I hope that by waiting this amount of time before discussing the anticipated Season 2 of Orange Is The New Black that there is just enough time passed where those taking their time have had a chance to watch most of it, but not so much time that people are sick of the internet exploding about it – some good reviews, some bad. But outside the quality of the second season, a topic easily debated for as long as the universe has debated the potential of most sequels, the second season without a doubt feels different for other reasons. Season one had a lot more shock value and immersion into the prison culture, with Piper Chapman as the guide. This season, Chapman takes a step back and remains a main character, though not the lead anymore, and the show focuses on themes rather than particular characters. And if there’s one phrase that can sum up OITNB’s second season succinctly, it is this: the past always comes back.
The most obvious examples are characters that “get what’s coming to them.” Yvonne “Vee” Parker, the new villain of the season, builds up an empire of drugs and smuggling only to have her minions abandon her after realizing how easily Vee would turn on all of them just to save herself – and then she is literally killed off the show via an escaped convict running her down with a van, muttering, “Always so rude, that one.” Also tying up nicely, Alex Vause starts out having left prison on parole for testifying against her drug lord Kubra Balik, something she warns Chapman not to do because Kubra would come after her, only to end in Vause breaking parole out of paranoia when Kubra tracks Vause down at her apartment (an ending the audience justifies because Vause went against the advice she gave Chapman, resulting in Vause going free and Chapman remaining in prison). Then there’s Assistant Warden Natalie Figueroa, who has all of her embezzlement from both seasons finally exposed, forcing her to resign. There’s even a small resolution in officer John Bennett confessing to his supervisor about having knocked up an inmate in season one, after cracking from various prisoners’ escalating blackmailing.
But not all of the people whose pasts come back to haunt them are necessarily people getting the same evil they deserve; the show brings the complexity of last season in the sense that not every character is purely good or evil, but rather just trying to deal with life so far. Lorna Morello, an inmate who spends all of first season building her character as a loving fiance that can’t wait to get out of prison to marry her dreamboat Christopher, finally has to come to terms with the revelation that she never was Christopher’s bride to be, but rather she is a stalker that planted bombs under his real fiance’s car. In her case, facing the path involves just accepting the past as the truth, rather than the delusions and persona she allows everyone else, and herself, to believe. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, a character known for her somewhat unstable behavior in season one, becomes a startling voice of reason to Lorna. “Nobody knows we’re not together,” Lorna confides in Crazy Eyes, only to have her reply with “Yeah, but you do.”
This moment is a really tough one to swallow because Lorna spent many times bragging about Christopher, or even defending him, to inmates in the first season. The reveal completely turns over everything we learned, both about Christopher and about who we thought Lorna was. The hopeless romantic reveals herself as much more delusional and self-centered, and even a little crazy – all of which we learn about her before Lorna learns about herself.
Perhaps the most influential instance of the past returning lies in Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, who reveals early on into the season that Vee looked after her when group homes and “the system” didn’t provide any sort of family for her as a kid. Vee ran a drug ring in Taystee’s youth, and while Taystee didn’t initially agree with Vee’s methods for providing for her, there was no denying that Vee did more for her – even acting secretly and solely out of her own interest – than anyone else did. I say “most influential” because Taystee’s eventual reconciling of differences with Vee snowballs into the rest of her friends joining Vee’s tribe, ultimately leading to Vee’s rise to power that becomes the driving force of this season. Once she joins, most of her other future followers follow.
Taystee’s particular facing of her past is also one that is hauntingly and heartbreakingly touching. Vee gets her way in a lot of different ways throughout this season; she intimidates some, physically assaults others, pretends to cry and quiver for sympathy, and even frames Crazy Eyes and convinces her that, in her own insanity, she did the crime Vee actually committed. But with Taystee, the way Vee manipulated her was through a simple giving of a funfetti cake with chocolate icing.
What seems like a simple gesture to bribe her with sweets that she can’t get in prison has a deliberate yet subtle undertone, symbolizing the offering of birthday celebrations Taystee never got as a child, even going as far as ending the conversation with a nod to childhood gettogethers: “Why don’t you, uh, invite your friends to join us?” Vee appeals to Taystee not through threats, but through reminding her of the mother-daughter bond they once had. “Wasn’t I there for you all those years? Didn’t I take care of you? Let me do the same here,” she says, holding their past over Taystee.
In part, that system works because Taystee feels obligated to repay the favor; Vee took her in, and gave her work that paid better than she could get on her own. But underneath it all, Taystee sees Vee in the beginning of the season as someone close to her, who actually cares for her.
Buzzfeed expands on this thought really well, even getting the actress behind Taystee, Danielle Brooks, to comment on their relationship:
“I think [Vee and Taystee’s] relationship is very tricky because Taystee hasn’t had anyone to really have her back and just be loyal to her and show her right from wrong and she gets desperate. There’s a point in her life where she feels she needs Vee. Vee is her family. She puts money in her pocket, and it might not be the right way, but she does that and no one has done that for her. She has this really strong attachment to her because she becomes her mother. It’s tricky because Taystee is suspicious about Vee. She always has been since she was a girl. You see that flashback. But she’s hopeful for Vee to be a good person and when she returns, it really throws Taystee off where she can’t hide behind the laughter and making jokes. She has to deal with what’s really going on.”
And what’s really going on with Taystee was subtly revealed to the audience in the first season: she was the first to get out of prison with parole, only to find she was lost in the free world and had no idea how to make that system work for her, just like she was lost as a kid. It is revealed in the second season that, after things didn’t work out with her initial plans when she left prison in the first season, she went looking for Vee to help her, only to find Vee abandoned her – thus necessitating the cake peace offering. But even after years in prison, Taystee still saw her as the person who took care of her.
Vee, despite her flaws, made that life seem to have answers – and while they weren’t always good answers, without her she has no answers at all.
Taystee’s journey, this season, is not to face the consequences of her past like Vee or Vause, but rather to see her past for what it truly is, more akin to Lorna. She has to realize – to forcibly make herself realize, despite years of denial – that Vee is not truly looking out for her, but only taking care of her insofar as it serves Vee’s personal interest. Only after completely ruling out Vee can she look for, and find, her real family. Poussey Washington, the former best friend who seems to have turned her back on Taystee, now comes to light as the true friend she really is, and all of Poussey’s efforts to undermine Vee become something Taystee can understand.
Taystee and Lorna share this period of growth, in that they both can’t truly find what is best for them until they move on from that thing that is almost what they want, but not quite. Only then can they accept that there may be something else, something better, out there – and only after that comes the courage to actually look for it.
But sooner or later, the past catches up with all of the characters. In serendipity levels unlike the first season, the bad get what they deserve. Figs, Vee, and Vause all suffer for their past treatment of others. And on a deeper level, many characters like Lorna or Taystee who aren’t good or bad finally let their pasts start to make sense. Much like the general idea of being in prison itself should, season two reminds us that the past plays an integral role down the road, no matter who we are. Good or bad, or in between, it all comes back eventually in some way.