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Like many, I spent this weekend binging on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. And, for the first time in three seasons, I’m really conflicted over how to respond to what I saw. I’m disappointed in the bulk of the storylines, the strange lack of in-depth character moments for the majority of the show’s most interesting characters, and the generally lazy way the show’s two newest characters were developed (or, really, not developed at all beyond the surface). I really expect more from Jenji Kohan and her writers. Now, that’s not to say there weren’t some really lovely and inspired moments, because there were and I will certainly discuss those, but this season was such a departure from the excellence of seasons one and two that I am genuinely disappointed in the series.
Since there might be some sane people out there who didn’t spend their weekend locked in their house watching away, I’m going to break this review into two sections. The first will offer some spoiler-free thoughts on what worked and what didn’t within season three, while the second will dive a bit deeper into specifics of the season. So, if you haven’t finished the season yet, stop when I tell you, so you aren’t spoiled about what is to come.
The biggest, and most troubling, aspect of the season was the lack of a clear central arc. Think back to season one. We can all point out the season’s main arc, right? Piper acclimating to prison while still trying to balance her life outside the walls. And in season two, the Vee storyline was our major arc. In season three, there isn’t one major arc that involves the majority of our characters. There are, instead, a number of arcs fighting for screen time. Even the character flashbacks within a number of episodes fight for screen time with an episode arc that doesn’t actually involve that particular character. It is exhausting to watch an episode where character A is given a flashback (oftentimes a really interesting flashback, as the show continues to handle this aspect exceptionally well), but the main storyline of the episode involves characters B and C. It doesn’t work. And it is distracting.
Speaking of distracting, can we all agree that it’s far more interesting to learn about the show’s incredibly deep array of supporting characters rather than focus on the relentless push and pull of Piper’s personal life? Yes, as reports indicated, Jason Biggs’s Larry is (thankfully) out of the picture now, but after two years of this dance, does anyone really care if Alex and Piper are together or fighting this week? Because that’s all they seem to do: have sex or fight. And I would rather spend time with Poussey or Lorna than watch Alex tell Piper, yet again, that she’s an awful person (we know Piper is awful). Yet, for some reason, Kohan and her writers are under the impression that we enjoy this aspect of the series so much that Piper should spend at least a portion of every episode she is in searching for romantic fulfillment or fighting about it. Orange is the New Black is blessed with the deepest supporting cast on any show currently on television. Using these actors to such great effect is what made season two such a wonderful journey. Sidelining those characters in order to give Piper and her newest fling more screen time (particularly when said fling has the personality of wax paper) is not how I want to spend my time with the ladies of Litchfield.
Finally, I want to touch on something the season does exceptionally well: deepening relationships we know and love. Remember last season’s surprising, but lovely, friendship between Big Boo and Pennsatucky? Well, it gets even better in season three. And the friendship between Taystee and Poussey deepens and heals beautifully. And Suzanne’s character grows and expands in ways I never thought possible. When these, and some additional storylines, are given the room to breathe and grow, the season truly shines. When they become bogged down along with a wealth of other stories fighting for screen time, the show begins to suffer. For season four, Orange needs to focus on creating clear arcs throughout the season that don’t run headlong into others. Sacrificing a few stories here and there to make the season, on the whole, flow from point A to B is absolutely necessary to bring this show back up to the excellence we know it can produce.
From here on out, I presume you have seen all of season three. You have been warned.
Let’s do a fun exercise. Tell me five things about what makes Ruby Rose’s character Stella tick. Not actions she has taken or why she is in prison. Or that she’s Australian or that she likes Piper. Tell me five things that create her character, that show you what her character stands for or her mental state. Give me adjectives (and no, “she’s hot” doesn’t count). And now tell me five things about Lori Petty’s Lolly. It’s pretty darn hard, right? That’s a problem. For the amount of screen time both characters get, and how much screen time they get with two of our leading characters, it’s amazing how little we know about them. Couple that with Rose’s suspect acting ability (for as little as we know about Lolly, Petty still manages to light up the screen when she’s on it, so I’m laying the blame for her character solely on the writers), poor Alex and Piper get dragged into stories with characters lacking any motivation or complexity.
I know the show wanted us invested in the Piper-Alex-Stella triangle, but boy, did I not care at all. The most I cared about it was when Piper finally made her Walter White move and screwed over Stella. Mostly because it meant we likely wouldn’t have to see her blank face again (although, with Stella, Nicky, and Miss Claudette down in Max- remember, she was sent there in season one- I wouldn’t mind a trip down the hill next season- after all, Natasha Lyonne might be able to bring out something in Rose that saves the character), I wasn’t at all torn up when Piper betrayed Stella, I was just relieved. And I spent the entire season hoping Alex would finally make a clean break away from Piper (seriously, Alex can do so much better), so I wasn’t worried at all when Piper began taking up with Stella. If the writers cannot create a three-dimensional character to drive a wedge between Alex and Piper, I’m not going to put any effort into caring about that storyline.
The Piper issue was once again out in full force this season after taking a break last year. There’s a problem with the character of Piper, and it’s not that she’s a reprehensible person. I’m completely fine with the series attempting to turn her into an anti-hero (although her brother was completely right when he told her she wasn’t as bad as she thinks she is). The issue is that Piper hasn’t made any personal advancement. She hasn’t realized she’s a complete narcissist. She doesn’t own her own faults and she spends episode after episode trying to be liked. Yes, there was some movement in her development as an anti-hero by season’s end, but it was just too much too fast. Making a complete 180 of that degree should really mess Piper up (someone who is so focused on a need for approval can’t simply turn that off because her brother suggested she isn’t as hard as she thinks). And, I suppose next season could open with a really messed up Piper, trying to come to terms with her new reputation. But there should have been more of a transition than what we were given here.
In addition to Piper’s rushed conversion into Litchfield’s very own Walter White, there were a number of other characters given far too fast paced and disjointed storylines. Well, to be fair, in an effort to fit as many big character moments as possible within the season, pretty much every storyline felt rushed (aside from Black Cindy’s Jewish conversion, which turned out to be rather lovely in the end- kudos to the writers and Adrienne C. Moore for their work on that story). And that, in turn, meant the storylines weren’t allowed to grow in such a way that made their payoffs really hit home. Lorna potentially finding love didn’t work as well as it could have because we only spent a few moments with her new husband (although he certainly seemed like the perfect guy for love-starved Lorna). The Cult of Norma chugged along without any real plot advancement, rehashing the same things over and over (Leanne bullies SoSo, Leanne pretends she did nothing wrong, the group isn’t recognized as a real religion, repeat). Yes, it did give us the excellent Leanne flashback (I did not see that backstory coming at all), but the whole Norma arc was stuck in a cycle it never escaped.
But season three wasn’t all disappointment. There were some really wonderful things within the thirteen episodes- performances and stories that transcended the structural issues within the season. And chief among them was the incredible work of Taryn Manning. Thinking back to season one, who would have thought that Pennsatucky would become the heart and soul of Orange is the New Black. But wow. Manning really delivered in an incredibly difficult storyline. Rape on television has been a hot button issue of late (as well it should be, considering how poorly the topic has been handled on the handful of shows willing to tackle it), and while Orange‘s treatment of the subject certainly wasn’t perfect (the way the storyline changed from a deep emotional exploration of how rape is a destructive force into almost a screwball comedy was troubling), Manning’s work throughout the storyline was superb. Seeing how sexual violence has been an element of Pennsatucky’s life for years was a dark segue into the horrific rape in the prison van. I felt physically ill at the close of that episode. Watching Manning work through Pennsatucky’s guilt and self-loathing (along with deep confusion) was moving and powerful to watch. The arc of this character, from season one villain to the heart of the show in season three (thanks in no small part to Manning and Lea DeLaria) has been one of the major successes of the series.
There were a number of additional interesting stories and moments: Red and Healy, Taystee becoming the mother to the other black inmates, the aforementioned Black Cindy conversion, and Suzanne becoming a runaway writing success to name a few. But for each of those stories there were another two that were rushed to their conclusion or muddied up so much that they were all but unrecognizable (in addition to Alex’s paranoia journey and Piper’s new business scheme, there was also the mess of Daya’s baby- the back and forth with Delia Powell was confusing and, in the end, particularly painful to watch). It wasn’t a great season, but it wasn’t bad. I just know the series can do better than what we were given this year.
— The loss of Nicky was a major blow to the show this year. On the flip side, the loss of Bennett was a positive, as it gave Daya a chance to grow beyond their stagnant relationship. Both storylines were the result of the actors having outside commitments. While Natasha Lyonne is, presumably, returning in some capacity next season (at least I hope), Matt McGory is a regular on ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder and is likely done with Orange for the foreseeable future.
— I didn’t get into the prison privatization storyline in the main review, as it was yet another confusing and convoluted storyline, but I want to briefly touch on it here. While privatization is an important topic, it was handled here poorly. I still don’t understand the purpose of the Danny character, other than as a means to get to know his awful father. I really don’t understand what he added to the series. The debate over whether or not prisons should be run by private corporations is one that should be had, but making the sticking point on the show the food the inmates were served was the wrong focus. Spending so much time on food took away from the real horror of the situation: the lack of well-trained guards, which put the prisoners at risk. The Sophia storyline was such a heart wrenching display of how little the new “corporate overlords” cared about the people in the prison, it should have been the key moment in the story. Rather, it was treated with less focus and derision from the prisoners than having awful food to eat. It was a moment in the season that would really put a human face on the problem with the new prison, and the show muted it.
— I will say the introduction of prison overcrowding as a story next season is intriguing. I am a bit worried that the influx of new prisoners might already complicate the overflowing cast of characters the show already needs to balance (perhaps some prisoners might finally get released). But I’m interested to see how the series handles the story moving forward.