Continuing our periodic look at "Orange Is the New Black" season 2, I have a review of episodes 5 and 6 coming up just as soon as the song is a metaphor about my vasectomy reversal...

"It's so interesting, all these lives. It's like reading Dickens." -Fischer

Last week, I noted that the first two pairs of episodes this season seemed to be commenting on one another. That's not really the case with "Low Self-Esteem City" and "You Also Have a Pizza," which continue the various storylines of the season — Vee building her new criminal enterprise, even as Red is trying to reopen her own contraband pipeline, and Taystee and Poussey caught in the middle of things — but without having any real story or thematic link between the two flashbacks.

They're also the first pair of episodes so far where I clearly preferred one to the other. "Low Self-Esteem City" is a good piece-mover episode, and getting some background on Gloria — a character we don't know very well despite her big power position this season — is useful. But the flashback to Poussey's life as a teenage military brat in Germany was more emotionally powerful than Gloria's tale of domestic abuse and Santeria, and the Valentine's Day party in "You Also Have a Pizza" provided opportunity for lots of unexpected character intersections, as well as the wonderful framing device where Piper interviews various inmates and guards about their definition of love. Those interviews not only give the episode its hilarious title, but offer various moments of unexpected, even touching insight, like Norma's pantomime of two people lying in bed together.

The Gloria flashback played out interestingly watched so close to the end of "Fargo." When the Santeria curse — or, at least, the candles and the new back door — finally claimed the life of her abusive boyfriend, I began making like Stavros Milos and saying, "God is real! God is real!" Still, it was the first flashback of the season that had me impatient to get back to current events at Litchfield, especially because things are now so complicated. We now have three different contraband operations running at once, with Red's sewer pipe, Vee's tobacco source and Bennett smuggling things in via the hollow in his prosthetic. There are other power shifts, like Leanne waging a palace coup to take leadership of the Christian group away from Pennsatucky, and Vee continuing to stir up all kinds of trouble, here specifically in the wedge she keeps driving between Taystee and Poussey.

Ever since Poussey first explained the pronunciation of her name, I've been waiting for a flashback to give an idea of where she got her worldlier affectations. It turns out she's literally been all over the world, thanks to her father's military career, and the Germany story also shows how poorly she reacts to being separated from the woman she's in love with. The Taystee situation is much more complicated, in that the romantic feelings are entirely one-sided — though Vee is trying to hurt Poussey when she tells her "Taystee. Will. Never. Love. You. She will never love you, not the way you want," these are also words Poussey could stand to hear several dozen times over — but their separation adds a compelling emotional layer to what might otherwise be the "Orange" equivalent of Richie Aprile showing up to cause trouble for Tony Soprano. Great work from Samira Wiley, Danielle Brooks and Lorraine Toussaint here (I especially liked Vee pretending to be afraid of Gloria in order to re-set the work assignments the way she wanted for the tobacco business).

The building Vee/Red war has made Piper much less central to the action than she was a year ago, but in many ways that's been very good for the character. She's still prominent, but because Jenji Kohan and company no longer feel the need to have the entire series revolve around Piper, she can be used all over the map. Starting up a prison newspaper — and mixing clandestine investigative reporting in with her published, administration-approved features — is a really ingenious idea, and a reminder that for all her annoying, self-involved traits (Larry's not the only one who feels like she's the sun and they're only there to reflect her light), she's adapted very well to Litchfield.

We're just about at the season's midpoint, which is a tricky place for any serialized show to be, but "Orange" continues to do an effective job balancing the bigger stories with making sure the character work episode to episode is strong enough that installments like these aren't just marking time for what will come later.

Some other thoughts:

* Part of Healy's interest in approving the newsletter is to become popular with the inmates again (hearing even Soso bad-mouthing him to a newer prisoner has to sting), and to try to humanize the prisoners and guards to one another, and season 2 has definitely worked harder to give us the administration's perspective. We see Healy continuing to struggle with his marriage, but also making a real effort at times, and we get our first look at Caputo's true passion in his bar band Sideboob (Luschek: "You look like the gay Edge"), and see more of him trying and failing to fulfill his crush on Fischer.

* Loved Vee declaring that the Latina inmates need to learn some manners, followed by Suzanne explaining proper table settings. As with Poussey's command of German, Piper quoting "Croupier," etc., the show does a nice job of subverting expectations of what might actually be discussed by federal prisoners.

* Speaking of which, because Litchfield is a federal penitentiary, the inmates have to be in there for very specific crimes. (Often, but not always, involving drugs.) So each time we get a flashback for a character who hasn't had one before, I always wait to see them do something that might qualify as a federal offense, like Gloria's food stamp fraud at the bodega.

* One remaining vestige of the very Piper-centric season 1 — and Jason Biggs' standing as both a regular castmember and one of the higher-profile people on the show — is that we're still required to follow Larry's life outside the prison, here with him kissing Polly. Sigh. At this point, I'd rather just spend more time with the people at Litchfield.

* The Valentine's party also gives us something of a payoff to the parallel Suzanne and Morello flashbacks from episodes 3 and 4, as the two craziest women in Litchfield share a table, with Suzanne offering a sympathetic ear to Lorna. The hug — and Suzanne's surreptitious sniff of Morello's hair at the end of it — suggests a new creepy crush to come. Hoo-boy.

* Speaking of creepiness, we have yet to see Pornstache this season, but he's sending Daya a Valentine's card. No good comes of that man.

* Through Red, we've gotten to know the elderly inmates a bit, so we're prepared for the senile one to simply wander out of the building. No one pays attention to the ones who have all their faculties, let alone her. It's just good for Caputo that she happens to show up to one of Sideboob's gigs.

* Hey Soso, stop trying to turn "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" into "Fight Club" with your theories about Ferris being a figment of Cameron's imagination. Unacceptable. (I'm going to assume this is a pre-existing Internet theory.)

Finally, let's talk spoilers. Some of you may have watched well past episode 6 (and possibly done with the season) by the time you read this, 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. I'm a few episodes ahead right now, but I'm only discussing the content of what we're up to, and at a certain point a lot of you are going to get ahead of me. Let's all be considerate of one another, okay? Thanks.

Note: I will probably be taking next week off from the show so I can catch up on a bunch of things (including watching more season 2 episodes), but if so, there will definitely be a review of episodes 7 & 8 the week after.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com