Galina 'Red' Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) and George 'Pornstache' Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) in a scene from season 2 of 'Orange Is the New Black.'
Orange Is the New Black is among the best at portraying flawed, nuanced characters that viewers just can't pin down as good or evil, and the Netflix comedy continues that tradition in episodes 7 through 9.
Picking up where the first half of season 2 started, we see Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) slowly come to terms with the dark side of her personality, corrections guard John Bennett (Matt McGorry) evolve from passive to volatile and Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson's (Danielle Brooks) fall down the ethical rabbit hole, thanks to Vee Parker's (Lorraine Toussaint) manipulation.
Episode 7 — "Comic Sans"
After Jimmy (Patricia Squire), a senile old inmate, escapes from Litchfield in episode 6, administrator Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) forces the corrections officers — who must each write a minimum of five shots per week, now — to crack down on the inmates in episode 7.
While "Black Cindy" (Adrienne C. Moore) receives a shot, OITNB delves into her past in a flashback. As an unruly Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent, Cindy harassed passengers and stole items from their luggage. She also had a then-9-year-old daughter named Monica who was being raised by Cindy's mother, under the pretense that Cindy was her older sister and her grandmother was her biological mother. As an irresponsible and absentee parent, Cindy butt heads with her mother over raising Monica.
OITNB takes the time to develop every one of its characters, and it's now clear that Cindy uses her class-clown facade as a protective shell. Similarly, Piper's hard exterior — demonstrated by her attempt to pimp out new inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) to Carrie "Big Boo" Black (Lea DeLaria) — is offset by moments of softness, such as when she feeds Jimmy (who likely reminds Piper of her grandmother). The show never resorts to stereotypes, and is constantly subverting viewers' expectations of the characters. When Flaca Gonzales (Jackie Cruz) asks officer Bennett for contraband, she says, "I want a magazine with just guys in it ... What? It's hot! And plus I don't wanna be exploiting women and sh*t." Flaca looks like a gangbanger with a teardrop tattoo, but is also a feminist who listens to The Smiths; in short, she's a multifaceted human being — something that's easy to forget, when she's also a numbered inmate.
Another one of OITNB's strengths is its incisive, albeit unsubtle, commentary on the broken prison system in the U.S. When a reporter visits Piper, and asks her to be his mole at Litchfield, for instance, he brushes off her suggestions to write stories about the prison's poor conditions, saying, "It's not like no one's covering this. It's just that no one cares." Instead, he wants Piper to find out why $2 million has "gone off the books" at Litchfield.
Despite a strong start this season, OITNB is also veering into soap-opera-like territory, with two inexplicable storylines: Piper's ex-fiancé Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) hooking up with mutual friend Polly Harper (Maria Dizzia) — I guess the real, non-prison world was getting boring — and assistant warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) clearly not hooking up with her secretly gay husband who is running for Senate. (However, I do appreciate Figueroa — often over-the-top in her villainy — finally showing a more human side to her personality by expressing the need for "fixing the sentencing laws, guaranteeing a fair trial for everyone and a competent lawyer.")
Episode 8 — "Appropriately Sized Pots"
This episode focuses on the backstory of Rosa "Miss Rosa" Cisneros (Barbara Rosenblat), the cancer-stricken inmate who is revealed to have committed multiple armed robberies in several flashback scenes. Before and after each heist, Rosa kissed her erstwhile lover, who would die shortly thereafter — a consequence she later calls a "curse." While undergoing her regular chemotherapy-treatment sessions, Rosa bonds with an impudent teenage boy also undergoing treatment, and teaches him how to steal. Despite the depressing circumstances of their meeting, the pair's chemistry is entertaining for viewers to watch.
Meanwhile at Litchfield, supervisor and prison counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney) grants Piper a two-day furlough to see her dying grandmother. It's a complete turnaround from his punitive stance against Piper last season, when he threw her in solitary confinement for showing lesbian tendencies. Other inmates, however, view the furlough as another example of Piper getting special treatment for being white. In one particularly memorable scene that explores racial inequality in prison (and society), other inmates heckle Piper in the dining hall, with Vee calling her furlough an example of "the new Jim Crow." In response, Piper explodes, saying "Yes! I am white. We have established that, and I got furlough, too. I guess white privilege wins again, and as a speaker for the entire white race, I would like to say, I am sorry you that guys got the raw deal, but I love my f*cking grandmother. And yeah, she may be a whitey, too, but she's a f*cking person, and she's sick, and she needs me, so shut the f*ck up."
In all likelihood, Piper's race did help her in getting furlough, and I loved that OITNB addressed this issue. Although she seems earnest when expressing sympathy for the black inmates, the general sentiment of her tirade is: I deserve furlough to see my sick grandmother, and I don't want to have to deal with your complaints. Here, we can see a little bit of the entitled Piper from season 1 emerging again. As a white person, it's easy for her to dismiss these kinds of injustices, but they are obstacles that minorities must deal with on a regular basis. Granted, Piper later asks Healy to rescind her furlough — a request he rejects — because other people deserve it more, but also because she doesn't want to be a "target."
For his part, Healy's sudden reconciliation with Piper is linked to his desire to be liked by the inmates again. He seems to be trying to put effort into his job after losing enthusiasm for it over the years. "When I started this job, I was very idealistic. I was gonna make the difference. But I'm a paper pusher. I fill out forms," he tells Piper. In episode 9, Healy reaches out and offers to counsel Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning), after he sees himself (and his explosive temper) in her behavior.
Episode 9 — "40 OZ of Furlough"
"Mendez is back, b*tches!" Episode 8 ends, and episode 9 begins, with the slimy corrections officer making a return to Litchfield, after Figueroa rehires him to enforce harsher punishments against inmates. George "Pornstache" Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) was suspended at the end of season 1, but replaced Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) after she was fired by Caputo in episode 8.
Most of the episode 9, however, focuses on Piper's furlough during which she attends her grandmother's wake (while repeatedly explaining to attendees why she's out of prison) and funeral (during which her kooky brother proposes to his girlfriend). Piper's behavior, including illegally drinking during her furlough, concerns her parents. In keeping with their unemotional, repressive style, Bill Chapman (Bill Hoag), Piper's father — who refuses to see his daughter in prison — tells her, "You're my little girl. That woman in there — that's not who you are." Piper, who is fed up with maintaining a facade and pretending to be someone she's not, says, "That's exactly who I am."
It's a sentiment she repeats again to an older couple after the funeral. After the man tells Piper, "I'm sure you're anxious to return to your old self," she responds, "I'm not, actually."
Piper is in the midst of discovering who she really is: Rather than stay in denial, she is slowing accepting herself — flaws and all.Piper is in the midst of discovering who she really is: Rather than stay in denial, she is slowing accepting herself — flaws and all. I get the sense that a small part of Piper enjoys prison more than real life because at Litchfield, she can be herself without family or society telling her who she should be. Piper is living life without pretense — symbolized by her decision to drink a Colt 45 rather than sparkling wine from the convenience store. As a result, Piper is a much more interesting character, now, than she was as a privileged WASP at the beginning of season 1.
Similarly, spurred by the stress of inmate/girlfriend Dayanara Diaz's (Dascha Polanco) pregnancy and blackmail by several Spanish inmates, Bennett has hardened up, and is no longer the doormat he used to be. As his life spirals out of control, Bennett takes back control by exerting his power over the inmates. At one point, Bennett snaps, upending the cubes of several black inmates after he finds a cigarette.
Taystee's transformation is perhaps the most unsettling of all. As she gets pulled deeper into Vee's sphere of influence, Taystee becomes more involved in the older woman's illegal drug (initially cigarette) trade — at one point even enticing Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) with heroin. Her relationship with best friend Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) also begins to disintegrate as a result.
Flashbacks reveal that Vee, a new character introduced this season, is conniving. Years ago, when they were in prison together, Vee backstabbed Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) by forcibly taking control of Red's smuggling business.
The episode ends with Big Boo striking a deal with Vee in which she promises to reveal Red's smuggling passageway under the greenhouse for 20% of Vee's cigarette profits.