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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.