It takes a little while, watching the third season of Orange Is the New Black, to figure out how, exactly, the Netflix prison dramedy has changed for 2015. Twelve minutes, to be precise. That’s the amount of time that passes in the premiere before the reappearance of Piper Chapman, the blonde Brooklynite who was once the show’s protagonist but, as is made clear by her order in the season-opening lineup, is now just another member of the ensemble. Bantering about hypothetical best ways to commit suicide, a correctional officer disses her suggested death route—pills—as exactly the kind of richy-rich solution he’d expect from her. “I make 11 cents an hour,” she replies as she helps fashion a cooling fan into a mini-golf windmill for some visiting kids. “When I get out of here, I will have no home, I will have no job, and not a whole lot of prospects.”
The guard has no sympathy. “Welcome to the real world, princess!”
It’s a bleak exchange, but no more bleak than the situations that many of Piper’s behind-bars peers have been in from the start of their sentences. The first two seasons of storylines stripped away many of Piper’s support systems—the fiancée, the best friend, any shreds of family sympathy. The result is someone a little more unhinged and altogether more entertaining than the woman who walked into Litchfield, though the show never lets you forget that she’s entitled to certain privileges even as a prisoner because she’s tall, thin, blonde, and well-spoken . Her scenes once felt obligatory by mere dint of the fact that they powered the show’s plot, but now they mainly allow Taylor Schilling to demonstrate her comedic chops. Piper often seems to be purposefully trolling the people around her; when her parents come to visit, she dispatches them with orgasm noises.
The one-time heroine’s demotion to being just another zany part-time player doesn’t come across like a jarring change, because Orange Is the New Black’s appeal has always been its ensemble. The cast is as diverse in personality and sense of humor as it is in body types and skin colors, and Jenji Kohan’s team of writers work at micro scales to create a massive story. I’d forgotten how insanely packed each episode is—how the alphabet isn’t long enough to start labeling A-plots and B-plots and so on, and how each scene is as densely filled with quotable lines and big ideas as Litchfield is with people. As the newly promoted administrator Joe Caputo says to a recent hire, “These are complicated ladies and a complicated place.”
The premiere episode works to underline that fact. Instead of a series of flashbacks for one character, we get peeks into the pasts of multiple Litchfield denizens—guards and inmates alike, some portrayed in childhood and some in adulthood, all in scenes related to motherhood. That’s because the episode revolves around Mother’s Day, and meditates both on how characters were shaped by their parents and how some of them are now shaping kids even from behind bars. It’s the kind of issue-oriented episode that you might fear would be didactic, especially given the show’s tendency towards sentimentality and cliché during backstory segments. But as is also typical for Orange, the episode leavens the sweet with the dark. Aleida Diaz prepares her daughter for childbirth by telling her that having kids will ruin her life—but hey, having a baby is nice too. One inmate retrieves drugs from her kid’s diaper, and partakes of them while neglecting the infant. Sophia offers her less-than-sensitive son dating advice so antifeminist that even he seems ready to write a think piece about it.
This is the strength of a show so mosaic-like: By its nature, it couldn’t make a Big Statement about anything even if it wanted to. Instead, it presents the world as one filled with people making different choices that have different effects based on different circumstances. A conscientious new prison counselor and a kindlier, gentler (but ever-more-masturbation-reliant) regime courtesy of Caputo leads into an exploration of correctional management styles. An emerging friendship between Big Boo and Doggett features lively chats about the efficacy of abortion. And as Daya’s pregnancy enters late term, it presents a wrenching dilemma for her, her family, and the father of her child. But none of these plot lines go quite where you expect; often, characters will make impassioned, earnest speeches only to be laughed at for their self-importance. Politics sometimes serves as a scapegoat, as when when Piper lies to her ex-girlfriend Alex about having engineered her return to prison: “It was the system. You got caught in the system.” Orange, more than perhaps ever before, portrays the system as people.
That’s great, so long as the people are as complicated and consistently funny as they have been in the six new episodes I’ve seen. The dialogue and performances feel looser, freer, and surer of themselves than ever. A few characters make heart-breaking and shocking choices, but overwrought dramatic plot lines of the kind that swallowed the show towards the end of the past two seasons have yet to appear. The best scenes might be the simplest ones, in which bored inmates amuse themselves through the immortal fun of wordplay. At one point, there’s an angry dispute over what to call piles of pubic hair. At another, Pennsatucky gets labeled as “Pennsafucky” by a friend. “You know that Pennsatucky’s a nickname?” she shoots back. “So you don’t got to change it. It’s already a name that’s not my name.”
“Yes,” comes the reply. “But there’s always room to riff.”
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