understand or accept. (And because Uzo Aduba has worked so hard to give humanity to the character: She made all of these points about Suzanne in an interview with Buzzfeed, and was also the first person to point out all the flood symbolism.) She’s impossibly easy to empathize with, because that raw feeling of being unlovable and strange and alone is something everyone has experienced.
And even if Suzanne’s “occasional funny accents” illness rarely seems realistic, Suzanne’s reaction to being deceived feels horrifically so. All of her self-loathing comes pouring out, in her need to believe she’s committed a crime she can’t remember, her insistence that she can’t believe what she knows because “I’m unreliable.” The heartbreaking part, here, is that for Suzanne, believing she can’t remember her own life is actually preferable to believing that Vee is using her. There are funny bits sprinkled throughout — when Taystee says that Vee might be lying, Suzanne insists that “[Vee’s] a truth-teller! She told me that!” — but even they are among the darkest moments this show has ever presented.
Imagine that one person, in all the world, promised to love the part of you that no one else could handle. Imagine that finally, one person saw all your lifelong weirdness and told you it was beautiful. And then imagine that person was lying. That they secretly hated your weirdness more than anyone else; that they hated it so much they were willing to hurt you. It would feel like proof that you could never be loved. It would feel like you were stupid to even hope for love. It would destroy you. Suzanne would rather believe she’s a killer than believe that she’ll always be lonely. A life in a maximum-security prison is less scary than the thought that she doesn’t matter to Vee.
A lot of things happen in this finale, but only Suzanne made me cry.
And when I say a lot of things happen, I mean a lot of things. Piper tells Caputo about Fig’s embezzlement! Fig gets fired! (Also, in one of the worst decisions OITNB has made to date, Caputo gets Fig to give him a blow job in exchange for not turning her in, then reveals that he turned her in before the blow job. I get that Fig is a villain, but “a woman is threatened, then told she can save herself by having sex with the person threatening her” is never the same as consensual sex, and the need to degrade a “bad” female character by hurting her sexually makes the scene deeply disturbing.) Piper turns Alex in for parole violation, and gets her sent back to Litchfield! Bennett tells Caputo he got Daya pregnant! Sister Ingalls’ fellow nuns show up!
And in the middle of all this, Nicky steals Vee’s heroin to avenge Red — because, if you’re a recovering heroin addict, stealing a whole box of the stuff is always a good idea — and Vee begins to unravel.
The core of this season has been the question of the strength, or weakness, incurred upon someone by the people they connect with: We’ve seen multiple characters lose all power when they lost their groups, including Red, Pennsatucky, Big Boo and Poussey. But we’ve also seen that the wrong connections can destroy you: Gloria and her abusive husband, Morello and Christopher, Vee and Taystee. Or Vee and Suzanne. Or Vee and anybody.
And Vee only had authority because she had those relationships with people. Her own selfishness, though, allows her to think that her control is something that exists independently. Slowly, one-by-one, she’s eliminated every ally she has: She kicked out Poussey early on. Now, she’s done the same thing to Taystee, who re-connects with Poussey. She frames Suzanne, thus getting her out of the picture. By the time she decides Cindy has stolen her stash and threatens to kill her, her “crew” is only two people — Cindy, and Janae, whose loyalty was already tenuous, given that she wound up in SHU for doing Vee’s bidding. After the threat, it’s down to none. So there’s no more space for Vee in Litchfield, especially not once the rest of the group sets their sights on vindicating Suzanne.
Oh, remember when Morello was a stalker who used her access to the prison van to terrorize her victims? And how Rosa had cancer, and was definitely going to die? And how Healy wanted to be a decent CO for a change? And how Gloria had superpowers, for some reason, then disappeared into the background for the rest of the season? And Rosa got bullied out of her cafeteria seat by Vee in a seemingly pointless scene? Well: Be prepared for all of those plot lines to be unexpectedly significant!
Because it’s the end of the season, and all of that “pointless filler” you agonized through as you waited for things to kick into gear is finally, well, kicking. Healy manages to get his job right, for once, and uses his deductive reasoning skills and institutional power to have Suzanne declared not guilty of Red’s attempted murder. Gloria remembers she can do actual, literal magic and puts a curse on Vee. Vee escapes Litchfield through Red’s prison tunnel, and begins wandering along the side of the highway; Morello gives Rosa the prison van, and tells her to make a break for it, which Rosa does; Vee, savoring the sweet taste of freedom, is instantly murdered by Rosa, who runs her down with the prison van. (Again: It could be a coincidence. Or it could be that Gloria put a death-curse on her, because she has actual superpowers.) Rosa, the new instrument of Fate, then drives away while morphing into her younger self, in what has to be the cheesiest soundtrack/effects combination (“Don’t Fear the Reaper,” for Chrissakes) in recent memory.
And that’s the second season of Orange Is the New Black: 80 percent waiting, 20 percent frenetic action. An 11-episode set-up, resolved with an out-of-nowhere vehicular homicide that takes up less than a second of screen time, including anticipation.
I think I admire this season more than I admire the first. This was confident, risky storytelling, letting major plot threads dangle for most of a season, just so that we could feel the shock of recognition when they were finally re-introduced. That said, I didn’t always like this season as much. Delaying all the pay-offs required the show to invent holding patterns for its characters rather than resolving conflicts at a normal pace. This did some of them — most notably Daya, whose endless I love you/Tell them you’re the father/I hate you loop was clearly a case of over-extending her limited material — a huge disservice. It’s not possible to be shocked by the fact that OITNB is good any more, which means that, when it is merely “good” rather than mind-blowing, it’s easy to see that as a failure.
For all those flaws, though, it is definitely no failure. When this show is firing on all cylinders, its emotional complexity and empathy are breathtaking: Consider how much we were made to feel for Morello, a dangerous stalker, this season. Consider all the layers of love and hate in Piper’s smile when she learns Alex is coming back to Litchfield. Or consider that wrenching last shot of Suzanne clutching the pack of cards Vee gave her and sobbing. The unrelenting barrage of plot in these last episodes shows that, in its way, OITNB is still able to surprise its viewers. But it’s also able to move us, and make us care about an astonishingly wide array of people, which may be a better accomplishment yet.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.