The Reign of Whitey Is Never Over

Orange Is the New Black’s second season still falls flat on class and race.

Yasmin Nair

The conflict between Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, R) and Red (Kate Mulgrew, L) brings the show's race problems to the fore. (JoJo Whilden / Netflix)

This review con­tains spoil­ers about the first and sec­ond sea­sons of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.

If Season 1 made prison seem like Camp PrisonCanBeFun for girls, Season 2 is bleaker and filled with reminders that the only certainty about prison life, besides the roaches and the shit bubbling up through bad plumbing, is the absolute uncertainty.

Netflix’s sum­mer 2013 hit series, Orange Is the New Black, became that rare show that enters the cul­tur­al lex­i­con and pro­pels lit­tle-known actors to star­dom — notably Uzo Adu­ba (“Crazy Eyes”/Suzanne), Tay­lor Schilling (Piper Chap­man) and Lav­erne Cox (Sophia Burset).

At the start of the sec­ond sea­son, released on Fri­day, we meet some­one with the poten­tial to become the first non-human break­out star of the series: a roach named Yoda. But alas, before Yoda can take his place as the Archy of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, he is acci­den­tal­ly squelched to death by Piper as she steps into a new cell in Chicago’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Deten­tion Cen­ter (MDC) (based on the Metrapoli­tan Cor­rec­tion­al Cen­ter in Chicago). 

After hav­ing beat­en Pennsat­ucky” (Taryn Man­ning) to a pulp at the end of the first sea­son, Piper is awok­en by guards in the dead of night, forced onto a bus and then a plane, and plopped into the Chica­go prison, away from the frag­ile bonds she has man­aged to forge with the women in Litch­field. We — and she — assume this is in retal­i­a­tion for hav­ing severe­ly injured and pos­si­bly killed Pennsat­ucky. The sight of MDC, which looms like Saruman’s Tow­er smack in the mid­dle of Chicago’s down­town, con­vinces us and her that she is in for a long, painful stretch in a much rougher prison than the sin­gle-sex, min­i­mum secu­ri­ty Litch­field — not to men­tion pos­si­ble tri­al for Pennsatucky’s mur­der. Yoda, whose pres­ence con­tributes to the gen­er­al sense of filth and decrepi­tude, is one of the myr­i­ad trained roach­es at MDC, each at least as long as an intem­per­ate mid­dle fin­ger, who smug­gle stamps and cig­a­rettes back and forth between inmates, with vary­ing degrees of reliability.

But this is about as excit­ing as the sea­son gets; after the first episode, Orange set­tles into a pace that is much slow­er the sec­ond time around. Watch­ing episodes is like watch­ing hon­ey flow through a plas­tic bear-shaped bot­tle on a cold Chica­go night. Where Sea­son 1 at least kept peo­ple on the edge of their seats at the end of every episode, this sea­son left this review­er gnaw­ing at an arm to stay awake. The slow­ness per­sists despite the many back sto­ries, pre­sent­ed in flash­back. Even poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing ones, like Suzanne’s adop­tion by white par­ents, or Rosa’s (Bar­bara Rosen­blat) past as a lush-lipped and long­haired bank rob­ber who got off on the excite­ment of heists fail to spice things up.

Pro­vid­ing such details of char­ac­ters’ lives is a clas­sic human­iz­ing tech­nique, as well as a tac­tic to keep peo­ple inter­est­ed. But it sim­ply doesn’t work very well this sea­son, because the ques­tion of why, for instance, Morel­lo (Yael Stone) is so obsessed with Christo­pher, is dis­con­nect­ed from the nar­ra­tive thrust of the show. As a result, the show in effect is draw­ing out the action — not a lot hap­pens, and it hap­pens in a rel­a­tive­ly short time, but it all gets stretched like a long rub­ber band. More­over, the focus on the inmates’ back sto­ries folds into a cen­tral prob­lem with the show: that it has to con­stant­ly make prison be about the peo­ple in it, as opposed to dis­cussing the sys­temic prob­lems with the prison indus­tri­al com­plex itself.

Large­ly miss­ing from Sea­son 2 is the pres­ence of Lav­erne Cox, who has, in the inter­ven­ing peri­od between the sea­sons, become a well-known spokesper­son on trans issues and a pro­duc­er of a forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary on CeCe McDon­ald. (Read my inter­view with Cox for In These Times here.) But Cox wasn’t just a suc­cess in gain­ing vis­i­bil­i­ty for trans actors every­where — she was also very good in her role as Sophia Burset. In Sea­son 2, she rarely appears, and when she does, it’s as a mouth­piece for what the show clear­ly iden­ti­fies as the cor­rect and pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal line on sex­u­al­ly and gen­der pol­i­tics. Dis­cov­er­ing that most of the women have no idea about the dif­fer­ent parts that com­prise their gen­i­tals, she gives an impromp­tu lec­ture. In oth­er words, Cox is no longer play­ing a char­ac­ter but has become, in effect, the native infor­mant on All Mat­ters Trans. An Orange with­out her in a big­ger role as an actor and not sim­ply a spokesper­son is great­ly dimin­ished in breadth and depth.

Breasts, breasts and more breasts

What else is dif­fer­ent? Pennsat­ucky takes her beat­ing as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to gain new teeth, but they are of no use: She los­es her social stand­ing, and she can only stand by bewil­dered as her celebri­ty fades and her for­mer min­ions turn on her.

The mat­ter of the uneven­ly and racial­ized rep­re­sen­ta­tion of breasts, which we had pre­vi­ous­ly point­ed out, is amply resolved by a pro­lif­er­a­tion of breasts, of every hue and col­or, most­ly as an accom­pa­ni­ment to copi­ous amounts of sex.

Indeed, there are so many breasts present in this sea­son that they will no doubt inspire a drink­ing game (one shot or two, depend­ing on how many a woman expos­es at the same time), and the result can only be extra­or­di­nar­i­ly ine­bri­at­ed view­ing parties. 

Sex is an even big­ger com­po­nent of this sea­son, and it’s here that the show again reveals both its blind­ness­es and bias­es. At one point Big Boo (Lea DeLar­ia) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) decide to have what we can only call a Fuck-Off: a race to see who can bed the most num­ber of women. It becomes a run­ning joke over a few episodes, but it’s unclear as to why this should be any less demean­ing and just plain sex­ist just because the play­ers are women. At one point, Piper, tries to nego­ti­ate the return of a blan­ket Big Boo has appro­pri­at­ed by offer­ing her a new pris­on­er as a sex­u­al part­ner. It becomes a joke about Piper pimp­ing” the girl, turn­ing the harsh real­i­ty of the sex­u­al econ­o­my of pris­ons into an occa­sion for comedy.

Indeed, the show relent­less­ly por­trays prison sex as a fun, hap­py thing, and while sex in prison doesn’t have to always be non-con­sen­su­al or coerced, the real­i­ty of prison in the US is that 200,000 incar­cer­at­ed adults and chil­dren are sex­u­al abused every year. Orange seems blithe­ly com­mit­ted to a rosy view — with one notable excep­tion, in which sex is used to uncrit­i­cal­ly sup­port stereo­types of black men as sex­u­al­ly preda­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly towards white women. When Piper is tak­en to MDC, she’s imme­di­ate­ly leered at by one of the male pris­on­ers who are being flown there as well, a Black man whose sex­u­al come-on to her is gross­ly over­played, com­plete with a vis­i­ble tongue. In con­trast, the white mar­shal who escorts her to the bath­room is gruff and sar­cas­tic, but doesn’t touch or sex­u­al­ize her, even though she’s vul­ner­a­ble to him as he stands at the open door. Lat­er, when she needs to ask the same pris­on­er to run an errand for her, she nego­ti­ates a sex­u­al reward. She offers him a hand­job, but he wants her four-days-unwashed panties instead. When she finds out from anoth­er inmate that he’s a hit man, she explodes in relief: Oh, I’m so relieved, I thought he was a rapist!” 

In real­i­ty, Piper might well have had to sub­mit to either the pris­on­er or to mul­ti­ple guards. But, of course, the show could nev­er show its cen­tral white female pris­on­er actu­al­ly blow­ing or being fucked by a Black man, whose sex­u­al pro­cliv­i­ty is then mocked when Piper says, They hire hit men with under­wear fetish­es.” So first he’s car­i­ca­tured, bring­ing to life the fear that under­girds this country’s his­to­ry of lynch­ing Black men: that one might sex­u­al­ly assault a white woman. And then, he’s mocked for his predilection.

Bleak­er, but still black and white

If Sea­son 1 made prison seem like Camp Pris­on­Can­Be­Fun for girls, Sea­son 2 is bleak­er and filled with reminders that the only cer­tain­ty about prison life, besides the roach­es and the shit bub­bling up through bad plumb­ing, is the absolute uncer­tain­ty. An old­er woman in the last stages of demen­tia is thrown out into the real world as part of a pro­gram of com­pas­sion­ate release,” left to fend for her­self on the streets. Rosa is denied a life-sav­ing oper­a­tion because the state has a rigid cap on pro­ce­dure costs. One of the young Lati­nas, a new moth­er, is told of a trans­fer far away from her infant daugh­ter, deprived of even the brief vis­its she might have.

That Orange makes a con­scious attempt to high­light such prob­lems in its sec­ond sea­son is pre­sum­ably a response to numer­ous cri­tiques of the first (includ­ing ours). The show’s depic­tion of the elder­ly in prison is one of the stronger ele­ments, and we con­tin­ue to see people’s con­tra­dic­tions. Admin­is­tra­tor Caputo (Nick Sandow) reveals him­self as some­one who actu­al­ly wants to improve mat­ters for the women, but it’s all cir­cum­scribed by his desire to be seen as a do-gooder.

Try as they might, how­ev­er, Orange’s attempts to be more nuanced skate over its core prob­lems: racism and classism.

Often crit­i­cized for imply­ing that bour­geois white women like Piper sim­ply don’t deserve to be in prison (and, by impli­ca­tion, that oth­ers do), Orange now attempts to direct­ly address the mat­ter of race, but falls flat. At one point, Piper, fed up with every­one assum­ing she per­son­al­ly had any­thing to do with get­ting a cov­et­ed fur­lough, stands up and makes a short speech about white priv­i­lege.” It’s one of the most forced and inor­gan­ic moments in the sea­son, aimed square­ly at cri­tiques like, well, ours, and not real­ly at the char­ac­ters around her.

The racial aspects of prison and the show’s pol­i­tics around them come to the fore with the entrance of Vee, played by Lor­raine Touis­sant, who comes to Orange with an impres­sive record of appear­ances in tele­vi­sion shows like Law and Order and Scan­dal. Watch­ing her effort­less and aston­ish­ing­ly flaw­less per­for­mance, where every flick­er of her eye­lids con­veys a taut, slow, deep ener­gy that lies coiled ready to strike, one won­ders at the sense­less­ness of a Hol­ly­wood sys­tem that has not giv­en her more major roles before this.

By Sea­son 2, the Lati­nas have tak­en over the kitchen and by exten­sion, the top slot in the prison hier­ar­chy. As Nicky says sar­don­ical­ly, The reign of Whitey is over.”

This obser­va­tion can only be a joke — both in real life, where white­ness still dom­i­nates every are­na, and in the world of the show, which ulti­mate­ly can­not allow the pow­er­ful Vee to actu­al­ly gain ascen­dan­cy. As much as Vee strug­gles might­i­ly to estab­lish pow­er, and as much as she seems to gain it, her plans are even­tu­al­ly foiled.

Vee, as it hap­pens, is Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks’) moth­er, not the bio­log­i­cal sort, but the God­moth­er, rul­ing over a small but effec­tive brood that runs drugs at her bid­ding, and hold­ing even the cops in her man­i­cured hands.

How bad is Vee? When Red (Kate Mul­grew), the for­mi­da­ble Red, sees her, her instinct is to rush to Sophia to get a new hair­cut — red, but with hints of flam­ing orange, spiked to look as if her head were a ball of fire fly­ing upwards — along with red nails. She tells Sophia she needs to look her best and strongest to con­front the new­com­er, and we real­ize that Vee is an old-timer, and that she and Red have a history.

As played by Touis­sant, Vee is a sear­ing pres­ence. In prison, she is bereft of the per­fect make­up and fine­ly styled clothes, hair and acces­sories that she sports in flash­backs. And yet she becomes even more incan­des­cent with­out all that, as if her accou­ter­ments had formed a kind of hazy screen obscur­ing her enor­mous pow­er. Her suave, gen­teel walk out­side prison is now trans­formed to a tight­ly knot­ted one, her shoul­der blades tensed in con­stant antic­i­pa­tion of an attack from any side. It is dif­fi­cult to take one’s eyes off her, even as she leaves the room.

Once at Litch­field, she begins to assem­ble a posse, grad­u­al­ly pry­ing peo­ple and group­ings apart just as sure­ly as she draws the most vul­ner­a­ble to her, start­ing with Suzanne. Her tac­tics are sub­tle: Even the reluc­tant Taystee, who knows all too well Vee’s abil­i­ty to wreak hav­oc, is brought clos­er with cake — an entire sheet cake mag­i­cal­ly hand-deliv­ered to Vee by one of the Lati­na kitchen staff, com­pli­ments of Glo­ria (Sele­nis Ley­va) and com­plete with fun­fet­ti sprinkles.

As the episodes progress, the focus becomes the turf bat­tle between Vee and Red, who each buy loy­al­ty with favors. Red, left with­out her usu­al resources but able to mar­shal new ones, resorts to lip gloss and an ele­gant din­ner. But it’s Vee who seems to have the upper hand because she can make much more hap­pen: first, tobac­co for a cig­a­rette-sell­ing scheme. And then, the big one: heroin.

It’s here that the show descends into absur­di­ty in its relent­less effort to paint the White Red as infi­nite­ly bet­ter than the Black Vee.

Red, we are remind­ed, would nev­er deal drugs. There is, in this prison filled with peo­ple who have com­mit­ted any num­ber and range of crimes, some­how a sense that drug-deal­ing is the worst ever. We are remind­ed again that Red is a moth­er fig­ure to Nicky who helped her cope with her drug addic­tion. Red’s con­cern for her for­mer min­ions is por­trayed as gen­uine, while Vee’s is seen as pure pow­er play. There are no real rea­sons why that should be — Red is after pow­er, just as much as Vee is — but in one woman, the pow­er is con­nect­ed to real care­tak­ing, and in the oth­er, to pure evil.

It doesn’t help that Vee is giv­en no redeem­ing qual­i­ties. Even her con­cern for her chil­dren” is always laced with con­nivance, and her brief flash­back episode only shows her vio­lat­ing the ele­men­tal social taboo of incest by sleep­ing with her adopt­ed son. The hero­in turns the fight into some­thing else alto­geth­er, becom­ing the final ingre­di­ent in an absurd moral­i­ty play: Red might feed some­one a bloody tam­pon sand­wich and devise a plot to regain her kitchen that was so dan­ger­ous it almost burnt her friend Gina (Abi­gail Sav­age) to death. But drugs? Nev­er! The code of hon­or, such as it is, is made clear: White peo­ple don’t do hero­in unless Black peo­ple bring it to them.

Crime shows and media cov­er­age fre­quent­ly depict the drug trade as dom­i­nat­ed by Blacks, ignor­ing the fact that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of users of drugs like hero­in are white. All too often, we see the demon­ic Black drug lord sell­ing his wares to hap­less young whites, enslav­ing them into addic­tion. In Chica­go, the press pro­duces reg­u­lar reports on the blight of the West and South Sides (large­ly Black and Lati­no), ignor­ing the real­i­ty of who the clients of deal­ers might be, and how the demand dri­ves the trade, not vice versa,

So, to that end, it’s the white Nicky, who has accu­mu­lat­ed an enor­mous reser­voir of sym­pa­thy as one of the few tru­ly com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple, who’s por­trayed as vul­ner­a­ble and a poten­tial vic­tim of Vee’s incip­i­ent hero­in car­tel. But she returns from the edge in the brink of time, as the show would have it, and Vee meets a bru­tal end.

Vee’s come­up­pance is swift, vio­lent, and com­ic, thus even more dev­as­tat­ing than what hap­pened to Pennsat­ucky. Vee gets no sym­pa­thy; we are to laugh as the arch-vil­lain is met­ed jus­tice. It’s not that she should have been drawn sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly; the show has plen­ty of sym­pa­thet­ic Black women. The prob­lem is that Orange can­not sus­tain a pow­er­ful, Black woman with­out soft­en­ing her with a sad sto­ry or cut­ting her down. 

In the end, what hap­pens to Vee also affirms the reformist mes­sage of prison: not just that admin­is­tra­tors like Caputo can make prison bet­ter, but that prison can sup­pos­ed­ly bring about pos­i­tive changes in peo­ple and social struc­tures. Vee’s depar­ture from Litch­field enables her for­mer min­ions to for­get their mutu­al mis­trust and band togeth­er to resist the sup­posed Worst Pos­si­ble Sin of drug deal­ing. The frag­ile ecosys­tem is restored, but there’s lit­tle atten­tion paid to the fact that, in the end, racial and eth­nic inequal­i­ties will allow some women, like Piper, to leave, while the oth­ers come in and out of the revolv­ing door or stay in for good.

In the end, prison is seen as a cura­tive, a spa for the soul, if you will. Piper is the poster child for this: On more than one occa­sion, after real­iz­ing what an ass­hole she has been, Piper notes rue­ful­ly that she will nev­er be the same and that that might be a good thing. The mes­sage is clear — if not for prison, Piper would nev­er have found herself.

Vee’s depar­ture assures us that, even­tu­al­ly, dom­i­nant Black women will be exposed for all their unre­lent­ing faults or tucked out of sight, as Claudette Pelage (Michelle Hurst) was in Sea­son 1. It’s not that the show doesn’t have strong Black women, like Taystee and Poussey (Sami­ra Wiley), but none of them are in the posi­tion (or have the desire) to wrest pow­er away from white women like Red. What makes Vee a more pal­pa­ble threat is that she’s not con­tent to stay in the back­ground and make great moon­shine, like Poussey, or work­ing to gain employ­ment on the out­side by being the best job can­di­date, like Taystee. Vee is deter­mined, from day one, to rule. The only way to dis­pose of Vee is to por­tray her as pure evil and cut her down to size, while near­ly every­one else is giv­en a sec­ond chance.

In the end, the reign of Whitey con­tin­ues unabated.

Yas­min Nair is a writer and activist based in Uptown, Chica­go. She’s a co-founder of the rad­i­cal queer edi­to­r­i­al col­lec­tive Against Equal­i­ty and the Vol­un­teer Pol­i­cy Direc­tor of Gen­der JUST. Her writ­ing can be found at www​.yas​min​nair​.net.
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