When it premiered last year, Orange is the New Black became more than a hit show. It became a pop culture phenomenon. Viewers devoured the episodes. The cast graced the cover of magazines and launched conversations about race and gender identification. The dramedy was unlike anything we’d seen before—prisoners of all backgrounds, races and economic statuses (on the outside) with heartbreaking, believable backstories about how they ended up in Litchfield prison. In a way, the show made you feel all of the clichés—you laughed, you cried, and it kind of changed your life.
All that to say, expectations were extremely high for the show’s big return. With so much hype and anticipation surrounding Season Two, the series made a rather daring choice to make the first episode all about the central protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). There was no Taystee, no Crazy Eyes, no Red, no Sophia and no Pornstache. The absence of the characters we’ve come to know and love was jarring, disorienting and unsettling.
Which is exactly how Piper felt. She’s taken out of solitary confinement, put on a bus, then on a plane, and flown to Chicago. And she has no idea why. No one will tell her what’s going on, and the nightmare she’s experiencing is palpable. Fearing she’s been transferred because she’s being charged with murder, she spends much of the episode thinking she has killed Pennsatucky. She is filled with remorse and horror at her own actions. But you have to wonder if the guilt she feels is genuine or if it exists only because she thinks she’s facing murder charges.
She finds Alex (Laura Prepon) in the same Chicago Federal prison. Alex informs her that she’s not there on murder charges, she’s there because their dealer has been extradited and Alex and Piper have been brought in to testify against him. Alex tells Piper she cannot do this—Piper must lie and say she doesn’t know him. Alex also tells her she’s not holding any grudges but we soon find out that’s not exactly true.
Larry’s father flies to Chicago to represent Piper and advises her to tell the truth on the stand, which, of course, she doesn’t. But you know who does tell the truth? Alex. And apparently the truth sets her free. Piper watches as she leaves prison in civilian clothes. “What did you do, Alex,” she screams. Alex set her up, that’s what she did. (Of note: Prepon will only appear in four episodes this season).
While in Chicago, Piper meets new cellmates and you can feel her coming to the realization that she may have to start all over again with a whole new group of inmates with their own unique idiosyncrasies. Just as she made the mistake of insulting Red’s cooking when she first got to Litchfield, she steps on and kills a pet cockroach as she enters her new cell. She must find and train another cockroach who can transport cigarettes to and from solitary confinement. Piper thinks the whole thing is a joke until she sees a cigarette on the back of a cockroach at the end of the episode. (The whole thing is a little reminiscent of the phantom chicken from last season.)
Flashbacks show us a young Piper, who is a rule follower. She won’t jump off the back of the school bus when all the other kids do. When she sees her dad kissing another woman, she tells her mom, who promptly gets mad at Piper for seeing an R-rated movie. “Telling the truth wasn’t much of a priority in my family,” she tells Larry’s dad.
It’s a bit of a stretch to think that’s why she lied under oath. Interestingly, young Piper’s backstory is one of the least compelling ones the show has given us thus far.
Piper continues to be an extremely believable and frustrating character. I wish I could reach into the TV and shake some sense into her. She’s selfish and self-centered and she insists on making choices that aren’t in her best interest. What made her think Alex wouldn’t betray her again?
Piper can be so infuriating, even when she’s vulnerable, that watching a whole hour about her was tough. And, honestly, I just plain missed all the inmates at Litchfield. It’s been nearly a year since we’ve seen them and I didn’t feel like waiting any more. Now that we know Piper’s stay in Chicago is only temporary. I’m looking forward to her return to Litchfield.
Amy Amatangelo is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and a regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.