When Morello took advantage of her job as a driver to get off camp and to break into the home of Christopher and his real fiancee, we got the most terrifying image of the second season. Alone in the deserted house, Morello donned the other woman’s veil and sunk into a bubble bath. It was a perfect and quiet illustration of Morello’s fierce attachments to the symbols that she has identified as the credentials of successful womanhood, and the wildly inappropriate ways she tries to claim them for her own.
What makes “Orange Is The New Black” a special show, though, one that embraces an expansive, unpredictable feminism, is that this deeply unsettling incident is not an excuse for the show to bash romance and sentimentality. One of the things that distinguished the drama in its second season was the way it fleshed out the characters’ feelings about love and relationships, which range from Morello’s deluded addiction to the cultural significance of romance to drug dealer Vee’s (Lorraine Touissant) almost sociopathic detachment.
Morello is not the only romantic in “Orange Is The New Black.” This season, we also got a look at the history of Poussey Washington (a riveting Samira Wiley). We knew from a brief reference in the first season that her father was in the military. This year, we learned that Poussey had her heart broken after a German general broke up Poussey’s adolescent romance with the man’s daughter.
There is a sort of stupid honor in the passion of Poussey’s attachments, whether her father is stopping her from brandishing a gun at the general, or Poussey is standing up to Vee’s gang for breaking up Poussey’s friendship with Taystee (Danielle Brooks). Where Morello is willing to commit violence to preserve her illusion of a relationship, Poussey is willing to take trouble onto her own shoulders to defend other people’s rights to love or be friends with whomever they choose.
Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco) began “Orange Is The New Black” as an optimistic romantic, someone who believed she could pull off a relationship with and even a pregnancy by a quiet guard, John Bennett (Matt McGorry). But the realities of trying to arrange for the baby’s care during Daya’s sentence and the challenges of trying to preserve Bennett’s job have worn Daya down and frayed their relationship.
Prison is already a harsh response to Daya’s first, modest romance: She got involved with her mother’s boyfriend, who runs a drug mill in their apartment, probably to anger her mother. That Daya hoped for a happy ending may have been exceptionally naive, but it is sad to watch her thicken around the middle while she wilts everywhere else, her once-exuberant and happy voice gone flat.
In the free world, as in prison, romanticized ideals do a great deal of damage. Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), Piper’s former fiance, plunges from one relationship believing that true love can survive all externalities into another one. When the huband of Polly (Maria Dizzia), Piper’s best friend, takes off for a trip shortly after the birth of the couple’s first child, Larry steps up as a surrogate father to the infant and begins an affair with her.
There is something breathtaking about the new couple’s arrogance when they break the news to Polly’s husband and to Piper. But as free, wealthy white people, they embrace the luxury of chasing their hearts and romantic ideals without regard to the damage they do to others.
Other characters are more pragmatic, whether by nature or by dint of circumstance. When she was free, former prison cook Red (Kate Mulgrew) and her husband were more of an economic partnership than a love match. Now imprisoned, she values her sons for how they can help with her black market businesses. Red’s relationships with the women who make up her prison family are more deeply rooted in affection, but they are also inextricable from the power they give her in Litchfield.
Not all of these less-sentimental approaches are about power. Sometimes a little pragmatism can kick-start deeper feelings, an approach that best friends Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) take on Valentine’s Day.
The two women offer up a hilarious definition of love when Piper surveys them. “It’s like getting into a bath but the water is like warm, chocolate pudding. And the Smiths are playing ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.’ There’s mood lighting all over, and there’s like five dudes massaging you,” Flaca explains. “And you have a pizza,” Maritza chimes in. “She’s right. You also have a pizza,” Flaca agrees.
But however silly that ideal is, they are lonely. Surrounded by women who are lesbians, or at least sexually flexible enough to accept physical affection and companionship from other women even though they usually date men, Flaca and Maritza decide to give it a go. Their stolen kiss in the kitchen is tender, even if it results first in giggles and then in sadness. There is something genuinely touching about these women coming up against the limits of their friendship and resigning themselves to yearning for the duration of their incarceration.
Other women use romantic gestures to manage their more pragmatic fears. Miss Rosa, an older inmate with terminal cancer played in the present day by Barbara Rosenblat and in flashbacks by Stephanie Andujar, is a former bank robber. With her former partners, Rosa developed a ritual that was swooningly sentimental to the point of self-indulgence: a kiss right before a job and a kiss right after.
After her doctor discontinues her chemotherapy, Rosa makes a break from prison to die on her own terms. But Rosa does not have a partner. That lack of a kiss or a promise of one to come is a kind of confrontation with the reality Rosa always pushed from her mind. This is one wild adventure from which she does not plan to return.
Even the tumultuous relationship between Piper and her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) is pulled between these poles. Their romance began as one of those grand, life-changing adventures that Morello fantasizes about — at least for Piper, for whom dating a woman challenged her self-conception.
But their love always involved a certain amount of self-deception: Piper enjoyed Alex’s money without reckoning with the consequences of her drug-dealing, and Alex held the seriousness of her involvement from Piper. Alex eventually made the relationship instrumental by asking Piper to carry drug money.
Now, the magnitude of their affection for each other is tangled up in the strategic considerations that they need to survive in prison. Piper begins the season lying in court to save Alex from retaliation, while Alex tells the truth hoping to put away the drug kingpin who used to employ her. At the end of the season, Piper manipulates to have Alex reincarcerated, a move that is motivated by her mixed-up fears for Alex’s safety in the free world, her desire to hurt Larry by reigniting her affair with Alex and her remaining genuine feelings for her former great love.
If there is anyone with a healthy-seeming relationship with love, it is Piper’s brother Cal (Michael Chernus), who is involved with a woman who shares a lot of his passions and interests, and who, in a move that would horrify Morello, turned his grandmother’s funeral into an impromptu wedding. Cal enjoys being in love rather than fretting over it, and he has the good sense not to freight his engagement and marriage with the weight of all of his problems.
A great many things divide the inmates, guards and inmates’ families in “Orange Is The New Black” — race, class, gender and gender identity being only the most obvious. But the second season seems to suggest that all the characters have in common the experience of falling in love and the tumult that follows it. Lorna Morello may think that falling in love would solve all her problems. For her and everyone else, that is actually where the trouble starts.