Like a lot of fans, I have been impatiently awaiting Season 2 of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black since… well, since I finished Season 1. Our wish finally came true June 6, and also like a lot of fans, I marathoned all 13 episodes in a matter of days, cursing adult responsibilities like working the weekend which kept me from it. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed.

I had read an article in Curve magazine which indicated Season 2 would be less Piper-specific, and the series stayed true to this promise. I really enjoyed that each episode focused on telling the story of a different inmate through a series of flashbacks. I can understand that Piper, an upper-middle class white woman, is a necessary hook for viewers who unfortunately might not watch a series centered around minority women otherwise. But by now, Piper is one of the less compelling characters for me. In fact, there were a few times mid-season where I wished the writers would focus even less on her story and dedicate some of her camera time to another flashback.

But that’s just because all of the characters in the series are so compelling. And also because these are the women (black, Latina, lesbian, elderly, metally ill) whose stories almost never get told on televison, or would usually be told only in stereotypical ways. The backstory format allows the viewers to see these characters in a new light, and makes each of them more three-dimensional. I really like that Orange is the New Black has a legitimately ensemble cast, and the format of Season 2 really adds to it. We get to see which characters knew each other outside of prison, and how those ties impact their current relationships. We understand more about how and why each woman ended up in prison, and knowing what life she has lost by being there opens up a door for more empathy towards her.

It’s also interesting to see the reasons why these women are incarcerated, and to get a glimpse of how the prison industrial complex operates in our country. Especially because Season 2 allows us to see how much prison has changed Piper already, after (I hesitate to say only) 7 months. Orange is the New Black begs the question: What does being in prison make you? Piper wonders in Episode 1: was the space which allowed her to beat Pennsatucky always there, hidden deep inside, or was it a new space created by the prison environment? Orange is the New Black invites the viewer to consider whether the punishment fits the crime, and often, my answer at least was no.

By fleshing out these characters and making them sympathetic, Orange is the New Black encourages the viewer to consider where their own life might have taken a left turn, because none of these women were “bad” to begin with. Often, we see that it’s the systemic problems resulting from institutionalized racism and classism which lead to the choices which ultimately land these women in prison. I also enjoyed the intimacy of the flashbacks. These women are private – and for good reason – so the flashbacks allow the viewer to learn things most of the other inmates aren’t privileged enough to know.

Also explored are themes regarding mismanagement of prison property itself and the embezzlement of government funds. It is troubling to note that conditions in the prison where some episodes of the series were shot might actually be worse than what is depicted on screen, when that was bad enough. Not only are many of these women wrongfully imprisoned, but they do not have access to sanitary or safe living conditions.

This season provides a window into the lives of the administration, humanizing the COs along with the inmates. Viewers get a glimpse of what the lives of the staff are like outside of work, and what would make someone choose a prison job in the first place. We see how Healy has become jaded in a system which often prevents him from doing as much good as he would like to help these women. We see how Caputo’s desire to be Warden keeps him from making unpopular decisions which might improve conditions in the prison. We also see the abuse of power in the system and the ways in which the inmates are dehumanized by the staff. So many of the punishments meeted out to the inmates are arbitrary. This keeps the inmates on edge because they can’t know when a CO is going to have a bad day and send them off to the SHU for an indeterminate amount of time. I was also horrified by the idea of “compassionate release,” but Jimmy’s situation reminded me of Shawshank Redemption in that the institutionalized elderly will likely never be able to reintigrate into society, regardless of their current mental state.

I wasn’t super pleased with the way activism was portrayed in Season 2. SoSo is very naïve and a little “woo-woo,” which could give viewers the wrong impression of the Occupy movement more generally. Even Sister Ingalls is shown to have gotten into activism for partially selfish reasons, though it is clear that she also does want to make a difference. The inmate hunger strike is also largely ineffective, which possibly goes to show how little power the inmates have to make any change in their situation – especially when their call and visitation lists have to be approved by the administration. Season 2 isn’t terribly optimistic – Healy’s Safe Place initiative fails, the newsletter fails, the shock quota only makes prison conditions worse. It will be interesting to see if Caputo can effect any real change as assistant warden in Season 3. But maybe what Orange is the New Black teaches us is that the small things make a world of difference, and that changing even one person’s life (ala Healy and Pennsatucky) really does matter.

I also have mixed feelings about the way racism and homophobia are portrayed in Season 2. Without much knowledge of the prison system myself, I have to trust that part of the series is accurate, but it saddens me to see how these women divide themselves instead of working together. Prison changes Piper, and we learn that you have to be selfish to survive. These women form alliances, but they are always tenuous at best. The viewer is invited to question what loyalty, love, and friendship mean in a prison context, and whether it’s possible to ever trust anyone. In a world where everyone is looking out for number one, we see these women trying to find love and connection, and I’m glad that at least sometimes they succeed.

I could go on and on about all the issues Season 2 touches on, but instead, just please go watch it yourself. Orange is the New Black is entertaining, but it will also make you think and it raises more questions than it answers, which I think is the hallmark of the artistic form. I appreciate that while Orange is the New Black touches on a lot of serious issues, the series also finds a way to inject joy and humor. I love that there is a show where the lives of women of color, queer and transgender women, and older women are center stage. But I think what I like most is how real the series feels. When bad things happen, like Piper’s grandmother dying before her furlough is miraculously approved, they more often than not are similar to they way bad things happen in life, rather than feeling scripted. It was also poignant to be able to see how Piper’s family views her situation, in contrast to how we, the viewers, see her. Life is joyful, painful, confusing, depressing, surprising, and difficult – often simultaneously. Sometimes we have feelings that aren’t on the feelings chart, and Season 2 will make you feel them all, and more. Orange is the New Black captures that je ne sais quoi which a lot of films and televison series miss, and though there are a million reasons to watch it, to me, that is as good a reason as any.

This review was originally published by The Horn on 06/12/2014.

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