Slight spoilers ahead for the first four episodes of Season 3.
Previously on "OITNB": Baddie Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) terrorized the population for most of Season 2 before getting bumped off by an escaping Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) driving a stolen prison van. Though Vee was a terrific villain, I thought this dark turn kind of derailed what was best about the show — the focus on low-key, everyday personal dramas.
The first four episodes of the show include two flashback stories I’ve been eagerly awaiting: those of Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne). It also includes a somewhat less compelling military flashback for Bennett (Matt McGorry) and, in the first episode, a potpourri of stories as Litchfield hosts a Mother’s Day event under the more lenient leadership of Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow).
This season also takes on some bigger, topical issues. Early releases at the prison have ramped up under Caputo. I’m paraphrasing, but Nicky’s assessment of this process is "Yeah, extended sentences for minor drug-related infractions just ain’t what they used to be" — a comment reflected in the increasing scrutiny of incarceration for drug offenses and how counterproductive it can be.
Caputo is also dealing with the possibility of privatizing Litchfield as a way of saving the prison from being closed. As he gives a tour to executives eyeing the prison not as a collection of human beings but basically a pile of money, their comments are pointed: Why is Litchfield spending $1.70 per meal on inmates when the national average is $1.50? And is a ladies’ prison going to be more problematic? "The great thing about men," one exec actually says, "is they don’t have uteruses." Again, a great tie-in with what’s really going on: Prisons being run like corporations are bad news for inmates. Look out, Litchfield.
But don’t worry, it’s not all grim political commentary. The show’s also as much fun as ever, especially when it comes to the banter between Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore). Prison librarians Taystee and Poussey continue their running literary commentary, tossing out a fab Cedric Diggory reference and hosting a funeral for books burned in the great bedbug purge of Episode 2, which sees all of the inmates having to walk around in awful prison underwear or scratchy Wal-Mart paper gowns, while their mattresses and clothing are fumigated or incinerated. (I’m itching just thinking about it.) By the ashes of the books (all of them, except the Koran), Poussey eulogizes some of her (and my!) favorites: "’The BFG’; all the David Sedarises — or Sedari? ‘The Tale of Squirrel Nutkins’ [sic]; the Jonathans: Swift, Lethem, Tropper, Franzen, Livingston Seagull…." (Note: no women authors.)
In the absence of any real medical or mental health resources, some of the inmates have begun delving into paganism; Caputo lets them sit outside during the full moon to pass around a "blue energy ball." The mute Norma is making the most of her mysterious status by performing rites, while Gloria (Selenis Leyva) worries Poussey after she returns an egg containing Poussey’s "bad juju" to the morning’s omelet cache.
And some of the inmates are still dealing with the fallout from Vee’s departure — most notably Suzanne/Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), who seems poised to fall back into her season-one level of crazy as everyone around her talks with relish about Vee being dead. She and Taystee have a heartfelt moment of anguish about the loss, even if Taystee doesn’t share Suzanne’s delusion about Vee having been the good surrogate mother she passed herself off as.
It’s gratifying to finally see Lyonne get her own storyline, and also one of the hardest to watch, as it’s always mirrored her headline-grabbing earlier life in a way that no other "OITNB" actress’ has. Nicky’s shown to have been raised in an upper-class, Manhattan environment, with a somewhat oblivious mother who ultimately fails at preventing her daughter’s slide into addiction. In Litchfield, Nicky struggles to figure out what to do with the heroin cache she and Big Boo stumbled into. She knows she should get rid of it, but the addict in her can’t bear to see it go. Nicky’s always been one of my favorite characters, but she’s largely been relegated to getting in a few of the best zingers per episode. It’s good (and heartbreaking) to see her finally get the dramatic focus she’s earned.
As for Big Boo, we learn her painful past as well: learning to own her identity while having to stay away from her parents, who label her masculine identity a "costume."
Speaking of which, she also gets two of the best outfit moments in early Season 3: first, dressed up as a terrifying clown for the Mother’s Day event ("Jesus," says Pennsatucky [Taryn Manning], "you look like the angel of death") and then trying to pass as straight in order to fleece a Westboro Baptist-esque patron of Pennsatucky’s for cash.
These two inmates’ burgeoning friendship, by the way, is another interesting development this season. Their Mother’s Day conversation, during which Pennsatucky makes tiny graves for all of her aborted children, addresses the issue with Boo’s typical tact: "Maybe what was best for your children," she says, "was wiping ’em out before they had miserable fucking lives."
And then there are Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon), who’s back at Litchfield after being apprehended on a parole violation tipped off by — yep, Piper. They fight, and fuck, and fight, and fuck. I’m glad Prepon’s still on the show (she’s said she was not told to drop the lesbian role by Scientology, as previously reported), but except for their increasingly S&M-y sex, they’re definitely on the lower end of the compelling scale, relatively speaking.
A new character, played by Ruby Rose ("Around the Block"), is set to make a splash, though I have yet to spot her. She’ll reportedly come between Piper and Alex, so perhaps that’ll up their dramatic intrigue.
Overall, though, the show’s as great as ever. I won’t be binge-watching the rest when it’s all released tomorrow — I think it’s best taken in small doses — but I can’t wait to see what happens. Here’s hoping for at least one more Fig (Alysia Reiner) appearance.
On a final note: I have never simultaneously liked a show so much and found its opening credits song so irritating. I like the visual conceit — using the faces of real former prisoners — but Regina Spektor screeching "Yoooooou’ve got TIIIIIIIME" toward the end has me diving for the mute button every time (they’re not quite long enough to forward through). Am I alone in this?