We're getting close to the end of our run through "Orange Is the New Black" season 2, and I have thoughts on episodes 9 & 10 coming up just as soon as I do a burlesque routine with a Ray Romano puppet that's surprisingly sexy...

"That woman in there: that's not who you are." -Piper's dad
"That's exactly who I am." -Piper

With Piper getting 48 hours in the real world in "40 Oz. of Furlough," then being the flashback subject in "Little Mustachioed Shit," it would have been very easy for her to take over the show again. But Jenji Kohan and company have been doing this a while now, and they've figured out how to balance the season's major plotline — which has nothing to do with Piper — with pushing forward the leading lady's character arc. It's a nifty trick, that provides something for everyone.

In fact, "40 Oz. of Furlough" feels like an episode that offers two flashbacks in one, with Piper's adventures at her grandmother's wake and funeral providing us our familiar glimpse of the real world, while the actual flashback to Red and Vee's first go-around at Litchfield fills in a key piece of backstory for this season's villain.  And when Piper's furlough ends, the flashback to the beginning of her relationship with Alex provides respite from an increasingly dire situation at the prison.

The Red/Vee flashback starts bridging the gap between the Red we saw in New York back in season 1 and the woman we know today, and it also clarifies exactly how close she and Vee once were — and, therefore, how much more it hurt (physically and emotionally) when Vee turned on her to take over the kitchen smuggling operation(*). It's some tough stuff, and nicely parallels what happens to Poussey late in "Little Mustachioed Shit."

(*) The one thing the flashback doesn't really get into is how Red later regained control from Vee and/or her people; it doesn't seem as simple as waiting for Vee's release, since it was clear Vee had a tough organization within and without the prison (her sidekicks back in the day make Suzanne, Taystee and company look like play-acting thugs) that could likely continue running things even without her physical presence.

During her time back out in civilization, Piper gets some poignant closure with Larry — though the next episode makes clear that Larry will remain a character on the show — and gets to witness her brother Cal hijacking the funeral so he and his girlfriend can enjoy a free wedding. ("We're gonna eat the world!" a giddy Cal declares, as their repressed parents look on in horror and grave disappointment.) Throughout her time at home, people keep assuming that Piper can't wait to return to being the person she was before Litchfield, none of them understanding that things aren't remotely that simple — that being in prison has put Piper in touch with a side of herself that she likes, even if it's a side that also re-ties her fate to Alex's. The flashbacks in "Little Mustachioed Shit," in turn, make clear how dysfunctional and self-destructive their relationship was from the start — and how Piper went into all of it with her eyes wide open as to who Alex was and how cavalierly she would lie to or discard the people she once cared about. When she realizes in the present that Larry and Polly have hooked up, Alex's letters become not only a salve on the wound, but a way for her to strike back at Larry, just as the flaming bag of poop is at least a symbolic revenge on Polly.

Piper also discovers that Red's family business has closed down, the space now up for rent, but she does Red the kindness of not telling her the truth, knowing Red can't do anything about it but worry. And Red has enough on her plate at this point, even after getting her family back together. She doesn't know that Boo has turned on her to tell Vee about the sewer pipeline, but she recognizes the larger threat that Vee poses, even as she's distracted in the immediate by the return of Pornstache.

That storyline is uneven, mainly because Pablo Schreiber's been asked or allowed to crank his performance up to full cartoon — at a time when the other characters on the show are being depicted with ever more shading, Mendez has just become ridiculous — but the moment where Red smiles at seeing the perp walk is a very satisfying payoff to all that happened at the end of last season, even as the victory feels somewhat hollow because Daya has come to understand what she did to Mendez. (He deserves to go to prison; just not for this.)

Things take a darker turn elsewhere, as Vee begins flexing her muscles around the prison, as she begins distributing drugs along with the cigarettes, and orders Poussey punished for standing up to her. It's an ugly scene, not only for the damage Poussey endures, but for watching Suzanne — who once turned her anger only on herself — so eagerly and blindly letting herself be Vee's strong right arm. And the drug distribution is as psychologically cruel as Poussey's beating is physical, as we see Nicky struggle with the temptation to open the sample Taystee gives her. That she finds the strength to ultimately hand the drugs to Red — and at the perfect moment, right when Red needed a reminder of why she should never, ever trust Vee — is among the series' most powerful moments to date. Vee is a threat to everyone's physical and emotional health, and to the bonds that people like Red and Nicky, or Taystee and Poussey, had forged before she came back. Like Pornstache, she has got to go.

Some other thoughts:

* Once largely comic relief, the show (and at least a few of the prisoners, like Yoga Jones and Sister Jane) begins taking Soso seriously as she begins a hunger strike to protest the conditions brought about by Fig's shot quota.

* Kohan and company have an obvious love of "The Wire," but this show's gender makeup versus the old one's makes it tough to bring in many "Wire" actors. Here, though, we get Deirdre Lovejoy as Healy's new therapist, and we get to see how their sessions in turn inspire his anger management work with Pennsatucky. Healy's not the best guy, and his desire to help 'Tucky and other inmates is driven as much by a desire for validation and companionship as it is altruism, but at least he's been making an effort this season — even if nobody else shows up to the inaugural meeting of Safe Place.

* It's impressive to see just how much effort Vee will put into trying to work a prisoner over to her side — and how quickly she'll turn against anyone who doesn't want to join Team Vee. Once Rosa spurns her offer of "The Fault in Our Stars," the cancer patient just becomes one more bullying victim, chased away from her own lunch table because it's where Vee chooses to sit.

* Lovely comic beat where the Golden Girls in Red's crew scare the heck out of Gloria's kitchen staff to secure supplies for the family reunion party in the greenhouse.

* Despite Laverne Cox's increasing visibility outside the show, Sophia hasn't had a lot to do this season. She gets a couple of very good scenes in episode 10, though, as Sophia's son visits her in prison for the first time. There's no tearful reconciliation, no apology from either side — just the two of them slowly warming up to each other, and Sophia being a wise enough parent to let Mike beat her at cards.

* Another notable visiting day guest: Morello's stalking victim Christopher confronts her about the break-in from episode 4, and in the process makes clear to a few other inmates (Nicky, at least) that Lorna has invented their "engagement" out of whole, crazy cloth. Nicky comforting Lorna afterwards is a strong moment between them — especially in the way that Nicky declines to bring up their own romantic history and the way Lorna ended things because of her feelings for Christopher — and no doubt helps give Nicky the strength to give the dope to Red.

Finally, my initial plan was to review 11 & 12 together, and then review the finale by itself. But the reviews have been delayed here and there, and then I had a few extra days before I came to press tour, which I used to finish watching the season ahead of schedule. So sometime next week (possibly a week from today), I'll have a review of episodes 11, 12 and 13, and thoughts on the season as a whole. But until we get there, please keep from spoiling events of those episodes for the five or six people who haven't already finished by now. Thanks.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com