While it isn't my favorite show currently airing, Orange Is the New Black is one of the few shows where I really enjoy most characters (not Larry). I don't like Vee but I find her captivating. Alex's hypocrisy and low-grade sociopathy drive me crazy but I think she is interesting. I despise Healey but he is an interesting and mostly unexplored type of villain (the angry, embittered Nice Guy). Honestly, one of the few characters I find completely annoying is Nicky (Larry doesn't deserve mentioning). Otherwise, I think it is a show with more interesting, entertaining characters per capita than anything else going.
What I don't understand is the hate Piper Chapman receives. I think she is genuinely one of the most interesting flawed protagonists on television (I don't love the overuse of the word antihero). Like Don Draper on Mad Men, Piper is a person living a seemingly normal family life on the surface, but who was hiding her true identity from those around her. Unlike Don, we first meet her just when it seems as though her secrets are pouring out of the closet. She once had a lesbian lover. She once carried a suitcase of money on a plane. But those secrets are easy to reconcile with the person in front of her family and fiance. A naive girl in her early twenties looking for adventure and taken advantage of by a cunning lesbian drug runner. When Piper explains how she left Alex to Larry she says she "ran away and became the nice blonde lady I was supposed to be". A red flag for the audience and anyone with an ounce of intelligence but luckily she was speaking with Larry, who didn't question whether he wants to be part of her "supposed to be" life.
As the series goes on, it becomes clear that those weren't Piper's secrets. These are Piper's secrets:
- Piper's secret is that she is a cunning manipulater who is almost a genius at seeing how any moment of weakness can be used to her advantage. A perfect example is her talking with CO Fischer the second Fischer shows weakness Piper pounces without missing a beat (and Taylor Schilling is really very good at showing the shift). Or her playing Caputo to get her transfer cancelled. But there are countless examples. And not only does she hide this but she also minimizes her fairly significant intelligence around Larry and her family.
- Piper's secret is that the money laundering was a one time mistake but not because she is a good girl who doesn't commit crimes. But because she is smart enough to live large off of drug money without implicating herself. The second time she is asked to do it, which was two years later, she is out. (Rightfully so, in my opinion, but she was certainly no naive waif two years in after traveling the world on drug money.)
- Piper's secret is that, although Alex is certainly manipulative and tries to control her, she had more power over her drug dealing ex than her ex could ever dream of having over her. Alex is gutted and destroyed every time Piper leaves her. Piper may love her as much but she always has Plan B formulating in her mind for when it ends (until all of her Plan Bs disappear and she needs Alex back). No matter how she tries there is no way to put all of the blame on Alex because 80% of the time Alex dances on her command.
- Piper's secret is that she has a reservoir of anger constantly churning inside of her. Even her anger at Polly and Larry when they visit her after becoming a couple is played up for effect. She is having fun with it. They don't see the woman who will hit a wall until she is bloody, she doesn't explode on them as she does with Healey, they don't get the deeply felt and almost frightening "I love you and I fucking hate you" that Alex gets, they don't see her come very close to murdering someone with her fists. Piper's anger is never dangerous or self-destructive around them. (And it is a good thing not to be dangerously angry with your loved ones but when you are managing it effectively not pushing it down until you have an excuse to explode.)
- And, although the show only scratches the surface and doesn't label it, Piper's secret is that she is queer (seemingly bi or pansexual but not labeled). Even when it comes out she allows her family to label her as a "used to be" lesbian. The implication being a one time lesbian fling. And she goes between being indignant at her sexuality not being acknowledged (putting Polly in her place about "turning gay", fury at Alex suggesting she could leave because she is straight) to distancing herself from it ("I'm not gay"). But Piper has been with several women (as revealed in a flashback with Polly), she seems to fantasize about her and Larry's yoga instructor next door neighbor (as revealed in a conversation with Red), and one of her two significant relationships was long-term with a woman. Her huge moment of lashing out at Healey was partially based on her bubbling anger at his bigotry. Her sexuality is a huge piece of herself, that can't be minimized to a fling no matter how you look at it, that she doesn't share with most of her loved ones.
What Piper is hiding from her family isn't a couple of mistakes in her youth just like Don Draper isn't just hiding that he is Dick Whitman and Walter White isn't really just hiding a meth business. It is a huge part of her inner landscape.
However, unlike a lot of fellow "antiheroes", Piper shows a lot of self-awareness and introspection although she isn't ever credited for it. Although it is the story she spun, Piper hates that Larry made it sound like her time with Alex was an adventure she was paying for now. Because that was her life. Her real life and it isn't his story to tell. She tells her mother that she is in prison because of her own choices and it isn't the fault of anyone else. And that makes her better than no one else there. She later tells her father that the person in the prison uniform is exactly who she is. She takes full credit for a prank on Pennsatucky that Alex started because she was involved. Almost every time someone tells her she is a bad person (Nicky, Suzanne, Soso, Boo, Larry, Alex have all done this) she absorbs it as a truth and doesn't argue, a trait both Larry and Alex are seen taking advantage of. (When Piper is angry with her Alex doesn't argue, she would never win, she flips it around and makes Piper the bad guy, which Piper immediately shuts down over.)
And, despite her flaws, she does care about being a good person even if deep down she knows (or believes) she isn't one. The effort matters, in my opinion. Piper is one of the few people who doesn't call Suzanne Crazy Eyes. She risks going to the SHU to save Pennsatucky, a person she despises, from Psych. At the same time, she hides everyone else's involvement in the plot that got her there. When she finds a cell phone and knows exactly who it belongs to she refuses to rat that person out to get something she wants, even though that person means nothing to her. She included stories and cartoons in her newsletter that she knew could get her in trouble to make Soso and Daya happy. She tries to make it up to Watson for her being thrown in SHU, even though it wasn't really Piper's fault she got in Caputo's face. Even though she knows better, she perjures herself on the stand because she thinks her love for and loyalty for Alex should win out.
It is true that she can be incredibly selfish, hardly an unusual or even bad quality in prison. It is true that she has a great deal of privilege (although most of the white inmates enjoy subtle and not so subtle privileges over the others and she is not the person from the most privileged background). She is full of flaws. And she has many positive attributes (for instance she is really quite hilarious). She is complex and Taylor Schilling doesn't seem afraid to make her unlikable sometimes. But I always think she is interesting.
Ultimately, I think Piper Chapman is one of the most complex and interesting female characters on television. The state of television being what it is, many of the other most complex and interesting female characters also happen to be on Orange Is The New Black (I, especially, think Taystee outpaces them all). But I don't think Piper gets the credit she deserves for being one of the more complex flawed protagonists on TV. I genuinely think she is more complex and played with more ability than Nancy Botwin, her most obvious forerunner (who is really more of an Alex than a Piper). I feel bad about it because the internet has told me I'm not supposed to but I really like Piper Chapman.