Evolving Narrative & Orange is the New Black

Recently, I actually managed to binge-watch season two of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black with my girlfriend. I emphasize being able to do this because I have realized that as someone who tries to read, play, and watch as much content as possible, it is hard finding time to actually devote a lot of attention to one thing for long periods.

I do not intend to give a formal review of the season — that being a more daunting task than I feel up to right now — so I’ll first say that the show is excellent, and I recommend it to anybody with an interest in good drama and strong female characters.

What I noticed this season that set it apart from season one was how it treated its protagonist Piper Chapman: the every-woman character whose life is turned upside down by a prison sentence brought on by a past crime caught up with her. While the first season dealt heavily with her transition into prison life and the fallout with all that came with that, her role in season two was different. Although her own plotlines and changes in her life were still a narrative concern, I would not say that her story was ultimately what season two was about.

The primary antagonist of the season, around whom the most compelling conflict was focused, was Yvonne “Vee” Parker, whose machinations affected the daily lives of many of the inmates, but never really Chapman. This is what I found particularly interesting about this season — that the protagonist was almost completely disassociated with what was clearly the core narrative.

I have heard that the creators of the show intended to use Chapman’s story as a kind of Trojan horse to allow them to make a show that focuses just as much attention, if not more, on minority female characters. Not only do I think they have pulled this off quite effectively with the series — especially this season — but I particularly like how they went about executing it.

They did not simply shuffle Chapman and her story to the side, since they still gave a lot of focus on her through the prison administration corruption storyline, but rather they evolved her narrative into the outer frame of the whole show, creating what appears to me to be a subtle frame narrative.

For those who do not know, frame narrative is simply the presence of a story within another story. Famous examples in literature include Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

While I do acknowledge the show also has plenty of subplots within that involve supporting characters as well, I feel the narrative has evolved into a frame narrative based on the importance of the separate plotlines involving Chapman and Vee. While one involves the series protagonist and the other does not, that does not establish one as more important than the other in the presentation of season two’s story. Instead we’ve got the story operating in a way just as the creator’s supposedly intended — Chapman’s continued incarceration and related storyline anchors the narrative to Litchfield Penitentiary, creating a frame through which the audience continues to follow the plotline surrounding Vee.

In this way the show continues to be very refreshing to me by presenting narrative in a very unique way, especially in how they have managed to create a frame that is almost invisible. Some may find the experience a little jarring, since we are used to our protagonists being engaged with large conflicts in some way, but I personally did not find the experience lacking in narrative payoff and satisfaction, leaving me all the more eager for season three.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s