Orange is the New Black is the New Breaking Bad

By  · Published on July 6th, 2015

Piper has always been the least interesting character on Orange is the New Black – an annoyingly privileged, arguably necessary Trojan Horse who created a strong center to the show only through the acting talent and watchability of Taylor Schilling — but her personality has fundamentally shifted in the third season for the better.

She’s quickly becoming Walter White.

Jenji Kohan and the show’s other writers clearly recognize this (they even added a swift jab evoking Heisenberg’s name when mocking Piper’s wonky new prison tattoo). They’ve also set her on a path toward kingpin status where her insecurities and the stone cold look of murder in her eyes do battle every episode. Where White was once a downtrodden door mat, Piper is a WASP stripped of her status and juice cleanses. Where White had an emerging talent for making pristine drugs, Piper has an emerging talent for running a used panties cartel with stolen fabric. Where White struggled against established players and others hungry for his cash, Piper struggles against established players and others hungry for her cash.

It’s not just the surface level similarities of their path from room temperature milk to rock-less slug of whiskey, either. Orange is the New Black has proven this season that it’s more interested in small details proving to be vital to the slippery power puzzle within the walls of Litchfield Correctional Facility. The most obvious example is when Piper discovers a scattered treasure trove of contraband while hunting for a cell phone. The montage plays out with a comedic vibe (it’s also not like you can have her find a cell phone that simply), and it’s easily forgotten, but it comes into play with gusto when Piper has to take someone down to prove her power. Consider it a reverse version of the missing sliver of porcelain that Walter White finds in Breaking Bad’s opening plot line.

Plus, Piper isn’t the only one gunning for power. Everyone is. Just as Breaking Bad spiraled out to show us the selfish machinations of all manner of secondary characters, Orange is the New Black cut to that chase quickly, proving that Piper was a single snowflake in an avalanche. No one is happy with their station in life, and almost all of them have convoluted plans to improve their standing, aided consistently by happenstance or a chance encounter with someone else’s quest for greater power. Small opportunities (the discovery of a sack of oranges by a hole in the fence, a ride share for a troubled son, a duct taped baggie of drugs) have the potential for greater dramatic punch, to destroy someone’s life, or to put a new lioness on top of the mountain.

One character’s depression comes into contact with another person’s desperate need to take down a colleague, and we’re off to the races.

I’d also argue that the blend of frustration, anger, sadness, joy, surprise and absurd comedy make Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black close siblings. Breaking Bad had a hell of a way of utilizing Bryan Cranston’s Oh Shit Slapstick to its fullest potential, but Orange is the New Black tends to spread that type of humor around.

Its cast is capable of an intense range of emotions, and it’s a necessary survival tool in both the deadly drug game and the constricting prison to find something to laugh at in the darkness. For one show, it’s a dude’s decapitated head on the back of a turtle. For the other, it’s messenger roaches and a hooch-stealing squirrel. Both series are deeply human and strive (or strove) to uncover the person living and breathing beneath the criminal acts. Both are heart-breaking, gut-busting and deeply satisfying in very similar ways.

Don’t get me wrong. Orange is the New Black is maybe at 1/30th the level of labyrinthine detail that Vince Gilligan and Walter White relished, but you can tell what the former’s aspirations are. Misdirection (in the case of an inmate who thinks someone is coming to kill her) and nuance (like a stray pack of pills) are bigger now. As is the impressive culmination of several storylines and character needs which delivered a fantastic season finale. It also gave us a window into season four and solidified the long game they’re playing with Piper’s central(ish) story.

The oranges, the broken fence, the labor dispute, and one character’s need for a natural water source to submerge naked in all clang together with the kind of harmonious serendipity reserved for slapping your forehead and yelling, “That’s where they were going with all this!” It’s a feeling I haven’t felt on the same scale since the grand plan reveals of Breaking Bad.

Both shows weave threads together to make something special, and while it doesn’t have fans obsessing over what color schemes and non-hints might hint at, Orange is the New Black is the closest thing to Breaking Bad playing right now.

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