This is, as far as possible, a non-plot-spoilery, all-episode review of Season 3 of “Orange is the New Black.” Themes are explored and specific examples cited but not where foreknowledge of them might genuinely spoil any of the show’s many surprises.
In the accelerated world in which we live, traditions can be established pretty quickly, and this past weekend saw more than a few of us indulge in one of these newly minted annual rituals: the “Orange Is The New Black” binge. Only in its third season, the show is already a major hit for Netflix, a fixture for awards potential and end-of-year critics lists, and for me personally, an absolute must-watch, clear the calendar, order-in, sweatpants and t-shirt show for which my all-episode gluttony would be a source of shame had I not decided to elevate it to the more respectable status of “tradition.” To say that I expected nothing less than greatness would not be overstating it.
Thankfully (but also almost inevitably now, as though Jenji Kohan and her team simply couldn’t get it wrong) Season 3 of ‘OINTB‘ delivers. It is highly differentiated from season 2, particularly in having no overarching Big Bad to rival the amazing Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) who does not reappear here (we get a peek at Rosa, though!) as anything but a collective memory, or in Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren’s (Uzo Aduba) case, a fragile delusion whose reveal is itself a moment of surprise and gentle inversion. Instead the season operates on a less tightly framed structure, overall tracing the rocky transition of Litchfield from fully state-funded to privately run enterprise, but not necessarily allowing any one of the characters to dominate or to dictate the show’s trajectory. In any other series, that might be an issue, but then you remember what it is that made ‘OINTB’ great even before Vee came along: a total commitment to and investment in each member of its huge cast and an even-handedness in terms of parceling out the interest and the characterization that no ensemble TV show, not even “Game of Thrones” can rival.
So while this season may feel like it has less forward momentum than last season’s helter-skelter building of a villainess, actually each episode moves at that familiar brisk clip, for the most part giving us the backstory of a different character each time, while moving along all the various thematic strands so dexterously that it’s only when you stop to count that you realize that at any one time, ‘OINTB’ has seven flaming torches in the air, two in its hands and one balanced perfectly on its nose. It can do this because it is such a completely confident show–confident in the belief that given enough time with any one of its characters, we will come to love them, and then confident enough to give that character the time needed. It contributes to the sense of the show as a banquet, an expansive multi-course buffet that we can spend all day alternately gorging on and nibbling at, because as Regina Spektor wails in the opening credits, we’ve got ti-ii-ime.
And in the watching, or devouring, of the season several episodes at a time, overarching themes do unmistakably emerge. Most indelibly, there’s motherhood (which doesn’t sound that exciting, but it is, and THERE IS ALSO LOTS OF SEX), a subtext so prevalent as to affect nearly every single character, but in typically diverse and fascinating ways. In fact it’s overtly the subject of the first episode, (a little like in season 2’s self-contained initial episode, season 3’s opener has a slightly different structure to the others) which is set on Mother’s Day, and reintroduces us to all the characters, and Litchfield before-the-fall, in a general way. But here motherhood is also a state that can be assumed, as in a daintily funny but touching moment late on when Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is dismayed by the realization that in the Prison-Mom vacuum left by Vee, it’s a role she is suddenly finding herself cast in. More literally, Daya Diaz’ (Dascha Polanco) baby becomes the subject of a tug of love vs duty as Pornstache’s mother (Mary Steenburgen), erroneously believing her son to be the father, turns up with an earnest desire to adopt the child and raise it in wealth and privilege. And the legacy of the examples, good or bad, that our mothers set us haunts many, perhaps most, of the new character backstories we get, most impressively Boo’s (Lea DeLaria), which loads with melancholy the moment when “prettied up” and made over for a visit, she looks in the mirror and says, with a peculiar, unreadable expression on her face “I look like my mother.”
Flaca Gonzalez (Jackie Cruz) she of the eyeliner and teardrop tattoo, gets her own back story episode–probably one of the weaker ones, but even weaker episodes of ‘OINTB’ are better than everything else on TV–which then pays dividends in the motherhood stakes on two separate occasions afterwards. And Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Brook (Mikiko Glenn), Poussey (Samira Wiley), Piper (Taylor Schilling), Leann (Emma Myles), and Janae (Vicky Jeudy) all get moments with their moms that may be brief but are pivotal, often in flashback, while the clashing approaches to mothering displayed by Gloria (Selenis Leyva), Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Sophia (Laverne Cox), unsure as to her own role as a trans parent toward her son Michael, are causes of friction and fallout between the three. It is rare and thrilling to see motherhood, so often relegated to a formula especially in television comedies, explored so thoroughly, from so many different angles and with such an astonishing absence of judgement throughout.
Second only to motherhood as the overriding flavor in the thematic gumbo of ‘OINTB”s third season is the similarly unsexy territory of faith and religion (SERIOUSLY, THERE’S LOTS OF SEX TOO — OFTEN FAIRLY GRAPHIC HATE SEX). Not only does a kind of cult spring up around the unlikely figure of the mute, subservient Norma (Annie Golden), in the belief she can perform miracles, complete with exclamations of “Oh my Norma!” and worship of a piece of toast that bears her image by the devout, but the nature of fringe faiths, such as Amish practice, as well as Moonie cultdom come in for individual examination as part of two characters’ backstories. The desire to believe that all is not random and chaotic must be particularly strong in a closed system like a prison, but the Norma cult life cycle, how it gains and loses adherents, and how its rituals and rites evolve and are co-opted for certain agendas, is both hilarious and oddly poignant, with elements that brilliantly recall the shunning storyline in the Amish section, or the empty fraudulence of the Moonie guru.
Organized religion comes in for some analysis too, from the Koran, which is the only book to survive a bedbug cull because everyone is afraid to be caught burning it, to Janae’s brief backstory which involves her rejection of her father’s Muslim faith. But best of all, and most unexpected (‘OINTB”s strength is in managing to stay so consistently surprising yet so consistently true to its characters) is the subplot about Judaism that starts out as a gag, when a few of the inmates realize that the Kosher meal option offered is much better than the general swill they’re being served, and progresses from there, managing to be both highly irreverent and somehow deeply respectful. The show’s litheness in toggling between bawdy, broad humor and unexpected grace is never better exemplified than in this remarkably well-thought-through, ultimately very moving storyline.
Thirdly in “Themes ‘OINTB’ Takes On That Make It Sound Really Boring When It’s Actually Really Not,”: capital v labor (DID I MENTION SOME OF THE FAIRLY GRAPHIC HATE SEX IS GIRL-ON-GIRL?) With Litchfield being taken over by a multinational, who have their own agenda for the prison (cheap labor) and are represented by the archetypal nepotism hire Danny (a hilariously dead-eyed Mike Birbiglia), suddenly Caputo (Nick Sandow) is thrust into an awkward middleman situation. His newly de-unionized employees ask him to be their representative, to the point of breaking into a rousing rendition of the revolutionary song “Do you hear the people sing?” from “Les Miserables,” while Fig (a welcome return for Alysa Reiner) with whom he is engaged in some of the aforementioned hate sex, obviously encourages him to the path of self-interest. This is a plot that plays out on the other side of the bars too, as Piper becomes the unlikely mogul behind a budding criminal enterprise (brilliantly named “Felonious Spunk” if that’s not too much of a giveaway as to its nature) and suddenly finds she has to deal with her own version of a labor revolt, and has to negotiate her own leadership style such that she does not lose the respect of her “employees,” all of whom are themselves criminals and hardened women who, in the words of a fateful tattoo “Trust No Bitch.”
Character and Relationship Growth
That’s just part of Piper’s growth in this season, which is one of the most impressive arcs, as early on, faced with evidence of her manipulative nature which comes, naturally enough, from Red (Kate Mulgrew) who is so back, she essentially sheds the faux humility and passive aggression that made her such a frustrating character before. So she is just as self-centered and treacherous as ever, and has a new romantic interest in Stella (Ruby Rose) but now she that she’s no longer simpering behind a mask of innocence in the hopes that she can get her way and have people like her, we’re free to actually start liking her.
Along with her, the other characters to make the biggest inroads this season include Pennsatucky who will break your heart just when you least expect it (her backstory episode is particularly upsetting) along with Norma whose placid exterior masks a pretty colossal ego (oh, how she likes being a Messiah!) and most remarkably, Chang (Lori Tan Chinn). A character who was only ever on the fringes and whose overriding characteristic was a sort of invisibility, she gets one of the most fascinating flashback episodes, that also reveals her to possibly be the most oddly contented of Litchfield inmates. She’s as lonely as any of them, but loneliness appears to be her natural state and she is hilariously devious in her blithe self-sufficiency in every other regard (definitely curious to try out the recipe for those chip-and-pea-cakes she makes at one point). This episode is truly exemplary of “OINTB”s near-miraculous ability to gradually have each character recognized for the human being they are, by us the audience, but also by the other inmates, signaled by a great, small moment at the end between Piper and Chang in a bathroom.
And as ever ‘OINTB’ has some surprising combinations of new relationships springing up. Most touching probably is that between Boo and Pennsatucky which brings together two very marginalized characters in an unlikely but somehow totally believable duo, as well as the notes of romance between Red and Healy (Michael J Harney) which somehow persist despite Red’s ulterior motives and Healy’s fundamentally dinosaur attitudes. Piper and Alex (Laura Prepon) come spectacularly together but find, again with some insight, that they’re a couple whose fire can burn on hate much easier than on routine, while there’s a startling lack of romance elsewhere, with a tentative relationship between Pennsatucky and a new guard going dark very quickly, and Diaz and Bennett’s (Matt McGorry) storyline taking an abrupt turn early on.
Away from sex and romance, perhaps the newest adversarial relationship to emerge is between Gloria and Sophia. Sparked off when their sons become friends, the friction devolves into all-out antagonism that stirs up some very ugly transphobia on one side, and some inherent social snobbery on the other. This has the welcome effect of bringing Sophia back into center frame toward the end of the season–after being so pivotal to the success of the show’s inaugural run, it felt like she slid a bit into the background last time out. But here her storyline is problematized in dramatic, brave fashion, essentially teasing out a “women vs trans women” subtext that is as timely and provocative as it is distressing (like a narrative version of this NY Times Op-Ed).
But it’s not just in gender, feminism and trans issues that ‘OINTB”s audacity is made clear. Throughout, there are moments, sometimes whole sequences, sometimes throwaway lines that make you wince, or laugh and then feel like you shouldn’t have, because they sail so close to some sacred taboo. The Judaism subplot is one way that comes out a lot, as a tasteless joke about soap is enough to get a woman fired in the hypocritical corporate hierarchy, but Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore, on fire this season) can blithely assert that she’s only using slavery as an excuse until she converts to Judaism and can “blame everything on Hitler.” One of the more surprising backstories involves a star athlete losing a wrestling match to a kid with Downs Syndrome. And a dinner scene in which a child is forced to eat his dinner at gunpoint is one of those exact terrible/hilarious sequences, yet it’s partly funny because it has such stakes, and is so rich with unforeseen consequences.
Because in all the discussion of its themes and its politics, it’s easy to forget to mention that the show is really funny, perhaps more so than season 2 because of an overall lighter feel–the jokes are many, and most all of them land. Its trademark pop-culture savviness abounds too particularly in a terrific ongoing subplot about serialized erotic fiction, penned by Warren, of all people, that goes by the title “The Time Hump Chronicles” the small overheard snatches (ahem) of which make me really want to read it despite Taystee’s assertion that it’s “worse than ‘Fifty Shades‘” (Poussey’s response? “Not possible. How many times she use the word ‘Jeez’?”) Flaca worries about a change up in the kitchen crew–“What if she was mean or liked Coldplay or something?” At a “union meeting” Caputo refers to Wanda (Catherine Curtin) offhandedly as “Norma Rae”; Cindy surmises that the shady new corporate owners will put them to work “weaponizing smallpox or some shit”; and Piper’s brother Cal (Michael Chernus) get a brilliant bit about the “umami base notes” of certain, um, feminine fragrances.
There are a few elements that don’t quite work as efficiently as the rest: Bennett’s backstory as a soldier is surprisingly toothless, Lolly (Lori Petty) is a welcome face from the season 2 opener, but gets a frustratingly undynamic storyline, and sometimes there’s just so much going on that one strand can land a line, or a music cue, or a cut too heavily on the nose. And in general the season really only catches fire after a relatively slow first few episodes before the rhythm is fully established. But these are minute niggles in the face of what had to have been almost insurmountable expectations, set up by a season 2 that threatened to obliterate the show’s initial structure in favor of a more classic Big Bad model season-on-season. To their immense credit, Jenji Kohan and her writing and directorial team here have avoided the temptation to go back to that well, and instead have returned to the more modulated, broad-based approach that set the show apart to begin with.
A Return To Greatness, Or Maybe A Relapse?
In fact on a structural level, season 3 of ‘OINTB’ feels like a return to where the show truly belongs. More than most shows that are slaves to the constant forward-motion necessitated by their premises, ‘OINTB’ is literally about serving time, about staying forcibly in one spot, as unable to escape your own ingrained behavior patterns, learned attitudes and old addictions as you are to escape the walls. This is its greatest asset and also its potential greatest flaw–it differentiates ‘OINTB’ from every other show out there (no mystery to solve, no just endless new characters to dive deep into) but it also means it has to engage episode in, episode out, without resorting to the kind of cliffhangers and “tune in next time to find out!” tactics that a more linear show relies on. In that it flatters and is flattered by the Netflix all-episode model of which it is the poster child pioneer.
In fact, to stretch a point, perhaps it’s less a return to its initial format than a relapse, because “relapse” was, apart from motherhood, faith and corporate evil, the theme that most resonated with me throughout the 13 ½ hours of this weekend I spent greedily guzzling episode after episode. Nicky tries to remain in control of the impulse to fall back into addiction by being perversely reluctant to give up her untouched stash of drugs for sale, but finds herself falling into other repetitive patterns of betrayal and self-interest instead. Caputo and Fig, despite mutual loathing have a regular sex date that they hate themselves even more for keeping like clockwork. One of the characters finds occasion for her lack of self-worth to manifest itself again in a shattering scene in which she stumblingly excuses her rapist and takes the blame for the incident on herself–something we know she’s done before. Another substitutes booze for faith in an effort to escape her loneliness, while others retreat back into cycles of sex and cruelty and friendship and betrayal as though they were their own addictions. And no one ever, ever can fully shrug off their mother’s legacy, whether for better or worse.
With all these people and situations relapsing, recurring and circling back on themselves, the obvious thing for “Orange is the New Black” to do is to evolve into a triumph-over-adversity narrative, in which neuroses are defeated and personal demons slain. But perhaps the most original aspect of its approach is that season 3 teaches us, unfashionably, not only that all these ingrained and often destructive impulses are powerful and tempting, they’re undefeatable. Relapse is inevitable–waiting around some corner in future will be temptation too great to deny or a cycle too ironically perfect not to find yourself trapped in again. Success in ‘OINTB’ is only ever the top of a wheel that’s constantly in motion, so your worth is not measured in how well you conquer your weaknesses but in how, having fallen inevitably victim to them once again, you pick yourself up, and get back on the ride. There’s no reward except survival, and the slim hope that this go-round’s wisdom might allow you to hang on to that top rung for just a little while longer next time. And there’s no respite, except for the desperately necessary jokes, and the very occasional miracle, like a sudden gap in the fence that leads to a lakeside beach on a sunny day where for a few moments you are, as Alex puts it, a different “version of you,” a version not doomed to constantly repeat your old mistakes–a version who is free.
“Orange is the New Black” Season 3 overall grade: [A-]