The second season of “Orange Is the New Black” arrives Friday with some new characters, an expanded focus in the microcosm that is the Litchfield Penitentiary for women and an even deeper exploration of the backstories of the inmates.
There’s almost no point in worrying about spoilers because so many fans will be binge-watching “Orange” just after midnight Friday, you'll be lucky to avoid a discussion of even the most rudimentary plot development by noon. Still, for the sake of preserving the sheer joy of watching the 13 new episodes, we'll be avoiding any real spoilers today.
In a general sense, though, what creator Jenji Kohan has done is to be expected, because we saw it happening last year. The longer Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) spends at Litchfield, the more she’s had to adapt to the rules – both those set by the prison and those established by the inmates themselves as they’ve developed a mini-United Nations of race, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
As she began to be absorbed into the general population, we started paying equal attention to the other inmates, and that underscores one of the most compelling themes of the series: How does an individual maintain identity within a social milieu?
The exploration of that theme continues with season 2, which examines Piper’s relationship with her fiancee Larry (Jason Biggs), her ex-lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), but also tells us more about the other women, including Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), who, as we already realized, is far more intelligent than others may think; Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), the drug-addicted religious zealot who pushed Piper over the edge last season.
We learn even more about Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) whose belief in happily ever after has a more disturbing side; and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks),who revisits her childhood when her mentor shows up in the prison; and Poussey (Samira Washington), who learned in her youth the dangers of allowing herself to care about others too much.
“Orange” is, of course, a brilliant character study, but it’s also a political drama. Like “House of Cards,” another Netflix hit, “Orange” is about power – how to get it, how to keep it, and how to keep others from getting it. Of course it’s true among the inmate population – we see a major battle brewing this season between black and Latina inmates. But Kohan brilliantly underscores the theme by exploring power within relationships – not only that of Larry and Piper, and of Piper and Alex, and Poussey and Taystee, but also that of guard John Bennett (Matt McGorry) and his secret inmate lover Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), prison official Sam Healy (Michael Harney) and his Russian girlfriend Kaya (Sanja Danilovic) and others.
The joy of watching “Orange” is in the writing and performances, of course, but it’s also in the process we go through getting to know these characters. We think we have a take on them, but then find out that even the cruelest guard has a heart, that even the most loyal ally is capable of betrayal. That’s not unusual in TV, but what is unusual is making such profound character revelations credible.
For viewers, this means that knowing the “Orange” characters is a continuing process. We find out, say, how Suzanne Warren grew up and it’s not only a surprise, but immediately prompts us to reconsider everything we thought about her so far and to look at her henceforth with new understanding.
Through the six episodes of the second season made available to critics, it’s clear that “Orange” is not only as great as it was the first season, but arguably even better. If you’re wondering where to find true TV greatness now that “Breaking Bad” is gone and “Mad Men” has hit the pause button till 2015, look no further than “Orange Is the New Black.” It’s terrific.