When it comes to quintessential character metamorphosis, Breaking Bad’s Walter White has been the TV blueprint of this decade. Once a domestic, high school chemistry teacher, White transforms into crystal meth genius “Heisenberg,” with exceptional everyman actor Bryan Cranston keeping “W.W” frighteningly ruthless and unpredictable. As Vince Gilligan’s creation enters into TV legend with these last few Breaking Bad episodes, Heisenberg may have a female counterpart in the making: Piper Chapman, the lead character in Netflix’s tantalizing Orange is the New Black.
Like Walter, Piper starts out with a relatively conventional family life. Coming up on 30, the kooky yuppie (played by Taylor Schilling, Mendez’ wife in Argo) lives in Manhattan with fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), doing typical middle-class stuff like flaunting juice diets and helping her friend launch a boutique line of soaps. But her past is about to interrupt her future in the form of a 14-month prison sentence for having carried drugs as a dreamy, fiery renegade a decade earlier, globetrotting and getting rich with lesbian lover / heroin runner Alex (Laura Prepon).
Orange is the New Black is a very sharp, very female-focused show (as it should be, from creator Jenji Kohan) which covers an awful lot of ground in each 50-60 minute episode, often staying light on the surface, and going deep to construct the roles of its cast of inmates. Kohan and writers deftly move the show back and forth between Chapman’s attempts to integrate into prison society and Larry’s wimpy steps to do the same “on the outside.”
Larry’s world is generally shallow, unsympathetic, snootily intellectual. Piper’s is filled with painfully tragic characters, women who made mistakes dealing with far more vital decisions than which vase to buy at Crate and Barrel.
Anyone who’s seen the entire first season of Orange — they’re all available on Netflix and, yes, there will be a Season 2 — knows that Piper Chapman evolves from shrinking, hesitant “dandelion” (as character Crazy Eyes calls her) to an occasional hot ball of rage and potential violence. The microcosm of this gradual move shows up in Episode 9 (entitled “Fucksgiving”), in which Chapman is placed in solitary confinement. When she’s addressed by the officer responsible, rather than play on his kindness to get released, she spews a line of humiliating hatred that reveals a bit more of Piper than maybe even she knew existed.
Orange Is the New Black never has the intensity of Breaking Bad, nor does it need to. But the plotlines for both shows challenge the core fears and life structures of their lead characters — bringing out the evil in both. Do Walter and Piper have it already simmering in them, like dormant nerve endings waiting for a stimulus? Are their actions solely motivated by survival? (I personally think Walter’s idea of “survival” continued to redefine itself, his psyche playing out an unforgivable version of King of the Jungle.) As Walter and Piper become Heisenberg and Chapman, we are left to decipher their intriguing decisions — including those that involve affairs of the heart when it comes to the latter.
Of course, in comparing the characters, we’re in two very different timelines. As Walter prepares to ride off into the Albuquerque sunset (or not), Chapman’s angry tendencies are in their nascent state after just one season. And, who knows, the imprisoned character’s sense of evil may never be realized to the extent of our black-hatted drug-cooking anti-hero. But deep beneath Kohan’s themes of freedom, race and gender, there’s a seemingly flighty blond (great job by Schilling) ready to explode. Maybe.