On Introducing Vee into Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black poster for the character Vee.

Say hello to Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). Notice the dangerous headgear. Notice the deadly serious look in her eyes. Notice the nickname “queen” bestowed on her by the Orange is the New Black team.

Bringing Vee into the prison and into Orange is the New Black was a storytelling decision of brilliance from Jenji Kohan’s and the other writers on this Netflix Original Series.

It was such a juicy part – it gave Lorraine Toussaint a chance to move into Emmy Award territory. Why not give such a juicy part to one of the existing inmates? Someone we already think we know?

Vee and Red
Vee and Red

I have a few ideas about why an outsider, a newcomer, was important to season 2. Vee knew prison. She’d been there before. She knew Red, she knew the power Red used to wield from the kitchen. She knew how to turn prison culture to her advantage, just as she knew how to navigate life outside prison to her advantage.

A strength of season 1, a strength of the writing on this series, is the nuance. The layers revealed about each character in the storytelling, in the flashbacks. Because of that nuance, we thought we knew people.

But we didn’t know people in the way a master manipulator, a psychopathic user of human weakness like Vee knows them.

Vee is pleased with her minions
Vee is pleased with her minions

Vee knows how to spot someone who will be slavishly loyal in return for a glimmer of love, a glimmer of approval. She knows who will respond to family obligations. She knows who will go to the dark side out of a need for power or greed. She knows who will follow without question. She knows who can be tempted by the lure of a longed-for high. She knows who can be bought with bribery, with food, with small gifts.

Just watch Vee manipulate. She takes the sexy foster son she’s always lusted after to bed, then sends him out to be murdered. She comforts Tastee before her foster brother’s funeral by promising to protect her forever. Watch her work Tastee later in the prison when she realizes a piece of cake isn’t enough to win her over. Tastee wants an apology so Vee delivers. Watch her in the bathroom with Gloria where she uses tears to manipulate. Watch her deal with Black Cindy when Black Cindy uses cigarettes to get goodies for herself instead of profits for Vee. Watch her hit Poussey, both literally and figuratively, to keep her from influencing Tastee. Watch her promise friendship to Red and then lock sock her.

Lorraine Toussaint is brilliant in this part. I know I said that already, but damn, it’s worth repeating.

Vee goes into the prison and completely rewrites the culture in a few days. She recruits followers, sets tribes and factions against each other, breaks up friendships, and inflames hatred. She claims power with practiced ease.

She will never love you.
She will never love you.

Vee’s mayhem, Vee’s manipulations, pull back the curtain on all those characters we thought we knew. It gives us new insights. We see flaws, strengths, darkness, beauty in ways that we couldn’t in season 1 when everyone more or less got along. Vee disrupts, she brings an end to everyone just getting along, and personalities are laid bare in the process.

The women in Litchfield are criminals. They did bad things, stupid things, crazy things, violent things. But none of them are evil. Vee is evil. That’s another reason why Vee needed to be someone new to the cast. There was no evil-without-regret character already there.

Vee’s presence moves the story away from Piper. We still have Piper, of course, but her story doesn’t carry season 2 the way it did season 1. Season 2 is about power grabs, and Piper isn’t after power. Because Alex Vause will be back in season 3 in more episodes, Piper may come back into the forefront next season. Or maybe not. This story has taken on a life of its own. The actors, the characters, the chemistry between the actors, the fan response – all of it has carried Orange is the New Black bodily into places Piper Kerman’s original book never went.

So kudos to Jenji Kohan for writing Vee, kudos to Lorraine Toussaint for playing her with such brilliance, and kudos to everyone who got to go deeper and peel away more layers in response to Vee’s presence in the story. Brilliance all around.

A personal note: my nickname is Vee. It’s odd to write about a character named Vee.

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