So far, season two of Orange is the New Black feels much like the homemade lighters Vee has (re)introduced to Litchfield: based on its construction, we can clearly see what the desired function is. As one might expect – and as Nicky experiences as she tries to light a cigarette in “Appropriately Sized Pots” – these things don’t just happen. It takes effort, inching forward and examining its form from a number of angles before finding the right one: and when that right angle is found, every chemical comes into place: and with a single flick, fire is born.
“Appropriately Sized Pots” and “40 OZ of Furlough” are the two hours of OitNB that arrange these chemicals: where the former reminds us of the toxins in Rosa’s body (and mind), the latter taking a long hard look at Vee’s growing shadow on Litchfield, the spark waiting to ignite the eroding peace between every color represented on the show. Black, white, blue, brown or orange, the tension is the same: leave enough dangerous chemicals in the same vicinity, and eventually something is going to bring them together for a wholly unpleasant experience. And from Rosa’s declining health to the brewing war between Vee and Red (Litchfield’s equivalent of Ali v Frasier II), it’s all bubbling under the surface like Healy’s anger problems – all it takes is one Pennsatuckian moment, and chaos will take over.
I’ve talked about the dramatic construction of Orange is the New Black at length already: what these two episodes do so well is to disguise it under some great character material. Sure, Rosa’s back story isn’t the most nuanced, nor does it really seem to fit her current accent, but her tale of addiction and bad luck resonates in both episodes, with every character coming face to face with the mistakes they’ve made in the past – and more importantly, how they dealt with all those mistakes and the effect they had on their lives (like Celeste Chapman said, “life is made in the mistakes”). And for most, there isn’t a lot of hope: just as Red and Vee fall back into their old habits, characters like Nicky, Piper, and Bennett are forced to deal with the fallout of their past selves, and brace themselves for the problems right in their faces.
That’s not to say these episodes don’t have their happy moments: but not many people are going to get lucky like Rosa and realize the errors of their ways in the past. Nicky’s heroin addiction is knocking on her door (with the ever-persuasive hand of Taystee and Vee guiding her, of course), and Red awaits a battle with a woman who wreaked havoc on her once before, a woman whose intelligence, experience, and manipulative tendencies make her more dangerous than the prison guards (who are struggling to keep their crap together, suspending Bennett, firing Fischer, and bringing in Pornstache).
Ultimately, what guides these episodes is the philosophy of finding “strength in what you cannot change”: where characters like Morello and Mrs. Fig are fighting losing battles against those they love, others like Piper and even Taystee have reaped the benefits of acceptance and growth. Taystee’s are obviously going to be a lot more short-term (things cannot end well with her pushing heroin for Vee, and threatening Poussey), but it speaks to the yin and yang of the idea: people like Piper have flourished and grown in prison because they’ve been able to accept who they are and what they’ve done. However, embracing that and simply accepting it is not good enough: it’s what makes Taystee’s scenes this season such an emotional gut punch in an otherwise-conventional story of drug dealer proteges and unrequited love. As an audience, we see Taystee making the same mistakes: and as she falls deeper into the hole of accepting how things are, the more dangerously close to Vee’s hell fire she gets.
It took a little while for this season of Orange is the New Black to start coming together: the stakes are established early, but it’s only natural for a show with such a palette of fascinating characters to spend quality time elsewhere early on. But those pieces are finally starting to come together, with Piper’s furlough providing the philosophic foundation of the late-season (that is: enjoying the small diamond on top of the s**t sundae of life) and the many revelations, twists, and teases of “40 OZ of Furlough” providing the dramatic dominoes to topple in the next four hours. Big Boo whispering in Vee’s ear isn’t just a deceptive move on her part: it’s the spark to Nicky’s contraband lighter, the moment where the chemicals align, right before bashing into each other and catalyzing fire.
[Photo via Netflix]