“I wish I had some sob story that would explain everything. Well, sorry to disappoint you, sugar, ain’t no dramatic origin story here. Just a big old dyke who refuses to apologize for it.”
This line comes in a flashback courtesy of Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), the brashly satirical Litchfield Penitentiary inmate of “Orange Is the New Black,” after she and her potential hook-up endure an ugly confrontation with a group of homophobic teens. DeLaria infuses the proclamation with painful honesty, reflecting the sensibilities and personality of her character right down to the bone. But there’s also a playfulness to the choice of words.
Considering that Boo is explaining herself here in such an “origin story,” the “Orange” writers fashion this quip as a simultaneous affirmation and parody of the series’ trademark flashback structure. There’s nothing dramatic or outrageous to know, and yet, out of this Season 3 episode — aptly titled “The Finger in the Dyke” — comes a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of who Boo is.
The construction of “Orange Is the New Black” Season 3 boldly embraces disorder; the new run of episodes, unlike preceding seasons, lacks a structural center in the form of an actual character. With Piper (Taylor Schilling) no longer acting as our introduction to the world, and without a seasonal villain coming in to create chaos, creator Jenji Kohan and her writers have whittled their show down to its purest form. Essentially, the season mines poignancy, humor and tension out of a collection of relatively small-scale character arcs.
When “Orange” burst onto the scene, its flashback structure felt both invigorating and fresh. Its purpose for the audience was made immediately clear: Viewers were to identify with a group of prisoners on an individual basis, and come away with a uniquely specific and complex perspective in the case of each. This method has consistently allowed for a meticulous deconstruction of the many stereotypes “Orange” has teetered around, and one could reasonably call it the show’s core. But even so, there remains an inherent danger to this kind of structural gambit. There’s the threat of it turning into a gimmick, not to mention the need to maintain its relevance.
The neat trick of “Orange’s” third season is that, since it relies so intently on character-driven stories of a smaller and more intimate scale, these flashbacks have emerged as more vital than ever to the show’s success. They inform the structural foundation of episodes to a more substantial degree — most directly evidenced in “Mother’s Day,” the season premiere which frames holiday activities around brief snippets of various characters’ past interactions with their mothers — and are integrated more fluidly into seasonal arcs and storylines.
Understanding an Unlikely Friendship
In Boo’s featured episode, it’s revealed that she grew up in a stable home with loving, but conservative, parents. Out of her mother’s casual dismissal of her fashion choices and sexual preferences developed the defiant personality that has more or less defined her role within the show.
An earlier installment introduces the unlikely friendship between Boo and Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), the hick-ish inmate with homophobic and racist tendencies. Initially, it’s a jarringly unconventional pairing, offset by the obvious chemistry and radiating sweetness between them. Their connection is as strong as it is inexplicable.
“Orange Is the New Black” welcomes complexity and messiness, and is at its best when it neglects to dole out easy answers. “Finger in the Dyke” provides no precise indicators for Boo’s budding fondness for Pennsatucky — like in life, there aren’t many dots to be connected. And yet our new perspective of Boo textures and deepens their relationship even still.
In briefly experiencing Boo’s history and coming to understand her emotional volatility, that idea of something shared seeps to the surface. You could point to her and Pennsatucky’s similar roles as outcasts, or their constantly being misunderstood, or their certain disagreeable behavioral attributes — even without the specific details, it starts to make sense.
More than ever in Season 3, characters from vastly different walks of life find themselves interacting, challenged by one another as often as they are finding common ground. Through this approach, Kohan is free to dissect topics such as sexuality, gender and race from a variety of angles. And Boo and Pennsatucky, given their seasonal arc, make for a fascinating example.
Pennsatucky’s backstory is further explored in Episode 10; just after we learn she was raped by a local acquaintance some years earlier, one of the prison’s new guards assaults her in present-day. Both scenes are equally horrifying, with Pennsatucky keeping silent on the matter until Boo figures it out in the subsequent episode.
What follows is rooted in our established understandings of these two women. Boo wants to return the favor, literally, while Pennsatucky expresses intense reluctance. And though they almost go through with a reverse-rape, Pennsatucky ultimately decides, to borrow the cliché, that two wrongs don’t always make a right.
Pennsatucky and Boo operate with very different conceptions of morality and justice — to the extent that Pennsatucky deems Boo’s version irreconcilable — yet both are valid in their proposed solutions. They respect each other’s responses to the assault, and even draw strength from them. As that opening quote demonstrates, we know Boo’s attitude towards her marginalized gender and sexuality: Anyone who takes advantage of her on those bases should, in her view, know what’s coming. Eight episodes later, that core sense of integrity explains the tears she sheds, the obscenities she hurls and the violence she promises in her new friend’s honor.
The most prominent theme of Season 3 considers faith. As Litchfield is taken over by a private corporation to stay alive, the incarcerated women’s right to free will and expectation of respect is gradually stripped — Kohan dichotomizes the prisoners’ humanity with the game of cost-cutting practiced by their corporate overlords. An air of desperation clouds the show’s proceedings, with some inmates obsessively invested in Suzanne’s (Uzo Aduba) erotic serial, and others gravitating towards the mysterious religious cult forming under Norma (Annie Golden), the mute kitchen worker.
Contending with something as all-encompassing as faith is difficult in any artistic medium, and Kohan rightly takes a mosaic-like approach. She observes how it functions in its many facets, on an individual and collective level, in the newly-privatized Litchfield. She succeeds in doing so because of the show’s distinct approach to characterization.
For many in “Orange,” faith presents an opportunity for a second chance. Take Norma, whose history is unveiled in “Tongue-Tied,” the season’s seventh episode: She wasted her entire life by haplessly following a fraud of a religious cult leader. Yet despite her struggling with the notion of a life-not-lived, religion — or rather, the mystique of the leader-follower dynamic — is what she knows. It’s embedded in her worldview. Thus, when Norma’s innocuous performing of “religious” traditions begins to take on the hue of miracles — due mainly to the deepening hopelessness of Litchfield and its inhabitants — its effect on her is palpable. The order as she knows it is essentially inverted; even if twisted and unfortunately misguided, the potential of being a faith healer in Litchfield is, for Norma, irresistibly redemptive.
The way “Orange” lays out this emotional journey is crucial. Through Norma’s seasonal arc, the show depicts the confluence of faith and redemption in a fashion that speaks to its more substantial thematic interests. This layered understanding of Norma also allows the formation of her group to function with added intrigue. The cult gets increasingly desperate and disparate, but our peering into the past prevents Norma from being perceived as an opportunist or outright villain in the present.
Smaller Stories Contribute to the Bigger Picture
Our perception of Leanne (Emma Myles), the laundry-room worker who begins to obsessively control the Norma group’s incomprehensible rituals, undergoes a similar transformation. In one of the season’s more surprising flashbacks, we learn Leanne grew up Amish — and more specifically, that after a rebellious teen period (that ultimately came back to bite her) she realized it was a way of life she could happily call her own. Leanne projects her romanticized vision of an unusual faith-driven lifestyle onto the Norma cult, and in the process inadvertently dismantles it. But a tragic backstory imbues her with depth and sympathy. Both she and Norma are just as deluded and blinded — or, more optimistically, perhaps kept just as hopeful — by faith as the rest.
Even with characters less central to Season 3, glimpses of their past lives are paramount to examining their developments. Referring back to the idea of redemption, Black Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) turn to Judaism is initially played for broad laughs — when the new prison handlers replace made-to-order food with bagged, inedible meals, she’s determined to have access to the comparatively-better Kosher option — before a startlingly poignant admission of faith.
It’s a cathartic moment for the character, mainly because she found something: Her featured episode from Season 2 cast her in a (pre-prison) light of general irritability and irresponsibility, while a scene of her childhood in the Season 3 finale indicates that her family life was defined by a suffocating adherence to Christian traditions. Her conversion to Judaism plays as one of the season’s most profound scenes, and it’s achieved principally because of our ability to realize its utter significance.
Every Story Matters
Whereas its first two seasons orbited around new inmates (Piper, Vee), “Orange Is the New Black” reorients around universal concepts in Season 3. The result is a stretch of episodes with lower stakes — both previous seasons come down to life-and-death showdowns between two characters — but greater resonance. From Pennsatucky and Boo to Norma and Cindy, right down to other featured characters this season including Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez), “Orange’s” deep cast dominates the spotlight to a degree that clarifies the series’ consummate investment in the diversity and beauty of womanhood. The stunning sequence that closes out the season passionately reaffirms that very point.
The season’s sixth episode “Ching Chong Chang” centers on the series’ most illusive character. For two-and-a-half seasons, Chang (Lori Tan Chinn) was a transparent fixture in the “Orange” universe, often lurking in the background of pivotal moments, with a tendency to wander into the most awkward of encounters. But no one knew a thing about her.
In “Ching Chong Chang,” it’s discovered that she may have the most extraordinary story of all. Litchfield’s invisible, ghostlike inmate keeps a densely fascinating history close to her vest. And while no one within the show’s physical confines may ever know it, she’s not the only one to carry such secrets. As “Orange Is the New Black” reminds again and again, everyone has a story, and each of those stories deserves to be heard.
Season 3 might be Kohan’s definite expression of that idea, as the distinct backgrounds of each ensemble member come to overwhelmingly dictate the series’ direction. But at a minimum, it’s an embodiment of her initial conceit: There might not be a “dramatic origin story” to tell every time, but there’s always more than meets the eye.