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The first episode of the season finds Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) being toted around from one mysterious place to another after spending a month in solitary for bashing in the face of another inmate in last season's finale. Finally she ends up in Chicago at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (always fun to see B-roll of our fair city) where she learns that she'll be testifying against the leader of the drug ring that put her behind bars in the first place. She runs into her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), she ignores legal advice from her ex-fiance's father (Todd Sussman), and deals with some personal turmoil along the way, but it's a testament to the show that this is the only episode in the first six that I watched that focuses solely on Piper. In fact, she doesn't appear in the second episode at all.
The strength of the show is the richness of the ensemble, and now that we've spent a season familiarizing ourselves with how these women operate within the prison's walls, it's all the more rewarding to glimpse their lives on the outside before they were locked up. Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) has entrepreneurial talent that she used to aid a drug ring leader in a moment of desperation. Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) was in an abusive relationship and committed fraud to raise enough to money to move her and her children out of harm's way. In my favorite revelation thus far, we learn lovesick sweetheart Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) was actually a psychotic stalker—but still the sweetest psychotic stalker you'd ever hope to meet. The show has a way of making viewers feel sympathetic toward each character while still exposing their dark sides, which seems to be creator Jenji Kohan's signature; Weeds framed its characters in a similar way.
As intriguing as each character's story may be, this season falters when it focuses too much on the show's gooey center; there are moments when it feels like a bunch of women were forced to attend camp together more than it feels like they're doing hard time together. The way the Chicago prison is represented seems more like what inmates are actually dealing with; upon returning to Litchfiled, Piper remarks that it feels like a spa compared to where she's been. There are some truly funny and sentimental moments that maintain a sort of dark edge, but there are certain Kumbaya moments that are a little too warm and fuzzy for a show that's also attempting to highlight serious issues within our country's prison system.
Overall, though, I'm glad these ladies are back, and I can't wait to take my time through the second half of this season to see where they go from here.