The first thing my husband and I did this summer after dropping our kids off at sleepaway camp — besides letting out a big whoop of joy — was to kick back and cue up the second season of "Orange Is the New Black." Unlike much of America, however, we chose not to binge-watch the entire series in one weekend. I liked giving each episode a day or two to settle in my mind. Besides, who the heck can stay up that late to watch 13 straight hours of TV anyway?
Now that I’ve finally made it to the end — which, amazingly, I managed to do without reading any spoilers! — I need to discuss something: the kick-ass power of those menopausal midlife ladies. A lot has been written about how Litchfield has its own social hierarchy, with the inmates sorting themselves out as black, white or Latina (just one of the many reasons Japanese-Scottish Brook Soso doesn’t fit anywhere), gay or straight, privileged or poor. But I found that the most intriguing division was by age: young, midlife and Golden Girls.
And which group wielded the real power and drove the entire plot? At the age where so many actresses are a puzzle to Hollywood casting agents (Susan Sarandon as Melissa McCarthy’s grandmother — what??), Lorraine Toussaint and Kate Mulgrew acted the hell out of this season as the most compelling characters in OITNB.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Morello, Suzanne, Taystee and Poussey. When Piper isn’t annoying me with her monumental self-absorption (“The drug kingpin you ratted out in court is free on a technicality and is going to kill you? But if you try to skip town to save yourself, Alex, who’s going to visit and pay attention to me?”), I find her a compelling cautionary tale. I was amused, but also strangely moved, by Flaca and Maritza’s conversation about how their twentysomething bodies would never look better than they did right now, when there was no one there to appreciate them. The minor subplot about Ruiz and the baby girl she only gets to see on visiting day? I dare any mom to watch that and not have her own heart squinch in pain.
And who doesn’t love the Golden Girls? Completely ignored and underestimated by the rest of the inmates, they’re left to their knitting and gardening until one of them quietly uses a shiv to take down another prison (though — oops! — without her glasses, she takes out the wrong one).
But it was two women at the far end of their 50s who ran the place this season. Red and Vee stalked the halls of the prison like caged tigers. Look at their hair! Vee’s Medusa-like mane and Red’s “Heat Miser” hairdo (as Suzanne aptly described it) told everyone in no uncertain terms, "Don’t fuck with me." These two knew how to use their power, how to grab it back when it started to falter, and how to play the rest of the inmates like little plastic pawns on a chessboard. Both are the “moms” of their Litchfield families, using food and carefully doled out words of love (twisted and psychotic as that love may be) to gain their children’s loyalty.
Remember Vee ordering up that confetti cake to lure in Taystee’s friends like so many kittens with a bowl of milk? And Red’s “family dinner” in the greenhouse to win back her girls? The season revolved around a turf war between these two, with everyone else a supporting player in their grab for whatever power can exist in a place with no real freedoms. And can we stop for a moment and pay tribute to Toussaint’s decision to play an entire (despicable, horrible) scene completely topless? The amazing thing is that both Toussaint and Mulgrew signed no-nudity contracts, but she chose to show her middle-aged boobs anyway.
As Red and Vee toggled back and forth over control of both the contraband and the hearts and minds of their fellow prisoners, another woman was quietly waiting in the background. Then, at the very last possible moment, Miss Rosa took the keys to the van, grabbed her freedom and, with a shockingly violent swerve of the wheel, brought this season’s power play to its fitting conclusion. It may have been Taystee and her crew who finally turned on Vee, stripping her of her den-mother status, but it took a bald, cancer-stricken kick-ass older woman to deal the final blow.