There are spoilers within this post for the entirety of the first season of Orange is the New Black. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled.
There’s a scene around the mid-point of the first season of Orange is the New Black where a corrections officer tells the central character, Piper Chapman, that the only real difference between them is that Piper and the rest of the inmates at Litchfield Prison got caught making their bad decisions. In many ways that’s the mission statement of the show. The series is not concerned, as it so easily could be, with the specific crimes that landed each of its characters in the prison, or even with holding them accountable for those crimes. Orange is the New Black is concerned with who these women are and how that informed the decisions that ultimately put them in khaki.
I’m trying to think of a single other show that has managed to flesh out a cast of women so quickly and so meticulously. Casts of a primarily female make-up are few and far between, and casts that are so racially diverse, and with characters of varying orientations, faiths and experiences, are even harder to find. Orange is the New Black never shies away from the ways the women of Litchfield differ from each other, but neither does it concern itself with a moral scoreboard. The woman who killed a small child is presented as fully and sympathetically as the woman who stole money to pay for her sex reassignment surgery and the political protester nun and the human trafficker and the woman who shot up an abortion clinic and the woman who ran an international drug ring and the woman who worked for that international drug ring. The system that they exist in may not treat them as equals, they may not treat each other as equals, but the series does precisely that.
The entry-point to Litchfield is Orange is the New Black‘s central character, Piper. At first glance she seems like an outlier, arriving through the front door with her fiancé to self-surrender, telling herself it’ll be a story, but the more time you spend with Piper the more you see how she fits in this world. She may try to scare you straight with lines from Neruda, but that’s not so different from Crazy Eyes using Shakespeare to the same end. She may have prepared for prison by reading books, but she can hold her own in the cafeteria if you confront her. She’s an open-minded person and she adjusts fairly quickly to her new environment. It doesn’t take Piper long to stop seeing her fellow inmates as some sort of sociological study and to start seeing them as her equals, and to start seeing herself as their equal.
The series is interested in more than just Piper, though, and while Lost style flashbacks to her pre-prison life recur throughout the first season, each episode also takes time out to visit the past of another inmate. Whether you’re watching Red’s feelings of betrayal and anger get her in trouble, probably not for the first time and definitely not for the last, in the fantastic scene that gives the episode “Tit Punch” its title, or how vanity and circumstance helped Pennsatucky find Jesus or how a girl as fast as Watson could get caught by the cops or just what Sophia gave up, aside from her freedom, to have a body that matched the woman she always was inside, Orange is the New Black is equally generous with its portrayals of these women. They unfold as whole people in both the past and present.
Not everything about the series works. When the story leaves the prison in the present, either to visit Piper’s fiancé Larry as he parlays her incarceration into his first published column in The New York Times and a guest appearance on a This American Life stand-in radio show, or to follow the correctional officers home–or more likely to the bar–after hours, the story loses track of its driving force: the women of Litchfield Prison.
Orange is the New Black invites a lot of comparisons to Lost due to its flashback structure, and one of the things that always worked for Lost was how rarely that series left the island in the present. The setting was isolated, but the people within it were richly realized. Orange is the New Black doesn’t need to leave the boundary of Litchfield’s very tall fence to show that the world keeps spinning without its residents, proof of that comes through the doors every week for visitation.
But when the series focuses on the stories within its walls it absolutely glows. Piper’s best friend Polly is unimpressed by Piper’s obsession with the inmates’ hunt for a mythical chicken, but in the world of the prison an event like a stray chicken–especially a stray chicken that seems to possess magical powers, or at least a butt full of candy–feels vital.
There is a tremendous sense of family within the prison, particularly amongst the women Red has taken in as surrogate daughters. Red runs the prison kitchen with absolute power, even to the point where she can starve out other inmates over what most would deem minor offenses, but more than that she runs the prison. She brings in contraband, negotiates the bilingual marriage between one of the C.O.s and his Russian mail-order bride and gets into power plays with another C.O.
And the tribe system that Morello lays out for Piper early on addresses the complicated racial politics at play. There’s a scene in episode 6 where the camera moves through the cafeteria, stopping at a series of tables so the characters there can lay out their prejudices about the groups at other tables, but when one “tribe” suffers a tragedy late in the season, representatives from each of the others stop by to offer gifts and condolences.
More than anything, Orange is the New Black is shot through with a tremendous amount of hope. There’s the way Morello relentlessly plans her wedding to a man who seems to have forgotten her, the way Miss Claudette approaches Sophia for a hair-cut when she believes she might be released, the way Janae stands in the sun when she makes it out of SHU, or the smile that grows on her face when the prison track is re-opened and she has a chance to run again. And there’s Piper, who believes she can make Litchfield prison a better place while she’s there, who believes she can love indiscriminately without hurting anyone, who believes she can fix just about anything with the right words and a little bit of creativity. And she’s not right about everything–sometimes she’s not right about much of anything–but she doesn’t seem to let that drag her down.
The series has already been picked up for a second season by Netflix, which is great for those of us left bouncing with impatience after binging on this first season. I can only hope the wait won’t be too long–I can’t wait to see how these women expand, and what mistakes they have left to make.