Orange Is the New Black, Season 2, Episode 1: “Thirsty Bird”
Written by Tara Herrmann and Jenji Kohan
Directed by Jodie Foster
Released Friday, June 6 on Netflix Instant
Orange is the New Black‘s title is probably the least compelling thing about the accomplished series. It springs to mind a kind of petulant rebelliousness, a hip “girl power” type of show that, however easily it could fall into being with its premise, consistently rises above being with its powerful, careful storytelling, laugh-out-loud humor, and three-dimensional characters. Still, the title is by no means empty, and actually rings out as strangely meaningful in this, its second season premiere. After all, what does happen when orange is the new black? Or, in other words, what happens when what we think is basic is absolutely no longer the case?
In this grippingly cinematic episode dealing with Piper’s transference to a higher-security prison after her beat-down of Pennsatucky, we deal with these questions in a very concrete manner. Much like the very first episode, we need to learn the new rules, make new friends, and steer clear of new enemies, all which seem to exist in a Wonderland of non-logic (in this prison, the slowest beetles seem to have all the power). More importantly, though, what we learn is that Piper has really been dealing with these issues of uncertainty her entire life, which, for a main character some found to be somewhat insufferable in the first season, is vital information.
Early in the episode, Piper even gives voice to critique leveled against her in a panicked voicemail to Larry, clueing us in that the show understands she may often seem dramatic for drama’s sake. But smartly, the show’s creators don’t absolve themselves through acknowledgment—they tackle the problem head-on while they have the chance, and double down on her inner-conflict. When we learn in flashbacks that her father, who instilled her sense of safety and ethics, was a tolerated cheater, it stands out as more than just some new, last-grab information. It is a welcome foundation for her whole series-long morality crisis.
Suddenly, things begin to make sense. Piper is dramatic and intense about these issues of right and wrong that she battled all last season not because she’s white and college-educated and because the story demanded it, but because, like the rest of the women at Litchfield, she has been reckoning with something unfair her whole life. Something caused her to end up where she is; led her from being the goody-two-shoes on the bus who follows all the regulations, to traveling the world with a cartel and ending up as a drug smuggler. Sure, she worked her way back to being the “upstanding white lady” she was always meant to be (as self-described in the series’ first episode), but she obviously still struggles with what she once thought were clear rules. Like Alex exclaims, “Jesus, it is so hard to keep up with what’s black and white with you!” In this episode, seeing Piper as a child, it feels for the first time that she’s not just anchoring the cast we sympathized with last season, she becomes one of them herself.
But that’s not the only thing this episode nails. Like all the best installments so far, we also get a subtle look into Piper’s fellow inmates and their collective situation. The episode may open with a ham-fisted metaphor of a thirsty bird that Piper draws with yolk on the walls of solitary (one that also looks like an “angry bird”), but it makes up for it with excellent execution later. Notice how the be-Hannibal’d inmate on the plane wants Vaseline for her dry skin, and wants mama bird Piper to transfer it to her, yet she refuses, thinking it impossible. Meanwhile Lolly (a perfectly bedraggled Lori Petty) feeds Piper, not quite like a mama bird, but practically so, as she also breaks off a piece for herself, marking true nurturing. Then, this thematic story all comes to a terrible head, when Piper betrays her mother/protector in the prison yard, and looks on helpless as she gets beat up by a bullying inmate, who herself is quite taken with emperor penguins’ protective habits.
The genius here is that as much as we learn about Piper through flashback, we learn about in real-time. When it comes to relationships and choices, the girl isn’t the best under pressure. She says emperor penguins are especially physiologically equipped, as if that’s all the explanation necessary for their upstanding behavior. When Alex leaves her at the end of the episode, and she learns that maybe black isn’t white, wrong isn’t right, and lies aren’t the same as truth after all, it is satisfying and terrifying that she is left to re-evaluate everything she already thought she didn’t know.