As she made the publicity rounds for “Orange is the New Black” (OITNB) last summer, Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, kept describing Netflix’s surprise hit with the same metaphor: “Trojan Horse.” As she told NPR’s Terry Gross in August, “If you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all those other stories.” It worked—OITNB is easily one of the most diverse shows on air, surrounding Taylor Schilling’s Smith-educated Piper with vibrant, indelible characters who quickly overshadowed her in the public imagination. After all, it wasn’t Schilling who graced the cover of Time last month.
And so the new season’s first episode, which leaves the other characters behind as Piper is transferred out of Litchfield prison, may come as a surprise. It’s a strange, disorienting hour, transporting Piper to a penitentiary where she is once again the new girl, hazed for her missteps and gawked at for her middle-class bearing. (A menacing male prisoner nicknames her “Suburbs.”) Cigarettes are transported on cockroaches’ backs; an earnest, astrology-obsessed bunkmate licks Piper’s face. There’s a sense that Piper could once again be our point of entry to these inmates’ inner lives. (The face-licker, we learn, was arrested for biting her friend’s tongue, and I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing more about that.) But without the familiar cast of characters—Red and Taystee and Sophia and on and on—OITNB feels unmoored. With her last show, “Weeds,” Kohan relocated every few seasons, uprooting her main character and banking on Mary Louise Parker’s charisma to make up for the under-developed settings. But with OITNB, Kohan has finally developed a world more compelling than its lead. (No offense to the more-than-capable Schilling, who gives Piper a convincing edge this season.)
The experiment only works because of Netflix’s 13-episodes-at-once release strategy. (If you don’t immediately watch episode two to see how the rest of the gang is doing, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.) In case you thought the premiere was a sign of Piper’s renewed centrality, the second episode, where she doesn’t appear at all, should set you straight. It’s an effective reminder of which elements in “Orange is the New Black” are indispensable and which might be done without: I can easily imagine the show continuing on in Litchfield for many seasons past Piper’s release.
Fortunately, the new episodes give complex, surprising backstories to some of the cast’s scene-stealers whose flashbacks we didn’t see in the first season, including Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne, Danielle Brooks’s spirited Taystee, and Samira Wiley’s Poussey, who may be this season’s breakout character. As Lorna Morello, a lovelorn inmate with an unforgettable accent, Yael Stone gives a heartbreaking performance. One of the show’s strengths is that the flashbacks don’t solely focus on the events that brought the inmates to prison. Instead these flashbacks reveal the parts of themselves they keep wrapped up; these women are more than their crimes. And, we’re no longer seeing the prison through Piper’s eyes—the ineluctable premise of the first season. Piper is just one satellite among many, no better or worse than her inmates. If last season’s through-line was Piper’s emotional journey and the love triangle in which she found herself (her fiancée was waiting patiently on the outside, while she re-kindled an old flame on the inside of the prison), this season is about power plays and shifting alliances. Vee, a drug dealer played by the formidable Lorraine Toussaint, enters prison and immediately takes on a mother hen role, gathering her troops to restore the black women’s dominance within the prison’s walls. (Since taking over the kitchen, the Latina inmates rule the roost.) Even the fundamentalist Christians, the demographic that Kohan was least generous to—painting Pensatucky and her gang with a flat, meth-addled brush—have complicated intra-group dynamics: defiantly lonely, Pensatucky is overthrown by her friends, who start to take shape as individuals.
There are other ways in which OITNB has moved beyond the Piper point-of-view, with varying success. Much of the humor—and drama—in OITNB is centered around bodily functions: overfilled bladders, constipation, shit bursting out of shower drains. One episode involves an impromptu sex-ed class, where Sophia (Laverne Cox), the only woman who designed and paid for her own genitalia, gives her confused fellow inmates a refresher on the female anatomy. The show falters, though, every time it leaves the prison walls to follow Larry (Jason Biggs), Piper’s endlessly boring erstwhile fiancé. Another blind spot is the cringe-y romance between Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Bennett (Matt McGorry), the guard who impregnated her; their scenes too often go for cute instead of exploring the serious power imbalance between the couple.
With its expansive intimacy, this season finally delivers on that “Trojan Horse” promise. At one point, Fischer (Lauren Lapkus), a well-meaning female guard, takes a break from monitoring the inmates. “It’s so interesting, all these lives,” she tells her boss. “It’s like Dickens.” The line may be nodding to “The Wire,” which was called Dickensian so many times that it became a joke within the show. But the scene—a warning against reducing people to entertaining stories—is also a sly, self-aware critique of the show itself and it’s audience.