Orange is the New Black

"Those Spanish probably won't even eat it, just cut her throat and drink her blood, or something
else superstitious. All I wanted was to eat the chicken that is smarter than other chickens and to absorb its power. And make a nice Kiev."

Ten years ago, Piper Chapman transported some money for her then-girlfriend and the drug cartel she worked for. Now, she's forced to put her life with her new fiancee, her very pregnant best friend and their new soap-selling business on hold to spend fifteen months in a minimum security prison dealing with tribal loyalties, angry Russian chefs and malicious guards...

I just mainlined all thirteen episodes of Orange is the New Black in three days, which, to be fair, I think is the point of Netflix's unique broadcasting schedule. Since the format lends itself to marathon viewings in which everyone is at a different place from everyone else and moving at a different speed, I'm going to review the whole first series here in one big post - so beware spoilers! If you haven't seen the series yet, I advise you to go check it out - it's very good! - and come back later. I will be spoiling every major plot development of the first series here.

Still here? It was great, wasn't it?! With so many characters and so many different, intersecting story arcs spinning throughout the season, I'm going to have a look at some of the major characters and relationships in turn.

Piper, Larry and Alex

Piper is our way in to Litchfield federal prison. She is a privileged, wealthy white woman who has absolutely no idea what to expect or how to behave and thinks she can prepare for prison by reading a book. Of course, by the end of the season, she has settled in and toughened up, and become a much more likable character in the process. Her main story arc is the ongoing love triangle between her, Larry her fiancee, and Alex, her ex-girlfriend who is in the prison with her and is responsible for putting them both there in the first place. To be honest, this story dragged a little for me, but I did enjoy seeing Piper become a more grounded and self-aware woman over the course of the season. By the final episode, she's rather broken, which was sad to see, but made great television. Larry, on the outside, didn't get all that much to work with but I have a great deal of residual fondness for Jason Biggs from American Pie (to which there was a great shout-out in the pilot) and Piper's hippy brother is fun, even if her friend Polly has almost nothing to do beyond glow maternally.

Pennsatucky and Healy

Pennsatucky is a religious zealot who is, quite frankly, clearly batshit crazy and one of the stupidest thing Piper does in jail has to be getting her out of Psych. I mean, I know Pysch is horrible and I know that she thinks maybe Alex and her gaslighting Pennsatucky is what put her in there but - Piper didn't make the woman throw a disabled girl out of her wheelchair and straddle her. Pennsatucky is clearly not quite with it - and dangerous - and frankly she belongs in maximum security. Mind you, Piper doesn't have the advantage of knowing Tiffany's back-story, which indicates that she may be much more dangerous than she seems. She's also a deeply unhappy and unpleasant person, though it's a testament to the acting and the writing that when Piper beats the crap out of her in the season's closing moments, although at least the first punch was a necessary act of self-defense, her continued vicious attack on the much smaller (albeit armed) women shows that Piper herself has clearly started to snap as well.

Partly culpable in Piper's extraordinary final scene is Healy, her counselor, who I have to say I pegged as slimy and evil from the start. A petty, miserable man with a Russian mail-order bride (and mother-in-law) and an obsessive dislike of lesbianism, Healy's initial favouritism towards Piper was never going to last once her found out about her history with Alex and to be honest, he completely gives me the creeps, to the point where I really just want the show to get rid of him.

Pornstache, Red and the girls

Red is the prison chef, and her girls are her helpers, both in the kitchen and out. Red is very firmly anti-drugs and she tries to help addicts get clean - by far the most tragic of whom is Tricia, who, having been rejected by Red for using heroin again and bullied by Pornstache the guard, overdoses while locked in a cupboard. I saw Tricia's suicide coming a mile off, which rather took the edge off the tragedy, but her story remains utterly heartbreaking - abused, raped, abandoned but still desperate to pay back everyone she's ever stolen from. Apart from her early attempt to sabotage her girlfriend's release, Tricia is painted almost entirely as a victim - of her stepfather, of the world, of the system.

Pornstache (real name Mendez) is only just behind Healy in terms of creepiness, though he has a little more humanity; although directly responsible for Tricia's suicide he is at least horrified by it (and not just because he could lose his job) and when Healy sends Piper to solitary for no reason, their boss Caputo observes that 'even Mendez thinks you've gone too far.' He is, however, pretty awful, forcing addicted girls to give him blow jobs in exchange for drugs and sabotaging Red's kitchen because she won't help him with his trade.

Red is a fascinating character. I have to confess, the reason I watched the show in the first place was simply that I had to see Captain Janeway as a Russian prison chef, and Mulgrew is great in the role. Ironically, one of the qualities she brings to the show is the ability to pull together rather disparate aspects of a character into a believable whole - for Red is a woman who will declare her intention to starve an inmate to death for an insulting remark one minute and comfort a young women going through withdrawal the next. This is a woman who won the respect of the Russian mafia, but believes in the supernatural power of a chicken. On top of that, some of the scenes I most enjoyed were the flashbacks to when she was a fairly ordinary Russian housewife and chef, much more relaxed and friendly. Red's most consistent traits, though, are her tough love combined with her desire for power. She wants to rule over her little kingdom, which is why she makes a colossal error in judgement in the final episode, but she also genuinely loves her girls and when she rejects Tricia or even when she starves Piper, she is honestly trying to do them a favour - and is distraught when she realises too late that she took it too far with Tricia. Basically, I love loads about this show, but Red is the reason I watch it.

Daya and Bennett

OK, these two are the other reason I watch it, because they are adorable. Something I didn't know until watching this series is that prisoners in the US (or here, hopefully) cannot legally consent to sex with a guard, which means that technically Bennett is committing statutory rape. But the story is played in such a way that it's very clear there's a world of difference between Bennett and Daya and what Pornstache does to girls like Tricia. The whole thing is still clearly a terrible idea which can only end badly, but my goodness these two are cute together! I can't help it. I'm an incurable romantic.

Of course, their main problem (aside from Daya's mother) is that apparently these two are so phenomenally stupid that they have full penetrative illegal sex without a condom. I mean come on guys, there's like a million other things you can do that can't result in pregnancy (just ask Larry). I guess this is what you get for dating someone who made it back from Afghanistan intact and lost his leg in a hot tub accident. I was also slightly disappointed in the show for falling into the Vomit Trap, like so many others. (The Vomit Trap as defined by me: If a woman vomits on TV, she is pregnant, and conversely, a non-pregnant woman will hardly ever be shown to vomit.) If the woman vomits apparently as part of a flu epidemic, the chances she's actually pregnant multiply by a factor of ten. This is lazy story-telling people! Anyway, vomiting and utter idiocy aside, this does give their story some interesting places to go - especially given Red and Aleida's creative idea to pin the blame on Mendez, which goes screwy when he decides he's in love with Daya too - as long as the other guards aren't correct in assuming that Daya will be transferred as a result of being caught with Mendez.

And did y'all see the adorable way Bennett jumped right over to protect her when the oven went on fire in the finale? Broken up, my foot. OK, OK, fine, I'll move on.

Sophia, Watson and Miss Claudette

Everyone in the prison lives, works and socialises in racial groups - except there are hardly any Asian prisoners, apparently, so they're 'Others' or subsumed into the elderly 'Golden Girls.' Piper, horrified at being ordered to sit at the white table on her first day, is quickly informed that 'it's not racist, it's tribal' - to survive in a world where (unless you're Daya or Piper) you have no friends or family, people create new families along racial lines. It's noticeable that Piper, who's never entirely comfortable with this arrangement, makes more interracial friendships and connections than anyone else, and this doesn't seem to anger anyone, but it isn't something others tend to try either.

There are a few other interracial friendships developing though, and the one between Sophia and Sister Ingalls is by far my favourite. Sophia is the subject of an episode focused on her character early on and has one of the most compelling stories in the prison, with a great performance by Laverne Cox. A post-op transsexual, Sophia initially approaches Sister Ingalls hoping to get hold of her post-menopause hormone pills, but they develop a genuine friendship that has them organising the Christmas show - which is basically a school nativity play, I loved that - together. Sister Ingalls is a lightly sketched character but a very necessary anti-dote to Pennsatucky's religious zeal and bigotry, and she and Sophia play off each other brilliantly.

Watson, who along with Daya is one of the inmates brought in with Piper in the pilot, doesn't have the world's most exciting back-story, but she does develop sweet friendships with Yoga Jones and with Piper. So does Miss Claudette, before her unfortunate outburst in Episode 12. Although there are rumours that Claudette committed murder, and although her flashbacks reveal that this is true, I don't think the murder is what she's in prison for. Her appeal was based on changes to immigration law, and Nicky was adamant that she was in for some kind of slave trade - plus she's in a minimum security prison, which would seem unlikely if she was in for pre-meditated murder (however understandable the motivation). Whether or not this becomes a plot point in season two depends on whether the writers find a way to bring her back from maximum security, which seems unlikely, since she attacked a guard.

Nicky, Taystee, Poussey and Crazy Eyes

Nicky, played by the always brilliant Natasha Lyonne, has an impressive ability to drift between different storylines, playing a significant role in Alex and Piper's story as well as Red and Tricia's. Her flashbacks reveal her mommy issues but somehow I feel like we don't fully understand Nicky yet - I want to see more of her. Taystee and Poussey (whose name should surely be spelled Poussé - accent à droite, bitches) are just wonderful - their imitation of white people is an absolute joy and I was weeping when it looked like they wouldn't be able to say goodbye, but then they waved and Poussey saw Taystee dance through the window. I'm afraid Taystee's return was another thing I saw coming a mile off, but like the prisoners, I'm so happy to see her it's easy to forget to be sad that she's back in prison. Crazy Eyes is not a character I'm quite so keen on, but her rendition of Shakespeare for the Scared Straight program was utterly wonderful, and her heartbroken talk with Piper after Larry's radio show, and her visit with her parents, have done a great job of humanising her.


I'm sure I've missed lots of important characters and subplots - Caputo's crush on sweet only-nice-guard Fischer, poor Morello and her imaginary fiancee, Big Boo and her creative use of screwdrivers, and so many others - but hopefully that covers the major story arcs going into season two, which I am very much looking forward to.

This first season has been a little uneven in places. Early on the show struggled a little to settle in and find its tone. The chicken quote at the top of the page is hilarious and Mulgrew is rightly celebrated for her glorious delivery of it (this is, after all, a woman who can sell the idea that she's been kidnapped by her pilot, turned into a lizard, and had lizard babies) but it, and the chicken plot-line, don't entirely seem to fit in to the more dramatic series the show becomes later on. There is still humour, of course, and it's one of the most important aspects of the show, but it's the sort of gallows humour you get in these situations rather than the broad farce of everybody chasing a chicken. The series can also be, as you may have noticed, a little predictable. But predictable is not necessarily bad and it can be a dramatic necessity.

Piper's story is still the least compelling story in the series, but she's a likable enough lead, and an effective way in for the presumably reasonably privileged audience before opening their eyes to the struggles of characters like Taystee, Tricia or Sophia. She's also well-meaning, intelligent, and creative in finding solutions to her problems - as we see in almost the first scene when we see her shower flip-flops made out of maxi-pads - so she's a lead we can root for and respect.

Overall, this was a brilliantly acted, fantastically scripted season of television, featuring a cast of beautifully realised, fascinating characters. I can't wait to see where they go in season two. Four out of four maxi-pad flip flops.

Some highlights

 - Taystee and Poussey's impression of middle class white people, as noted above, is utterly hilarious.

 - Ditto to Crazy Eyes' 'Scared Straight by Shakespeare'.

 - I loved the scene in which electrician Luschek replaces a still-missing screwdriver himself, so no one gets in any more trouble. Luschek isn't usually a particularly friendly or sympathetic character, but this showed that there is real humanity in him.

 - On the other hand, when Luschek suggests - at length - that Piper only wants to mourn her dead acquaintance because she's on her period, Piper calmly replies, with an ironic smile, 'By all means - attribute my legitimate feelings of sadness to menses.' Awesome.

 - Piper's brother in general, who is the only especially interesting character on the outside - though I've nothing against Larry. He just hasn't done much I care about yet.

 - The chicken quote. Even though it's ridiculous.

 - Anything involving Sophia and her wife. Both actors knock it out of the park, and Sister Ingalls' caring listening and advice-giving on the subject is lovely too.

 - Bennett stroking Daya's cheek just a little after the fire in the kitchen. I cannot get over how cute they are. Yes, I am aware it's all going to end horribly somewhere down the line. Sigh.

 - The final few minutes of the season - Poussey's beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace and Norma singing, set against Healy revealing the depths to which he's sunk and Pennsatucky and Piper's confrontation. Heart-in-mouth stuff.

What did everyone think? Is anyone else as hooked as I am?!

8 comments:

sunbunny said...

An unapologetically long comment:

I LOVE this show and I keep recommending it to everyone, which you already know if you follow us on Twitter (@DouxReviews)!!!

I start off by informing those I recommend it to by telling them to largely ignore Piper. Yes, she's the main character of the saga, but she's also the dullest and most annoying character of the show. Maybe Larry beats her out on annoying. I don't even like Alex, who people seem to fangirl over. She just seems like a really bad person and OH MY GOD is Laura Prepon aging badly. If you look at a picture of her form That 70's Show, she does not look like the same person.

It's the minor characters that make the show SHINE. They're all so rich and subtly written. Some characters who initially appear to be prison stereotypes (the religious zealot Pennsatucky, the clearly completely insane Crazy Eyes) later reveal hidden depths. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite character, I really would.

Here are (some) of them: Red. Red is absolutely fantastically amazing. I cannot say enough about this character. Actually, as I'm now realizing, I can't say anything because I have nothing to add to your lovely description of her. I just adore the way she starves Piper but explains to her that she doesn't want to, it's just the way the system works.

Daya and Bennett. Like you, Juliette, I am a hopeless romantic and I found their romance utterly charming. Even if they're both a bit dense. No condom? Seriously, guys? Use your damn brains.

SOPHIA. Oh holy crap. She is just utter fabulousness. Her backstory is rather heartbreaking. I can't believe her wife stood by her that whole time.

Sister Ingalls and Yoga Jones. Adore both of them. If I was Piper I would've clung to them like there was no tomorrow. Yoga Jones relating her backstory was one of the two things in this series that made me cry. The other is...

Trisha. Oh, GOD, Trisha. That poor, poor girl. I just want to wrap her up in a blanket and make her some soup. She's just a broken soul and she never really got a chance at life and, okay I have to stop now, I'm crying again.

Crazy Eyes. I really didn't care for her at all until Larry's interview. She just laid (lied? shut up) there crying. Obviously, she's actually clinically insane. There's something wrong with her brain, clearly, but that's not her fault and it so hurts her that people treat her differently for something she can't control.

Taystee and Poussey's imitation of white women made me really uncomfortable because I've actually had lengthy conversations with my friends about my bangs.

Absolutely agree on 4/4! Can't wait for the next season; although I don't see how Piper is going to remain in a minimum security prison after that last scene...

Jess Lynde said...

I loved this show to pieces and also highly recommend it. It was such fun to read such a full and comprehensive review. Finally! I can stop pimping it in the comments for other shows and just discuss it here!

I adored so many of the characters. So rich and wonderfully flawed, although I was not as enamored with Daya and Bennett as you guys. I simply couldn't get past what an utterly terrible idea it was for them to hook up, so I couldn't really get into how cute they were together.

I really liked the way my perspective on Piper shifted over the season. I largely found her a good central character the whole time, but it was interesting to see her inner darkness coming out as the season went along. By the end, I felt bad for both Alex and Larry --- even though I thought it was rather unfair of Larry to make Piper' situation all about himself in an effort to jump start his own career --- and I was sort of glad to see them both turn their backs on Piper.

As for that final moment, I couldn't help thinking that Piper's actions were probably going to result in Pennsatucky finally getting what she wanted most: new teeth. Maybe that's partly why Piper kept pounding on her. She's defending herself, but also trying to subvert another attack. I know, I know. She's probably not really putting that much thought into it in that particular moment. But it might work out in her favor anyway.

Some other personal highlights: Red wanting to absorb the chicken's power; Taystee and Poussey in just about any scene together --- I especially loved the goodbye dance and the return talking to; Piper's phone crying buddy; the running gag about the "retarded eggplant" joke (or however it went); Yoga Jones telling her backstory; and Sophia, Sophia, Sophia.

Anonymous said...

You think you'll still, possibly, do episode by episode reviews?

Anonymous said...

Just a quick note, but I think Luscheck replaced the screwdriver because he knew HE would get in trouble with Caputo. Great show.

Lots of great performances, but a few stand out for me. I felt really sympathetic toward Caputo who, on paper, isn't a particularly endearing character. I felt very bad for him when it turned out that Susan had a boyfriend her own age, but also realized just how weird his crush on her was.

Michael J. Harney was fantastic on Deadwood, bringing a real humanity to a vile character and he does the same here. I considered Healy to be a harmless, brainless, put-upon old man but he really crossed the line into evil and threatening with those cold little eyes.

I too want to see more Nicky. I think she's excellent and hilarious, particularly with her line delivery. I also think she has real feelings for Morello beyond sex.

Juliette said...

I wondered if Piper will get sent down the hill (was that what they called it?) briefly and meet up with Claudette again, then return a couple of episodes later once Larry and Polly realise she's gone and kick up a stink (Larry's best moment had to be getting Piper out of the SHU). I know Larry's ignoring her right now but that won't last.

I feel bad for not talking about Morello more cause I really like her, I hope she has more to do next season. And Sophia is just completely awesome! So is Nicky - Natasha Lyonne is just brilliant in everything.

Anonymous said...

Love this show and kinda ship Piper/Alex. On the less superficial level it's great to see so many different types of women in one show..
and Red is probably my favourite..or Sophia..or Nicky..Mendez needs to die. and Healy. Can't wait for season 2.
Anna

BrandyB ClovieD said...

When CrazyEyes asked Piper, "Why do they call me Crazy Eyes?" i just about cried. Sometimes people really don't know there's something wrong with them. i think she will grow on us before it's all over.

i started watching because of Prepon, was gladly surprised to see Mulgrew and Lyonnes, and am definitely now a huge fan of the show. i too marathoned it in 2 days, and cannot wait for the next season!! i tell everyone to watch it!
Great show!

Billie Doux said...

Four out of four maxi-pad flip flops from me, too. I just finished watching the season -- I was doing one episode a night because I wanted it to last -- and I absolutely love this series. "The Chickening" may be one of my favorite episodes of television ever. Every character is so well realized, although I agree that Chapman, the lead, is possibly the least compelling, she also works well as the center of the story because of the way she sees the prison when she first arrives, and how she grows to see it during the course of the season. Standouts for me are Nicky (for some reason, I absolutely love Nicky), Bennett and Daya, Sophia and her friendship with the nun, Taystee and Poussey (Poussey's "Amazing Grace" gave me goosebumps), and Kate Mulgrew's terrific work as Red.

Can't wait for season two. What a terrific review, Juliette. I was very careful not to read it when you posted it because I didn't want to get spoiled.