Bit of a change to the “Orange Is the New Black” recaps—due to the American public’s insatiable, and probably unhealthy, need to binge-watch, I’m going to jump right in there with the rest of the burned-out-eyeball crew. There’s going to be three more of these recaps, four in total, each covering a quarter of the remaining season; 2-5, 6-9, 10-13. My math’s correct, right? If not, don’t blame me. I went to Emerson.
The most intriguing parts of the first season of “Orange Is the New Black” were the flashbacks that focused on the different characters’ paths to their incarceration in Litchfield. Episode two, “Looks Blue, Tastes Red” (an episode completely devoid of Piper, presumably wasting away in Chicago), chronicles the life of one of the prison’s most jovial inmates, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson. She’s a product of some horrendous group home, and her a penchant for sweet treats earned her the nickname; that affinity for sucrose-slammed concoctions also gives us the episode’s title. Taystee is vainly trying to keep on the straight-and-narrow, avoiding the influence of local drug dealer Vee Parker (the great Lorraine Touissant).
Vee is a motherly version of Stringer Bell on “The Wire.” When the desperate Taystee finally comes to her for a job—nailing the “interview” with an impressive mind for figures and some business acumen—Vee takes “Taystee Girl” under her wing. Taystee’s finally found the maternal influence she craved; Parker cooks a fine dinner and dries the tears when Taystee’s fellow drug worker / potential love interest succumbs to the dangers of the streets.
Back in the present-day, Taystee and the rest of the prisoners prep for a mock job fair with a representative from Philip Morris. Taystee, driven by the idea of acquiring a position post-sentence, studies and practices like a teenager prepping for the SATs. She dominates. There’s no position waiting for her—just a $10 credit in the prison commissary—but it pleases her, nonetheless. Vee showing up at the job fair dressed in spanking-new prison oranges, though? Who knows how Taystee’ll react to that. Also, I’m all in on Touissant being around for a while. Anytime a “Friday Night Lights” alum shows up, that’s a good thing.
Life goes on in the rest of the prison. The Latinas still control the kitchen, though they’ve given up the retribution-by-starvation efforts toward Red (trying very hard not to type out “Captain Janeway” as I take my notes). Daya is super-pregnant and, now, super-constipated. Her real mother (Aleida) and prison mother figure (Mendoza) clash over the best way to get the machines turning again. Blood wins out—it turns out yogurt does the trick, as Aleida remembers from Daya’s childhood. (Can’t get those constipation-relief storylines on your average network show, can you?) Red is out of cash at the commissary due to her family’s financial problems; she reluctantly re-enters the cafeteria, welcomed by the gray- and blue-haired AARP gang. Now that her kitchen power’s been stripped away, will this be her new constituency?
Pennsatucky is back, her already meth-ravaged mouth now positively apocalyptic in the wake of her smackdown by Piper. I’ve never been to the Gathering of the Juggalos, but I’d imagine she must look like most of its female patrons. She bargains with Healy to get her teeth fixed in exchange for her silence on his part (or lack thereof) in the fight, much to the relief of the home audience. The prison’s infrastructure is falling apart, due to the money-stealing ways of assistant warden Figueroa.
Larry is back, hanging with his dad, Howard, in a gay men’s bathhouse (“A schvitz is a schvitz,” Howard says). Wasn’t expecting so much male nudity on “Orange Is the New Black,” but hey, this is a show full of surprises. Howard encourages Larry to resume his life, which apparently includes a visit to Piper’s best (and semi-separated) friend Polly, who has no qualms about baring her baby-feeding breasts to Larry. After Piper hooked up with Alex in prison, could this be Larry’s revenge? What a tangled web they weave.
It doesn’t take too long for Piper to come back—she returns in the first scene of Episode 3, “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”—but the focus of the episode is Suzanne Warren, better known as Crazy Eyes. OITNB puts a neat spin on her back story. Unlike Taystee, the prisoner featured in Episode 2, Suzanne isn’t a product of a gritty urban environment. She’s the adopted daughter of white upper-class suburban parents, raised in an awkward—but creature-comfortable—environment. The signs of her eventual mental problems are there, though. There’s a truly disturbing child’s tale she spins at a birthday party, and the incessant pressure put on by her adoptive (and super-blonde) mother culminates in a terrifying breakdown at her high school graduation. No wonder Crazy Eyes was obsessed with the flaxen Piper. That hair was also the key to unlocking a final bit of mystery from last season’s finale. It turns out that Crazy Eyes—in another one of her meltdowns—mistook Piper for her own mother during the Pennsatucky beat-down. A few good punches and Suzanne knocks Piper out cold. Uzo Aduba is award-worthy, as always, as Crazy Eyes, but particular kudos should be given to OITNB for their casting of the younger versions—both of whom capture Crazy Eyes’s particular brand of madness.
There’s another new character introduced into the show, Brooke Soso (in a scene worth watching just for her explanation of how she got that name), an incessantly-chatty, empty-headed Asian-American political activist. She has a “Shawshank”-level fresh fish breakdown during night one before Piper calms her down. Pennsatucky is back, too, with a fresh new set of chompers (thank the lord) and the same insanity. She and Piper even share a forced, “Step Brothers”-level awkward hug.
In relationship news, Daya and Bennett are still an adorable semi-couple, arguing about the health of their baby, and Morello finds out her one-time fiancé is marrying another woman. (Yael Stone is particularly great in this scene). Larry tries his hand at dating, to confidence-sapping results—a double whammy, coming off of a failed attempt to kickstart his journalism career with a reporter only interested in Piper’s jailhouse access.
Vee’s starting to consolidate her power through the prison, laying out the chess pieces with Littlefinger-like efficiency. She becomes a surrogate mother-figure to Crazy Eyes (recurring theme this year) and bribes the cook Mendoza with long-stashed cigarettes, in turn receiving a funfetti cake that tickles the sweet teeth of the rest of the black inmates; it even earns Taystee’s forgiveness. Meanwhile, it turns out that Vee and Red know each other from way back. Prison mates or business partners? Either way, it’s great to see these two veteran actresses sharing scenes together. We can only hope there’s some toe-to-toe confrontation later in the season.
Morello is the prisoner featured in episode 4, “A Whole ‘Nother Hole,” and it turns out she might be the craziest of all of the inmates. (Which is saying a lot.) She’s the product of a chaotic Italian-American city family, a typical teenage girl (lots of People magazines, West Side Story poster) and an online-shopping scammer. The screws start to fall out when she meets that oft-talked-about “fiancé.” Turns out it was a one-date thing that led to some truly stalker-ish “Fatal Attraction” vibes from Morello, culminating with her trying to kill the poor guy’s new girlfriend with a car bomb. Her target, Christopher, and his fiancee, Angela, don’t live too far from the prison, giving Morello an opportunity to break into their house while driving Miss Rosa and guard Fischer to a hospital for Rosa’s cancer treatments. Morello breaks into the house, finds Angela’s wedding dress, throws on the veil, and takes a relaxing bath, barely escaping when Christopher comes home. At least no bunny rabbits were harmed in her efforts.
Back in the prison, Sophia gives the inmates a detailed, health-class lesson in the female anatomy. (That’s a good enough summary for this family publication.) Big Boo and Nicky start a hook-up contest, using a sliding point scale for the different inmates (Piper’s reaction at only being graded a three on the 1-10 rankings is priceless). Both pine over the new inmate, Soso. Piper attempts to use her influence with the chatterbox Soso to pawn her off on Big Boo in exchange for a pilfered blanket, a plan that fails miserably. “You’re a horrible person,” Soso says, tearfully, to Piper once the plan is revealed, another punch to her questionable conscience. Brooke’s crying session gives Nicky the chance to pounce, finally getting Soso to quiet down in a way that, again, can’t be described in this family publication.
Vee’s quest for power continues, using Crazy Eyes as her Tom Hagen as she examines the prison. Poussey gets on Vee’s bad side after she turns down Vee’s offer to distribute Poussey’s home-made prison hooch. (Remember what I said about Littlefinger tactics? She’s just about his equal—on a smaller scale, of course.) Vee observes Poussey’s unrequited love towards Taystee, using the aborted hook-up attempt to turn Taystee against her friend. Diabolical.
Piper is Red’s new cellmate—the first in 12 years, much to Red’s consternation. She’s got other things on her mind, though, making plans to renovate an old greenhouse for smuggling purposes, while framing it as a therapeutic gardening opportunity for the rest of the Golden Girls. We can’t ever count Captain Janeway—wait, damn it, I did it again—Red, I mean, out. Outside the jail, Larry and Polly are spending more and more time together, looking happier and more comfortable together than either of them ever did with their respective partners. It’s just a matter of guessing in which episode they’ll end up sleeping together. I’m gonna say…7. That’s a good number. Trot Nixon’s number.
The simmering conflict between the black and Latina segments in the prison comes to a head in the in episode 5, “Low Self-Esteem City.” Figueroa’s siphoning of Litchfield’s finances comes back to bite the prisoners in the crappiest way possible (rimshot, thank you), as the crumbling infrastructure sends spurts of human waste coming up through the Latina shower drains. Mendoza and the rest of her girls square off with Vee and her gang when they try to use their bathroom facilities, leading to escalating warfare—tied-together shoes, salted meals, etc. It gets edgier when Watson trips Daya in the cafeteria, leading to a stern punishment from Bennett and Vee and Mendoza attempting to work out a deal.
Mendoza is the flashback-focus of this episode, and OITNB sets her up as one of the more sympathetic characters on the show—there’s a definite heart in there under the tough exterior. She was a convenience-store worker and food stamp-scam artist, a mother of two young boys with a despicable boyfriend who whacks her around on a regular basis. It takes him smacking one of the kids for her to leave him—just as the police come to arrest her for the food stamp scam. That scumbag boyfriend later dies in a self-inflicted fire, accidentally kicking over some traditional candles (those are a theme running through the present-day episode) that torches the store and the money Mendoza had left for her kids’ adolescence. One of the sadder flashbacks. How do these flashbacks compare to “Lost,” fans of that show? Just curious—I never really watched that program. Gave up after the polar bear showed up.
That sympathy comes back to hurt Mendoza when she deals with Vee, who sniffs out weaknesses with the best of them. Her opponent goes into her world-weary state during their confrontation, begging for Mendoza’s sympathy. Mendoza gives up the bathroom in return for Taystee and Watson joining the custodial crew, exactly Vee’s plan all along. To continue on with the “Thrones” comparisons, Mendoza is Ned Stark—blinded by inherent compassion and nobility—to Vee’s ruthless Littlefinger. You win or you die.
The hookup contest between Big Boo and Nicky continues, with Big Boo strategically knocking off the one- and two-pointers and Nicky holding out for bigger numbers—specifically Fischer, the friendly prison guard. That attempt doesn’t go all too well for Nicky, and it seems to spurn Fischer’s ambitions; she volunteers to use her Spanish skills to start monitoring the prisoners’ phone calls.
Piper’s robotic mom and scruffy brother—without her in-denial dad—come to visit, and reveal (through a morbid 20 questions game) that her beloved grandmother is dying. As far as prison visits go, that’s about as depressing as it gets. At least it allows a little bit of a breakthrough for Piper and Red, who get to discuss their views on mortality. “Don’t let go,” Red says. “Not until they make you.” That steely Soviet mode is coming back, seen when Red starts to get the blue-hair gang into shape renovating the outhouse.
Speaking of Russians, Healy is still having home troubles with his mail-order bride, exploding at her in a frightening domestic argument as she chats in Russian with her friend (played by Oksana Lada, who also starred as Tony Soprano’s ill-fated goomar on “The Sopranos”). He’s a sad, angry man, but there’s at least a little bit of redemption for him in this episode, as he processes Piper’s request for a furlough to see her sick grandmother.
Caputo shows that he’s got a little Duke Silver http://www.dukesilver.com/in him—his stress-relief hobby is playing guitar for a bar band, at a show attended by a desperate-for-a-friendly-face Healy. Caputo, too, has a sympathetic side, expressing true concern for his charges and the prison’s condition when a commercial for the state senate campaign for the odious Figueroa’s husband comes on the television. Are there commercials for state senate campaigns? Like most Americans, I seem to pay too little attention to local politics. How long can it be before Figueroa’s duplicity is revealed? The first contact was made between Larry and Piper, as they talk about the potential furlough; could the relationship repair itself enough for her to become Larry’s Deep Throat for the investigative journalist? Lots of intrigue setting up there—especially if the Larry—Polly relationship is consummated. I’m still saying episode 7.
Other thoughts, as I wonder what the long-term mental effects of binging on this sort of television could be:
- Natasha Lyonne’s accent might be the best tone on television right now.
- Poor “Hey, it’s that actor!” recognition by me. The person Piper has her emotional connection with on the plane? She was played by Lori Petty, the star of “Point Break” and “A League of Their Own.” Seen both of those movies a thousand times, too. Unforgivable.
- ”Don’t commit the crime if you can’t f---in’ have flour!” might be my favorite line of the season so far.
- Speaking of “The Wire,” great Omar Little reference in episode 3.
- Two classics of 1980s cinema referenced this season—“The Secret of My Success” and “Footloose” in episode 4. I’ve been singing “Almost Paradise” non-stop since I watched. I love “Secret of My Success,” too—it’s Michael J. Fox at the height of his 1980s prowess.
- Another surprise from the credits—the director of episode 5 was 1980s Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy (star of “Mannequin”), who has apparently re-invented himself as a pretty in-demand television director. Who knew. Maybe Judd Nelson can pop up as a security guard.
- If you haven’t seen Uzo Adoba (Crazy Eyes), auditioning for the rest of the OITNB characters, watch it now.
- The cast stopped by the “Today” show, too.