Flies in the Web: A Look at ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 3

Orange Is the New Black’s highly-anticipated third season launches on Netflix on June 12. I’ll be reviewing the entire season here at CutPrintFilm in the coming weeks, and I’m lucky enough to have seen the first six episodes already. You are in for a ride, as these episodes contain the stark humanity, dry humor, and bits of the bizarre we’ve come to expect from the show, many seeming even more tightly woven by theme and emotional content.

With few parallels to Piper Kerman’s original memoir remaining, Orange examines new territory and familiar relationships with a refreshingly humble and egalitarian perspective. The preliminary naiveté of Trojan Horse Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) has been replaced by a wider lens on the prison population and its social imbalances, with Piper’s bourgeois background something she succeeds not because of but despite. A few seasons in, the audience is no longer assumed to need the shelter of a familiar white face; when we see Piper here, she herself has mostly severed that cord, and we’re free to more deeply delve into the breadth of the ensemble.

Before I cover individual episodes, allow me to answer some questions that have definitely haunted you since last summer—or at least since the trailer for Season 3 came out. Here’s some insight into what to look for as you press play, based on takeaways from this batch of episodes. Join me later for specifics about each segment of the season.

Beware of minor spoilers ahead, but I’ll keep things as general as possible.

1. What does the season’s focus on faith and motherhood mean for the storylines?

By now, fans have heard creator Jenji Kohan and various OITNB cast members shed hints about Season 3’s emphasis on faith and motherhood. Based on the first half of the season, I can tell you that these themes permeate each episode in sometimes subtle, sometimes overt ways. I find that this thematic and emotional backbone to the season offers us a chance to view all of the characters from a similar vantage point, despite their vastly different situations. This helps underscore their common humanity—and their common need for companionship—in a welcome democratic format.

With the premiere set on Mother’s Day, we waste no time before getting to see the characters wrestle with thoughts on their children, their parents, and their past and present roles in others’ lives. Motherhood seems inextricably and unmistakably linked to questions of faith, and the writers haven’t missed the opportunity to look at the intersections of the two themes for each character.

While Suzanne (portrayed by Uzo Aduba) refuses to allow her faith in Vee (a temporary mother figure played by Lourraine Toussaint) to be shaken, insisting that she’ll be back, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) won’t be bogged down by any sense of loss. These two characters find a connection upon realizing that they’re both struggling, just in different ways. The seemingly crazy character provides an emotional reality that Taystee, in her sense of normalcy and avoidance of feelings, has lost. While comforting her fellow inmate, Suzanne even demonstrates her own maternal instincts for once, instead of seeking guidance.

Other characters must also question how their roles as mothers or children affect their faith in themselves and in others. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), with the help of Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), confronts her feelings about the multiple abortions she had during her meth-head days and wonders whether she may actually have “spared society.” Big Boo herself later reflects on her relationship with her estranged mother, who long refused to accept her butch tendencies. Sophia (Laverne Cox) continues to consider what kind of role she wants to play for her son Michael and what he himself needs from her. Is she a former father, a current mother, or—as she suggests to him at one point—just a former man talking to a current man? We also see Gloria’s (Selenis Leyva) powerful role in the kitchen, surrounded by daughter-like team members, juxtaposed with her less dominant role as a real-life mother to disinterested sons.

As Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) pregnancy continues, she and Bennett (Matt McGorry) must cope with the increasingly obvious difficulties they face as parents and decide if they both want the same thing. Elsewhere, Red (Kate Mulgrew) is dealt several blows to her sense of motherhood, confronted with disappointment by her sons and husband, by Piper, and by Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). She yearns for—and seeks—a return to the kitchen, to grasp the mother hen role she now needs more than ever.

I won’t give you an exhaustive list of the characters’ ways of dealing with their faith in mothers and in themselves, but rest assured that what you’ve heard about these themes wasn’t just a diversion from spoilers; it’s in fact a true current electrifying and connecting every episode. These ideas further the previous seasons’ exploration of identity, respect, and the creation of new and temporary families.

2. Is the tone really lighter than last season?

Yes and no. This season, so far, has embraced the show’s dramedy identity. The episodes don’t shy away from fun quips, sardonic dialogue, and wonderfully wacky banter, but the comedy is, as always, a respite from darker moments. Things get rough, quickly and often, but the underlying emotion feels a little softer than in the last season.

While these episodes aren’t over-the-top funny, you can rest assured that you’ll find moments of comedy. From Wanda Bell’s (Catherine Curtin) dryly hilarious emulation of Tucky’s principle of sexy talk in the very first scene (“I’d disembowel his cat. I’d scratch that eczema.”), to Luschek’s (Matt Peters) dismissal of Piper’s hypothetical method of suicide due to its high cost (of course the WASPy blonde would choose the expensive option of pills), the show remains extremely quotable. The corrections officers, in particular, continue to offer great moments of humor as they shed light on down-to-earth situations, like underemployment and the work-life balance. The romance between Bell and O’Neill (Joel Marsh Garland) is seriously endearing, reminding us of the officers’ humanity outside of their roles in the prison.

Lorna has a slew of awkward pseudo-dates in the visiting area with men seeking relationships with an inmate, making viewers wonder whether these guys are even more misguided than she may be.  In one of my favorite funny moments so far, Soso (Kimiko Glenn) makes a wonderfully over-the-top appeal for friendship to Leanne and Angie (Emma Myles and Julie Lake) by randomly expressing reverence for Wal-Mart. The meth-heads are left bewildered by the girl who’d just been discussing her history as a college RA.

In spite of dark situations and relationship drama, many of the prisoners seem ready to accept where they are and instead focus on the future, their own self-identification, and what they need to do to respect themselves. This season, while definitely looking at people’s faith in each other, seems built on the idea that one isn’t defined by one’s situation; what matters is how someone reacts to changing circumstances and the lack of a stable sense of self. Do we need others to see us a certain way in order to define ourselves? Can we find ourselves without others? What if others don’t see us as we want to be seen? These questions not only cause a great deal of soul-searching but also allow for a bit more levity in Season 3. To be ourselves, maybe we have to embrace the weirder parts of ourselves, realize what makes us unique, and learn to find others that will see those elements. Inevitably, the characters’ self-reflection and exploration of new friendships leads to interesting dynamics between different groups of inmates. And, with this diverse a set of characters, that means things get funny—and snarky—pretty often.

3. How much Alex/Piper drama are we in for?

First off, as expected, Alex (Laura Prepon) is back in a big way. In fact, the first thing we see is her back as she lies on a top bunk. Alex enters this season, and the prison, from a point of weakness. Not only is she physically bruised (having lost her sense of prisoner street smarts and forgotten how to maneuver lockdown) but also emotionally broken. This isn’t sassy Alex Vause, projecting outward her sarcastic sense of righteousness; this is a woman embarrassed and ashamed of her own choices. She “had a chance to make a life,” during her bout of freedom, and she feels she failed.

Regardless of the sadness with which Alex returns, the Chapman/Vause relationship is definitely back to being a focus of the show. The pair’s dynamic demonstrates the difficulties in using someone else to identify one’s value.

I appreciate that this stretch of Season 3 isn’t a repetition of the first half of Season 1. There isn’t a series of passive aggressive interactions that lead to a passionate reconciliation between past lovers. No, this season doesn’t start off with a focus on the past much at all. Everything I’ve seen of Piper and Alex in Season 3 is based in the present. And that’s harsh, and it’s not pretty, and it’s not hot. But the anger between these characters is still intertwined with the passion. Even when there’s palpable frustration between them, at least they still have each other to hate.

So, if you’re anxious for more vanilla-and-vanilla swirl, you won’t be disappointed. Sure, there are the expected angry sex scenes, but you’ll also see some more saccharine tenderness. Watch for some fun characterization in episode three, with a drama class improvisation between Alex and Piper and a hilariously apt bruised fruit metaphor, and in episode four, in which Piper’s compelled to question their relationship status, a topic she raises with middle-school sheepishness.

The central questions that are still relevant for Alex and Piper include: Who has the power now, if there’s power left to steal? Is it possible that either of them has “crossed a line” or are they both just swinging the ball back and forth? Is either of them actually ever sorry? (Yes, of course, the trailer’s hashtag comes into play.)

This season seems bent on forcing the characters to question their faith not just in each other but also in themselves when dealing with each other. It’s interesting to note that all of the pair’s interactions in the first half-dozen episodes are current, not in flashbacks. The audience, like the couple itself, is left with the barebones reality within bars, with no nostalgic emotional backdrop to inform our thoughts. In a way these two find a fresh dynamic this time around, the baggage present but not the point.

4. What’s the deal with this Stella character?

Well, there’s certainly been a lot of talk about Ruby Rose’s character. But Stella doesn’t show up or speak until the sixth episode—in the context of a new work assignment—and has no real impact during this first half of the season. Love her or hate her, we’ll have to wait and see.

Note that Lolly (Lori Petty, playing a familiar face from Piper’s brief stint in Chicago last season) is not seen until midseason either. The season kicks off by focusing on the existing ensemble of inmates. We do, however, meet a charmingly ambitious new corrections officer (played by Marsha Blake), a disarmingly soft-spoken private company contractor (Mike Birbiglia), and a couple of other new non-prisoner characters much earlier on.

5. Do we learn more things about more characters?

I’ll offer a resounding “yes” to this one. The varied ensemble of characters has always been a strong suit for this show. In this batch of episodes alone, we learn a lot more about both Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Chang (Lori Tan Chinn) through flashbacks. There’s even a brief clip of counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney) as a little boy. Flashbacks in this season are often tied in to each episode’s overarching emotional theme, rather than always to a specific character.

I will say that sometimes focusing on so many characters in the flashbacks results in a sense of stagnancy. Although it’s great to see more of Flaca and Chang’s history in episodes five and six, for instance, those episodes feel like a bit of a plateau. That’s not necessarily the result of the characters explored, but I worry about too many backstory diversions at the expense of progress in the main ongoing plots.

In the present day, the silent but facially expressive Norma (Annie Golden) receives a nice amount of screen time, with sympathetic interactions burgeoning between her and lonely inmates Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Soso, both looking for a listener. We see more of Maria’s (Jessica Pimentel) interactions with her baby and Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) keeps walking a fine line between greed and care as the mother to Daya. As always, Black Cindy (Adrienne Moore) provides a nice dose of sarcastic honesty mixed with occasional self-interest, constantly showing how great it is to accept oneself regardless of the circumstances.

As we move further into the season, I welcome even more ensemble and one-on-one scenes among different batches of characters, in prison or in flashbacks. If they’re tied in tightly with the underlying themes and propel storylines forward, even better. Here’s hoping for closer looks at the lives of frequently onscreen but seldom featured characters such as Gina (Abigail Savage), Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), Leanne, Janae (Vicky Jeudy), DeMarco (Lin Tucci), and the Weeping Woman (Tamara Torres), among others.

6. What else should you keep in mind about Season 3?

This season, the show does not shy away from some of the more political ideas evoked by the women’s prison setting. Management must deal with a major financial crisis, with Caputo (Nick Sandow) offering a tour of Litchfield and trying to cover up its apparent liabilities, including pregnancy and mental illness. A hygiene issue causes everyone to strip down to granny panties and dollar-store ponchos, further revealing how things can go awry very easily in this sort of environment and that bugs in the system, literal or figurative, are extremely contagious. Early on in the season, in a backwards attempt at showing respect for the prisoners, Caputo explains, “They’re not girls, Bennett. They’re women . . . Or inmates.” Neither he nor the women referenced here really know what they are at Litchfield (including whether their female roles—e.g. mother—are cancelled out by their current incarceration and its infantilizing effect on them), and sometimes they lose track of who.

The theme of faith extends to the audience, with the implication that we all must question our faith in the depicted prison system. In the first episode, Piper tries to tell Alex that it’s not her fault she’s back there. Falling short in that moment of admitting her own role in the matter, Piper instead explains, “It’s the system,” to which Alex wryly agrees, “I’m just a fly in the web of the prison industrial complex.”

Even if Piper uses that argument as a diversion, it’s nonetheless humbling and true. From the start of Season 3, Orange finally, or at least more transparently, makes us question our own faith in and comfort with the reality of prisons like Litchfield, filled with women who are also mothers and children, who are all part of a system, who may or may not have lost their identities. I respect this season’s real suggestions of moral dilemmas extending beyond the context of these particular characters and relationships. While such insinuations don’t take away from the show’s storylines, they provide an underlying reminder that whatever we think about these characters may be just an allegory, just an example, and it’s really different for all of them and for all of us. While we find ways to laugh at everyday situations, there’s a darker drama that surrounds us all—a rough edge that, when we ask the right questions, we may eventually choose to face.