First look review: Orange Is the New Black Season 2 (Episode 1)
Laura Humphreys | On 05, Jun 2014
This review contains mild spoilers for the end of Orange Is the New Black Season 1.
Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black definitely hits the ground running. Thirsty Bird opens on Piper in SHU, reminding us how she brutally beat the murderous Pennsyltucky to a bloody pulp at the end of Season 1. No biggie; Piper (and the Audience) have seen SHU before, and frankly, Pennsyltucky had it coming. But Piper ain’t in SHU for long.
Moments in, she is extracted by a series of obstructive guards who refuse to tell her where she’s going, or why. Out of her khakis and into orange once more, we’re a good 20 minutes in before we have any idea what’s happening to Chapman – and by that point, you are sharing in her panic wholeheartedly.
This opening plays to one of Orange’s real strengths. While light-hearted and witty for the most part, it can ratchet up the suspense to painfully intense levels when required. It’s in these moments that you get a feeling for what prison really is – dangerous, fraught, and full of tempers that can turn on a dime, on both sides of the bars. It’s also in these moments that Taylor Schilling shines; Piper isn’t just a middle-class Connecticut Wasp who took a wrong turn, but a deeply-flawed woman who has by now seen – and done – some bad shit. She is at her most compelling when her soap-making, Barneys-shopping facade is disturbed by a desperate need to survive, and the stark contrast between the two is made explicit by Episode 1’s flashbacks, which take us back to Piper’s careful, rule-abiding childhood.
Despite one or two slightly wooden scenes (her tears always seem crocodile), Schilling carries Episode 1. Not because everyone else lets us down, but because no one else is there. There are some promising new characters, much more dangerous than we’re used to (if slightly undermined by their jovial tone), but their scenes are short-lived. Alex Vauss makes an appearance, and Laura Prepon is as compelling as always, even with limited screen time, but it is severely limited. The only other recurring character is Larry’s father, Howard, who returns as Piper’s lawyer. But just like his son, Howard gives her up as a lost cause when she refuses to tell the truth.
It’s a bold move to kick off the season like this, having eschewed the familiar for the shocking. It has real impact, and goes some way to including the audience in Piper’s terrifying disorientation. However, it’s also disappointing not to see the much beloved women of Lichfield Prison. Their absence is keenly felt. You will miss Red, Nicky, Daya, and co. like you didn’t know you could miss fictional characters – even if it is only until you can stream the next episode. Hell, you’ll miss the love-struck Pornstache too.
There was so much up in the air at the end of last season, and so little of it is mentioned that this first hour is tinged with frustration, waiting for the familiar cast to return. Ultimately, though, messing with the format pays off. Well written and well played, Thirsty Bird is a promising start to the new season, which is already looking like yet another win for Netflix.
What can we expect from the next 13 episodes behind bars? Read our Q&A with the Orange Is the New Black cast.