Like many people this weekend, I marathoned the entire third season of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. (Many of us are also working on Sense8, which is a much more complex and difficult series to watch, although interesting.) Created by Jenji Kohan and based on the real-life experience of writer Piper Kerman, who did indeed do a stint in a women’s federal prison and wrote a book about her experience of the same title, Orange has grown and evolved considerably over three seasons. The first season introduced us to this wonderful cast of characters and situations in the hermetically sealed world of Litchfield Women’s Prison, but focused almost entirely on the character of Piper (Taylor Schilling) and her struggles to adapt her lifestyle from yuppie hipster on a kale diet to federal inmate. Season two stretched the show to include all of the other characters, telling their back stories and adding complexity to their experiences, and in the process raised the dramatic quality of the show to new heights. Season two is still the strongest of the three seasons, but this new season continues to build on the show’s many strengths.
Piper’s central relationship in season three is with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), her sometimes-lover and crime partner, whose dalliances with drug smuggling landed them both in Litchfield. While the two had struggled in previous seasons with understandable trust issues, Piper makes a concerted attempt in season three to “go native” and truly commit to the prison society and prison values. She tries to relax into her life and even imagines taking what she’s learning in prison and applying it to the outside world, suggesting that her and Alex could “stop shaving and get a truck and some dogs” after they get out. It’s Alex who is struggling this season to come to terms with being in the prison, and Prepon is allowed to add new dimensions to the “tough” character, revealing a previously unseen moral centre. (As a side note, many fans will rejoice that the only other member of Piper’s family we see is her loveable brother, played by Michael Chernus. Yes, that means no Larry!)
But as in season two, the Piper/Alex story is only one thread of a complex interweaving series of smaller stories, such as Red (Kate Mulgrew) and her quest to regain control of her beloved kitchen, and Sam Healy (Michael J Harney), the prison counsellor with a difficult relationship with his masculinity. Poussey (Samira Wiley) plays an important role throughout, often speaking truth to power with clarity and understanding while struggling against depression and a growing dependence on “prison hooch”. Sophia (Laverne Cox), the breakthrough transgendered character, also has a difficult journey, trying to function as a parent to her son while at the same time battling the difficult racial politics of the prison. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) takes a tragic turn, as does Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), an ugly and mean character in season one, builds a great deal of sympathy in season three, with the revelation of her backstory and the horrible situation she finds herself dealing with near the end of the season. Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) enters the final phases of her pregnancy, and the fate of her baby becomes intertwined with the politics of race, class and the prison itself. The long-suffering Lorna (Yael Stone) appears at first blush to be somewhat defeated near the beginning of the season, but rallies heroically near the end. With no spoilers at all, it’s safe to say that Lorna will leave you with a song in your heart in the season finale.
The meta-story here is about the growing Prison Industrial Complex, as Litchfield trades government red tape for the corporate world, with its equivocation, arcane management structures and short-sighted thinking. Caputo (Nick Sandow), now the Assistant Warden at the prison, has to deal with being the boss, a challenge he began at the end of last season (throwing his arms up and exclaiming in frustration, “It’s my second day!!”). We also get a great look at Caputo’s backstory, and his story arc this season is as important as any of the inmates. The corporate faces who purchase the prison are represented by the hilarious comedian Mike Birbiglia, playing an up and coming corporate climber whose wishy-washy nice-guy act conceals darker imperatives.
In fact, the corporate takeover of the prison, Piper’s new resolve to fit in, Red’s machinations and the almost Shakespearean conflict over Daya’s baby all fit into a larger narrative about finding meaning, power and even freedom under the most horrible of circumstances. The guards, for example, go through a process of union organization and fight with their employer, emphasizing that they’re somewhat trapped in the prison as well, and just because they get to go home at night doesn’t necessarily make them “free”. Religion plays a major role this season, with a strange cult springing up around one of the recurring characters that goes to the logical extreme before collapsing on itself, and another character finds herself on a genuine, heartfelt spiritual path by the end.
Orange is the New Black has reached the point where the series “makes its own gravy”. After three seasons, it has established a clear image system and thematic structure that allows it to tackle race, sex, religion and politics all through the lens of a very funny show – this is possibly the most laugh-out-loud funny of all the seasons. But it’s also the most tragic and dark. That observation alone illustrates how much Kohan and her collaborators have been able to stretch the original concept, and how much dramatic heft it can carry. If you haven’t discovered the series yet, we longtime fans are probably envious more than anything else, because we’ll have to wait a year to see another 13 episodes for the first time.