Continuing our periodic look at "Orange Is the New Black" season 2, I have thoughts on episodes 7 & 8 coming up just as soon as I'm in an M. Night Shalamalama movie...
When "Orange" was so Piper-centric in its early days, the episode structure felt very much like "Lost," with a Piper flashback in some way shedding light on the Piper-dominated action at Litchfield. Now that the show has become much more of an ensemble piece, that isn't quite the case. The characters featured in the flashbacks are still prominent in present-day, but so much is happening at Litchfield right now that no one story ever takes over an episode, unless we get something like Piper's trip to Chicago in the season premiere.
With so many prominent characters having gotten the flashback treatment by this point in season 2, "Orange" is starting to reach deep onto the bench for new stories. Here, we get Cindy, who's mostly functioned as a Greek Chorus member of the Taystee/Vee group, and Rosa, who was mostly a visually interesting background character until her chemo scene a few episodes back.
Of course, the second Rosa began discussing her bank robbery career in that episode, I knew I wanted a flashback to those days, and "Appropriately Sized Pots" didn't disappoint. There's a larger-than-life, almost fable quality to the story of her rise from junior member of the gang to its leader, and of the curse of the "We kiss before, and then we kiss after" idea that was a lot of fun in the playing. And it set things up beautifully for the present-day moment where Rosa thinks the curse has somehow hit her new protege, only to cry tears of joy (beautiful work from Barbara Rosenblat) upon learning that he's gone into remission instead. It's a great moment for someone who barely even qualified as a character up until recently, and demonstrates just how well this show can quickly pull someone in from the fringes and make you care about them.
The Cindy flashbacks in "Comic Sans" don't function that way, but they're not meant to. Often, the backstory we get on these women casts them in a more sympathetic light, where bad circumstances or a single bad choice (often involving love interests) put them on the path to Litchfield. Cindy, though, is just as lazy and entitled and impulsive in the real world as she is in the prison. She has feelings and occasional moments of clarity, like the wistfulness upon watching the little girl and her father pass through the TSA line, and realizing how much she's missed by letting her daughter Monica be raised by Cindy's own mother, but most of the time, she doesn't think things through and just does or takes what she wants in that moment. When Vee calls her out for being a loser, it's another example of how well Vee has learned to manipulate her gang — to the point where she is somehow taking 90 percent of the money from the cigarette business — but as with so many of her other maneuvers, it also demonstrates her keen understanding of what makes each of these women tic. That Cindy is only ready to accept the consequences of her actions in this context is an awful shame for her mother and for Monica, but at least it's a start.
And even as we're learning more about Cindy and Rosa, the episodes do a good job of moving along the various rivalries and smuggling operations percolating around the prison, while also living up to Caputo's desire to have a "Guards: They're People, Too" feature in Piper's newsletter. Caputo isn't technically a guard, but this season in general so far, and these two episodes in particular, do wonders to give him depth and shading. He can be well-meaning at times, sleazy at others (like the bottle of lotion he keeps in his desk or the way in which his treatment of Fischer is motivated by his unrequited crush), and at others is simply an overworked cog of the system. Fig gives him a headache, so he has to do the same to the guards, who in turn have to do it to the inmates. Some nice work by Nick Sandow as Caputo grows increasingly frazzled throughout episode 8.
Caputo's stress has a lot of fall-out, with Bennett finally losing his patience with Daya's friends and family trying to blackmail him, Fischer losing her job, Pornstache being rehired(*), and, perhaps worst of all, the elderly inmate with dementia being given a "compassionate release" that will surely kill her, solely because the prison isn't equipped to take proper care of a woman in her condition. Pornestache's return has the potential for greater ongoing strife for the characters we know best, but the compassionate release idea is another tragedy in miniature of the kind "Orange" does so well with its minor characters.
(*) I'm willing to wait and see how he's used in the season's remaining episodes, but in season 1, Pornstache hovered as close to the cartoon line as anyone on the show — even if he was an evil cartoon.
Piper's on the verge of getting her own release, albeit a temporary one, and being untied from the major drama of the season — and, frankly, from Alex — has been a very good thing for her, and for the show. There's less of Taylor Schilling in each individual episode (other than the premiere), but she's getting more varied things to do, and it no longer feels like every Piper spotlight exists solely because she's the central character and the one Netflix subscribers are most likely to identify with. The show is very aware of what's appealing about Piper and what's annoying, and isn't afraid to hang a lamp on the latter, like the moment in episode 8 where one of the older inmates calls her out for viewing them only as a learning experience for herself.
Of course, there's an older woman Piper is very much concerned about, and as she waits for the furlough to visit her dying grandmother, but because she's getting special treatment to go see her, it again turns her into a pariah around the prison. (Well, mostly: Red sees it as an opportunity to get some boots-on-the-ground intel about the family business.) Piper standing up for herself in the cafeteria is a really nice, well-rounded moment: Piper being dramatic and self-aggrandizing as she so often is, but also having entirely a fair point about her grandmother being in pain, but also getting food thrown at her hair due to prior behavior towards Suzanne. That her grandmother actually dies before the furlough can take place just feels like one more cosmic joke at Piper Chapman's expense, and another bittersweet, very "Orange Is the New Black" kind of moment.
Some other thoughts:
* Loved the older inmates debating the merits of "Ratatouille." "The health code is the health code!"
* Soso was introduced as a surrogate for the woman Piper was when she came into Litchfield, but a more exaggerated example of her naivete and sense of privilege. So it makes sense that she would also be having a tougher time adjusting, both with the non-vegetarian menu options, and with everyone's demands that she take a shower and stop stinking already.
* Again, I don't mind the idea of seeing what's going on with the loved ones of various prisoners as they're inside, but when it's only Larry getting that treatment — here starting an actual affair with Polly — I would so much rather be seeing anything else on the show.
* Morello wants to get away from the romance thing for a while, a surprisingly healthy attitude, given what we learned about her a few episodes back.
* Caputo, Bennett and Fischer get the most play of any of the staffers in these two episodes, but there's been an awful lot of insight, big and small, into the staff this season. For instance, O'Neill's question to the other guards — "You ever have one of those dreams where you save everybody?" — said so much both about who he is and about the mindset you get when you've been doing this job too long (and when you aren't a sociopath like Pornestache).
Finally, let's talk spoilers. I'm guessing many of you have already finished the season by now (some of you a long time ago), but we are going to aim to restrict the discussion each week to the two episodes in question (or to episodes previously reviewed in the series). So if you have seen more than what we're talking about here, please stay quiet about that. These are the most recent episodes I've seen, and may be for others, so let's all be considerate of one another, okay? Thanks.
NOTE: With press tour and Comic-Con consuming my life for the next few weeks, it may take me a little while to get to the next pair of episodes. But we've got all summer to finish, even if, again, I figure many of you have watched the whole thing already.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com