The Tao of Orange Is the New Black

Throughout season three, the Netflix show has fashioned an unmistakeable philosophical thesis: All humankind is fundamentally flawed, but kindness can save us.

(Warning: There are spoilers ahead concerning plot points through the finale of season three.)
In season one of Orange Is the New Black, when an attempt to scare a group of wayward teens straight results in their derision, Piper tells one of them that the scariest thing about prison isn’t other people—it’s the fact that it forces you to come to terms with who you really are. Season three, which was released on Netflix earlier this month, has doubled down on this thesis in unexpected ways: Piper (Taylor Schilling), for example, has evolved from a naive yuppie into a cruel and manipulative businesswoman who exploits cheap labor via her used-panty business, while Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), a lunatic who murdered a doctor and tried to kill Piper with a shiv in season one, is now one of the show’s most sympathetic characters.
Certainly, the writers seem to be taking liberties with the show’s flashback-oriented structure to give familiar characters new depth: It’s difficult to imagine that the dopey meth addict Leanne was always conceived of as Amish, or that the homicidal Pennsatucky was envisioned in the first season as becoming someone so empathetic that she’d struggle to hurt even the prison guard who raped her. But erratic planning aside, the evolution of all the characters in season three—both in Litchfield and outside—seems to underscore a profound philosophy about human nature, as well as a classical realist understanding of morality.
The show draws no distinction between inmates, prison guards, corporate overlords, and family members in its thesis that everyone has the capacity to do terrible things, whatever their background or religion or financial status. Prison guards deal drugs and assault inmates; CEOs send hate-crime victims to solitary confinement out of vindictiveness; therapists abuse their power to get revenge on women. The show’s universe would be bleak and utterly unsatisfactory if it weren’t for its acknowledgment of the one thing that enables humans to transcend their earthly frailties: kindness.
Piper’s understanding of prison as a mirror that magnifies its inmates’ personalities, warts and all, is part of what makes the show so compelling for viewers. Litchfield is both a goldfish bowl and a pressure cooker, amplifying everyday slights and squabbles and injustices by a factor of 1,000. With very little else for inmates to focus on, minor disagreements lead to near-fatal altercations, while corporate tweaks intended to increase profits after the prison is privatized result in drastic reductions in prisoners’ quality of life. Where better than a prison, therefore, to explore the endless foibles of humankind?
Still, the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, and its team of writers are tireless in their insistence that there’s no difference in morality between the women of Litchfield and the people outside. Early on in season three, Flaca (Jackie Cruz) is shown in a flashback to have been incarcerated after she sold fake LSD at school. A few episodes later, Piper’s sister-in-law, Neri (Tracee Chimo), who’s been drafted in to help sell panties worn by inmates, gets frustrated with the slow pace of production and starts experimenting with ways to fake the goods. Similarly, there’s little difference between the way Piper exploits prisoners for their worn underwear and the way the fictional brand Whispers exploits inmates by paying them $1 an hour to manufacture the very same garments.
Society, the show points out, is irrevocably broken when institutions can legally profit from the same behavior that gets individuals locked up. The chief antagonist of season three isn’t a vengeful, Bible-bashing Face of Meth or a drug-dealing, manipulative gangster—it’s the system itself. More specifically, it’s MCC, the corporation that purchases Litchfield and immediately starts cutting costs to maximize its profits while the prisoners suffer in myriad ways. Guards have their hours cut and lose their benefits, which means new, poorly trained guards are put in situations they can’t handle. Food is purchased pre-made in bags instead of prepared fresh in the kitchens. Prisoners have to sleep on metal beds without mattresses and books in the library aren’t replaced after a bedbug infestation requires that everything be incinerated. The prisoners respond by seeking solace in religion (the cult of Norma), in art (Suzanne’s sci-fi porn and Red’s gourmet dinners), in the pursuit of profit (Piper’s panty business), and in sex and drugs (Poussey’s hooch, Nicky’s reassuring stash of heroin). But not one of them tries to institute change—they’re ground down enough by the system to know that any such attempts would be futile.
OITNB, in other words, takes a Hobbesian view of human nature, only social contracts have been manipulated to make things even more unjust rather than rein in people’s baser instincts. MCC’s CEO is shown lecturing Caputo on the best way to drink aged Scotch while scoffing at the request that Sophia (Laverne Cox) be released from solitary after she’s the victim of a brutal assault. The guards assigned to manage the inmates help them deal drugs (Mendez and Luschek), get them pregnant (Bennett), or rape them (Mendez and Coates). And assumptions about social status or privilege are quickly dismantled given that the wealthiest prisoners (Nicky, Piper, the new inmate Judy King) make choices that are just as self-seeking and immoral as inmates who’ve grown up in the system. No one lacks the capacity for cruelty—Chang orders a man’s gallbladder be cut out, Leanne cuts Soso’s hair off, Aleida encourages inmates to start thinking of Sophia as a freak—and everyone is quick to put their own interests first, including Caputo, whose “good” choices throughout life are shown to have disabled him at every turn.
Nor does the show hesitate when it comes to exposing how easily power can corrupt people. Piper’s newfound entrepreneurial spirit turns spiteful when she fires Flaca for organizing the panty squad to ask for a bigger share of the profits—just as MCC’s CEO keeps Sophia in SHU for threatening to sue. Norma starts the season seeking power in Santeria before happily accepting her new status as a revered holy leader (as well as all the Snickers bars bestowed upon her). Over and over again, the show emphasizes that everyone is immoral, and the examples set by the institutions that govern us only encourage selfishness and greed.
The only redeeming factor in Litchfield, as spelled out on a notepad by Norma as a reminder of her group’s mission, is kindness, and it manifests in subtle ways throughout the season, even at the hands of characters who’ve also been capable of great cruelty. Healy, who’s been responsible for some of the show’s most egregious treatment of women over three seasons, sends Red a crate of corn for her dinner party. Boo, who schemed to sell heroin with Nicky and betrayed Red’s smuggling operation to Vee in season two, helps Pennsatucky deal with her shame and sadness after she’s brutally raped by a guard. Vee’s crew, now Taystee’s crew, finally welcomes Soso after spending much of seasons two and three bullying her.
The hope that can come from kindness is expressed through Norma’s ability to “heal” people simply by gazing at them. The power of Norma, according to Soso, is that she lets people feel like they can shed the armor they put on to get through daily life, and that feeling of lightness and freedom is more powerful than even the concept of heaven itself. Such nonjudgmental acceptance, the show says, has the power to be truly transformative, which only underlines how fundamentally flawed the penal system is in its approach to “reforming” criminals. The tao of Orange Is the New Black, as expressed quietly in season three, is that kindness is perhaps the strongest weapon we have when it comes to addressing humanity’s flawed nature, even if it’s one that’s shamefully underutilized.