Orange is the New Black Season 3 Review: Here For The Long Haul

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Season 3 of Netflix’s beautifully acerbic prison dramedy is a slow burn, but its extremely effective in its buildup.

Please be advised that this post contains minor spoilers from the third season of Orange is the New Black.

Orange is the New Black is a series that cares about how everyone is feeling. No one is ever just one thing, and this show makes a point to examine just what it is that makes its characters tick. Many of the inmates at Litchfield—and the guards as well—act out as a result of previous circumstances, and the series’ signature use of flashbacks does well to enlighten us on the mistakes these people have made, and the hardships they’ve endured.

Season 3 sees Taryn Manning’s Pennsatucky move far beyond her original manifestation of religious fanaticism and into something much more layered and complex. Conversely,  an episode focusing on Emma Myles’ Leanne proves that she’s a devout woman of God instead of just a ditzy drug addict. Even Mike Birbiglia’s slimy corporate manager is humanized in his interactions with his even slimier father. This sense of empathy is the show’s strongest asset, making it endlessly watchable, even as the season moves at a slower pace than last year’s entry.

Yes, season 3 lacks the frenetic energy that Vee’s villainy brought to season 2. Things start off lighter, with an episode centered around Mother’s Day. The premiere serves as an excellent way to catch up with each of the inmates, and the motherhood narrative allows for an authentic depiction of just how hard imprisonment can be on families. Orange maybe be working at a more leisurely pace this time around, but its never boring, perhaps because of how concerned it is with the triviality of life behind bars. Everything is simultaneously a big deal and nothing to worry about.

It’s around episode 6, however, that things really pick up. A new villain rears its ugly head, and though it might not seem as menacing as Vee, its impact could be ten times worse. The privatization of Litchfield by a large corporation sets off a tectonic shift that reverberates through every aspect of this prison society. Everything from the books in the library to the food in the kitchen is affected, making for some interesting new character interactions.

One of the best is the feud between Laverne Cox’s Sophia and Selenis Leyva’s Gloria as they butt heads on how best to parent their children. This is easily the meatiest plotline Cox has been given yet, and she truly shines, especially in darker moments towards the end of the season. Meanwhile, the tense mother-daughter relationship between Dascha Polanco’s Daya and Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Aleida is pushed to its breaking point, and Kate Mulgrew’s fabulous Red finds new ways to work the system in her favor.

I suppose I should also take a moment to talk about Piper. Taylor Schilling’s preppy blonde inmate is perhaps the most polarizing character on the show, given that her sweet face often conflicts with her moral ambiguity. I’m probably in the minority in saying that I still find Piper to be interesting, and season 3 is no exception.

Piper started out as the show’s audience surrogate, but now that we’re used to the weird and wonderful goings-on at Litchfield, her outsiders viewpoint feels less and less necessary. Indeed, the first few episodes of the season can’t seem to find a true purpose for her, even with the return of Laura Prepon’s Alex as her red hot love interest.

Luckily, things pick up with the arrival of a new Australian inmate named Stella (the instantly charming Ruby Rose), and Piper’s journey begins to take shape. The show plays off her divisive nature, turning her into more of a criminal than ever before. While many of the inmates at Litchfield are redeemed over the course of the season, Piper slinks further and further into darkness and, honestly, I think it suits her well. Her acceptance and eventual embrace of prison life has been fascinating, and Schilling’s performance indicates that she’s more than game to make her character unlikeable.

Yet, Piper is far from the star of this show, and if this season has proven anything, its that Jenji Kohan and her writing team still now how to handle an ensemble cast while making individual characters pop.

Things often look bleak for the inmates at Litchfield, and with the new corporate restructuring, the correctional officers aren’t doing so hot either. But this season of the show is all about faith, or rather, what people are willing to believe in times of desperation. The show is eloquent in its examination of religion and spirituality amongst a group of people who so badly need a shred of hope to hang on to. In this way, the narrative is surprisingly uplifting, even when things are at their worst.

Orange‘s third outing may not be as sharp as last year, but I found its more subdued pace to be refreshing. It’s clear that we’ve barely cracked the surface on some of these characters, and season 3 has proven that this is a series with longevity.

It also knows how to end things in style. Not only are we left in the dark about the fate of several characters, but we get one of the most beautiful and jovial sequences the series has ever produced. To spoil it here would be a crime even these ladies wouldn’t commit, but I will say this: it’s good to be back behind bars. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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