In Season 1, naïve yuppie Piper Chapman provided the viewer their point of ingress to the unfamiliar digs and scrappy denizens of Litchfield. As the realities of prison life forced Chapman to grow a spine, the series was able to build one of its own: Piper smuggles the viewer into Litchfield, but what made them want to stay was the company of Red, Crazy Eyes, Nichols, Taystee, Poussey, Gloria, Yoga Jones, Sophia, and literally dozens of the other flawed, relatable wards and wardens locked inside. That’s not to dismiss Chapman, or Taylor Schilling’s performance though: both the character, and the performance are even better in season two, as Chapman has to grapple with the ways incarceration have already fundamentally changed her.
But the formally playful, and resultantly unbalanced first two episodes give lie to just how removed Orange is the New Black has become from its source material, and its creator’s stand-in. The premiere follows Piper exclusively as she faces the repercussions of her beatdown on Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) that ended the first season. The second episode does just the opposite, taking place entirely in Piper’s absence. Maybe it’s the joy that comes with being reunited with the rest of the gang, but you barely even notice that the show is missing its ostensible lead for an hour. In its first season, OITNB was able to develop such a richly stacked bench of other characters that Piper’s role as tour guide eventually became obsolete. As a result, there are long stretches of the second season that remove Piper entirely from any of the real action, simultaneously removing what doubt remained that the show was ever anything but an ensemble piece.
Just as the first season’s most memorable moments occurred when connecting the dots between people of wide-ranging backgrounds and backstories, Season 2 is at its best when exploring just how deeply the connections tying together all of Litchfield’s residents really run. The smallest of gestures or objects often have a ripple effect throughout the entire prison, whether it’s a misplaced piece of gum, a shared piece of cake, or an overheard piece of conversation. For as rewarding as it can be to follow these ripples when they gain momentum and develop into tidal waves, Orange is the New Black is more uniquely itself when following those shockwaves that lead to narrative dead ends. This is a show that knows very well the difference between plot and story: no matter how seemingly insignificant a sidebar or exchange might seem in the grand scheme of things, you almost never leave a scene feeling like you haven’t learned a little something more about these characters by being in their presence, and character has always been the currency OITNB prefers to traffic in.