When I was in middle school, the hot-shit lunch activity was to stand on an empty soda can. You have to balance just so, but that can’s stronger than it looks. The trick is to stand up all at once, to transfer your weight to the can-standing foot in one fluid motion. Then, once you’ve achieved this remarkable feat, one of your friends gently kicks the side of the can — and smoosh. This little dent of weakness destroys the can’s structural integrity, and suddenly the cylinder that was so firmly holding you up is a crumpled pancake. (Ready for the recycling bin, I might add.) This crumple can happen gracefully, and the real pros can stay in the arabesque position on the way down. But sometimes the crush happens irregularly, and the can-stander stumbles, like a gymnast on the most tragic moment of her Olympics. Balance, ding, collapse. Balance, ding, collapse. I thought about this game a lot watching the second season of Orange Is the New Black. Last season we saw Piper — and many of the other inmates — learn how to balance, how to stand just right. This season, it was ding, ding, ding, collapse, collapse, collapse.
This season’s major introduction is that of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), Taystee’s foster mother and one of Red’s enemies from back in the day. While Vee turned out to be intensely evil — going so far as to seduce and then orchestrate the murder of her own sociological son — she also wound up being the only real source of menace for anyone this season. In season one, everyone felt like a threat from Piper’s perspective; sure, Red came around, but not before serving her a used tampon in an English muffin. Pennsatucky hassled everybody, breaking Alex’s glasses and eventually menacing Piper so much that Blondie was willing to stab her with a screwdriver. Healy’s intermittent kindness and cruelty were life-threatening. Pornstache’s vile harassment lurked around every corner. But this season, all ill will led right to Vee, which was a little more pressure than the character could handle.
One of the things I like about Orange is that everyone’s a good guy (just about). Most of them are criminals, and some of them are violent offenders, but the show goes to tremendous lengths to endear them to us. We know Morello (Yael Stone) as a ditzy romantic with an odd speech pattern, so the reveal this season that she’s also a dangerous stalker whose “fiancé” wants nothing to do with her feels tragic more than criminal. Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) turns out to be a sticky-fingered TSA agent with a daughter she doesn’t take care of — but she’s so funny, and working for the TSA must be so awful, so it’s almost okay? Miss Rosa’s bank-robbing seems adventurous, like the perfect memory to comfort a dying woman, and Gloria’s food-stamp laundering wasn’t really hurting anyone.
I can respect that artistic choice on the show’s part: We don’t need more stories that vilify, dehumanize, or marginalize people who are incarcerated. We have a lot of those. And we have a lot of stories that valorize male criminal activity, including but not limited to TV’s antihero fascination. (See also: every Mafia thing ever.) But this made Vee’s profound villainy a little harder to understand in the context of the show: She’s the only bad guy (well, bad woman) in this whole prison? She and Red have beef going way back — but we understand Red and have empathy for her. Not so for Vee. Most stories need antagonists, but OITNB is an ode to containing multitudes. Everyone else has multitudes except Vee. The Golden Oldies conspire to kill Vee, but instead gravely injure just some other lady we never meet — and yet we have compassion for them, because we saw their devotion to Jimmy, whose “compassionate release” was actually just the prison refusing to deal with her dementia.
This season even more than last season explored those multitudes, though in particular it explored vulnerabilities. The weak spot, that wound that never healed — the secret meanest thing someone could say about you. Ding. Collapse. For Taystee, it’s that she never had a family; Vee is the most permanent mother figure she’s had, and Vee … is not a good mother figure. But she outranks Poussey — “I owe her,” Taystee explains to her BFF — and thus Taystee is unable to dodge Vee’s manipulation. Poussey’s afraid she’ll never really have anything, that at any moment things (people) just get taken away. Piper’s afraid she doesn’t matter, that no one takes her seriously, and that the way she sees the world removes any chance of her ever really belonging. Red needs power. Sister Ingalls needs admiration. Nichols needs to avoid using heroin. Crazy Eyes can’t bear to be excluded and humiliated, again. And that’s of course what Vee preys on. Daya has to exist in a state of denial because the reality of her situation is so dire, but any time anything punctures that, she lashes out.
This extends to the Litchfield staff, too. Healy needs to be recognized, which is why he’s so hurt when he overhears Soso mention that none of the inmates like him. He needs validation all the time, and he’s certainly not getting it from his wife, who’s filled with loathing and resentment. (Perhaps fairly so.) Caputo wants to feel masculine, which is why he’s so threatened by Fischer’s rejection — and why he’s so thrilled to show Fig his “beer can.” Fischer wants so desperately to be helpful that she doesn’t realize she has to play along with the office politics. We even learn O’Neill’s biggest weakness: nuns.
“All problems are boring until they’re your own,” Red tells Piper. That’s why Orange makes its characters’ problems our problems. Piper’s discovery that Red’s store had closed down was crushing, as was the look on Crazy Eyes’s mom’s face when another mom didn’t want Baby Crazy Eyes at a sleepover. Taystee pushing Poussey away, and the beating Poussey suffered — oy. Even the humiliation and despair Fig feels when she spots her husband kissing his male attaché feels tragic and real and personal. And she’s the worst person!
On various character and micro levels, then, OITNB’s second season was a huge success. And whatever fear there was that the show would lose an emotional center without the Piper-Alex duo was instantly alleviated; I didn’t miss her at all. But in a macro, season-long sense, nothing that happened this year appears to have a lasting effect. Vee appears to be dead. Red somehow survived her beating. (Would criminal mastermind Vee really leave that job unfinished?) No one’s being transferred to Virginia after all. Alex is coming back. Poussey and Taystee have reunited. Nichols resisted relapsing. Red’s posse is back together. Vee’s plan to frame Crazy Eyes went awry, so she’s in the clear; and Black Cindy and Watson seem to have broken free of Vee’s manipulation, too. Daya and Bennett are pretty much where they were last season, only now Pornstache has been arrested (though we’ll see, maybe, how that ends up). We’re just about exactly where we were at the beginning of this season. Everybody crumpled. But now they’re teetering, arms out, ready to balance, however precariously, one more time.