**SPOILERS BELOW. This post contains plot details for the show's first season (which, if you haven't seen yet, you really should get on that) and the first episode of season two.**
More after the jump.
The truth is, "Thirsty Bird" is an outlier episode so far in this season, and it's not one of the show's strongest either. That would be the season's second episode, "Looks Blue, Tastes Red," which delves into Taystee's (Danielle Brooks) backstory, introduces Lorraine Toussant's "big bad" of the season, Vee, and fills us in on what's been happening at the prison since season one's brutal cliffhanger. That last part is the most important: since "Thirsty Bird" gives us an all-Piper hour, "Looks Blue, Tastes Red" gives us a glimpse at what a Piper-less version of this show would be like. The result is that this show has spent so much time developing these characters, and has what is arguably the greatest cast on television portraying them, that the show could carry on once Piper's 18-month sentence comes to a close. Piper was a necessary character in season one, since she was our gateway into the world Litchfield prison, but now that we've become acquainted with the other inmates and the series has taken on a more ensemble structure, she's not as necessary as she was.
This isn't meant to be a knock on the character or Schilling, both of whom have shining moments in "Thirsty Bird." If nothing else, it means that Piper has assimilated into the general population and the show has recognized the strengths of its formidable cast. "Thirsty Bird," though, is all about Piper, and it's a standout episode for Schilling.
The episode opens with Piper in SHU (solitary), and we're not given a frame of reference for how long she's been there. She's escorted by guards in the middle of the night onto a bus, which then takes her and a number of other inmates to an airplane. Eventually, she learns that she's being taken to Chicago to testify against Kubra (Eyas Younis), the drug kingpin that she and her then-girlfirend Alex (Laura Prepon) worked for. And, as can be expected, Alex eventually screws her over, something that (as of episode 9) has not yet come back to haunt her.
There are two remarkable things about the way that Foster directs this episode. The first is how disorienting this first episode is, withholding information from the audience and placing us directly in Piper's headspace. The camera stays close to Piper at all times, rarely moving into a wide-angle shot or establishing shot. It helps that the majority of the episode - nearly the entire first half - takes place at night, with the darkness obscuring anything that would be recognizable. It's a terrific source of tension, especially considering the cliffhanger ending from season one. No matter when you finished watching season one, the show goes ahead and keeps you waiting to find out what happened even longer.
Similarly, by keeping the camera close to Piper at all times, it works counterintuitively to the episode's setting. Meaning, while the episode is technically "opening up" by removing Piper from the prison, but the camera keeps her isolated and sequestered from the rest of the world. It's a really smart creative move that visually represents her imprisonment even though she's technically given "freedom." It also makes moments such as her van ride with Alex:
Or her meeting with her lawyer - her fiancé's (Jason Biggs) dad (Todd Susman) - after the trial:
Feel much smaller, and it positions Piper as someone who's still incarcerated both literally and metaphorically. The latter shot is probably the most literal, to be sure, but the former is nicely subtle: the little bars on the windows, the positioning of Alex and Piper diagonally on the horizontal plane but directly opposite one another vertically. It positions the two of them in similar but different situations, while keeping both of them isolated from the world at-large.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about Piper's monologue on the plane. Piper is seated next to Lolly (Lori Petty), who's asked her the typical prison icebreaker: "what'd you do?" Piper, scared and confused, breaks down into a tear-stained monologue about how she felt attacking Pennsatucky (Tayrn Manning), talking about how she felt good doing it and how much that frightens her. It's a great moment for Schilling, who completely sells it and does some of her finest work yet in the role (this will no doubt be her Emmy submission next year).
But it's also a terrific feat of directing by Foster. The monologue takes place in one unbroken take, with the camera starting at Piper's left - placing it in Lolly's perspective:
Then slowly rotates 180 degrees, crossing Piper's face as she's launching into her speech and wrapping up with the camera now on her right side, so that we can see Lolly's reaction.
But it's more than that: by opening up, we in the audience are finally given entry into what happened with Pennsatucky, and the movement of the camera represents this shift in the scene. We move, with the camera, from Lolly's third-person perspective to Piper's first-person, and our understanding is realigned with the camera. It's a smart decision, and it makes an already-terrific moment that much more memorable. And it's moments like these that set Orange is the New Black apart as one of the greatest shows on television, even if it doesn't technically air on television.
**We'll talk more about the new season once I finish it.**