TV Review: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black Season Three (USA, 2015)

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When we were first introduced to the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary in the 2013 debut season of Orange is the New Black, it was quite clear that we were supposed to be introduced to this new environment through the show’s protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). The upper-class NYC dweller’s transportation to a world completely different to the one she is used to and her tumultous relationship with ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) and fiance out the outside (Jason Biggs) was the crux of the narrative and it was used as a good tool to loosely learn about the other inmates Piper came into contact with. By the end of Season Two however, the show had become less about Piper and more about exploring the complexities and sensitivities of the other women serving time. The comedy, romance, dark drama and honest writing turned OITNB into a fully fledged powerhouse series for Netflix and it’s no surprise that when the third season dropped a day early this year, fans began their binge watching sessions eagerly.

As we return behind bars this season, the women of Litchfield deal with Mother’s Day and the implications the occasion has for them individually. For Sophia (Laverne Cox) and Gloria (Selenis Levya), rare opportunities to have their children arise. For other inmates like Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez), their rocky mother-daughter relationship comes even more under the microscope as Daya gets closer and closer to giving birth to her own child with prison guard Bennett (Matt McGorry). Parenthood, guardianship and companionship plays an integral role in Season Three of OITNB and it’s a theme that is implemented strongly from the first episode. Opening the season with this event is a good way to recap on the impact the events of last season, namely the destructive influence Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) held over Suzanne/Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks). The return of Red (Kate Mulgrew) sees one of Litchfield’s ultimate mother figures return to reclaim her position within the system and for a fleeting moment, the audience sees her reconnect with her daughter figure at Litchfield, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). We know that life is moving on as normally as it can do with these women, but the sins of the past are still there and the scars of them are still raw for many.

For Piper, her character development hasn’t really improved. Where other characters introduced with some serious unlikable traits showed considerable evolution and progression as the series moved on, the show’s protagonist has continued to move backward. At the end of Season Two, Piper and Larry have broken up and she has manipulated Alex’s situation on the outside to the point where her ex-girlfriend winds up back in jail after technically being caught breaking parole. Why? Because she missed her, of course.
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Essentially.

Though Schilling is able to have some good comic moments (her panty spiel), it’s hard to empathise with the character as she continues to demonstrate a selfish and manipulative attitude towards those close to her. New inmate Stella (Ruby Rose) is inserted into the narrative to highlight these traits. Large portions of the OITNB community began to lose their minds over what sort of character Stella would be in the show but ultimately, Rose’s character lacked substance and it’s obvious she was purely as a tool used to further expose the fractures and dysfunctional elements within the Piper/Alex relationship. Where this will go in future storylines remains to be seen (especially given the uncertainty of Alex’s fate in the finale), but there needs to be a shift somewhere to make this story work out long term.

Some of the best moments of this season came in the focus being shifted on to some of the lesser known recurring characters. The writers have taken advantage of using flashback to flesh these characters out brilliantly (something we saw briefly in Season Two) and as a viewer, you really do start to have your perceptions of these people change. From the mute Norma’s (Annie Golden) youth spent as a hippie to her rise to odd prison cult leader, to the heartbreaking insight into Big Boo’s (Lea DeLaria) life pre-prison and how those experiences have gone on to effect her solid friendship with Pennsatucky/Doggett (Taryn Manning) – a character who has taken a full turn around since we first meet her in the first season – there are some brilliant stories that could easily stand on their own as major storylines; I hope they’re explored even further next season.

The staff of the prison are also given due time in the spotlight, with Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Healy (Michael J. Harney) each having aspects of their personalities examined through some pretty well-written back stories of their own. New counselor Berdie (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is a refreshing addition to the staff and shines a light on how untrained and insensitive a lot of the people holding power in this environment actually are, especially by the end of the season. We even get to see how the disgraced and wrongfully imprisoned (for this specific crime, anyway) Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) is doing in a brief scene shared with the brilliant Mary Steenbergen, who plays his mother, hopeful to adopt Daya’s unborn child. What will happen now Pornstache knows the baby ain’t his? The guy is already insane, so let’s see how this one plays out.

Stand out performances lay with Aduba’s Suzanne and Cox’s Sophia – both actresses have been working with some incredibly complex and intriguing characters since the beginning and in Season Three, they’re given even more screen time to peel away those layers and show the audience more. Suzanne’s history was of course, one of the main plot points of Season Two and as we follow her from flourishing in confidence under Vee’s direction, no matter how misdirected, to having to deal with the loss of her prison mum in Season Three and finally finding a place within her friendship group, Aduba’s portrayal has really brought to light Suzanne’s endearing qualities. She’s no longer referred to as ‘Crazy Eyes’, but instead shows considerable skills as a fantasy/erotic fiction writer and by the end of the season is maybe even ready to embark on her first romantic relationship. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the challenges Sophia experiences as a transgender woman are highlighted as she grapples with trying to parent a pre-teen son from the inside and ongoing transphobic behaviour within the prison community. Watching this normally fierce and emotionally strong figure having her hair ripped out and being beaten down was one of the hardest scenes to watch, but in today’s current social climate, it was an important storyline to explore.

By the end of the season, things are less clear cut than they were at the end of Season Two. The new administrative regime is not working in many areas and prisoners are literally fleeing – even if it is just through a hole in the gate for a cathartic swim in the lake. In a similar way to Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) finally delivering Vee the karma the entire fandom was waiting for at the end of Season Two, the final scenes involving our favourites the viewers are left with are lighter and oddly heartwarming. On the other hand, Alex is in the greenhouse staring down the barrel of a gun or some other weapon and I actually don’t know if we’ll see the ‘Betty Page of Litchfield’ in 2016. While Sophia is in solitary for ‘her own safety’, show favourite Nicky remains in the maximum security facility, fate unknown. With Bennett also having flown the coop relatively early in the season as well, there are plenty of interesting threads to be picked up next season. It’s clear that the writers of Orange is the New Black have found their rhythm and have continued to build on this unique universe that has been resonating with so many. Roll on Season Four, any series that closes with Foreigner‘s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is good in my book.

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Season Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Orange is the New Black is available to stream on Netflix Australia.