Orange is the New Black‘s first season built itself on clichés and contrasts. Will Season 2 punch up, instead of down?
From beginning to end, Orange is the New Black frames its stories and characters in a series of contrasts. Dandelion the Reluctant Jailhouse Wife vs. the screwdriver-wielding Chapman. The hallway-urinating Crazy Eyes vs the sobbing Suzanne. Drug Addict Nicky, who gets clean thanks to Red’s help, vs Drug Addict Tricia, who purposefully ODs to settle her debts when Red (seemingly) turns her away. Smashing two characters into each other, or characters into themselves, can be a pretty effective method of storytelling, and it’s done to great effect here.
Let’s be real, though. Artistic value is not why I watch this show. I watch OITNB for one main reason: politics. How many shows can you name that focus meaningfully on this many different kinds of women? Women of different colors, sexualities, body types, religions? That actually talk to each other? To be clear, for everything this show does right, it does plenty wrong. It hires Laverne Cox to play the role of a black transwoman, and features her regularly, then burdens her with a tragic homelife and a series of genital-related jokes. It lets Taystee out early on good behavior, but then reels her back in with only a cursory glance at her hardships on the outside. Its satire frequently punches down, when it could and should be punching up (content note: discussion of rape jokes, trans*phobia, misogyny, fat hatred).
Perhaps it isn’t fair of me to expect so much from a single series. Perhaps I should be happy that these characters are getting any airtime at all. (Perhaps not.) I do hope that, in Season 2, OITNB spends a little bit more time punching up. With a number of characters sidelined — Mercy’s gone, Tricia’s dead, Pennsatucky probably is too, Gina’s been burned, Miss Claudette is in SHU, Larry and Alex will hopefully have reduced roles now that they’re both on the skids with Piper — the show has some room to fill. Healy, Caputo, the as-yet-invisible Warden … plenty of potentially terrible characters have already been introduced. Instead of writing in a slew of new characters, spending more time with the administrators could provide a narrative that 1) doesn’t focus on Piper (oh PLEASE let us have a narrative arc that does not focus on Piper) and 2) allows the prisoners to occasionally unite about, or against, something.
Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but I’d love to see Orange is the New Black explore how these women support each other, instead of focusing on how they tear each other down. We’ve got plenty of that on the airwaves already.