I was bowled over by the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black. The first centered on Piper Kerman’s story, as told in her memoir of the same name. The second broadened its scope but ultimately focused on an arc about a prison queen. Both seasons ended in violence, and both times I wondered how Jenji Kohan and the writers would up the ante the following season. Not to worry.
The third season of Orange is the New Black tweaks but maintains the show’s formula: linear chronology interspersed with character-specific flashbacks. Whereas previous flashbacks tended to show how individual characters ended up in prison, one character per episode, the new model isn’t as rigid. The flashbacks are shorter, some episodes feature scenes from many characters’ pasts, and they tend to be more about the forces/significant moments that shaped each character.
Season 3 is at once goofier and much more ambitious; there isn’t a single overarching plotline, but major themes include business, faith, motherhood, and community. All of these are doubled and sometimes tripled with complementary storylines, each echoing and bouncing off the other; villains abound, but few are as clear or as obvious as last season’s. It’s not perfect – like Season 2, some of the material is too on-the-nose, and the show is still vulnerable to criticism that it makes prison seem like a bad day at camp. If you can live with that (I’m happy to – this isn’t OZ), Season 3 is a brilliant juggling act that improves an already great show.
Orange is the New Black continues to insist that women make great protagonists, that sex and sexuality are important parts of our lives and should be talked about, that race matters, that people aren’t perfect but are still somehow redeemable. One (off-putting) surprise: on a show that frankly embraces non-mainstream considerations of sex, men who enjoy sniffing women’s panties are consistently and confidently declared perverts. There isn’t a single dissenting view on the subject.
Business. I’m not sure Piper Kerman, who remains a producer on the show, loved the direction her character took this season. It’s a complete departure from Kerman’s real story, not flattering. I’m torn about how well it works in terms of the character, but it’s a crowd-pleasing storyline that suggests how organized crime might evolve. The mirror to Piper’s story is the takeover of the prison by a for-profit management company. This villain is far larger and more sinister than anything the show has yet devised. (The finale features a wonderful-to-me Scotch tasting session hosted by an executive, complete with authentic Glencairn nosing glasses.)
Faith. On the surface, Orange is the New Black is pretty hostile to religion – faith traditions are often referenced cynically, or played for laughs. This season, many prisoners insist they are Jewish to get better-tasting kosher meals. A rabbi is brought in to decide who’s really Jewish. The wrap-up in the finale is one of the transcendent moments of the series – a surprising gut-punch in celebration of faith. The mirror story is about the mute Norma, who is “followed” (and eventually worshipped, hilariously, as a piece of toast) by a group looking for deeper meaning. The ancillary stories that branch from this would fill another series – one inmate is ostracized by the group and attempts suicide, we also see the backstories of several others, concerning their own faith journeys.
Motherhood. The primary story on this theme concerns one inmate’s pregnancy and delivery, and concern over who will care for the baby once it’s born. Beyond that, in the prison’s social ecosystem motherhood touches everyone, both literally and figuratively. Again, several offshoots are explored in remarkable depth – any other show would have called it a season, or an entire run.
Community. This is arguably a basket category, something most shows develop. For Orange is the New Black, it takes on added relevance because the prison is both a microcosm of society and something uniquely outside of it. On one hand, the purpose of prison is to ensure the safety and continuation of the larger community, and yet it is a social body in its own right. Roles are understood, boundaries are tested and transgressed throughout. The hidden message behind the “bad day at camp” complaint is that this show is strongly optimistic about the idea and ideal of Community.
No individual Season 3 episodes stand out, a very good thing after the director-driven highs and lows of the previous two. Instead, everything builds to a graceful, maybe glorious, even (dare I say) joyfully transcendent finale. We are aware of the position and circumstance of just about every member of the sprawling cast, particularly those not in the final scenes. This feat of narrative is immensely satisfying, and pays off with several neat twists before the final curtain – music and images perfectly matched to the stories being told. If the show were to end forever, this would be enough. At the same time, Kohan’s team clearly has more to tell. I can’t wait.