When “Orange is the New Black” premiered on Netflix in July 2013, it charted the acclimation of inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) to life in Litchfield Penitentiary.
Getting her footing in prison sent Piper’s life on the outside spinning out of her control, and any assumption of any sense of safety and consistency was called into question by the presence of inmate mastermind Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) in season 2. Vee might be gone, but season 3 could not have existed without her.
Vee — and her play for power over Litchfield — has left in her wake a cast of characters reckoning with who has power, and time after time in “Orange is the New Black” season 3, when somebody attains a bit of power, it overwhelms them almost immediately.
After season two’s explosive ending, Litchfield Penitentiary’s beloved prison population is left with quite a mess to clean over the course of its third season. Marking a departure from the characteristic fast-paced, plot-heavy style of the past two seasons, season three eases its foot off the gas and takes its viewers on a cruise through a slower, less glamorous side of Litchfield. While the slower pace does come with its perks — this season is even funnier and, somehow, even more character-driven than before — it often lags (even when Larry isn’t on screen) and at times falls a little flat.
This season, it’s clear the spotlight has finally shifted entirely away from Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) to illuminate a set of concurrent plot threads. Among these threads, several rise to prominence. From Norma Romano’s (Annie Golden) brief dabble in santeria, she quickly grows a reputation as a sort of holy woman-slash-miracle worker and just as quickly gains a cult following — Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) and Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) among them.
Chapman also blossoms from an annoying but harmless yuppie to a full-blown, mad-evil, capitalist kingpin of a panty-smuggling prison business, and Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) grapples with the decision of whether or not to keep her child. As all of these events unfold, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) struggles behind the scenes with manipulating the new internal bureaucracy to keep the prison afloat.
Though this season has no dominant plot thread to push the story forward, these separate subplots are woven together around common themes. Somewhere between season two and three, the show seems to have diverted its interest in plot progression to theme and character; so, while the subplots may seem scattered, they share an interest in matters of loneliness, faith and healing.
Season 3 starts with Alex back in prison with Piper. Alex’s vulnerability and reliance on her turns Piper off, so Piper invests her energy into building an enterprise to replace the one Polly failed to keep alive. Piper is excited to frame her business as something her fellow inmates can contribute to and unite over, but the fact that she does not cut them in catches up to her fast. So Piper does what she has to to sustain her enterprise as well as her control over the inmates that help her.
Every season of “Orange is the New Black” ends with Piper confronting her capacity for cruelty. When she beat up Pennsatucky in season 1, that seemed like a gesture of self-preservation. When she orchestrated Alex’s parole violation bust in season 2, that seemed like fair play considering how Alex left her stranded by making Piper perjure herself while she took a plea deal.
But season 3 ends with an act of malice that Piper delights in and identifies to her fellow inmates is a message to all of them — a message now tattooed on her arm in white ink (which I would love to reproduce here, but you are better off watching “Orange is the New Black” season 3 to find out).
Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), who is now the Assistant to the Warden at Litchfield, has a different relationship to power than Piper. Caputo, who also wants his staff to keep their jobs, helps privatize the prison — a move that robs him of all his power. This decision provokes a flashback that explores Caputo’s lifelong predilection for sacrificing himself only to see nothing as much as a “thank you” in return.
This pattern leads Caputo to believe it is time he seized power, and when the opportunity comes to climb the ranks, he takes it — only to be met with retaliation by his staff that throws Litchfield into chaos.
The cult storyline especially, we see how each of the characters grapples with loneliness, particularly through Poussey’s and Soso’s struggles. Since last season, these two haven’t caught a break — and Soso, having never recovered from her reputation as an annoying hippie blabbermouth, begins to suffer from severe depression after she’s effectively bullied out of the cult.
In the past, Soso’s character has been criticized as an example of how even progressive media tends to fetishize and trivialize Asian characters, this season, the writers explore her character more fully as they tackle issues such as ostracization, depression and attempted suicide.
Season 3 also includes episodes that address rape, transphobia and gender presentation. These episodes work well with the season’s slower pace, which allows for a more nuanced examination of how these issues shape the prisoners’ internal landscapes.
The writers took a risk this season — they’re counting on “Orange is the New Black” to have a loyal-enough following to not need to make the season appealing for newcomers. Because it’s not. For season three, in order to give a damn about the show, you’d have to be invested in its characters. This risk, however, has yielded high rewards — it’s moved the show onto new territory and given voice to previously unexplored facets of its prison setting.