Leave it to Litchfield to keep us on our toes.
As OITNB creator Jenji Kohan told EW way back in June of last year, the “nice blonde lady” at the center of Orange was never meant to be the series’ only focus. Instead, Piper was designed to serve as a “gateway drug”: “We wanted to write stories about all sorts of women and their experiences. But it’s very hard to sell a show about women of different colors and different ages and different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she explained. “This way, we almost get to sneak in these amazing characters and amazing stories through this white girl going to prison. With each episode we explore a different character.”
The plan went off without a hitch: Throughout season one, Piper remained a central presence but began ceding more and more screen time to the show’s expanding ensemble. We adjusted to life in prison the same way she did: first by viewing the ladies of Litchfield as one-note supporting characters in the drama that was Piper’s life story, then gradually getting to know them as human beings with pasts and multi-faceted personalities. Piper, too, changed along the way, not only getting tougher (“Bitches gots to learn”) but also revealing herself to be more than the bourgie stereotype she appeared to be in the show’s pilot.
By the end of its first season, Orange was no longer simply Piper’s show; the gateway had been opened, revealing an ensemble filled with complicated characters, each capable of anchoring a series in her own right. Which is why it’s so surprising to see season two of OITNB begin the way it does: with an episode that’s focused completely on Piper, to the exclusion of almost everyone else we got to know and love in season one. Have Daya and Bennett been found out? Did Pennsatucky get those new teeth? How’s Red adjusting after being stripped of her power, and what’s the mood at Litchfield like now that the Latina women are basically running the show? We won’t know the answers to any of these questions until at least episode two, which is a pretty bold move for a program that wrapped its first year with a series of increasingly insane cliffhangers.
Instead, episode one begins with an utterly isolated Piper, who’s gone so nuts after four weeks in the SHU that she’s painting the walls with her old egg yolks (“I’m calling it Thirsty Bird”). Then the show isolates her even further, transporting our gateway drug out of solitary and taking her on a Kafkaesque journey to an unknown location.
By the end of last season, we had come to understand Litchfield as an improvised community – a sort of Springfield-ian small town overflowing with quirky residents, albeit ones who had all committed federal crimes. It never felt like a safe place, exactly – recall that when most of Litchfield’s ladies were bonding over soul-stirring Christmas music, Piper was busy beating Pennsatucky half to death – but there was still a sense that on some level, these women supported or at least understood each other.
But once Piper leaves the relative cocoon that is Litchfield – a society that’s largely matriarchal, on levels both micro (the members of the WAC) and macro (Fig ultimately rules the place with a tight, manicured fist) – she’s subjected to a series of petty and not-so-petty humiliations and degradations, nearly all at the hands of men. The male guards who escort her out of solitary treat Piper as though she’s invisible: They refusing to answer when she asks where she’s being taken or when she’ll get there; they engage in uncensored guy talk in front of her, reducing the women they know to collections of aesthetically pleasing body parts (“she’s got that Kunis face, but not that Kunis ass”); they punish Piper for being a “demanding poochie,” giving her the transport bus’ tightest shackles; they even speed her along when she’s relieving herself, demanding to hear a heavier urine stream. The most striking thing about the male/female power differential in this episode is that it exists even between male prisoners and female prisoners; once her Con Air flight goes coed, Piper is harassed by a hitman named Gun (hey, it could be worse – she thinks at first that he’s a rapist) and, eventually, reduced to giving the guy her dirty underwear in exchange for a favor. Say what you will about Litchfield, but it’s a little more civilized than Chicago’s Metropolitan Detention Center.
Why is Piper so far from home? At first, she’s convinced that her transfer must have something to do with Pennsatucky. Though weeks have passed since their snowy fight, Piper is clearly still disturbed by it, especially because she’s not sure whether Tiffany survived the brawl. It’s all she can do to keep from breaking down when sharing details of the incident with her new Con Air pal. (I’m tempted to call the new character Ellen, because she looks like the talk-show host might if she spent some time in jail, but her name is actually Lolly, and she’s played by the lovely Lori Petty.)
The confession scene has Emmy Reel written all over it, but Taylor Schilling never overplays the material as she digs into the “really, really bad thing” Chapman did in December. She may be an emotionally manipulative narcissist, but guilt like this is proof that Piper’s got a good heart, underneath it all.
As it turns out, Piper’s trip to the Windy City isn’t related to the beatdown. After days in conditions that make her old cell block look like a five-star hotel, she eventually learns that Pennsatucky is alive. Piper isn’t being sentenced on murder charges; she’s actually being called as a witness in the trial of Alex’s old boss, a drug trafficker named Kubra. (Fun fact: This is the closest the show has gotten in awhile to following Piper Kerman’s actual memoir Orange is the New Black. Partway through it, the real Piper is taken to Oklahoma City, then Chicago to testify against her ex-lover’s old boss. It’s during this journey that she gets reacquainted with the woman on whom Alex is based, though she’s called Nora in the book.)
NEXT: Déjà vu all over again